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?
Do you know one of the most common google searches about yoga?
Yoga without the spiritual stuff.
I know this because I went mining for info about what people want to know about yoga philosophy in the hopes of providing you with insightful and easy to understand answers. As it turns out, what people want to know about yoga philosophy is: how to avoid it! Hmmmmmm.
I genuinely love me some yoga philosophy, and I instantly felt my heart sink. But then, I started to wonder … What do people think ‘the spiritual stuff’ is?
As a thin, white, educated, leftist, hippie, vegetarian yoga practitioner, I’m in kind of an awkward position. I’m a living, breathing yoga stereotype - of white, western privilege. The embodiment of many of the things that are deeply problematic about the way yoga is portrayed in the west – which makes me an easy target for playful mockery about ‘spiritual types’, and also some legitimate criticisms and complaints. For better or worse I am what I am. And truth be told, I’m a big fan of my educated, leftist, hippie, vegetarian beliefs.
That said, things are messy in yogaland. There’s no shortage of scandals‚from gurus sexually abusing students to yoga clothing brands that fat-shame customers and charge exorbitant prices for clothes produced overseas under morally questionable conditions. Never mind the social media networks filled with bendy Barbies. Yoga has gone full on Hollywood! It’s become a style adopted by affluence.
If you walk into any modern urban yoga class who knows what you’ll get? Maybe a class centered on ab work and a few Hindu stories tossed in for good measure, or perhaps a chill electronica playlist reminiscent of a Goa rave, and some om-ing and essential oils on the side.
Maybe some people can see through the hypocrisies of modern yoga practices. Maybe the consumerism of yoga is too much to bear and there’s not a chance they’d take spiritual advice from a skinny white woman wearing $150 compression pants and a ‘Namaslay’ t-shirt. Can I blame them? Not a chance!
But then I got to wondering about other modern, western city dwellers…Maybe they;re put off by the idea of ‘spiritual stuff’ in yoga because it reminds them of the problems and hypocrisies they’ve experienced in organized religion. Maybe they’ve just sworn off organized spirituality of any kind? Again, I can’t blame them.
Or maybe they’re part of an organized religion and are worried that there’s something in the spiritual teachings of yoga that will put their soul in peril? Yet yoga is a philosophy; not a religion. Call me an optimist, but I think science, religion and philosophy can happily cohabitate in our lives.
All this controversy has invited the yoga industry to take a good hard look at itself. In that introspection has come a recognition of the glaring absence of South Asian representation in yoga studios, mainstream yoga magazines, websites, and at major yoga events. Several South Asian yoga teachers have come forward and explained in tremendous depth and clarity why they find their exclusion from western yoga’s most visible platforms alongside the appropriation of their heritage so painful.
It’s worth checking out Susannah Barkataki or Tejal Patel on this subject. They are Indian-American yoga teachers who tackle the racism, spiritual bypassing, and the whitewashing of yoga. They lay clear why representation matters. And why yoga is inherently political. When I read Barkataki’s book, I was extremely grateful to be made aware of my culturally appropriative blind spots.
Despite the problems in yogaland and the misconceptions people might have about what yoga entails, most people who have been around the yoga block will testify that practice leads to very real mental, emotional and physical health benefits. Perhaps that’s enough.
Yet, for the yogis, and many others who are steeped in traditions, there’s NO DEBATE as to whether yoga is a spiritual practice.
I’m stumped by what ‘spirituality’ actually means. Does it have to involve the existence of a sacred, supernatural realm? In the dictionary spirituality is defined as ‘the quality of being concerned with the human spirit or soul as opposed to material or physical things.’
It seems to me that yoga is primarily concerned with the physical world we find ourselves in now. So, I’m not even sure it makes sense to talk about yoga as a spiritual practice. How you interact with others, how you take care of yourself and your relationships, and how you liberate yourself (and others) from suffering, I wouldn’t necessarily call those spiritual or afterlife problems. They’re very much rooted in our current physical reality. Yoga is very concerned with giving us tools that help navigate our everyday real-life problems in a way that, hopefully, diminishes our suffering.
Is that ‘spiritual stuff’?
