Is Yoga Just for Relaxation?

Photo by theloushe

A recent article in UK’s Daily Mail claims that yoga’s benefits are limited to strength, muscular endurance, flexibility and balance. Several studies are cited suggesting that yoga, in comparison to cardiovascular (CV) exercise, fails to generate the “target heart rate” necessary to improve aerobic capacity and promote cardiovascular health, and lacks the adequate caloric expenditure for weight management and optimal health.

Professor of Sports Science at University of Bedfordshire John Brewer, UK, comments: “You can’t just achieve weight loss and a high level of fitness through doing yoga alone … other than better balance and flexibility, yoga doesn’t provide too many benefits.”

While a kernel of truth resides in such claims, this is a considerable inflation of the current evidence base, and belies a lamentable misapprehension of yoga’s full spectrum of benefits. A lack of awareness about the full spectrum of yoga (including meditation and pranayama), and yoga’s biopsychosocial impact, may make it easy to dismiss as “stretching,” but a reasoned examination of the research literature affords a more nuanced rendering.

Yoga optimizes numerous constituents of cardiovascular health, including blood pressure, heart-rate variability, and cardiovagal function, and has been shown to improve correlates of Cardiovascular Disease. Research also suggests yoga downregulates the sympathetic nervous system and hypothalamic-pituitary adrenal axis, physiological systems triggered by stress which result in the classic “fight or flight” syndrome (impacting CV and many other domains of health).

A recent review found that yoga equivalently impacts nearly every parameter of health improved by exercise, with the exception of V02 max (lung capacity) and caloric expenditure. While most Hatha yoga does not prompt increases in V02 max and caloric expenditure to the same extent as does vigorous CV exercise, yoga promotes significant increases in both relative to controls.

This article also fails to take into account the impact of pranayama on V02 max. Case study: Years ago when practicing pranayama on a regular basis, I had a V02 max test taken and scored “excellent” (moderate yoga and pranayama were my only exercise). Indeed, studies suggest pranayama may promote increases in lung capacity.

As for the claims that yoga alone does not foster weight loss, a recent blog explains how yoga can increase weight loss for some practitioners.

Finally, this article fails to account for research which suggests that aerobic exercise boosts appetite such that increased caloric expenditure is often offset by subsequent increases in nutrient intake (thus blunting weight loss efforts), and vigorous exercise has been shown to have differential—in some cases negligent—impact on V02 max and other measures of health.

Don’t you think that, given the cited benefits, relegating yoga’s utility to cultivating “flexibility and relaxation” is analogous to claiming physical exercise is only good for building strong muscles?

 

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