Tony Takes a Yoga Class – Part I

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“Is there anyone here who’s new or who’s never done yoga before?” the tall, lean, yoga instructor asked.

Taking a glance around the room, with my girlfriend sitting directly to my right, and surrounded by a roomful of women, I reluctantly raised my hand.  Slowly.  I gave a nervous, meager chuckle and that’s how it began.

Yes, I took a yoga class yesterday.  No, pigs aren’t flying in hell.

………at least not yet.

Given my past transgressions towards yoga and most of what it stands for, I know this is blowing people’s minds as they read this. A few years ago, when asked my thoughts on yoga, I was quoted as saying:

Yoga mostly sucks

Admittedly, I was young, immature, and maybe even a little pigheaded in saying that.  Still, at the time, and even now, many of my “grievances” with yoga do have merit (in my eyes, at least).  Namely, I just hate how it’s marketed towards women.  How it’s somehow this panacea of fitness and health. Women are promised long, lean muscles.  Strength.  Power.  Even improved bone density. You name it and yoga is the answer to all your prayers.

A trimmer waistline?  Maybe.

A date with Brad Pitt?  Lets not get carried away.

A Coach hand bag?  Hahahahahahahahaha.

Don’t get me wrong, there ARE many benefits to yoga.  First off, if someone enjoys doing it, and it gets them off their ass……great!  The more women NOT watching The Real Housewives of Whereeverthefuck, the better.

Speaking more succinctly, however, you’d be hard to dismiss benefits like an increased harmony in the mind-body connection, improved blood flow, improved state of well-being, learning one’s breath, flexibility, so on and so forth.

Still, as with ANY form of exercise (yes, even strength training), it has it’s limitations.  And, again, I just HATE how it’s marketed.

Given the claims the majority of Yoga “gurus” tout, it’s no wonder many (not all) women are under the assumption that Yoga will do everything from help them lose weight and increase strength to bringing sexy back.

The fact is – and I realize I’m a bit biased in saying this given I’m a strength and conditioning coach – when it comes to general fitness and body compositional goals, most females want and/or need the following:

  1. Decreased body fat
  2. Increased strength.
  3. Improved daily/athletic function
  4. Increased bone density
  5. Increased flexibility

Each one of these, I’d argue, can be improved – almost tenfold – through resistance training.  Yoga can’t hold a flame to good ol’ fashioned lifting heavy things.

Note from TG:  I didn’t want to re-invent the wheel, so what follows is an excerpt from an article I wrote for titled 4 Things Your Girlfriend Should Know.  I’d provide the link, but unfortunately, the site doesn’t exist anymore.  Bummer.

Lets break each one down individually.

Decreased Body Fat

It’s no secret that in order to decrease body fat, you have to provide some sort of caloric deficit either through dieting or through increased caloric expenditure from physical activity (or some form of both).  I’m going to leave the dieting component alone for now (I think women tend to drastically UNDER eat as it is), but I do want to elaborate on the latter component.

Yoga does not cause a high (or acute) or post-exercise calorie expenditure, which is one of the main factors in fat loss.  Many people (not just women) equate sweating to burning a lot of calories.  Sorry ladies, but just because you sweat a lot while taking a class in a 105 degree room, doesn’t mean you’re burning a lot of calories.  You wouldn’t say you’re burning that many calories sun bathing on the beach would you?

How many calories do you think you can burn standing or sitting in one spot for an hour, which is essentially what you do in a typical Yoga class? Numerous studies have shown that resistance training elevates EPOC (Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption) for upwards of 24-48 hours AFTER you’re done training.

Simply put, not only will you burn more calories during one hour of resistance training compared to one hour of Yoga, but you will also burn MORE calories even when you’re not in the gym.  More calories burned equals more body fat lost.  I have yet to see one study which shows that Yoga does anything to increase EPOC significantly (if at all).

Additionally, Yoga does not provide resistance sufficient enough to increase or preserve lean body mass (LBM), which is directly correlated with metabolism, and thus the rate at which you burn calories.  Yes, “beginners” might see transient increases in LBM in the beginning, but that is mainly because most women who go from doing nothing to participating in Yoga classes a few times per week are so de-conditioned, that their body weight elicits enough of a stimulus to cause the body to change.

Increased Strength

As Vladimir Zatsiorsky states in his book “Science and Practice of Strength Training,” muscular strength is defined as “the ability to overcome or counteract external resistance by muscular effort; also, the ability to generate maximum external force” (1). In order to generate maximum force (get stronger), a trainee needs to incorporate one of three methods:

  1. Maximum Effort Method:  lifting a maximum load (exercising against maximum resistance).
  2. Repeated Effort Method:  lifting non-maximal load to failure (albeit still taking into consideration the rule of progressive overload.  Relying on one’s body weight will only take you so far).
  3. Dynamic Effort Method:  lifting (or throwing) a non-maximal load with the highest attainable speed.

