Let me start by saying I absolutely love yoga. With over 15 years’ experience as a practitioner, teacher, and devotee, I can personally attest to the numerous health, fitness, and spiritual benefits of a regular practice. With its impact on flexibility, core strength, balance, posture, and comfort in the body, yoga is arguably the best single activity for over-all wellness. In fact, it provides so many benefits that, as a personal trainer, I’m frequently asked: “Can the right yoga routine give me full fitness?” You may be surprised to learn my brief answer is: “Very much no!” In the following article I’d like to explain why, in my experience, even a well-crafted yoga routine falls short as a sole form of exercise and what avid practitioners can add to their yoga routines in order to experience exceptional all-around vitality & performance.
The first step to understanding the limitations of yoga is to look at the natural design and function of our bodies. We are clearly built for a variety of activities and know that regular engagement in them is essential for both ability and over-all health. Yoga of course addresses many of these, including range of motion, basic strength & stability in the limbs and core, etc. But clearly there are forms of motion it is hard to replicate through yoga, the most obvious being cardiovascular fitness. Of course, there are more vigorous forms of yoga that clearly offer a degree of aerobic conditioning, but comparison with other forms of training makes it clear even dynamic yoga is not the most efficient way to build aerobic fitness. If you’ve done 100 sun salutations at high speed you know it doesn’t raise the heart rate to the same level as, say, running up a hill, and you have also probably witnessed it doesn’t generate the same cardiovascular capacity. Of course this isn’t to suggest there are no benefits to such a yoga practice, merely to note it isn’t the most efficient or effective approach. Simply put, a person who relies solely on yoga for cardiovascular training will never have the same aerobic capacity as a person who trains more conventionally.
While this might be the most obvious limitation of yoga, in my experience it is far less significant than the greatest shortcoming which is its limited impact on the primary driving muscles of body or what sports physiologists refer to as the “posterior chain.” Trainers have long realized that the largest muscles of the body — and therefore those that contribute the most both to function and to over-all health — are the hamstrings, glutes, and muscles of the lower- and upper-back. These not only propel us forward but also allow us to lift, carry, and climb, and thus could be called the most “functional” muscles of the body. And because they constitute the majority of our muscle-mass, their over-all function has the greatest impact on systemic health including metabolism, insulin uptake, HGH levels, and immune function.
Of course, in nature, these muscles were used constantly — for walking, running, sprinting, jumping, climbing, lifting, and carrying. And because these are the biggest, strongest muscles of the body, they are designed for and require considerable challenge for optimal function. While a balanced yoga practice clearly works these muscles to a degree, even brief consideration should make it clear it is difficult to simulate the demands of intense motion and heavy load-carrying using mere body weight and static exertion alone. For the yoga practitioners reading this, considering your own practice should make this apparent — you can feel there is a big difference between even a long hold in, say, Warrior II or Bridge pose and lifting a heavy weight or climbing a steep hill. This difference is why virtually every “physical culture” system developed by man has involved at least some degree of load-bearing and why yoga alone cannot generate the same systemic impact. Again, please note that I am not denying some impact, but rather pointing out that it is difficult to achieve the degree of demand for which our bodies were designed and in turn if we were to rely solely on yoga we would be missing out on many of the benefits derived from more “complete activity.”
In addition to the lack of systemic impact, there is also the fact that with bodyweight activity it is generally easier to challenge the anterior chain (the front of the body) than the posterior. Again, a true yoga routine strives for balance, but obviously it is much easier to target the front with poses like plank and downward dog than it is to work the back. As a result, long-term yoga practice as a sole fitness activity tends to lead to muscular and functional imbalances. In fact, many of my clients have been established students and even teachers who had become imbalanced through exclusive focus on yoga. Of course, this is in no way to criticize yoga itself: again, I feel yoga is arguably one of the most complete health & fitness approaches out there and I strongly recommend a regular practice to each and every one of my clients. The key in this regard is to simply make sure we are engaging in additional activity to assure the strength of the back of our bodies is matching that of the front.
The third major limitation of yoga has to do with the nature of motion engaged in and its relation to muscle fiber types. Research tells us every single muscle of the body are made up of two types of muscle fiber: slow-twitch and fast-twitch. Most of us are probably aware that some people have more slow-twitch than others, but what we commonly don’t realize is that fast-twitch fiber still makes up at least 55% of our muscle mass and for some of us as much as 65%. Why is this so important? Well, fast-twitch fibers are only activated in two situations: during maximal lifts or explosive motion. That means that if you are exercising slowly or with moderate weights, even if you are exercising every single muscle of your body, you are only really activating about 35-45% of your muscle-mass.
The connection with yoga should be obvious: even the most vigorous forms never come close maximal speed — again, a fact that is easily witnessed. Even if you’re a regular practitioner of demanding poses, you can feel that there is a significant difference between, say, a long hold in plank pose and a set of explosive (“clapping”) push-ups. Likewise, while it is certainly true that the more advanced poses of yoga involve shifting our weight in such a way as to increase demands on certain muscle groups so that we’re approaching their maximal capacity, most people lack the flexibility to achieve them, and those of us who can seldom hold them as long as necessary to fully challenge the muscles. And that means we are only using a fraction of our muscle fibers and in turn receiving only a fraction of the benefits. Again if you are a seasoned practitioner you can easily witness this: clearly, there is a substantial difference between, say, a long hold in wheel pose and helping a friend move a refrigerator up a flight of stairs.
Does this mean a long hold of wheel pose has no benefits or that there is no merit to a slower, more meditative form of motion as found in many yoga traditions? Not in the least. The point is, once we see these basic limitations, it becomes possible to compliment our practice with the missing activities that will restore muscular balance and stimulate the full, natural capacities of our bodies. By supporting the numerous benefits of our yoga with the other activities for which our bodies were designed — cardiovascular activity, including high-speed training; posterior-chain activity such as climbing and lifting; and explosive- or near-maximal training such as sprinting and the lifting of heavy weights — we can experience even better health, greater capacity, and even more joy in our yoga practice itself….
About the Author: Michael Lloyd-Billington is a certified Integral Yoga Teacher (Levels I, II, and III), personal trainer & yoga counselor with over 25 years’ experience in the fields of health & fitness. He currently offers private guidance integrating yoga, strength training, conditioning & optimal nutrition. To learn more about classes or private sessions, please call (970) 412-4526 or visit his website at http://alternativepersonaltraining.bravehost.com/index.html