New study suggest yoga can be as good as cardio

You have to read through a lot of science to get to the bottom-line of this article, but once you do:

Compared to traditional aerobic exercise controls, there was no significant difference in how exercise or yoga changed risk factors, suggesting similar effectiveness of the two forms of physical activity and possibly similar underlying mechanisms. The mechanism behind the therapeutic effect of yoga for CVD is still unclear; studies have suggested that yoga may modulate autonomic function and beneficially alter markers of sympathetic and parasympathetic activity.1214 Through practicing yoga, the effects of stress can be reduced, leading to positive impacts on neuroendocrine status, metabolic and cardio-vagal function, and related inflammatory responses.1214 The similarity in effectiveness on risk factors between the two forms of exercise suggest that there could be comparable working mechanisms, with some possible physiological aerobic benefits occurring with yoga practice, and some stress-reducing, relaxation effect occurring with aerobic exercise.

That’s from the European Journal of Preventive Cardiology. What is means, more or less, is that yoga is about as good at combating things like high blood pressure and cholesterol as relatively strenuous cardio such as swimming or biking. (From my own experiences, I’m not sure anything really beats swimming.) CVD is short for cardiovascular disease.

And here’s from the conclusion:

Our review finds emerging evidence to support a role for yoga in improving common modifiable risk factors of CVD and metabolic syndrome. Whereas previous reviews have looked at a single or a few risk factors, our review updates the existing literature and encompasses numerous CVD and metabolic risk factors that can be used to calculate overall CVD risk. We believe that these findings have important implications for the acceptance of yoga as an effective therapeutic intervention. Given the growing popularity of yoga in the US and around the world, there is a need for larger randomized controlled studies that meet explicit, high quality methodological standards to ascertain the effects of yoga. This review demonstrates the potential of yoga to have an impact on concrete, physiological outcomes that represent some of the greatest health burdens today.

And of course that’s where yoga’s headed, right?

Posted by Steve

On ‘developing a universally acceptable yoga curriculum for our schools and universities’

Here’s a response to the latest ruling in the Encinitas schools yoga program that is worth a few minutes of reflection:

Anti-yoga activists fail to see the spiritual aspects of yoga. To many, the benefits of yoga are only at the body level. They fail to realise its potential benefits in uniting the body, mind and breath. Besides physical benefits like a strong and confident body, regular yoga provides us mental, psychological and neurological benefits. Yoga enhances our intuitive and creative capabilities.

The renewed global interest in yoga is mainly because of its health potential. It is time to understand the spiritual dimensions of yoga. Yogic spirituality is not just about healthy living. As Rev Joseph Pereira, a Mumbai-based Catholic priest and proponent of Iyengar Yoga, says, most people, however, have reduced yoga to acrobatics, but yoga is not just a work out, it is a work in.

You might recognize those last few phrases. We’ve heard, and I know passed on, Tim Miler’s describing yoga as a “work in” not a workout.

There’s a lot in this piece that makes sense, but I think it also illustrates how just claiming that yoga is a “science” and not a religion doesn’t quite make the case. The issue, I think, is yoga’s esoteric aspects. It isn’t science, as we tend to think of that — unless you’re talking quantum physics or something that pushes beyond the visible. (Probably it is worth noting that a lot of people I hear talking about yoga seem to swerve toward this idea of science.) There’s something out of body about it, which pushes toward notions like spirituality and religion.

The flip side to this is something — Crossfit, hyper distance running, maybe — that begins totally in the body and is maybe grounds itself in science. But then there’s an effort to describe how someone feels after, or even during — and that pushes it toward the more ineffable. Unless they call it the “burn” or something along those lines.

But because it starts as a workout, an exercise, there’s no issue with its religiousness.

Posted by Steve

‘Yoga appears to be too gentle physically to be anyone’s lone exercise’

That quotation is from the New York Times’ “Well” blog, as part of an answer to this question: “Is yoga sufficient strength exercise for optimal health, or do I have to lift weights in a fitness center?”

