What Is the Point of Yoga?

Man meditating in payer position.

Roland Kielman, a Communications Specialist with the University of Vermont Health Network, recently explored yoga and its benefits during a 30-day yoga challenge with one question in mind: Is yoga a good cardiovascular workout?

Just after the New Year, my doctor gave me some news that I did not want to hear: I had damaged a nerve in my foot, and I would not be able to run for six to eight weeks.

I’ll be honest, I had never been particularly fond of running. But it had become a huge part of my wellness routine – keeping me active and helping me to manage my weight and my stress. In one fell swoop, my foot injury had left me wondering how I was going to remain active while my foot healed.

A friend of mine suggested I try yoga. I had given yoga a shot when I was younger, and while I enjoyed it, I never felt entirely comfortable with it and never got into a routine.

As a runner, I wondered: Would yoga be enough of a cardiovascular workout? I wasn’t sure, but I decided to give it a go, committing to a 30-day yoga challenge that would see me practicing yoga every day for a month (spoiler alert: I failed, but loved it).

Is Yoga Right For Me?

While sifting through the internet for free online yoga classes, I felt lost. Yin Yoga, Vinyasa, Hatha and so on, the options were plenty. But were they informed by science?

To find out, I contacted Colleen Law, a physical therapist, and Stephanie Leffler, RN, a family nurse practitioner at UVM Health Network - Alice Hyde Medical Center. Law and Leffler have both been practicing yoga for years.

Getting Started With Yoga

RK: There seem to be many types of yoga out there – where should I start?

Law:  There are indeed so many types of yoga out there and many different yoga instructors. Yoga began in ancient India as a spiritual practice, one which involves movement, breathing exercises and a focus on thoughts and feelings as they happen – which we often refer to as mindfulness. Like a lot of people, I practice yoga to help restore balance in my body, improve my flexibility, strength, endurance and quiet my mind.

Don’t worry too much about the different types of yoga. I would try different classes and instructors and find a class you like. Think about if you’re in need of a physical challenge or prefer gentle stretching, then do your research to find a class that fits your needs best. You may want to speak with the instructor for a description of the class to give you an idea of whether it is for you.

Leffler:  I think Hatha yoga is a great place to start. Although teachers vary in their style, Hatha is a mix of moderate movement, poses, breath work and meditation. This is the most popular style and has many variations. But there are so many types. There is even yoga designed to work through specific health conditions or emotional trauma. No matter the style, a huge benefit of yoga is that it fosters a sense of community and acceptance.

RK: Is yoga safe for someone who has never done it before? Or for someone who isn’t in great physical condition?

Leffler:  I often hear people say “I’m not flexible enough to do yoga.” That is like saying you are too dirty to take a bath! It is exactly why we do yoga. It is a wonderful practice for anyone to start. It helps us to love our bodies, to start to develop strength, endurance and balance.

Heart and Health Benefits of Yoga

RK: My first several classes were called “vinyasa flow” and I was pleasantly surprised by the workout – it got my heart rate up and by the end of the class I was tired! What do we know about yoga as a form of cardiovascular exercise?

Law: Flow classes like the ones you took feature a quick progression through different poses. They are a great workout for your heart. But even slower classes are good for your heart, not to mention your blood circulation.

Leffler:  I also think that yoga’s movement, mindfulness, breathing and meditation condition us to be more aware of our well-being, which can lead to better choices. We choose to eat better, to move, play, give up bad habits like over eating, smoking, excessive alcohol, give up toxic jobs or toxic relationships. It may sound surprising, but all of these things can improve your cardiovascular health.

RK: What health benefits does yoga offer that other types of exercise – like walking, running or other cardio activities – do not?

