Yoga is a spiritual and physical practice that can help people improve their strength, balance and stress levels. But is yoga exercise? As many who practice yoga know, the poses and breathing exercises ― while calming ― don’t often get the heart pumping.
If you want to pack physical activity into your busy schedule, this can be a turn off. But it doesn’t have to be this way.
D. Enette Larson-Meyer, a metabolic energy researcher at the University of Wyoming who also happens to be a yoga teacher, has a few suggestions for people who want to make their yoga practice more physically vigorous. She recently published a systematic review of 17 studies that measured the amount of energy spent doing yoga and found that some poses meet the definition of moderate exercise.
The 4 yoga poses that count as moderate exercise
Of 37 common yoga poses, four had an average metabolic equivalent of task ― a measure of the energy needed to do the specific activity ― of more than 3. This means that four yoga poses fulfilled the criteria for being a moderate exercise, as opposed to a light-intensity exercise (looking at you, child’s pose). Anything from 1 to 2.9 METs is light intensity; 3 to 5.9 METs is moderate; and anything over six is considered vigorous.
In contrast, the average MET of yoga poses performed on a person’s back clocked in at around one, a level that’s comparable to rest. Inversion poses like the headstand measured between 1.7 to 2.5 METs, which is considered light-intensity.
“Yoga can really be what you want it to be,” Larson-Meyer said. “If one of your interests in yoga is to get some physical benefit and increase your heart rate just a little bit, you can do that by changing up what poses you include in your practice.”
People who want to intensify their practice with physically challenging poses should be sure to include:
Also known as: Standing head to knee
How to do it: Stand with your feet together and your arms by your side. Interlace your fingers to form a cup, bend at the waist and raise your right knee to meet your face. Place your right foot inside the cup you made with your hands. While maintaining your balance, slowly extend your right leg in front of you while holding on to your foot. Hold the pose for a few seconds before slowly returning to your standing position. Repeat on the other side. For variations on how to do this pose to accommodate back injuries, go to Runner’s World.
Also known as: Standing bow
How to do it: Start in a standing position with your arms by your side. Extend your right arm above your head and bring your left foot up behind you. Grab the inside of your left foot with your left hand.
Without letting go of your foot, slowly raise and extend your left leg behind you as you bring your right arm down to extend toward your front. Once you find your balance, hold this pose for a few seconds. Slowly release the pose and stand up straight before repeating on the other side. For more details on how to execute this position, go to Runner’s World.
Also known as: Triangle pose
How to do it: Start standing with your feet together. Raise your arms to the ceiling and then take a big step to the left with your left foot. The left foot should be pointed to the left, while the right foot should be pointed forward. Bend the left knee and make sure the left thigh is parallel to the floor.
Keeping your back straight, let your left arm go toward the floor; the left elbow should be pressing slightly against the left knee. Turn and face your right arm, focusing on your right hand. Repeat the entire exercise on your right side. For more advice on technique and breathing, check out Runner’s World.
Also known as: Balancing stick
How to do it: Start upright in a standing position. Raise your arms and clasp your fingers together. Then step forward with your right foot. Slowly start to put all your weight on this foot as you raise your left leg behind you. Once you form a T shape, hold the pose for a few seconds before slowly returning to a standing position. For more information on breathing technique, go to yogawiz.com.
What makes some yoga more physically intense
Other ways to increase the intensity of your yoga session include incorporating more standing and balancing poses, as well as jumping or quick-stepping between different positions instead of slow and controlled transitions, Larson-Meyer said.
She also found that more experienced yoga practitioners were able to more vigorously engage in the yoga poses, raising their METs higher than what beginners could achieve.
“The more you practice it, the more likely you are to go deeper into the pose so that you have a higher energy expenditure,” Larson-Meyer said.
Interestingly, Larson-Meyer found that neither the temperature of the room, nor its humidity, had any effect on the MET of individual yoga poses ― putting a damper on Bikram yoga’s claims that it will make you burn up to 1,000 calories during a 90 minute session. However, this data came from only a single study on Bikram yoga, which means more research is needed.
The literature Larson-Meyer reviewed did not measure the energy expenditure of some of the more difficult inversion or balancing poses, including Bakasana (crow/crane) or the Adho Mukha Vrksasana (handstand). When she did these poses in her own lab just to see how they stacked up, they produced MET values greater than three. However, her data is unpublished and needs further replication.
Of course, yoga does much more than help fulfill the government’s recommendation to exercise moderately for 30 minutes a day. Larson-Meyer found that short bouts of regular yoga can improve treadmill walking endurance, enhance the performance of distance runners, and improve balance, muscle strength and control in young adult athletes ― to say nothing of the spiritual practice’s effects on calming anxiety and reducing stress.
Bonus: A Yoga Flow That Gets Your Heart Pumping
Other ways to make yoga more vigorous would be to incorporate several repetitions of Surya Namaskar, or sun salutations, into your session. This is a series of 12 different poses that flow from one to the next, taking the practitioner from the standing position to the floor while strengthening both the upper and lower body. The estimated MET intensity for sun salutations ranged from 2.9 (light intensity) to 7.4 (vigorous) across various studies, which Larson-Meyer found intriguing.