Say it with me, now: “TRY ASHTANGA!”

Amazingly, some apparently did. Check this out from the answer:

Consider the results of a 2012 study of premenopausal women who were randomly assigned to yoga or to a control group. The yoga group completed twice-weekly, 60-minute sessions of Ashtanga yoga (which consists of sequential, standardized postures), while the control group continued their normal activities. After eight months, the yoga practitioners had developed more powerful legs compared with at the study’s start and with those of  the control group, but had not increased strength in other muscles or improved their cardiovascular fitness.

I find that, frankly, impossible to believe. Unless those in the study didn’t do any vinyasa and no chaturangas. It is just, well, it is totally unbelievable.

If I haven’t made it clear, I’m in disbelief. Have these folks seen “our Ashtanga?”

Anyway, here’s more to dissuade you of the idea that your Ashtanga is enough:

In one of the most interesting studies of the activity to date, experienced yoga enthusiasts performed their favorite type of yoga for an hour in a metabolic chamber that tracked their caloric usage and heart rate. The volunteers then sat quietly in the chamber and also walked on a treadmill there at a leisurely 2 miles per hour and a brisker 3 m.p.h. pace. In the end, the measurements showed that yoga was equivalent in energy cost to strolling at 2 m.p.h., an intensity of exercise that, the authors write, would “not meet recommendations for levels of physical activity for improving or maintaining health or cardiovascular fitness.”

For whatever it is worth, it sounds like that yoga was “beginner’s level.” Again: Not “our Ashtanga,” right?

What’s the Times final conclusion? “So if you downward dog, jog occasionally as well, and visit the gym to build full-body strength and wellness.”


Posted by Steve

Don’t just sit there

Not seeing too much Ashtanga-related this week, so we’ll head into the weekend with a little more science.

This time, it’s a doctor offering us some sobering news: sitting is killing us. Here’s more:

We lose two hours of life for every hour we sit, writes Levine, director of the Mayo Clinic-Arizona State University Obesity Solutions Initiative and inventor of the treadmill desk. Sitting all day is not natural and to blame for all kinds of ailments, including obesity, he says.

“We have created for ourselves a modern way of living that clashes with the way we’re meant to be,” he writes.

So the obvious answer is to move more, by, for example, taking walks after meals, something Levine writes that he does after every meal.


The science turns on the study of NEAT, or nonexercise activity thermogenesis, the energy expenditure of activity other than sports. It includes dancing, going to work, shoveling snow and taking a walk, Levine writes. So you can imagine a construction worker uses a lot more NEAT calories than a computer programmer in the course of a workday.

“Low NEAT is linked to weight gain, diabetes, heart attacks and cancer,” Levine writes.

In an experiment in which people were overfed by the same amount – 1,000 calories a day – Levine and his colleagues found that some people had a “powerful NEAT switch” that gets them moving to use excess energy.

“Those people who do not have a NEAT switch remain sitting in response to overfeeding and are predisposed to obesity,” he writes.

This caught my eye at the LA Times, I’m sure, because my job has be computer bound. A few of our fellow Yatris, for instance, seemed a bit shocked by my sedentary, eight-hour-a-day job. Yoga teacher, for instance, probably could compete with construction worker for the burning of NEAT calories.

But not all of us have jobs that allow that. And this doctor suggests that 60 to 90 minutes of Ashtanga in the morning may not be enough. (Not to mention you maybe ought to have five minutes of high-energy exercise.)

Is this starting to feel contradictory or competing at all? Is it five minutes of strenuous exercise? Is it about not sitting? What’s the secret?

Well, don’t sit without getting up all day. Don’t forget to do your yoga. (Remember, all this is focused very much on health and physical fitness; we don’t seem to be thinking about other factors much.) Maybe kick up that heart rate a bit more.

And, certainly, don’t eat 1,000 calories a day more than you need.

Posted by Steve

Study reveals great benefits to vigorous exercise — time to speed up your practice?

