I recently read an article that derided yoga for being an inefficient cardio workout. I couldn’t help responding to the author by asking: “Has it ever occurred to you that yoga is not about feats of fitness, and that no sage ever promised it was a great cardio workout? Hatha yoga is meant to prepare the mind for stillness and to open the channels of energy that aid focus in meditation.”
With that now off my chest, I do need to acknowledge that many devoted yoga enthusiasts come to the mat to sweat and enjoy a physical challenge. Some even feel that yoga is all they need to stay strong and supple, with many yoga routines utilizing a wider variety of muscles than many other activities do.
Like many other physical activities, however, yoga favors certain muscle groups and neglects others. Our habitual activities shape our bodies to the point that we associate well-developed muscles in one part of the body with a particular kind of long-term and consistent exercise. We might conclude, for instance, that certain people are runners or swimmers or cyclists because they have strong muscles here but not there.
So, is there also a general “yoga body” that develops from long-term and consistent yoga practice? I’d say yes—and I’m not talking about any stereotypical uber-thin Lululemon model, or even about body size at all. Instead, I mean that there is a pattern of muscular development that results when asana is the primary exercise for the body. And yes, it may be a little unbalanced.
Is there also a general “yoga body” that develops from long-term and consistent yoga practice? I’d say yes—and I’m not talking about any stereotypical uber-thin Lululemon model, or even about body size at all.
Arms and Upper Body
Because we push into the floor for many yoga poses (think upward dog, downward dog, chaturanga, arm balances), yogis tend to utilize “pushing muscles,” such as the pectorals, anterior deltoids, triceps, and serratus anterior. On the other hand, our pulling muscles (the posterior deltoids, rhomboids, middle trapezius, lats, and biceps/brachialis muscles) tend to get neglected, because most yoga classes don’t entail much pulling (at least not in the same way resistance-band rows, rowing an actual boat, swimming the breaststroke, or doing chin-ups do—any of which nicely complement yoga’s pushing movements). All that pushing and weight-bearing on the arms can cause muscular imbalance in the shoulders and back, and that’s where cross-training becomes important.
I recently learned quite a bit about my own upper body weakness after I broke my arm. In post-surgery occupational therapy, I discovered that my upper trapezius was very strong, while my lower traps had difficulty engaging. My therapist confirmed that my yoga practice was great for building strength in the upper traps. But he also explained that while I had thought I was drawing my shoulder blades down my back (which involves engaging the lower traps) in all those upward dogs and cobras, I may instead have been “winging” my shoulder blades off my back a bit.
To strengthen and retrain my lower trapezius, my therapist taught me a dynamite series of movements called Blackburns. I’ve used them to help correct my winging tendency, and I’ve also come up with a version that can be done on the floor with a bolster (normally they’re done on a table), which I’ve begun including in my yoga classes to provide students with a more balanced practice.
In order to complement all of our upper back pushing and lower back stretching, we yogis can definitely benefit from more movements that pinch the shoulder blades and strengthen the low back—whether we find ways to do so in our asana practice, or from another kind of physical activity.
Quads and Hamstrings
Thanks to all the warrior and chair poses and standing balances, yogis also have a tendency to develop their quadriceps more than their hamstrings. Meanwhile, hamstrings are more frequently stretched than their antagonist muscles, the quads (hello, forward folds!).
Yoga actually has some great quad stretches—like reclining hero (supta virasana), frog pose or half frog pose (bhekasana or ardha bhekasana), and King Arthur’s pose (a low lunge with the back shin propped against a wall)—but I don't see them appear very regularly in yoga classes, likely because they often require more setup and props (making them hard to sequence into a flow). Try incorporating quad stretches into your life and practice, even if they do take a little extra time to get into.
As for the hamstrings, climbing hills and bicycling can build strength, so those are also good complementary exercises to a yoga practice!
A frequent complaint from yoga students looking for a whole-body workout is that there isn’t enough core work in yoga. However, I'm seeing a new breed to yoga teachers who are bringing a renewed awareness to that all-important navel center with the help of strong breath-supported bandha engagement, work in the transverse abdominus and the obliques, and a new appreciation for poses and such as paripurna navasana (full boat pose), planks, and side planks (as well as core-focused practices like agni sara).
While some call this type of practice “more Pilates than yoga,” the truth is that hatha yoga is itself a core-centered practice. (Focus on the core is considered necessary in order to stimulate all the energy centers located in the torso.) We’ve just gotten into the habit of moving rapidly from one pose to the next without using our abdominal and spinal muscles to do the sustained strengthening work needed for maintaining optimal posture and back health. (For example, moving quickly, we may swing a leg through to a lunge without challenging the psoas, or we may pivot into twists without engaging the obliques.)
Humans are meant to move in a variety of ways. And while yoga moves us in ways that many other activities don’t (think inversions and backbends and many twisting movements), it is still, on the whole, quite different from the “moderate-to-vigorous-intensity aerobic activity” prescribed by the American Heart Association. Recent studies have shown that yoga may have some cardiovascular benefits, but this may have more to do with its stress-reducing power than its ability to get our heart rates up. While it’s true that some styles of yoga (such as Ashtanga, power flow, and vinyasa) may provide classic aerobic benefits for some practitioners, yoga in general doesn’t offer a great cardiovascular workout (nor, as I mentioned earlier, is it really intended to). As such, it’s a good idea for us yogis to include aerobic exercise, such as running, walking, dancing, swimming, or cycling in our lives.
Remember, the body benefits from both systematic regularity and varied movement. Plus, we often forget how much fun it is to chase a ball or a frisbee—and we may find that our marvelous flexibility and yoga strength have improved our game while we were away, enabling us to enjoy these activities all the more!