The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

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The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness
The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

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Introduction – Yoga is for More than Calming and Flexibility

The many benefits of yoga for health and fitness help to boost your cardiovascular health, improve strength, flexibility and functional fitness.

 

When you think about yoga, what comes to mind? For many who are new to yoga – and even those who have practiced yoga – the idea of calming, or flexibility, or even weight loss (hot yoga) comes to mind.

What if I told you that yoga can help you get into the best shape of your life? It’s true. Yoga can help you boost your cardiovascular health, improve your strength, endurance, functional fitness, and flexibility.

And yes, yoga can still help you unwind, de-stress, and find calm.

One of the best things about yoga is that it’s a practice. This means that you start from where you are now, today, and as you practice more, your skills improve. Many people avoid yoga because they feel like they’re not in good enough shape to go to a class.

Not true. Yoga is for everyone. And the concept of a yoga practice is wonderful because it helps you focus on what’s important. It helps you stay in the moment and get the most out of each session.

The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness
The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

Another thing that people generally love about yoga is that you can practice it anywhere. You can go to your local yoga center. You can put down a mat in the park. You can do yoga in your living room. It’s very versatile.

In this guide we’ll start by talking about the benefits of yoga. We’ll then dive into the different types of yoga (and there are many) and sharing how each form specifically can help you improve your fitness.

Then we’ll talk about 7 yoga poses that you can do to start your practice and boost your fitness. From there you will be able to try out a sample yoga practice, you can just jump right off the couch and get started. We’ll wrap it up with a discussion on how to create your own practice and tips for success.

Ready? Let’s get started!

The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

Yoga Improves Your Cardiovascular Health

Think about how you feel when you climb a flight of stairs or you go for a jog or a bike ride. Your blood flow increases (to get oxygen to your muscles) and your heart rate goes up. You’re breathing more heavily, and you may feel warm or even start to sweat.

The same thing happens during a yoga session and, depending on the type of yoga you’re doing, it can last for the entire hour of practice. Now, this increased heart rate and blood flow are exceptional for your body in general. They’re also really good for your cardiovascular system. Cardiovascular health is one of the most important indicators of health.

According to an article in Yoga Journal,

Yoga boosts levels of hemoglobin and red blood cells, which carry oxygen to the tissues. And it thins the blood by making platelets less sticky and by cutting the level of clot-promoting proteins in the blood. This can lead to a decrease in heart attacks and strokes since blood clots are often the cause of these killers.

A solid yoga practice will improve your fitness so you can sprint up those stairs or go for a longer run if you’d like, without feeling the same degree of effort. You can go for a hike without having to rest so often or simply enjoy better cardio health.

Yoga Improves Your Functional Health

“Functional fitness.” It’s a term that’s been quite popular for the last few years. What does it mean? In the simplest terms, functional fitness means that your body works well through complex movements.

A “functional” movement is one where you’re not isolating a muscle, but rather utilizing several major muscle groups at once. The easiest example is the difference between a biceps curl and a pullup.

With a biceps curl, you’re using your biceps muscle to move a dumbbell in your hand. Great, if you want big biceps. But it’s not a movement that really comes up in real life very often. In contrast, a pullup utilizes your core muscles (your back and abdominal muscles) as well as all the muscles in your arms and shoulders.

Now, admittedly, the pullup isn’t something you’re likely to do all that often in real life either, but what about if you have to climb a ladder or scale a fence or you want to go skydiving and you need that core and upper body strength?

Back to the point, yoga is functional. You don’t isolate a muscle, you might use your entire body in a single pose. Yoga requires your muscles to learn how to work together to function optimally and, honestly, that’s one of the best ways to look fantastic now and to grow old in a vital and healthy way.

Think about the rather simple pose, downward dog. Your hands are on the ground in front of you, your feet are on the floor, and your entire core is tight. You work hard in this movement. It strengthens your whole body. And that’s just one foundational movement in yoga. A full practice will give you a very good workout.

