High-intensity interval training, also known as HIIT, can be a great complement to your yoga practice—particularly since it gets your heart rate up. (Though yoga has myriad benefits, it’s not the most efficient way to get in your cardio.) A HIIT session involves alternating short bursts of high-intensity exercise with short periods of recovery, and it can be adapted for a variety of participant levels and goals.
I also love that HIIT exercises, though challenging, are often relatively “simple”—they don’t require extreme amounts of flexibility or coordination, and they don’t take a ton of time, so it’s easier to fit them into your daily routine than other forms of exercise.
Other benefits include increased strength, stamina, and endurance, making HIIT great cross-training for other athletic endeavors you might enjoy. (As a runner, I found that once I started incorporating yoga-inspired HIIT practices into my regular routine, I was able to shave several minutes off of my half marathon time!)
Though it’s not a traditional asana practice by any means, the “choose your own adventure” practice below includes some “yoga-inspired” movements, and as a yoga student and teacher, I appreciate the familiarity (especially in the beginning, it made HIIT less intimidating for me).
I typically like to cycle through each exercise three times before moving on to the next one, alternating 30 seconds of movement with 10 seconds of rest for each one. Or, if you prefer, you could do them “Tabata style,” which is alternating 20 seconds of movement with 10 seconds of rest. In that case, you would do four rounds instead of three.
You might hear teachers and trainers debate about the “best” way to do HIIT, but I’ve found that the best way is whatever I’m most likely to do! Experiment and see what works for you.
For the “choose your own adventure” sequence that follows, you could try something like this, choosing two exercises from each category (see below):
Cardio Drills Exercise 1: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
Upper-Body Strength-and-Stamina Drills Exercise 1: 30 seconds on,10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
Lower-Body Strength-and-Stamina Drills Exercise 1: 30 seconds on,10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
Core Work: Exercise 1: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
Cardio Drills Exercise 2: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
Upper-Body Strength-and-Stamina Drills Exercise 2: 30 seconds on,10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
Lower-Body Strength-and-Stamina Drills Exercise 2: 30 seconds on,10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
Core Work: Exercise 2: 30 seconds on, 10 seconds rest, repeat three times.
The whole thing, plus a five-minute warm-up and five-minute cooldown should take less than 30 minutes.
You can pick the exercises you like from each category, or “let the fates decide” by grabbing a few paper lunch sacks or gift bags and labeling each one with a specific movement category. Write the exercises on note cards and place them in the appropriate bags. After your warm-up, shake up your bags, then pull an option from each bag as you move through each category.
Before you begin
It will be helpful to have a timer on hand. You can purchase an interval timer online (I like the Gymboss timer), or there are lots of HIIT/interval-timer apps that you can download. You’ll also want to have a set of yoga blocks within reach, and perhaps a wall or chair nearby.
Warm up with a few cat/cow variations and a few of your favorite sun salutations. You could also include dynamic squats, hip bridges, or any simple movements that help you connect with your body and breath.
Choose two from the following:
Mountain climbers: From plank or forearm plank, draw one knee into your chest at a time, keeping your movement light and bouncy. To up the intensity, “jump switch” from side to side, so it’s like you’re running in place in plank.
“Yoga burpees”: Begin in a squat at the top of your mat. It can be a high or a low squat, but make sure your knees and toes are pointing in the same direction. Then, plant your hands in front of your feet (you’ll have to lift your hips if you’re in a low squat) and step or jump to a bent-knee downward dog. Then step or jump forward back to your squat, bringing your hands to your heart if you like, before planting them on the floor again to repeat.
“Yoga jumping jacks”: Jump back and forth from chair pose to goddess pose, landing with your knees bent each time. For a low-impact option, you can skip the jump and instead do squats from standing into chair pose or into goddess pose.
Plank jacks: From plank, walk your feet out as wide as your mat, then back in (“out, out; in, in”), alternating your lead leg each time. To up the intensity, jump your feet out and in. If this doesn’t feel great for your wrists, you can stand up and do classic jumping jacks or a low-impact alternative such as side steps (stepping from side to side as you swing your arms up overhead then back down).
Down dog jumps from side to side: From a bent-knee downward dog, jump your feet to the left side of your mat, then the right, landing with your knees bent each time. To lower the intensity, step instead of jump. To take pressure off your wrists, come to standing and jump (or step) from side to side across your mat.
Choose two from the following:
Plank walks: Starting in plank, lower to forearm plank then back up to plank. You can also do this from hands and knees. For the first rep, lower your right forearm first, followed by your left, then bring your right hand back up first, followed by your left (down right, left forearm; up right, left hand), then switch sides for the next rep (down left, right forearm; up left, right hand). Continue switching lead arms like that for the entire 30 seconds. Not only is it a workout, it’s a brain-teaser too!
“Yoga push-ups” (elbows pointing back as in chaturanga, knees up or down)
Classic push-ups (elbows wide)
Triceps dips in reverse tabletop: Sit on the floor, knees bent, and place your hands behind you, fingers pointing forward (or slightly turned out). Lift your hips to press up into a reverse tabletop position. Bend your elbows straight back, allowing your hips to lower a little, and then straighten your arms.
Triceps presses from forearms and knees: Come to forearms and knees, with your knees a little behind your hips, and lift your elbows away from the floor slightly, pulsing them up and down without letting them touch the ground. To up the intensity, try this from plank pose with your knees lifted.
Choose two from the following. (Note: If you choose a double-sided exercise such as lunge knee-to-chest or warrior III bend and straighten, you’ll choose only one so that you can do both sides.)
Chair Pose Hold: If you like, you can squeeze a block between your thighs, pulse up and down in chair pose, or hold chair pose with your back against a wall.
Lunge to knee-to-chest: Start in a short-stance lunge with both knees bent and hands on your hips. From there, draw your back knee into your chest as you straighten your front leg, then step back to your lunge and repeat.
For a higher intensity option, jump up and down in your short-stance lunge, landing with your knees bent each time. Be sure to do an even amount of rounds on both sides.
Warrior III bend and straighten: Bend and straighten both legs in a supported warrior III with hands on blocks, a chair, or another support, and spine long. Be sure to do an even amount of rounds on both sides.
Hands-and-knees hover: In a hands-and-knees position, hover your knees away from the floor just an inch and hold.
Calf raises: Stand with your feet about mat width apart, heels in, toes out (make sure your knees and toes are pointing in the same direction), and with control, lift and lower your heels. You can keep your hands on your hips or place one or both hands on a chair, wall, or counter for support.
To target your gastrocnemius (upper calf) muscles, keep your legs straight; bend your knees if you want to focus on strengthening your soleus (lower calf) muscles more.
Choose two from the following:
Plank or forearm plank
Hollow Hold: To make it less intense, draw one knee into your chest and hold on to the back of your thigh with that same-side hand (press your thigh into your hand and your hand into your thigh for stability), and switch sides halfway through. Place a hand behind your head if this pose bothers your neck. To make it more dynamic, you can move back and forth between navasana(boat pose) and hollow hold.
ab crunches: To up the intensity, hover your feet a few inches away from the floor.
“Superman” pose: Body prone, with legs, arms, and head lifted away from the floor.
Try these variations, or swap them out for some of your own favorite movements and exercises. And remember, just like yoga, HIIT is about how you feel, not how you look: Choose exercises that get your heart pumping and feel good for your body.
This sequence was adapted from Yoga Where You Are: Customize Your Practice for Your Body and Your Life© 2020 by Dianne Bondy and Kat Heagberg. Reprinted in arrangement with Shambhala Publications, Inc. Boulder, CO.
Photography: Kyle Rebar