Practicing yoga began as a path to inner peace, but its mission morphed: Now American women expect it to also sculpt a sexy physique. Does yoga really burn fat? We found out.
That was why I traveled halfway around the planet, to India, to an ashram—an ashram!—on the banks of the Ganges, where cows wander in the road, not far from where the Beatles hung with the Maharishi, with a yoga studio whose enormous windows face the foothills of the Himalayas.
But after 90 minutes, I was left thinking one thing:
Yoga in India sucks.
Yoga was calling to me over the past year—calling to me more than any of the other classes I’ve been taking forever. Even though I know all that heart-amping spinning is good for me, the experience is misery. But yoga? I am one of the 11.5 million American women who l-o-o-o-ve yoga. I love the cozy vibe of the studio. I love not wearing shoes. I even love being told to “breathe through my eyeballs” and “fluff my armpits.” Mostly, though, I love yoga because of how it makes me feel: lighter, taller, more balanced, less homicidal. It pushes me to try insane twisting, bending, balancing moves with my body. Without fail, I leave class thinking, “I’m a freaking rock star,” which is the complete opposite of what I think when I leave spinning class or an hour on the elliptical: “I never want to go back.”
So here I am, in a roomful of ashramites in flowing frocks. I am where yoga started thousands of years ago—sitting on my purple mat, legs crossed, eyes closed—hoping to find the ultimate yoga experience so I can quit the gym for good without sacrificing my fitness.
“Stand up,” commands a voice from the front of the room. I open my eyes and see a small Indian woman standing on a platform. She’s wearing a hot-pink sweat suit.
“Reach to the sky,” she says. I reach to the sky.
“Touch your toes,” she says. I touch my toes.
“Now,” she says, “Do that 21 times.” This exercise is not followed by a Downward Dog or a Chair pose or something exotic like a Scorpion headstand. It’s followed by lunges, 21 to each side. Then opening and closing the eyes—21 times. Then swiveling to the right…then to the left. Twenty-one times. Sure, my heart rate is up and I’m sweating. But this is not what I envisioned when I planned my yoga pilgrimage to India. I feel like I’m exactly where I don’t want to be—in a gym counting the minutes until this torture is over.
Had I traveled 7,000 miles for a workout that is inherently no different from a step class? Several clicks on the computer could have saved me the trip. A few years ago, the American Council on Exercise gathered together a bunch of healthy young women who hadn’t exercised or done yoga for six months. They were split into two groups: One group did nothing; the other did Hatha yoga (the most common style in the U.S.) for 55 minutes three times a week for eight weeks. Hatha classes are generally mellow: five minutes of relaxation and breathing, 10 minutes of sun salutations, 35 minutes of various yoga postures, and five minutes relaxing on your back in the aptly named corpse pose.
The researchers found that although the yoga did boost strength, flexibility, endurance, and balance, it barely raised either the women’s maximum heart rate or their VO2 max (that’s the amount of oxygen a body converts into energy during each minute of maxed-out exercise—the higher the number, the fitter a person’s lungs). In other words, it did squat to boost their cardiovascular fitness.
“The yoga wasn’t intense enough,” says John P. Porcari, the exercise physiologist who led the study at the University of Wisconsin’s Human Performance Lab. To improve or maintain heart health, the U.S. Department of Health advises pushing your ticker into its aerobic zone—60 to 85 percent of the maximum heart rate—for a total of 75 minutes every week. You can hit that pace by doing vigorous activities (like running) that get the heart into the high end of that zone for at least 75 minutes, or with enough moderate exercise (like walking) to hit the low end for at least two and a half hours. You don’t hit it doing Hatha.
A study in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that Hatha yoga raised VO2 readings only half as high as walking did—meaning you’d have to do a whole lot of hatha in a week’s time to meet the aerobic goals.
“Yoga can’t be all things for all people,” Porcari says.
Or maybe it’s just that Hatha yoga can’t. Vinyasa (in Sanskrit, “flow”), the type of yoga I do most often, is more challenging because you move quickly from one pose to the next. I’ve been in classes where I’ve had to mop my sweat off the mat. I’ve held Warrior I (basically a runner’s lunge with your arms in the air) and literally felt my heart pounding against the inside of my chest. If that isn’t vigorous activity, I don’t know what is. And Vinyasa, like Hatha, has another benefit: The chill attitude it encourages—let go of your expectations, forget about your to-do list, stop the fantasy about cursing out the guy who cut you off at that stop sign—is also said to be vital for heart health. Studies by the internal medicine specialist Dean Ornish, M.D., who pioneered the use of yoga in cardiac rehab, found that the relaxation benefits of yoga are just as important for the prevention of heart disease as the fitness benefits of cardio. Typical exercise classes like spinning and step do not include a “lie on your back and relax for five minutes” as part of the exercise. (And not once has my spinning instructor ever massaged my temples. I’m just sayin’.)
But if you love yoga and you want a truly serious workout, you need to up the intensity so it’s more like Power Yoga, in which you warm up by moving at warp speed through a series of postures and then go on to other complicated poses that you either hold for a long time or do again and again. In another study at the Human Performance Lab, Porcari and his researchers found that 50 minutes of Power Yoga burned 240 calories—about 93 more than Hatha—and catapulted the heart into the coveted aerobic zone. Better yet, a study from Adelphi University in New York found that Power Yoga can burn up to nine calories a minute. Hellooooo.
Maybe there’s hope that I can ditch my gym membership after all.
Now That science has shown that certain styles of yoga—Vinyasa and Power especially—aren’t all breath and no brawn, serious trainers (you know, the ones with clipboards in their hands and a string of letters after their names) are starting to recognize that it has serious fitness cred. They no longer consider it just “wimpy stretching.”
“Yoga is a totally viable form of exercise,” says Mike Mejia, C.S.C.S., a Women’s Health advisor and personal trainer on Long Island, New York. If this guy, who has been a trainer for 20 years and swears by circuit training (bursts of exercise with little rest in between to raise your heart rate) gives yoga the seal of approval, then I should be golden. Flow yoga, Mejia says, is a lot like circuit training; that’s why he regularly incorporates it into the strength routines he prescribes his clients.
“But yoga does have one significant shortcoming,” Mejia says. “It’s not intense enough to raise your metabolic rate” (that is, the number of calories your body burns at rest). And as a girl who wants to lose a few pounds, I could use every single second of the post-workout calorie burn that comes with more hardcore aerobic exercise.
The good news is, I don’t need a ton of it (see “Yoga Fitness in 7 Days,” below). Mejia suggests a spin class here, a brisk walk there, some hardcore vacuuming. But for the most part, I can leave that techno music at the gym where it belongs. And I can go to the yoga studio, where I belong. Then when people ask me why I look so good (because, in my fantasy mind, they’re going to ask me that all the time), I’ll be able to say:
“I do yoga.”
Yoga Fitness in 7 Days
Add more oomph to your om-workout
90 minutes Power or Vinyasa yoga. Find a class or DVD you enjoy; we like anything by Shiva Rea.
30 minutes circuit strength training using the big muscle groups, alternating between the upper and lower body with squats, pushups, lunges, etc. To yoga it up, throw in some poses like Warrior I or Half Moon.
90-minute Power/Vinyasa class
20 to 30 minutes of cardio
90-minute Power/Vinyasa class
Rest or Hatha yoga