The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness
The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

Yoga Helps You with Your Weight Loss Goals

There are many facets that go into losing weight. Generally speaking, most people tend to look at calorie burn initially and that’s okay. Yoga burns calories.

The type of yoga you’re doing will dictate how many calories you burn. It can be anywhere from 200-400 for a one-hour session. And if you do some quick math, 4-5 yoga sessions a week will burn about half a pound.

But the weight loss benefit you get from yoga goes beyond basic calorie burn. When you practice yoga, you can change your metabolism. You will improve your strength and endurance, both of which burn more calories on a daily basis.

You also become more aware of your body, and that can lead to some significant nutrition changes in your own lifestyle and routines. When you begin to feel better about your body and all of the amazing things that it can do, you begin to look at it, and care for it, in a different way.

Here’s an example, let’s say you start going to yoga and you notice that you have more energy. You feel better during your day. You decide to start walking at lunchtime. And then maybe instead of takeout for lunch, you start bringing your own lunch. Small changes add up to huge weight loss, and yoga is an amazing weight loss tool.

Yoga Improves Your Flexibility

First, let’s start by saying that flexibility is about more than being able to do the splits. In fact, you may never do the splits, and who cares? Flexibility is about being able to move your body the way you want to move it without worrying about injury.

It’s about being able to reach the high cupboard in your kitchen without shoulder pain. It’s about being able to touch your toes or jump across a creek on a trail. Flexibility means no back pain!

Yoga helps you strengthen your tendons and ligaments, while also strengthening your muscles. You learn to balance and maintain balance in various positions. All of this activity creates a body that is capable of doing what you ask of it – and doing it with less pain and a reduced risk of injury.

“Good flexibility promotes healthy muscles and joints. It is extremely important for physical fitness. Poor flexibility decreases your body’s ability to maintain proper posture, limits proper joint motion increasing the risk for low-back pain, joint pain, and injury during everyday activities.” The Mayo Clinic. In fact, according to the Mayo Clinic fitness test, flexibility is a measurement of fitness. (Source: How Fit Are You?)

Yoga Improves Your Strength

Why is strength important? When most people think about strength, they imagine bulky people in the gym lifting heavy weights. Now those people probably are very strong, but I bet you they’re not that flexible, and their endurance may stink too.

According to yoga experts, strong muscles protect us from conditions like arthritis and back pain, as well as help prevent falls in elderly people. And when you build strength through yoga, you balance it with flexibility.

Strength improves your posture, and it helps you burn more calories because it takes more energy to support muscles than it does fat. And let’s face it, when you’re strong and lean, you look great! You feel good too.

The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness
The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

Strength in yoga is achieved through bodyweight movements. It happens through holding poses and using your whole body (back to the functional fitness benefit). Balancing poses require tremendous strength, and the benefits are experienced both inside and outside of your yoga class.

Yoga Improves Your Endurance

Endurance is often measured over time, distance, or difficulty. When something is hard, we say that we “endured.” However, when it comes to measuring fitness endurance, it generally means that you can sustain an activity with less effort over time.

Here’s an example, if you went out and ran a mile today it may cause your heart rate to go to say, 180 beats per minute and might take you 11 minutes. After improving your endurance, you may be able to run the same mile in 9 1/2 minutes and keep your heart rate at 160.

The same could be said for a yoga pose or practice. You may be able to hold warrior pose for 30 seconds now and have tremendous muscle fatigue. Over time you may be able to hold the pose for several minutes without the same degree of muscle fatigue.

Endurance has overlap not only in your fitness and exercise life, but also in your own personal and professional life. You’re better able to push your body, and mind, for longer and with less effort.

It’s also important to point out that yoga has been shown to improve overall physical, emotional, and mental wellbeing. So, now that you’re ready to dive into yoga the next important step is to learn how the various types of yoga can help you improve your fitness and help you reach your personal fitness goals.

