Instead of Practicing Yoga as a Workout, Focus on the True Benefits

Adopt a philosophy of “non-doing,” balancing mind and body.

Photo by rawpixel on Unsplash

Before the arrival of our son, my wife and I took “power” yoga classes near where we lived in the Dupont Circle area of Washington, DC. Often as we left the studio, my wife would ask what I thought of the class.

“It was a terrific workout,” I would reply.

Fast forward to the years after our son was born. We had moved to the Boston area. A time crammed parent, I turned to the Gaia platform of streaming yoga videos to maintain my practice.

As our son napped upstairs, I strategically placed my laptop on the floor of the living room, carefully unrolling my mat between toys, alert to any signal that my son might be waking up.

Back then, I approached yoga as just another form of exercise. I recognized the calming effect yoga had on me, but I still began each practice eager to experience an intense workout.

Boy, was I doing things wrong.

Approaching yoga as an intense workout not only risks injury, but it also distracts from the true benefits which include managing mood, controlling our fight or flight stress response, and promoting mental clarity and focus.

If the goal is to lose weight, yoga also is a relatively inefficient way to burn calories. Only by mindfully observing our diet is an individual likely to shed pounds.

Instead of approaching yoga as a workout, as Jon Kabat-Zinn so eloquently emphasizes, the ancient practice should be done without forcing or striving, concentrating on our breath and our body, in the present, from one moment to the next, learning to work and dwell within our limits.

Chasing perfection

Studies consistently show that most people who regularly exercise, as much as they may not admit, care most about appearances.

“People exercise not for the physiological benefits,” writes University of Alberta’s Timothy Caulfield in The Cure for Everything, “but for weight control and looks.”

Yes there are variations in goals by age and by the health of an individual, “but looks and weight control (for the purpose of looks) are themes in almost every study,” notes Caulfield.

Yoga is no different.

For most yogis today, it is not spirituality or mental harmony that drives their practice, but “the pursuit of bodily perfection — the perfect abs, the perfect butt, the perfect backbend,” argues journalist John Philp in 2009's Yoga Inc.

The message of our image-driven culture, Philp observes, is that “yoga is a method that women, mostly, can use to attain physical perfection.”

More than 70 percent of yoga practitioners in the U.S. are women, according to a 2016 IPSOS survey commissioned by Yoga Journal magazine.

Among those polled, 1 in 5 said that “losing weight” was a motivation for beginning yoga, though the true proportion is likely higher given that 50% of practitioners also cited “getting in shape” as a primary goal.

But as a form of exercise, yoga is not a very efficient means to lose weight.

The reason, as Caulfield explains, is that our bodies are eating machines. If you want to lose weight , you have to burn more calories than you eat.

If as a 170 pound man, I practiced intense vinyasa or power yoga for 60 minutes, I might burn 350–700 calories. If I followed by drinking a medium sized smoothie and eating a modest size salad, I would immediately consume as much if not more calories than I just burned.

For the rest of the day, writes Caulfield, I must then eat fewer calories than my body needs, or I will not lose an ounce.

There’s another paradox: Intense yoga like other forms of exercise also tends to increase our appetites.

Our bodies are calibrated to stay at whatever weight we might be at the present moment. If you burn off more calories doing yoga than you consume, your body will send strong signals of hunger and craving, compelling you to try to make up the difference, unless you have the willpower to resist.

Images such as these influence people to strive for a physical ideal that is unattainable. Photo by Juliette Leufke on Unsplash

Magazines and advertisements featuring ultra-lean women practicing yoga, combined with the competitive culture of fitness clubs and studios can also breed unhealthy obsessions.

In Yoga Inc., for example, Philp notes the tendency for an extreme commitment to yoga to correlate with eating disorders, given the emphasis by some teachers on the need to practice on an empty stomach and to follow a strict diet.

A mind-body diet

Rather than a calorie-burning workout, yoga’s true benefits relate to mind-body balance.

Like most forms of exercise, practicing yoga lowers cortisol, a hormone correlated with stress, depression, and anxiety. By regulating cortisol levels, yoga may help practitioners produce more melatonin, which can improve sleep and thereby overall mood.

If because of yoga an individual experiences less stress or anxiety and improved sleep, then they are less likely to over-eat or to seek out high calorie carbs and sugary foods.

But, as I have written previously, what makes yoga unique from other forms of exercise is the focus on the breath, which has a complicated relationship to weight loss.

