Here’s what 60 minutes of yoga is equal to, according to ‘science’

Building off our Saturday post about the New York Times “Ask Well” feature that found yoga is too gentle to be a person’s sole exercise, I thought I’d compare some other activities to how the NYT — via one study in particular — measured the physical intensity of 60 minutes of yoga.

And I’ll put my point right up front: It is pretty obvious that some yoga’s are greater than others, at least when it comes to their sheer physical intensity.

I’ll also note that if you check back on the “Ask Well” feature, Eddie Stern has added his voice. Among other points, he wrote:

[W]ill yoga make you stronger? Of course it will. But a lot of it depends on which type of practice you do, what your needs are, and who is teaching you.

I’ll pipe up and say that if Eddie is your teacher, your yoga will make you stronger. (And I’m still not sure what the 60 minutes of Ashtanga the people in that study did. Well, for one thing — only twice a week during the study. But beyond that, what would 60 minutes of Ashtanga include, since I’m guessing they weren’t doing the Ashtanga express and getting in all of Primary. The standing poses with a few of the seated, plus some modified closing? Any vinyasa? Who knows.)

But back to the comparison. Remember, the study the Times references claimed yoga was equal to walking 2 mph.

I want to break that down a bit. That’s a mile every 30 minutes — or about 7:30 to go once around a track. I’d say 7:30 isn’t too bad a time for the mile. But it is a pretty slow walk. And that, I suppose, is why the blanket answer by the Times has rubbed some people the wrong way (as the Times tends to do with yoga, huh?). Maybe yoga as the gentlest stretching is about the same. Anyway, to force this point home more, here are some equivalent exercises to the Times’ (and that one study’s) version of 60 minutes of “yoga” (based, by the way, on this info from Harvard):

  • Light gardening for an hour
  • About 40 minutes of house work
  • Walking briskly for 35 minutes or so (at 3 mph, which still is fairly slow)
  • 30 minutes of heavy yard work
  • 30 minutes of climbing stairs
  • 30 minutes of light bicycling
  • 25 minutes or so of ballet or modern dance
  • 20 minutes of shoveling snow
  • 18-20 minutes of serious hiking
  • 15-20 minutes of kayaking or downhill skiing
  • 12-20 minutes of faster biking
  • 10 minutes or so of running at about that 7:30 mph I mentioned above

OK, so what’s the point to this? Well, again, to suggest that the yoga the Times is talking about ain’t the Ashtanga that we know. And that the Times’ answer is pretty limited and therefore pretty incomplete. (The ultimate problem with the answer is that it doesn’t acknowledge any other possibility, any other answer — even that some yoga might — and that is, of course, a problem with journalism: the need to appear authoritative, when one isn’t. That may be a problem with science, too.) But also that comparing yoga to any of these other “exercises” is like comparing jack fruit to coconuts.

And also that what they are measuring is just one little thing — an important one, to be sure. But not the most important.

Posted by Steve

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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:

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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.

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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