After a recent yoga class, a student approached me to ask whether I thought yoga was the only form of exercise she needs, and a small group of people hung back to listen to the answer.
I was reminded of a workshop I took years ago as a fledgling yoga teacher. The workshop leader invited participants to write down our questions about yoga on little slips of paper and after lunch, while we were digesting, he would read and answer them for us.
My friend wrote down the question: “Is yoga the only form of exercise you need?”
He read her question aloud, and sounding completely appalled, said in a thick French accent ‘Why do you insult yoga zis way?!’. Then he crumpled up the piece of paper, threw it over his shoulder and moved on to the next question.
For real. That happened.
Initially, I assumed that he meant ‘OF COURSE yoga is the only exercise you need’ – and he found it insulting that anyone would think yoga was not enough! But as my understanding of yoga's depth grew, I started wondering if the real reason he found the question so insulting was because it reduced yoga practice to a mere from of physical exercise. When it’s just ... SO MUCH MORE. Asking if yoga is the only form of exercise you need ignores 90% of what yoga is about – breathwork, mindfulness, meditation, living an ethical life, and generally being a kind, compassionate human being. If you want to be stronger and more bendy, yoga may help – but that’s not really what it’s all about.
Anyway, ‘Is Yoga the only form of exercise you need?’ is a good question, and it deserves a thoughtful and nuanced answer. So, here it is.
IS YOGA THE ONLY FORM OF EXERCISE YOU NEED?
My short answer is: probably not. While yoga offers many wonderful benefits, your yoga practice probably doesn’t qualify as a well-rounded fitness routine. That’s not an insult to yoga either. It’s just that no movement modality can do everything! Yoga does what yoga does beautifully: reducing stress, enhancing body awareness, improving posture, increasing flexibility, and creating peace of mind. What other movement modality does that!? But that’s not everything you need for physical fitness. Ideally, an exercise routine should include elements of strength training, aerobic conditioning, flexibility and balance.
Let’s look at where your yoga practice can help you achieve physical fitness and where it falls short.
aka resistance training. This style of training helps build and maintain muscle strength and endurance. When you strength train, you work against resistance until your muscles feel tired. There are lots of things you can use for resistance, including:
Over the years, I’ve been asked by students again and again if yoga counts as strength training. My answer is always a qualified ‘Yes, but…’ as you gain experience on your yoga mat, poses that were once very challenging become less challenging: Sun Salutations, Warrior IIs, planks, chaturanga and arm balances. Once you’ve mastered them, they cease to be a challenge. That’s called adaptation in the fitness world – and it’s a good thing. It means you got a little stronger (yay, you!) However, in order to continue getting stronger, you have to continue to give yourself new challenges to adapt to.
Remember what it felt like the first time you held your arms out in Warrior II? Agony! But as the days, months and years go by, it starts to feel like you could hold your arms out forever. The greatest strength building benefits of yoga tend to happen in the early days of your practice. Then you adapt. Yoga is a form of bodyweight training, and in bodyweight training, you’re limited by … your body weight. At some point you need to lift more than your own bodyweight in order to keep strengthening.
The thing with strength training is that if you’re doing it correctly, it should never feel like it’s getting easier. When it starts to feel easy, that’s when you know your tissues have adapted and it’s time to increase the amount of resistance you’re using. Progressive overload, gradually increasing the load over time, is crucial for ongoing strength gains. If it’s stopped feeling challenging, you’ve stopped building strength.
Combining yoga with traditional strength training methods can be a well-rounded approach to developing strength and overall fitness.
It’s recommended that you strength train 2-3 days per week.
How strength training improves health and fitness
aka Cardio. This type of exercise increases your heart rate and breathing for an extended period. It involves rhythmic movements that engage large muscles and requires LOTS of oxygen to meet the body’s energy demands. Think: running, swimming, dancing, cycling and aerobics class. Depending on the type of yoga you’re doing, and your level of aerobic conditioning, you might be working in your aerobic sweet spot when you go to yoga class. What’s the aerobic sweet spot? According to Canada’s 24-hour movement guidelines, you should aim for at least 150 minutes of moderate intensity exercise or 75 minutes of vigorous intensity aerobic exercise each week. This graphic will help you to understand what moderate to vigorous activity feels like and whether your yoga practice is meeting your needs for aerobic exercise.