Best Types of Yoga for Fitness

Let’s start by stating that there are dozens of different types of yoga. Visit the website of any yoga studio and you’re likely to see a wide variety of offerings. We’re going to cover the eight most popular types of yoga for fitness. Keep in mind that they can be done in a hot room to uplevel the practice, the potential weight loss, and the fitness experience.

Different types of yoga for fitness explained

Hatha Yoga

Hatha Yoga is one of eight styles of yoga. Many types of yoga use Hatha as the foundation for their poses and practice. Hatha refers to the practice of physical yoga postures, so other physical forms of yoga that we’ll discuss – including Ashtanga, vinyasa, Iyengar and Power Yoga classes – are all Hatha Yoga.

In Sanskrit, the word Hatha means “Force.”  Hatha Yoga can be a good way to ease your way into a yoga practice. It can alleviate stress, treat depression, improve your balance and body awareness, build strength, and increase flexibility.

Vinyasa Yoga

Vinyasa classes may also be referred to as flow yoga. Vinyasa Yoga teaches a sequence of Hatha movements that flow or smoothly transition into one another. Vinyasa classes are known for their fluid, movement-intensive practices.

The intention of a Vinyasa class is to focus on your breath, your movement, and to keep the practice both intense and smooth. No two classes are the same, and instructors often link poses differently. Vinyasa Yoga is a good test of your fitness and an exceptional way to get into shape.

Iyengar Yoga

Iyengar Yoga was founded by B.K.S. Iyengar in 1966. He wrote a book that outlined more than 200 poses. It’s a precise practice that pays close attention to alignment and posture. Poses are held for long periods of time and are often modified with props like blocks and bands. These props help practitioners into the right position. As your practice increases, you will remove or reduce your need for props.

This method is designed to systematically cultivate strength, flexibility, stability, and awareness, and can be therapeutic for specific conditions. It’s ideal for both beginners and advanced practitioners.

Ashtanga Yoga

Ashtanga was founded by K. Pattabhi Jois. The “dynamic, physically demanding practice synchronizes breath and movement to produce an internal heat designed to purify the body. Ashtanga yoga, with its many vinyasas, is great for building core strength and toning the body. Prepare to sweat as you briskly move through a set sequence.” (Yoga Journal)

Like Iyengar, it is a foundational yoga practice, which means it’s exceptional for both beginner and advanced practitioners alike.

Power Yoga

Power yoga, aka Gym Yoga, is a general term used to describe a vigorous, fitness-based approach to a Vinyasa or (sequence) type of yoga. The general foundation of most Power Yoga classes is Ashtanga.

The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness
The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

Power yoga generally incorporates the athleticism of Ashtanga, including lots of poses done in sequence (aka Vinyasas). It usually gives your instructor the flexibility to teach poses in any order, which offers variety and makes every class different from the last. The emphasis is on strength and flexibility.

Bikram Yoga

Bikram Choudhury founded Bikram Yoga. The practice is based on Hatha Yoga and includes 26 postures. Each class is 90 minutes long and is conducted in a heated room. Bikram Yoga is also often called hot yoga, though other types of yoga can be performed in a heated room. Unlike Power Yoga, Bikram’s sequence of poses is set. There’s no variability. Every class is the same in terms of the poses you do and when you do them.

Bikram was also adapted into a sport where practitioners compete against one another. This isn’t a common practice anymore, but it does speak to the fitness aspect of this type of yoga.

Yin Yoga

Yin Yoga has been around for thousands of years, but it is probably a type of yoga that you haven’t heard before. With Yin Yoga, there are about three dozen poses and the poses are held anywhere from 5-20 minutes.

The objective for Yin Yoga is twofold. The first goal is to facilitate a meditation practice. The second goal, and the one that supports your fitness goals, is that Yin Yoga focuses on flexibility.

During a Yin session you’ll access your deeper tissues, your fascia, connective tissue, joints, ligaments, and tendons. Many of the postures focus on your hips, sacrum, and spine. By adding a Yin practice to your yoga schedule, you’ll absolutely improve your flexibility and tissue health.

