At its root, yoga is a discipline that returns and unites you with the divine through movement, breath, and meditation. The latest Yoga in America study shows that 20.4 million Americans practice yoga, though that doesn’t necessarily mean they’re all using it as a spiritual practice. As yoga has become more mainstream, it has become less about spirituality and more about the mind-body connection and the physical, says Olivia Young, yoga instructor and founder of Box + Flow.
Yoga is well-known for its ability to crush stress and help us take on a sunnier disposition, but it’s good for more than just our mood. Yoga can also ease muscle aches, improve posture and muscular endurance, lead to better quality sleep, sharpen mental focus, and even boost your sex life.
Yet, while the overall health benefits of yoga are clear, the debate over whether yoga counts as exercise goes on—and that’s largely because of the many varieties of yoga out there. All types of yoga involve a combination of breath-work, stretching, mindfulness, isometric strength movement (a.k.a holding poses), muscle contraction and connection, and general body awareness—all of which are components of traditional exercise, says Alex Silver-Fagan, C.P.T., C.F.S.C., Nike trainer, yoga instructor, and founder of FlowIntoStrong.
Still, certain types of yoga are more closely connected to traditional ideas of exercise than others. Here’s all the expert info you need to finally end the debate about whether yoga can count as a workout, whether it’s through cardio or strength training.
Yoga As Cardio
Traditional cardio workouts have a number of huge health benefits, like a decreased risk of metabolic syndromes (such as obesity), improved blood pressure and cholesterol, and lower BMIs and triglyceride levels. And, according to a review and meta-analysis published in the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, yoga also provides benefits similar to cardio.
The study’s findings suggest that yoga may be an acceptable substitute for low-intensity aerobic exercise—like walking. But whether yoga gets your heart pumping like a run depends on the type you’re practicing, says Gabrielle Morbitzer, yoga and mobility instructor for ICE NYC. “If you are looking for a yoga class that increases your heart rate the way a traditional moderate cardio workout would, look for classes described with terms like ‘power’, ‘fast,’ ‘hot,’ or ‘warm,’ she suggests.
In a power yoga class, which is a style of yoga called ‘Vinyasa,’ you can expect a physically strenuous practice that moves with your breath. (The word Vinyasa literally means ‘movement with breathe’, says Core Power Yoga instructor Melissa Hernandez.) In a hot or warm yoga class, you can typically expect a similarly intense physical practice, plus a lot of sweat. For example, in Bikram yoga classes (which can reach upwards of 100 degrees), your heart rate can increase pretty quickly, because your body is working to try and cool itself down, says Morbitzer.
Though your heart is pumping, it’s not doing so because you’re taxing your muscles the way you do when running—it’s just your body’s attempt to regulate its temperature in a hot environment—so you’re not burning calories or boosting your muscles’ aerobic capacity in the same way.
Meanwhile, Yin (or ‘restorative’) yoga is all about calming the mind and heart from an over-stimulated state of anxiety, says Silver-Fagan. You’ll hold less-strenuous poses and stretches for minutes at a time and seek a meditative state, which is great for stress and recovery, but not so much for cardio.
The verdict: While yoga shares some of the benefits of regular ol’ cardio, it shouldn’t replace your usual cardio exercise, says Silver-Fagan. “You are moving and you activate your central nervous system and boost your heart rate, but you don’t activate your cardiovascular system in the way running, CrossFit, or HIIT does,” she says.
Yoga As Strength Training
Thanks to yoga, strength training doesn’t necessarily have to mean lifting heavy barbells or swinging kettlebells. “All kinds of yoga are going to build strength, but in different ways,” says Morbitzer. It all depends on the style of yoga you practice and the poses you hold.
Because yoga is rooted at your core or center, everything you do requires bodyweight movement and balance, making it an intense strengthening workout, says Young. Common poses such as Warrior I and Triangle strengthen your legs, glutes, and core, while Boat pose activates your lats and abdominal muscles, and Chaturanga trains your upper body, explains Young. More advanced poses like Crow or inversions (headstands) really tax your upper body and core as you learn to support your body weight in different ways. (You’ll move through many of these in Vinyasa.)
Again, though, Yin yoga doesn’t quite provide that strength-building, says Morbitzer. But this restorative practice is valuable as a recovery method for anyone who trains hard. Silver-Fagan recommends doing Yin yoga on your rest day, especially if you’re doing high-intensity work such as CrossFit or HIIT multiple times a week.
The verdict: Not all yoga classes provide the same strength benefits. More traditional practices like Hatha yoga will have you hold poses for longer, which really hones in on that core strength, while Vinyasa or power yoga might incorporate bodyweight-bearing moves like pushups and lunges, which count as strength training, says Morbitzer. To see the most strength benefit possible from yoga, you’ll need to practice frequently. Hernandez recommends taking Vinyasa or Bikram classes three times a week.
Whether yoga can be your sole form of strength training depends on your goals, Morbitzer says. Since the level of resistance put on your muscles in yoga is limited to your body weight, you can’t build a strong physique as quickly as you could with lifting weights, says Silver-Fagan. So if building strength and muscle are top-priority, both Silver-Fagan and Young recommend incorporating a session or two of yoga into your usual strength-training and cardio routine.