The fact is yoga is not easily “modifiable” to facilitate constant adaptation for strength gains, unless of course, you want to gain weight (highly unlikely).  Yoga will in fact develop strength to a point, but soon thereafter, you’re just training strength endurance.  If bodyweight is constant, then progressive resistance is not possible without adding an external load.

Increased Bone Density

This is especially important for women because they are significantly at higher risk of developing osteoporosis compared to men (especially if they’re Caucasian, Asian, and slight build.).

In terms of stimulating new bone formation, what is needed is something called a minimal essential strain (MES), which refers to a threshold stimulus that initiates new bone formation.

A force that reaches or exceeds this threshold and is repeated often enough will signal osteoblasts to migrate to that region of the bone and lay down matrix proteins (collagen) to increase the strength of the bone in that area.

Furthermore, physical activities that generate forces exceeding the MES are those activities that represent an increase in intensity relative to normal daily activities.

For sedentary or elderly individuals, this could very well be where yoga could be enough of a stimulus to cause an MES and new bone formation (bodyweight exceeds the threshold).  However you still have to take into consideration the rule of progressive overload (bodyweight will only take them so far) and for younger or more active people, higher intensity activities will need to be included to exceed MES – such as sprinting, jumping, and heavy resistance training.

Regardless of one’s training history or lifestyle, it’s clear that the activities chosen to increase bone density need to be WEIGHT BEARI NG in nature, and progressive.  Yoga does not do this.

Improved Daily/Athletic Function

This will be short.  During a Yoga class, you’re sitting and/or standing in one spot for 45-60 minutes.

This will NOT equate to better efficiency or performance in daily life or on the athletic field.  As an athlete your time is better spent elsewhere.

Increased Flexibility

This one I will concede to Yoga.  It DOES help to improve flexibility, which is a good thing (sort of).  Unfortunately, it tends to promote flexibility/mobility in areas of the body where it doesn’t need it.

If we were to take a joint-by-joint look at the body, popularized by Mike Boyle and Gray Cook, one would notice that there is a delicate balance between mobility/stability:

Joints that “need” to be trained with mobility in mind:  ankle, hips, t-spine, scapulae

Joints that “need” to be trained with stability in mind:  knee, lumbar spine, scapulae

I have worked with many clients with extended histories of lower back pain who start participating in Yoga classes through the recommendation of a friend or worse yet, and uninformed physician.  Their rationale:  “all you need to do is stretch out your back.”  Quite possibly the worst piece of advice to give.

As you can see from above, the lumbar spine (lower back) generally needs to be trained with stability in mind.   Many of the poses in Yoga promote HYPER-extension of the lumbar spine, which is the last thing that it needs.  Many back issues are extension-based, which just means that an individual is getting more ROM (Range of Motion) at the lumbar spine due to lack of ROM at the hips.  Essentially with Yoga, one is promoting more ROM (and thus, instability) in a place where it needs LESS ROM (more STABILITY).

Furthermore, what good is it to have all this extra mobility or ROM if you can’t stabilize in that ROM in the first place?  Having excessive ROM (in the wrong places) without the strength to stabilize that ROM actually predisposes people to injury.  So while Yoga does enhance flexibility and mobility, RESISTANCE TRAINING actually facilitates movement through that range of motion, and provides the dynamic control to allow you to utilize the range of motion safely.

Now Before I Get the Hate Mail

Even though I wrote the original article like four years ago, I wholeheartedly feel every point I made still has merit today. Yoga IS NOT the end all – be all of everything that it’s often proclaimed (or marketed) to be.

I’m NOT saying it’s dangerous (although it can be:  click ME), or that it’s a waste of time.  All I’m saying is that it would bode well to try to step away from the yoga Kool-Aid, and take a little more of an objective look.

I understand that many yogi’s are going to want to defend their craft, much like I’d go ape shit if someone said that deadlifting was dangerous or somehow inferior. Again, I get it, I’m a little biased.

To that end, have at it!  You’re entitled to your opinion…… am I.

That said, tomorrow I’m going to talk about my experience.  Now that I’ve actually taken a yoga class, I think you may be surprised at what I have to say.

Till then……..I’d be interested to hear what everyone else thinks.  Am I off base?  Do I have a point?  Sound off below.

Did what you just read make your day? Ruin it? Either way, you should share it with your friends and/or comment below.

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