Again, I guess it depends on how we define spirituality. Is spirituality a quest for deeper meaning? A kind of magical metaphysical thinking? Stymied, I returned to the internet for answers and found What is Spirituality? While there doesn’t appear to be an agreed upon definition of spirituality, and although it might include a belief in a higher power, the article suggests spirituality can also include any and all of the following:
Is that what people don’t want from yoga?
If I accept that these tenets are spiritual, then I guess that would make me a spiritual teacher. But if you were to ask me if I think of myself as a spiritual teacher, I would say no.
Personally, I associate the word spirituality with … spirits. Similar to the idea of a ghost living inside a body – and I just don’t believe in that. Nonetheless, I am philosophical. I like deep diving into big questions. I like trying to understand our collective experience, and our place in the universe. In my yoga classes, there’s lots of room for contemplation about empathy, compassion, interconnectedness and how we might use our practice to help make the world a better place.
When I think a little deeper, I wonder … is it even possible to strip the philosophical stuff out of yoga? Even if your teacher doesn’t explicitly talk about the spiritual or philosophical traditions in class, it’s still there: invisibly underpinning the whole practice, and the reason yoga makes you feel so good. It’s not just the bendy bits, it’s the breath, the focus, and the solitary nature of the practice, even though you might practice in a room with hundreds of other people.
You see, the roots of a lot of modern posture practice stretch back a few thousand years to a set of yoga teachings known as the 8-Limbs of Yoga (Ashanga Yoga). The purpose of the 8 Limb path of yoga is to quiet your mind and free you from suffering so that you can rest in your true nature—a beautiful sense of one-ness and connection to everything. The 8 Limbs are the unspoken underpinning of most modern yoga classes.
What are the 8 Limbs? I’m so glad you asked.
1) Moral Principles (Yama)
2) Personal Observances (Niyama)
3) Posture (Asana)
4) Breath Regulation (Pranayama)
5) Turning Your Attention Inward (Pratyahara)
6) Focus/Concentration (Dharana)
7) Meditation (Dhyana)
8) Enlightenment/Liberation/Union/Integration (Samadhi)
If you’re practicing honouring your hamstrings’ safe limitations in a deep forward fold, you’re practicing the philosophical principles of truthfulness, self-study and non-harming (satya, svadhyaya and ahimsa) – whether your teacher explicitly tells you this or not.
If you’re focused on how your body feels, you’re interiorizing your attention and turning your focus away from the external world, a practice called pratyahara.
If you’re paying attention to your breath, you’re engaged in dharana (focus) and pranayama (breath regulation).
In other words, if you’re taking a yoga class, you’re being led through at least some of the 8 Limbs of Yoga. You are actively engaged in applied yoga philosophy. You’re participating in ‘the spiritual stuff.’ You’re taking steps on a spiritual path that was designed to lead you out of suffering and towards enlightenment.
Yet, what’s not happening in the contemporary western yoga world, and what the South Asian community is trying to impart, is that few teachers are talking about why you’re doing what you’re doing. As a teacher, I can’t help but think … isn’t that the very heart of teaching? Explaining why you’re doing what you’re doing? Helping your students understand what you’re teaching? Who amongst us hasn’t done a math problem and wondered—Why are we doing this? What’s the point? I think in matters of yoga and math, practice is so much better and more meaningful when we are given context to deepen our understanding.
You can treat yoga like it’s just another form of exercise—but even when you’re participating in the most fitness-oriented strain of practice, something deeper is going on. If you’re doing yoga poses you are connecting to the 8 Limbs. Fundamentally, you’re doing a movement meditation. This should hold lots of appeal for people who need mindfulness but can’t sit still.
And practicing mindfulness changes you. It just does. Even if the teacher doesn’t explain it to you (though I really think a teacher owes it to their students to explain what’s happening to them).
One of the first things people notice about a yoga studio is that, unlike a gym, there aren’t any mirrors. This forces you to focus less on your outward appearance and focus more on how you feel and what your body can do (pratyahara). It’s hard to objectify yourself when you can’t see yourself from the outside. When you nail your first arm balance, you notice how awesome it feels. You won’t notice that your ponytail is on sideways or your muffin top is spilling over your waistband—because you can’t see it.