Here’s another opportunity to put 2 and 2 together and get: Ashtanga ought to be really good for you.

A new study, detailed here by the New York Times, has found that even a little bit — like five minutes a day — of vigorous exercise can have great health benefits:

Running for as little as five minutes a day could significantly lower a person’s risk of dying prematurely, according to a large-scale new study of exercise and mortality. The findings suggest that the benefits of even small amounts of vigorous exercise may be much greater than experts had assumed.


For decades, researchers there have been collecting information about the health of tens of thousands of men and women visiting the clinic for a check-up. These adults, after completing extensive medical and fitness examinations, have filled out questionnaires about their exercise habits, including whether, how often and how speedily they ran.

From this database, the researchers chose the records of 55,137 healthy men and women ages 18 to 100 who had visited the clinic at least 15 years before the start of the study. Of this group, 24 percent identified themselves as runners, although their typical mileage and pace varied widely.

The researchers then checked death records for these adults. In the intervening 15 or so years, almost 3,500 had died, many from heart disease.

But the runners were much less susceptible than the nonrunners. The runners’ risk of dying from any cause was 30 percent lower than that for the nonrunners, and their risk of dying from heart disease was 45 percent lower than for nonrunners, even when the researchers adjusted for being overweight or for smoking (although not many of the runners smoked). And even overweight smokers who ran were less likely to die prematurely than people who did not run, whatever their weight or smoking habits.

As a group, runners gained about three extra years of life compared with those adults who never ran.

Remarkably, these benefits were about the same no matter how much or little people ran. Those who hit the paths for 150 minutes or more a week, or who were particularly speedy, clipping off six-minute miles or better, lived longer than those who didn’t run. But they didn’t live significantly longer those who ran the least, including people running as little as five or 10 minutes a day at a leisurely pace of 10 minutes a mile or slower.

For those who want to go right to the source, here’s a link to the study.

And then here’s why we can make a leap to Ashtanga:

The study did not directly examine how and why running affected the risk of premature death, he said, or whether running was the only exercise that provided such benefits. The researchers did find that in general, runners had less risk of dying than people who engaged in more moderate activities such as walking.

But “there’s not necessarily something magical about running, per se,” Dr. Church said. Instead, it’s likely that exercise intensity is the key to improving longevity, he said, adding, “Running just happens to be the most convenient way for most people to exercise intensely.”

The question, I suppose, is whether Ashtanga would count as vigorous exercise — unless done really leisurely, I can’t imagine it as moderate exercise. If you think it isn’t quite strenuous enough, there seems to be a few things to consider:

  • The focus ought to be on the vinyasa part of the practice (and maybe some of the tougher arm balances). Although it has been removed, for instance, maybe a short burst of full vinyasa might make sense. (That is, of course, with the intent of meeting these vigorous guidelines, which may not be your aim with your practice.)
  • I know in some quarters a Led Primary is pushing down toward an hour. While it has never been my preference, perhaps there’s something to it — again, for purposes related to this study.
  • Perhaps some intrepid rebel Ashtanga teacher wants to add a vigorous little section to the practice, maybe incorporate it into an improv class a few times a week. What about adding full vinyasa around Navasana?

Or, I suppose, you simply have to throw in five minutes of some other vigorous exercise per day. That’s not too much to ask, right?

What we really need is a study that looks at the combination of some vigorous exercise with a yoga practice.

Posted by Steve

Exercise and the healthy gut

Given we are just a few days away from our Yatra to India, you’ll forgive us if the bugs in our bellies are a little more on our minds than normal.

Among his many guidances, our trip leader, Robert Moses of Namarupa, has stressed smart eating habits during our trip (as has our Ashtanga teacher, Kate O’Donnell). In other words, no street food.

So a study finding exercise helps boost all the healthy and diverse organisms that live inside us — to our benefit, just to be clear — is super timely.