Forrest Yoga

Forrest Yoga was created by Ana Forrest. Based on Hatha Yoga, she created it to address issues in her own health. Many of the poses focus on improving or reducing back pain, neck and shoulder issues, carpal tunnel syndrome, and intestinal disorders.

It is known for holding positions for a long time with an emphasis on abdominal core work, and standing series that can encompass 20 poses on each side. It’s performed in a heated room, and practitioners state that a class can be quite intense.

In addition to increased flexibility and health,

Forrest Yoga teaches you to connect to your core, to be strong and centered. The intense pose sequences are designed to help you develop the skills to awaken each of your senses. The long holds help you progress in the poses and go deeper. Aided by the use of heat, your body is freed from toxins; the deep breathing oxygenates and rejuvenates every cell in your body. (Source: https://www.forrestyoga.com/about/philosophy/)

Whether you’re starting from scratch or you have some yoga practice experience, understanding the basic types of yoga you’re likely to encounter at any yoga studio will help you know what to expect. It will also help you create a yoga for fitness practice that works well for your personal goals and needs.

For example, you might do two Vinyasa flow classes each week, one Yin Yoga class, and one Bikram or Hot Yoga class. This helps you build strength, burn calories, improve flexibility and strength.

To help you get started with your yoga practice, let’s take a look at seven yoga poses to boost your fitness. Take off your socks, clear some space on the floor, and get started today!

The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness
The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

7 Yoga Poses to Boost Fitness

#1 Boat Pose

Boat pose is the same as a v-sit. Sit on the floor with your legs straight in front of you. Press your hands on the floor. Sitting up straight, with straight arms, lift your feet off the floor. You may need to bend your knees to lift your legs. That’s okay. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to straighten your legs and lift them higher.

Now release your hands and raise your arms. You’re balancing on your backside. Reach through your fingers toward your legs. Your core should be tight but you should be able to breathe.

Hold the pose for 10-20 seconds. Exhale and release your legs to the floor. As you get stronger, you’ll be able to hold the pose for a minute.

Boat pose strengthens your core muscles including your back and abdominals. It also strengthens your thigh and hamstring muscles.

#2 Dolphin Plank Pose

The plank is something you may be familiar with. It’s a super core strengthener. Lying face down on the floor, lift your body so that your weight is on your forearms and your toes. Your arms should be at a 90-degree angle so that your elbow is directly under your shoulder.

Tighten your glutes, your abdominals, and your legs. Don’t let your hips or belly droop. Keep your body in line. Breathe and hold the position for 30 seconds.

#3 Chair Pose

Standing, inhale and bend your knees, hinging at the hips like you’re going to sit. Lower into a squat position with your feet actively pressing into the floor. Exhale, and lean forward slightly. Make sure to keep your back straight. Don’t arch or round your back. Inhale and extend your arms upward with your palms facing one another.

Hold the position for 30 seconds, exhale, lower arms, and return to standing. This position is good for strengthening core, glutes, and quad muscles.

#4 Locust Pose

The locust pose is a pose that strengthens your core muscles. Lie face down on the floor with your arms extended alongside your body. Your legs should be touching one another. Lift your chest and arms together (picture Superman flying through the air with his arms extended in front of him). Now actively tighten your core and lift your feet and legs from the floor. You can do this by squeezing your glutes and abdominal muscles.

Holding your chest and legs off of the floor, breathe, maintain a neutral neck keeping your eyes on the floor a few inches in front of you. Hold for as long as possible, about 30 seconds, exhale and gently release your arms and legs to the floor.

#5 Warrior Pose

Warrior pose is great for leg strength and balance. It’s also said to boost metabolism. Standing on the floor with your feet under your hips, press your hands together and bring them to your chest. Start lifting your right leg behind you while hinging at the hip and leaning forward so your body is parallel to the floor.