Keep in mind that you also adapt aerobically. Initially, your yoga practice may leave you breathless, but with continued practice, what once felt challenging and effortful feels easier. That’s when you know it’s time to switch things up. You could try a more vigorous class, or you could take up a new form of aerobic exercise (swimming, cycling, running, brisk walking) to complement your yoga practice.
How aerobic training improves health and fitness
Flexibility exercise improves joint mobility. Yoga does a stellar job here. As with aerobic and strength training, the biggest gains tend to come early in your practice.
How flexibility training improves health and fitness
It’s recommended that you stretch 2-3 days per week, focusing on major muscle groups.
Balance exercises aim to improve your ability to maintain stability, control your body’s position, and stay upright. Yoga does a great job of training you to become a better balancer - whether you’re standing statue-like in a static Tree Pose or you’re transitioning dynamically from a Downward Dog to a Crescent Lunge and Warrior III. Yoga offers a near endless variety of ways to challenge your balance. Which is good – because you get better at balancing by practicing challenging yourself in lots of different ways. And, of course, you need to continue to challenge yourself in order to continue to grow!
WHAT DOES THIS MEAN FOR YOU AND YOUR YOGA PRACTICE?
The most important thing is to have a regular movement practice. Period. If aerobics or weightlifting aren’t something you’ll stick with, then just do yoga. Move in the ways you love to move – and keep moving. BUT know that your yoga practice probably isn’t going to give you what you need for well-rounded fitness.
When people ask me what I do to stay fit, they often seem surprised to learn that there’s more to me than yoga. I love lots of different kinds of movement - and consider myself a movement generalist.
For strength training: I lift weights, do bodyweight training and practice pilates
For aerobic training: I do lots of brisk walking. I also love hiking, trail running and I do aerobics at home in my living room
Balance and Flexibility training are incorporated into my strength and aerobic workouts, and they’re also a part of my yoga practice, and my regular workday teaching movement. I have enough of this woven into the other things I do that I don't need to carve out special time in my schedule to work on balance and flexibility.
For the sheer joy of it, I also dance, roller skate, do stand up paddle boarding and, of course, practice yoga.
There are lots of ways to move and lots of reasons to move whether for health or for pleasure.
TAKE A MOVEMENT MULTIVITAMIN
Just like a multivitamin provides a range of essential nutrients for overall health, a movement multivitamin involves you engaging in a variety of movement styles and activities to promote holistic fitness and well-being.
Every one of us has unique movement needs, just like we have unique nutritional needs. Like nutrients, there are basic movement abilities that we all need - like a certain amount of flexibility. But we don’t ALL need MORE flexibility. Some of us have enough. A person might also be deficient in one area (like strength) while another person isn’t. A Yin yoga class might hold the key missing movement nutrient for one person and at the same time create an overdose of flexibility for someone else.
Rather than relying on a single type of exercise to meet all your exercise needs for all time, embrace a diverse range of physical activities. That allows you to experience the benefits of multiple modalities and find a fitness routine that suits your specific needs and goals at different ages and stages of your life. This approach helps promote overall fitness, prevents boredom, reduces the risk of overuse injuries and supports well-rounded physical and mental well-being.
To get back to our original question: ‘Is yoga the only form of exercise you need?’
The answer is personal and very individual.
For me, the answer is no. Yoga isn’t the only form of exercise I need. Yoga isn’t really something I do for physical fitness. For me, yoga is something I do for the well-being of my heart and mind; something I do for the pleasure and joy it brings me; and a philosophy I’ve adopted as a lifestyle choice. Though, as a nice byproduct, it also gives me what I need in terms of balance and flexibility. It makes me a calmer person, and reminds me to be a kinder person. To get my other movement nutrients in, I do more traditional exercise, like weight lifting and running.
Is yoga the only form of exercise you need?
I guess it depends. On you. What kind of yoga are you currently practicing? Is it giving you all the movement nutrients you need? And what do you want yoga to do for you?
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions