Yoga is exercise for the body and mind.
Everywhere you turn, it seems like a new yoga studio is opening up. With toned bodies wearing expensive brand-name yoga gear, yoga has become big business in the Westernised fitness world. But when exercise is viewed by many as an activity that gets the heart racing and sweat dripping, can this ancient practice be considered exercise?
Existing for more than 5000 years and being derived from the Vedic tradition of India, yoga is an ancient system of philosophies, principles and practices. Meaning “to join”, yoga is the union of body, mind and spirit, and cultivates health and wellbeing through the regular practice of a range of techniques including postures (asanas), breathing exercises, breath awareness, relaxation, concentration, self-injury and mediation. Traditionally, the practice of asanas was used to develop discipline and the ability to concentrate so one could meditate, but today many of us primarily practice the postures to maintain and improve flexibility, develop strength and endurance, keep fit and reduce stress.
When performed regularly, yoga poses promote strength, endurance and flexibility, all of which are components of physical fitness. Whether you choose to sweat through a Bikram class, hang upside down in aerial yoga, or accelerate through a class of power yoga, there are plenty of toned bodies striking the pose of physical fitness. It’s important not to confuse physical fitness with cardiovascular fitness though – even yoga styles that elevate the heart rate like Bikram and power yoga won’t boost your heart and lung function in the same way jogging, swimming and cycling does.
Just because yoga does offer you an aerobic component however, doesn’t mean it isn’t a form of exercise. In fact, the American College of Sports Medicine defines yoga as a flexibility exercise that should be included twice a week to help maintain the range of motion at a joint. Yoga may enhance postural stability and balance, particularly when combined with resistance exercise, and has also been shown to assist with lower back pain and improve blood pressure and cholesterol levels. But there is more to yoga than just physical benefits – it also exercises the mind.
An important component of yoga is pranayama or the conscious control and regulation of breath. Pranayama controls the energy (known as prana) in us in order to restore and maintain health, and it goes hand-in-hand with postures. The postures of yoga should be performed with awareness, focusing on both the breath and sensations in the body, leading to greater mindfulness and mental relaxation. In fact, regular yoga promotes compassion and a greater self-awareness and self-control, while also cultivating a sense of calmness and wellbeing. While more research is needed, studies show yoga may be an effective way to manage and reduce stress, anxiety and depression, highlighting the positive benefits for the mind.
While there is no doubt yoga can be classified as exercise, it’s important to remember at its core, yoga is a practice of mindfulness, which if practiced regularly can have a profound effect on other areas of your life.
Photography: Scott Ehler
About the author
Caitlin Reid is a unique health professional with qualifications as an accredited nutritionist, accredited exercise physiologist and yoga teacher. Caitlin is passionate about all things health and wellness, and keeps up-to-date with the latest health research, which she uses when contributing expert advice to health, fitness, lifestyle and food companies. She is also the nutrition expert for the Women’s Fitness magazine, the dietitian for the South Sydney Rabbitohs and ambassador for Papaya Australia. Follow Caitlin on Instagram @caitlinareid or visit her website.