I’ve spoken with several people over the years who, when asked what they do to stay in shape, mention that they take yoga. Some of the common reasons they list for loving (and only needing) yoga include:
“It really stretches me out and I’m much more flexible”
“It’s so good for my balance”
“I’ve gotten so much stronger but without getting bulky”
“It’s so relaxing”
I certainly can’t argue with how yoga makes people feel but I can try to shed some light on what people think about it, coming from a training and conditioning perspective. Disclaimer: I am not a yoga expert nor do I know all of the poses and sequences. I have taken a few classes with different instructors so I have experienced enough to get the gist of the practice. My knowledge of yoga may be superficial but my analysis of it stems from my years of training and learning about scientific-based principles of human movement and function. Ok, now that we’ve gotten acquainted…
I do agree that yoga will help improve flexibility and balance and is probably quite relaxing, especially the corpse pose at the end when you lie on your back and melt your troubles away. I love the fact that yoga teaches you how to manipulate your body in space with control. And, practicing yoga will improve proprioception—a fancy way of describing where your body is oriented in space—especially because it is done barefoot and there are an enormous amount of sensory receptors on the bottom of the feet (that get deprived of a lot of information when we wear shoes).
However, there are some limitations to only doing yoga that you should consider in order to be a more informed practitioner and to balance out your fitness program (listed in no particular order):
1. No external loading
It is true that yoga gets you strong enough to move your own body weight around, but developing greater strength can only be developed when lifting external loads. Force production is dependent upon increasing either the mass moved or the acceleration of the object through space (Force = mass x acceleration). This first point addresses the mass component of the force equation.
2. A focus on slow movements
While moving slowly can help you learn new movements, yoga tends to stick to slow contractions or entirely isometric holds. This emphasis completely neglects the development of the fast-twitch fibers, which are essential for increasing acceleration and, therefore, force production (second part of the equation above). I know that “power” yoga classes have popped up in an attempt to meet this need but they still don’t address the fundamental aspects of power as seen in the power equation (Power = force x distance).
3. No pulling
Yoga tends to focus on a lot of upper-body movements with an emphasis on pushing variations (pushups, headstands, etc). In order to balance out planes of motion we must do pulling exercises as well as pushing. This is especially important when many of us sit at computers, carry kids, drive, cook, and do a majority of tasks in front of us. In order to balance these forces out and do critical pulling movements (rows, pullups, etc.), you would need an external weight or object which, as stated in point 1, are not tools not utilized in yoga.
4. Excessive mobility
A recent article in The New York Times highlighted how yoga has the potential to cause injuries from a desire to push oneself deeper into postures that may actually be harmful. Likewise, my friend and long-time A.R.T. practitioner, Dr. Louis Angulo, has treated several yogis over the years due to such injuries. Developing greater range of motion at the joints is important to be able to lunge and reach for objects without restriction, but increasing mobility for its own sake is somewhat pointless and potentially dangerous. Yogis need the commensurate strength to stabilize the joints that have experienced increased mobility developed during yoga practice.
5. Lack of transfer to “real-world” situations
I admit that watching skilled yoga practitioners is pretty cool, especially when they can do poses like this:
However, I find myself asking “What purpose does this serve outside of yoga?” Now, perhaps I am not that creative and some of my readers could find a use for this position. However, this position isn’t called for in either daily activities or in sporting contexts so why bother spending so much time and effort trying to achieve it? While traditional weightlifting moves don’t look nearly as eye-catching, squats, rows, and presses have a nice degree of transfer to “real-world” demands.
6. No unpredictability
This last point is one that could be made of most types of movement forms (pilates, weightlifting, aerobics classes), in which the teacher/coach has the client doing a series of movements that are known in advance and don’t require instantaneous adjustments. That is not to say that a teacher doesn’t improvise and change the plan based on the client’s performance and progress. Specifically, I am referring to the type of environment that we encounter during “real-world” activities and how they tend to be constantly changing, forcing us to adapt our movements in the moment. This unpredictability adds layers of cognitive engagement (sensory, processing, memory, and attention systems) that are a hallmark of open-skill activities like tennis, driving, and rush-hour commutes (click HERE to see a previous article I wrote on this subject).
In summary, yoga is a great supplement to any training program that involves:
- Lifting heavy things
- High-intensity, fast-paced bursts of activity
- Endurance-based cardio
- Pulling movements
- Transferable movement abilities
- Rich cognitive environment
Keep on Movin’