Leffler:  Yoga is unique in that it teaches us breathing methods. Many Americans use only 1/3 to 1/2 of our lung capacity. This in itself can contribute to anxiety, but learning to breathe deeply activates the vagus nerve, which is attached to the diaphragm, the big muscle we use when breathing.  Yoga’s breathing exercises have been scientifically proven to increase lung capacity and reduce anxiety, but more exciting is that it can measurably change the brain areas responsible for concentration, happiness, creativity and rational thinking.

Law: From my experience, it gives me time to be aware of imbalance, tightness or weakness in my body that I usually do not find with other types of exercise. The quieting of the mind is my favorite benefit.

RK: I have heard that yoga can benefit your nervous system. Is that true?

Leffler:  Yes. When we are exposed to a stress (whether it’s a lion chasing us or a work deadline) our body sets off the “fight or flight” response, secreting hormones that cause a cascade of effects in the body: higher blood pressure, heart rate, muscle tension, feelings of fear and anxiety. For most of us, our lives are full of micro-stressors that stimulate this response, but we never reset back to a peaceful, comfortable state. This causes burnout, insomnia, anxiety, depression, PTSD and trauma responses. Yoga works to improve the parasympathetic nervous system, which elevates your mood, decreases cortisol, strengthens your immune system and increases your physical and psychological well-being.

It also activates your prefrontal cortex, which is the most evolved part of the brain that is responsible for many “higher-order” functions like planning, decision-making, learning, concentration, goal-setting, emotion-control, creativity, self-observation, prioritizing, social interaction and behavior control. This area is also associated with happiness.

Flexibility and Pain Relief

RK: Flexibility has never been my strong suit, but I found that with each yoga class I’m becoming more flexible. I can see it being a great complement to my running routine.

Law: That doesn’t surprise me. A huge benefit of yoga is that it makes you aware of imbalances, movement restrictions and differences in strength since you do the poses on both sides of your body. Holding those poses gives you time to lessen or resolve those differences. Yoga practice can improve your mobility, balance and range of motion – which is one of the reasons it’s so great for people of all ages.

Leffler:  After a certain age, we tend to have a dominant side (we do everything right handed or left handed, we start stairs and walking with one side versus the other). These regions get stronger, possibly tighter than the other side. Yoga practice creates balance in the muscles.

Yoga also reminds us that we hold emotions in our bodies. Each of us has an area that becomes tense with stress. For me – and for many others – it is in the shoulders and neck. Because I am aware of it, I can focus on it, breathe into it, hold and allow release. 

RK: I’ve talked to a number of people that started practicing yoga as a way to manage chronic conditions like back pain. What do we know about its ability to relieve pain?

Law: Gentle movement and exercise is definitely recommended for arthritis and most chronic conditions to help decrease daily pain and improve mobility. 

Leffler:  There is a lot of research that suggests yoga eases arthritis pain and chronic back pain. One study found that among 313 people with chronic low back pain, a weekly yoga class increased mobility more than standard medical care for the condition. There are many types of yoga so a person with arthritis should look for yoga therapy, gentle yoga and inquire with the yoga teacher if that style is appropriate for their condition.

There is even research that suggests that yoga can improve the quality of life for people suffering from cancer. Often, the meditative qualities of yoga help people to “escape” from their pain during the yoga session.

Mood and Energy

RK: I have found some escape from my foot pain. It relaxes me and makes the rest of the day more manageable.

Law: I can only speak for myself, but after yoga I feel happier and seem to be more tolerant of daily bumps in the road.

What I Learned From My Yoga Challenge

True, I didn’t make it through my 30-day challenge. Life, COVID-halted daycare, and let’s face it, a certain degree of laziness, meant that I ended up practicing yoga 22 out of the planned 30 days. I was still proud of myself and walked away from the challenge convinced that yoga would remain a steady part of my efforts to keep myself fit and healthy.

In a short period of time, my flexibility improved, as did my stability and strength. I found I slept better. And most importantly, I was less stressed. Beginning the day with yoga definitely left me feeling more at ease for the remainder of the day. And these days, that’s not an easy thing.

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