The New York Times — the same one I equally lambaste and praise — has the details:

In recent years, there has been an explosion of interest in the role that gut microbes play in whole-body health. A multitude of studies have shown that people with large and diverse germ populations in their digestive tracts tend to be less prone to obesity, immune problems and other health disorders than people with low microbial diversity, and that certain germs, in particular, may contribute to improved metabolic and immune health.

But little science had examined the interplay between physical activity and gut bugs in people. So, for a study published this month in Gut, researchers at University College Cork, part of the National University of Ireland, and other institutions, set out to learn more by turning to a group of people who exercise a lot: the national rugby team of Ireland.


As it turned out, the internal world of the athletes was quite different from that of the men in either of the control groups. The rugby players had considerably more diversity in the make-up of their gut microbiomes, meaning that their intestinal tracts hosted a greater variety of germs than did those of the other men, especially the men in the group with the highest B.M.I.

The rugby players’ guts also harbored larger numbers of a particular bacterium, uneuphoniously named Akkermansiaceae, that has been linked in past studies with a decreased risk for obesity and systemic inflammation.

Interestingly, the rugby players’ blood showed low levels of markers for inflammation, even though the men were exercising intensely. Their muscles were being pummeled but, in physiological terms, recovering well.

The researchers are quick to note that these results are very preliminary and the size of the groups small. But still, it seems that exercise promotes a healthy gut.

So no skipping those morning Ashtanga practices while we travel.

Posted by Steve

Ashtanga vs. traditional exercise: Yes, you can have both

Note: In response to the question implicit in the NY Times article from this week, whether Ashtanga or a personal trainer is the way to bodily happiness, our Mt. Shasta friend Jennifer Pilotti, offered to provide her take on things.

We’ve posted thoughts from her before. As a reminder, Jennifer has a degree in exercise physiology and is a Health Fitness Instructor via the American College of Sports Medicine. You can find out more about her here.

Here’s what Jennifer sent us:


I came to Ashtanga when I was 24.  I was a short course triathlete who spent time in the weight room, but hated flexibility training.  It was boring.  Who wants to lie around and stretch for 10 or 15 minutes at the end of a workout?  I admired the fluidity of people who practiced yoga- they moved with a sense of grace and ease I envied.  After dabbling in different styles (including Bikram), I stumbled into a beginner’s Ashtanga class and never looked back.

Ashtanga has done amazing things for me, both physically and mentally.  It helped heal and old upper back injury, and was key in regaining ankle proprioception after a sprain.  It gave me an inner focus I lacked and increased my body awareness exponentially.  It often feels like an old friend; after seven years, if I haven’t visited in a while, we pick right back up where we left off.  I love the primary series, the ujjayi breath, the rigidity of the practice.  I look forward to the three times a week I get on my mat.

Image from Be Well Personal Training

As a personal trainer, corrective exercise specialist, and endurance athlete, I often find myself butting heads with the Ashtanga tradition.  I firmly believe exercise should be individualized, based on a person’s posture, movement patterns, and pain patterns.  I think cardiovascular exercise is good, and I think exercising outdoors (away from traffic) can be very meditative.  I also believe it is important for people to vary their physical activity.  Our ancestors were physically active most of the day.  Repetitive motion injuries were uncommon because nothing about their days, weeks, and months was repetitive.  They didn’t sit at a computer, run mile upon mile daily on asphalt, or perform the same physical sequence of asana six days a week.

Early on in my Ashtanga practice, I came across a couple of individuals who believed that if one wanted to be an Ashtanga practitioner, one must only practice Ashtanga.  Running was frowned upon, and strength training was completely shunned.  I have since come to learn that these two people are not representative of the Ashtanga community as a whole.  In fact, it seems as though in recent years, Ashtanga practitioners are realizing yoga can have a positive impact on other physical endeavors, including running, cycling, and strength training.  I don’t believe these things need to be mutually exclusive, and I think from purely a physical standpoint, it’s important to listen to your body.  To truly practice ahimsa, sometimes it is necessary to step back from the practice, analyze the chronic ache that won’t go away, and strengthen the appropriate area.  While running hasn’t exactly helped my practice, Ashtanga has certainly helped my running.  And I have learned to do work in the weight room that not only keeps me balanced, but also helps my practice (you would be amazed at what proper squatting technique does to backbends).  Ashtanga yoga is an excellent tool for building strength, flexibility, reducing anxiety, and keeping a person fit.  Sometimes to prevent or treat injury it is necessary to step away from the practice or include alternative forms of exercise.  Fortunately, the practice always seems to be there when you are ready to return to it.