In most yoga classes, you’re also not likely to get encouragement to burn fat, rip your abs or get a beach body (a beach body is just a body that happens to be on a beach, FYI). A lot of fitness culture preys on your insecurities and reinforces the toxic idea that whether your body is good or bad is based on how it looks. The fact that you brought your body to yoga and you’re giving it the old college try is good enough for yoga.
Much of yoga is focused on simply noticing; on making observations with curiosity and objectivity.. You might hear your teacher say--Notice how your body feels in Triangle—Notice the feeling of your breath flowing in and out.—Notice any thoughts or ideas that come up, and observe them without judgment.
Yoga might make you stronger, slimmer or bendier, but none of those things are the point of yoga. Yoga was designed to quiet your mind and free you from suffering. When you stop staring at yourself in a mirror and judging your body for how it looks and instead focus on how your body feels and what it can do, you liberate yourself from the tyranny of an inner voice that’s telling you you’re not good enough. That’s one of the ways yoga transforms your relationship with yourself. And freeing yourself from the tyranny of judgement leads to healthier choices. It’s a win-win situation.
Ultimately, what you end up learning from yoga, whether its stated explicitly or not, are some new ways of relating to yourself and the world. You might not think of that as ‘spiritual stuff’, but it is deeply philosophical, it can be completely transformational, and it’s the stuff that eventually leads to feeling a blissful sense of connection and belonging in the universe. If you’re in a yoga class, you’re in that process.
And, of course everyone can benefit from this whether you’re into spirituality or think it’s a load of hogwash.. You might be put off by the idea of a spiritual practice lead by a priveleged, philosophy-spouting hippie - but at the same time, just about everyone would really love to get out of their heads for an hour and feel calm, peaceful and connected. Wouldn’t they?
Learning to be objective and curious about yourself; observing your thoughts without getting caught up in them, and observing others without judgment and harsh criticism is yoga. Yoga teaches you to do all of that without having to do anything particularly woo-woo. You just show up, breathe, move and observe with compassion and awareness. That’s all.
Is that spiritual?
You tell me.
WHAT THE HECK IS A KINESIOLOGIST?
This past year, I fulfilled a goal that was nearly a decade in the making. I became a Registered Kinesiologist. And as thrilled as I was to have finally climbed that mountain when I arrived at the summit, I was often greeted with “Congratulations … what’s a kinesiologist?”
Since kinesiology is a relatively new profession here in Canada you might be unclear about what a kinesiologist is/does. No worries, I’m here to explain.
What is Kinesiology?
Put simply; it's the scientific study of human movement. The term comes from the Greek word kinesis, which means ‘to move.’
I actually had no idea what kinesiology was either - until after I became a yoga teacher. A foundational yoga teacher training gives you the skills to teach classes for people that are generally healthy, but the students that were actually showing up for my yoga classes had all kinds of health conditions I didn’t understand: heart conditions, cystic fibrosis, spinal stenosis, arthritis, osteoporosis, and cancer. The first rule of yoga is ‘DO NO HARM,’ and I knew that I didn’t know enough about the health conditions I was seeing to know whether I was helping or harming. My lack of knowledge about how to work skillfully with these clients scared me. I found myself looking for continuing education that would help me understand the human body better, and that’s when I stumbled into a conscious movement practice called Yoga Tune Up®.
Yoga Tune Up® is a movement style grounded in anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics. This is where I first learned that kinesiology was ‘a thing.’ I was instantly bit by the learning bug. In 2015, I returned to high school to get the math and science pre-requisites I needed that I didn’t get the first time I did high school. My younger self was sure I wouldn't ever need that. Oh, youth!
What’s a Kinesiologist?
A kinesiologist is an expert in human movement and all its many components. Studying to become a kinesiologist involves intensive university training to learn about human movement from different perspectives:
In my schooling, I focused on exercise for older adults. I got loads of hands-on experience training clients at Brock University’s Wellness & Research Centre’s Senior Fit Program - a gym dedicated to folks over the age of 55. In addition, I did a couple of independent studies with older adults. In one, I designed an exercise prescription for a gentleman with Parkinson’s disease. In another, I developed a group exercise program for folks with Osteoporosis.
Studying to become a Kinesiologist is a body nerd’s delight. I loved it - except for physics. Physics was excruciating (but totally necessary).