The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness
The Many Benefits of Yoga for Fitness

You can extend your arms out in front of you for balance or to add extra intensity to the movement. Hold the pose for 60 seconds, return to standing or mountain pose, switch legs and repeat on your left leg.

This pose will help strengthen your legs, ankles, shoulders, and back while it tones your entire body, especially your core. It also encourages better posture and helps to stabilize balance.

#6 Tree Pose

The tree pose is a balance pose, like warrior pose. It requires you to balance on one leg, which boosts flexibility in your ankles, knees, and hips, and increases strength in your legs and core.

Standing in mountain pose, or with both feet planted firmly on the ground hip-width apart, bring your left foot to the inside of your right knee. If you can’t reach that high, you can bring it to your calf or, if you’re flexible and able to, bring your foot to the inside of your right thigh.  Bring your hands into the prayer position, or raise your arms overhead and look up. Hold the pose for 60 seconds. Lower your foot and repeat on the other side.

#7 Upward Bow Pose

This pose is perhaps the most challenging of the poses we’ve discussed. It’s good for strengthening your arms, legs, core and shoulder muscles. It can also provide you with an energy boost. Lie on your back on the floor. Bend your knees and place your heels as close to your backside as possible.

Bend your elbows and spread your palms on the floor beside your head. Your fingers will be pointing toward your shoulders.

Pressing your feet and hands into the ground, tighten your glutes and lift your hips off of the floor. Inhale and lift your shoulder blades and back off of the floor, arch to place the top of your head onto the floor. Inhale, lift your head off the floor and straighten your arms.

You’re now in a backbend. Push your belly button toward the ceiling. Keep the weight in your fingertips and feet. Hold the pose for 10-30 seconds and then reverse the movement, gently lowering your head to the floor.

These seven poses are really just the beginning of what’s possible with your own yoga practice. Other poses to consider include:

  • Triangle pose
  • Side angle pose
  • Dolphin pose
  • Half-moon pose
  • Shoulder stand
  • Plow pose
  • Downward dog

Now that you have a few poses to practice, let’s talk about adding yoga to your routine and creating your own yoga practice.

Creating Your Own Yoga Practice

The first thing to consider when creating your own practice is what you want to achieve. DO you want to practice yoga daily? Will it be part of a cross-training program where you do cardio one day, strength another, and then yoga three times a week? What does your yoga practice look like and how does it fit into your routine?

With that in mind, you’ll want to figure out when you’re going to practice yoga and where. If you’re doing it at home, set aside 30-60 minutes. If you’re heading to a studio, find out how long their classes are. Some run as long as 90 minutes, so you’ll need to plan accordingly.

There are benefits to yoga at home or yoga at a studio. Choose the path that you’re most likely to follow through on. If it’s easier for you to do yoga in your home, then try to do that most days – and maybe hit the studio one day a week for instruction and form correction.

Some forms of yoga use props like blocks, bands, a mat and bolsters or blankets. As you choose your yoga path, it makes sense to invest in these props. They’ll help you get into better position, especially initially, when you’re just learning and beginning your yoga for fitness program.

Sample 20-30 minute yoga workout:

  1. Seated Cow Pose
  2. Cat/Cow Pose
  3. Downward-Facing Dog Pose
  4. Mountain Pose
  5. Warrior Pose or Tree Pose
  6. Triangle Pose
  7. Bridge Pose
  8. Child pose

Wrapping it Up – Some Tips for Success

Many people have a vision of themselves flowing gracefully and powerfully through the poses. Yet the reality is usually much more sweaty, awkward, and difficult. Yoga is hard. Use props, get instruction if possible, and be patient with yourself.

Pay attention to your progress and your gains. You’re going to be amazed how much your body changes after a month of dedicated yoga practice. Consider keeping a yoga journal and jotting down your thoughts after each session. Yoga is about becoming more calm, centered, and aware. It’s also about becoming strong, flexible and amazingly fit. Enjoy your new yoga practice. It will change your life.