Thanks Jennifer for taking the time to put your thoughts down on (virtual) paper. We’ll forgive you the time in Bikram!

Posted by Steve

Uh oh, studies suggest yoga not that good for you

Bear with me for a minute, angry Ashtangis who know better. I will address your concerns in about the amount of time it takes to get through a couple Surya Namaskara A.

I’ve just seen a story in Britain’s Daily Mail paper that wraps together a few studies with a few expert quotes to suggest that yoga isn’t all it is cracked up to be.

Here is the key reason why: It isn’t doing enough for your heart.

In other words — doing three sessions of yoga a week led to no significant improvement in aerobic capacity. An additional study by Porcari and his colleagues monitored the exercise intensity of a group of intermediate-level yogis as they took part in two sessions: one hatha yoga, and one power yoga, which is said to be more aerobically-challenging.

They found that 50-minutes of hatha burned just 144 calories, no better than a slow walk. Even the 50-minute power yoga class burned only 237 calories (half the amount of a circuit class) and boosted heart rate to only 62 per cent of its maximum, meaning it provided only a mild workout for the heart and lungs. But Brewer stresses that yoga does have its place in a fitness programme if you want to improve flexibility.

‘There’s some evidence it can be very good at achieving this,’ he says. ‘And good mobility can have a positive effect on other things such as injury prevention in sport and posture.’

Now, here’s where we get to you Ashtangis. We laugh at even power yoga, right? It all may as well be an Iyengar class.  If you are moving with your breath, you are building up that heart rate and getting your lungs pumping.

I know my heart feels like it is racing, and I sweat like mad during my Primary Series practice. And there is zero — less than zero — chance I’m only burning 200-odd calories per hour. (But, should I be working a higher aerobic activity in? Something like wind-sprints? Maybe… but it would interfere with me practice. Heck, surfing interferes too much!)

Here are a few more bits from the Mail piece that lead me to believe Ashtanga isn’t part of the “not so good for you” mix they are talking about here. This, from “one of Britain’s leading fitness experts, celebrity personal trainer Matt Roberts:”

“You may feel that you are keeping fit by doing a weekly yoga class, but you aren’t. The reason why everyone likes yoga is that it isn’t very hard.

“Yes, there are individual parts of your body that are being worked hard, but with every form of exercise you should ask yourself is it intensive enough? Is my heartbeat raised? Am I out of breath and sweating for at least 25 to 30 minutes at a time? The answer when you’re doing yoga is, I suspect, no.”

Did you catch that? I’m sure you did: “yoga … isn’t very hard.”

Well, Mr. Roberts, I certainly would encourage you to try an Ashtanga class before you say that. You might think differently, even if your regular exercise is crossfit, x-fat, burn-up, zumba… etc.

Ashtanga, by the way, does get mentioned in this story; and on this point, I have to admit to being in agreement: “But, worryingly, Dr Sherman also found that more vigorous types of yoga, such as ashtanga, and classes led by poorly qualified instructors, could make problems worse.”

That’s definitely an issue; but it is an issue with personal trainers, with dumb people lifting weights, with running, with cycling, etc.

One final thought, not to get too mushy-gushy. What the story isn’t really touching on the non-physical benefits of the practice. I know that, done with proper intention, anything can tap into the Atman (although they might not call what’s being tapped into by that name), but yoga — and I argue, Ashtanga especially — really seems to have a direct line.

And that might be worth a few calories an hour.

Posted by Steve