In Ontario, a ‘Kinesiologist’ or ‘Registered Kinesiologist’ is a protected title, meaning you have to have the credentials and be registered with the College of Kinesiologists of Ontario before you can hang the shingle outside your door.
What does a Kinesiologist do?
A kinesiologist prescribes movement to prevent, manage and rehabilitate injuries, to improve athletic performance or to support the treatment of illness and chronic disease. We can do this for anyone of any age or ability level that wants a hands-on, personalized approach to enhance their health and well-being through movement. Simply put:
A KINESIOLOGIST IS A HUMAN MOVEMENT SPECIALIST THAT USES SCIENCE AND RESEARCH TO PRESCRIBE MOVEMENT AS MEDICINE.
What kinds of health conditions can you prescribe exercise for?
Exercise can be very helpful in the prevention of injury and chronic disease. Movement gives you energy, decreases stress (the leading cause of disease), makes you stronger, and prolongs your independence as you age.
2 out of 3 Ontario residents have at least one chronic condition, including physical and mental health issues. Canada's Public Health Agency has found that physical activity reduces the risk of over 25 common chronic conditions, including cardiovascular disease, stroke, hypertension, colon cancer, breast cancer, Type 2 diabetes, osteoporosis, and some mental health conditions.
The improvements that can be made with an exercise intervention are, in some cases, astonishing.
Different kinds of exercise alter biochemistry in different ways. For example, resistance training shifts biochemistry to signal bone and muscle growth. In adults with non-severe depression, exercise has been shown to be just as effective as pharmaceutical drugs in reducing depressive symptoms.
As experts in human movement and exercise science, Kinesiologists help people develop, improve and sustain healthy exercise and physical activity habits to prevent chronic disease. They apply movement and exercise science principles to help clients manage chronic conditions through education, physical activity, and exercise-based strategies.
It’s not uncommon for people to have overlapping health conditions. And it’s easy to become confused about which exercise advice to follow. For example, the exercise guidelines you might read online for osteoarthritis may contradict the advice given for osteoporosis. Figuring out which exercises are helpful/harmful can become quite confusing if you have both conditions. A kinesiologist provides special guidance, customization, and coaching that helps you clarify conflicting/confusing information regarding your health and wellness. They tailor exercise programming specifically for your needs.
Exercise is fundamental to your physical and mental health. Kinesiologists are the recognized experts in exercise as a form of healthcare.
Where do kinesiologists work?
Kinesiologists complement other healthcare professionals. They can set up a private practice doing high-performance coaching or personal training, but they also work in hospitals, rehab clinics, gyms, and yoga and pilates studios. You can also find them working in ergonomics, public health promotion or in case management for insurance companies.
Kinesiology is a relatively new profession, and with an aging population, it’s rapidly evolving. It’s incredibly exciting to be on the crest of this new wave in healthcare: movement medicine.
The practice of kinesiology varies from one province to another in Canada. In Ontario, kinesiologists are government-regulated health professionals. If you wish to work with a kinesiologist to improve your health, it may be covered by your extended benefits. In recognition of the important role that movement plays in your overall health and as an incentive to keep moving, you can write-off your kinesiology expenses on your income taxes. Bonus!!
Want to start moving?
Guess what? You ARE already a mover. Whether you think you are or not.
We’re all engaged in some form of movement all of the time. It’s a huge part of what it means to be human. (See my August/22 blog)
As my favourite biomechanist/writer Katy Bowman says, ‘Every moment is movement.’ Think about it; you’re always making some kind of shape with your body. There is never a moment of the day when you’re shapeless. But, you can overdose on certain movements (like sitting) and underdose on others (like resistance or cardiovascular training). You can also overdose on movement and underdose on rest. Rest is as vital to our mental and physical health as movement is. It’s all a balancing act.
How a Kinesiologist can help you
I love this aspect of kinesiology because it empowers YOU to take your health and well-being into your own hands - and that’s its own powerful medicine!
For more information:
Visit: Canada’s 24-hour movement guidelines
Take the Physical Activity Readiness Questionnaire. Determine if you’re ready to begin an exercise program now or if you should seek advice from your doctor before becoming more physically active.
Find a Registered Kinesiologist in Ontario or drop me a line.
Amanda Tripp, Yoga/body nerd and woman of a 1000 opinions