Here’s the truth: Yoga gets manipulated to no end.
Even yoga’s Westernized form — how most people in the United States experience yoga — is a bastardization of sorts. Even greater appropriation includes the likes of “facial yoga,” “metal yoga,” and “beer yoga.” No, no and no. None of that is yoga.
Enter “cardio yoga.”
This appropriation is more insidious, harder to distill as being … off. That’s because some Westernized yoga styles can indeed increase your heart rate, and doing so could potentially strengthen your cardiovascular system.
Think “hot yoga” (excessive heat, on its own, makes the heart work harder) and “power yoga” (though Bryan Kest’s power yoga incorporates gentle movement and is more about empowerment). Many hot yoga and power yoga styles are tethered to yoga’s underpinnings — which, to be fair, also have changed wildly since yoga surfaced forever ago, but that’s for another read.
There’s also bona fide Ashtanga yoga, one of the original styles to come to the West from India, laying the foundation for all flow styles and most power styles. Ashtanga yoga’s intensity can create a cardiovascular workout, emphasis on “can.” If you’re in a very, very warm space and moving rapidly, sure.
Finally, certain yogic breathing exercises (Kapalbhati, Bhastrika) can increase your heart rate (and be quite dangerous if done incorrectly or by someone with contraindications), yet it’s a stretch to say those rapid breaths are a sound cardio workout, if only because you’d hyperventilate or pass out before you got anywhere close to health agencies’ recommended 20-25 minutes of getting your heart rate up.
All that said: I’ve jumped around like a 1980s spandex enthusiast in “yoga” classes titled everything from “Power” to “Strong Flow” to just “Yoga.” Those were all misnomers; they really should have been called “Aerobics on a Sticky Mat.” At the conclusion of every session I felt a bit wired and strangely ungrounded.
Yoga is not supposed to be an aerobics class.
You should never leave a yoga session feeling anxious — at least, that shouldn’t be the goal. And if you do and it’s because of how the class was administered, that class should not be named “yoga.”
Your cardiovascular system on yoga: the (s)low-down
Physically oriented yoga, or hatha yoga, the stuff folks hunt down in gyms and cute studios the world over, is supposed to slow you down and soothe your nervous system. As William J. Broad details in The Science of Yoga, ancient yogis endeavored to reduce their heart rates enough to make the beats undetectable. “Cardio yoga” would be laughable to these human wonders.
In 2007, just before yoga’s popularity prompted enterprising people to create novel ways to co-opt and then market the practice in manners aforementioned and otherwise, researchers from Columbia University and Long Island University posed the question: “Does practicing hatha yoga satisfy recommendations for intensity of physical activity which improves and maintains health and cardiovascular fitness?”
No, my friends, it does not. The researchers looked at classical hatha yoga. The experiment involved 28 minutes of rather intense sun salutations, the dynamic opening of many classical yoga styles; 20 minutes holding standing poses; and eight minutes seated then lying on the back.
They found that a session of this sort is akin to taking a very slow walk, that of the 2-miles-per-hour variety. Sun salutations, performed for at least 10 minutes, “may contribute some portion of sufficiently intense physical activity to improve cardio-respiratory fitness,” they wrote — but only in “unfit or sedentary individuals.” The researchers capped their study with confidence: “The measurement of energy expenditure across yoga sessions is highly reliable.”
Your cardiovascular system on yoga: what’s possible
Yoga can definitely fortify your cardiovascular system. The reason: It calms you — or at least it should. Yoga has been shown time and again to lower blood pressure and tamp down stimulating and stress-inducing hormones such as cortisol and adrenaline. All of that means that you’re not taxing your cardiovascular system unnecessarily, not burdening your arteries, veins and heart.
Yoga also can strengthen your respiratory system, expanding your lung capacity, through breath-retention exercises, most of which follow a simple pattern: inhale, hold, exhale, hold. Those four parts are done at varying lengths and sometimes with retention only at one point instead of two. Do the inhale-exhale circuit often and increase the duration of each part, and you’ll readily notice how much longer you can go without feeling panicked for air.
In sum, you can undoubtedly find “yoga” classes that encourage you to breathe double-time and whip your arms and legs as rapidly as you would on a treadmill — pretty much how “cardio yoga” is marketed.
But it’d be more transparent and less confusing if fitness classes that send your heart rate haywire were called what they really are: Aerobics interspersed with yoga postures. Gee, that’s simple and straightforward — albeit not a catchy slogan.
Mitra Malek, a former Yoga Journal senior editor and contributing editor, has taught yoga regularly since 2006. Her primary training was in Sivananda yoga, one of the oldest lineages to come to the West.