People who are more calm and alert, are likely to be more mindful about their diet and nutrition, to have a keener sense of when to eat and how much is too much, and to be more motivated to exercise and stay active.

As William J. Broad details in 2012’s The Science of Yoga, almost all forms of yoga emphasize Ujjayi pranayama, a style of slow breathing.

Fast breathing when doing cardio-exercise like running increases oxygen in our bloodstream. In contrast, the slow breathing of yoga increases carbon dioxide levels.

In response to elevated carbon dioxide levels, blood vessels in the brain dilate, sending more oxygen to the brain. By enabling our brains to absorb more oxygen, the slow breathing of yoga increases calmness and alertness, he writes.

People who are more calm and alert, are likely to be more mindful about their diet and nutrition, to have a keener sense of when to eat and how much is too much, and to be more motivated to exercise and stay active.

The Catch 22 is that by relaxing our bodies and nervous system, yoga may actually slow down our metabolism rather than boost it as is commonly claimed.
So the mindful eating that yoga can promote is important, since if our metabolism slows and we continue to eat the same number of calories, weight gain is likely.

A second way that yoga is unique from other forms of exercise, writes Broad, is yoga’s ability to regulate autonomic features of our nervous system, functions that were once considered beyond our reach to control.

Studies show that yoga can either put the brake on our sympathetic system which generates “flight or flight” stress reactions, or boost our parasympathetic system which controls our “rest-and-digest” functions.

The Catch 22 is that by relaxing our bodies and nervous system, yoga may actually slow down our metabolism rather than boost it as is commonly claimed.

So the mindful eating that yoga can promote is important, since if our metabolism slows and we continue to eat the same number of calories, weight gain is likely.

Risky business

In terms of staying active, yoga’s promotion of flexibility and joint mobility may also help ward off injury.

But if taken to the extreme, yoga can also cause injury.

Between 2001 and 2014, there were more than 29,000 yoga-related injuries in the U.S., according to a study by University of Alabama researchers who analyzed data compiled from hospitals by the Consumer Product Safety Commission.

During the period, as yoga grew in popularity, there was an 8-fold increase in the injury rate for those aged 65 years or older. In contrast, the injury rate among 18–44 years old increased only slightly and doubled among 45–64 year olds.

In The Science of Yoga, Broad goes further, warning that a few popular yoga positions in rare instances may lead to severe injuries.

These positions include shoulder stand, plow, wheel and head stand which could stroke or spinal and arterial injuries. Given the risk, Broad concludes that these poses add little to a practice and should be avoided.

Particularly risky may also be “hot yoga,” a vigorous practice performed in a studio heated to above 90 degrees.

In his reporting for Yoga Inc, Philp interviewed medical experts who offered a variety of warnings.

Packed into sweltering hot studios which are often lined with mirrors, we are likely to draw comparisons to others as to how far we should be stretching or what poses we should be perfecting.

Under conditions of intense heat, and fueled by endorphins, it is easy to stretch our muscles too far, weakening or tearing them.

A common claim is that hot yoga, by inducing buckets of sweat, cleanses the body of toxins. If you experience nausea or a headache, it is because the toxins are leaving the body.

This is dangerous, pseudoscientific nonsense.

The most likely trigger of nausea and a headache is dehydration, which requires immediate replacement of fluids.

Practicing non-doing

Today, a little bit older and wiser, I prefer practicing a slow yet still vigorous form of vinyasa yoga on my own at home or outside, rather than at a studio or via video streaming.

Instead of a workout, my focus is on my breath and positioning.

In doing so, I have come to approach yoga as strenuous meditation-in-motion, adopting what Buddhists call a philosophy of “non-doing,” not trying to get anywhere, or to achieve anything, but to just be.

I came to this view after reading Jon Kabat-Zinn’s classic Full Catastrophe Living, his comprehensive guide to the Mindful-Based Stress Reduction program he pioneered over several decades.

In the program, participants after several weeks of regular meditation move to a slow yoga practice.

Yoga should be done without forcing or striving, “accepting our body, as we find it in the present, from one moment to the next,” he writes. “While stretching, lifting, or balancing, we learn to work with and dwell at our limits while maintaining moment-to-moment awareness.”

From this approach, we may create an “island of being in the sea of constant doing in which our lives are usually immersed, a time in which we allow all the doing to stop.”

See also:

The Science of Why Yoga Quiets the Mind

Scholars Trace the Impact of Jon Kabat-Zinn on the Mindfulness Movement