What's The Deal w/ Yoga?

I woke up this morning at 5:30AM. “Why?” you might ask… Well, I attended a morning yoga class at Local Motion Studio. “Yoga?” you might ask… Yes. Yoga.

As a strength and conditioning coach, I am frequently asked what I think about yoga, or Crossfit, or P90x/Insanity. Now, I’m not going to dive too heavily into what I think about Crossfit or the other two “training” systems, but I will discuss the benefit and limitations of yoga.

Here are my short answers as far as Crossfit and P90x/Insanity go…

  • Crossfit is a sport, and you should treat your WODs as sport-specific practice, to be supplemented by traditional strength and conditioning work.

  • P90x/Insanity… Stop wasting your time. Of course you’ll see improvements when you first start these systems. That’s the beauty of being a novice. Any new stimulus will result in adaptation, BUT it’s not sustainable, it’s not intelligent training, and it’s more likely then not going to hurt you at some point in time. (Read this: https://www.t-nation.com/training/p90x-and-muscle-confusion-the-truth)

Now, let’s get to the meat and potatoes of today's post…

To be clear: I am a novice when it comes to yoga. I am aware that there are different forms and variations, but I do not know the difference between them. I do, however, have a decent understanding of biomechanics, joint positioning, physiological adaptations to stress, and exercise technique. My job is to know these things, so I continue to study and learn various methods, techniques, and theories that relate to strength and conditioning. Yoga is typically marketed to women as the epitome of health, I’m simply here to present an objective look at the practice.

Individual Differences

Everyone is different. We all have various injuries that limit us in some way, shape or form. These injuries may be serious enough to contraindicate certain joint positions. We all possess different limb lengths, which vary in proportion to the rest of our body, and force us to apply subtle alterations in our movements. This is why, in a gym setting, it’s important to understand biomechanical differences, and use different techniques to take advantage of the individual’s unique attributes. (Here’s a great article by Greg Nuckels on the topic: Deadlift Technique. Also, be sure to check out the video below discussing limb proportions and how they affect the squat pattern.)

In the same vein, it’s important that yogis are careful with the postures and positions that they chose when leading a class full of diverse human beings. It’s important that they preface their class by explaining that all postures can be modified based on the individual, and to never push a position too far. Renee Miller, my instructor this morning, did just that. She made the modifications of each position very clear, and insisted that we listen to our bodies while flowing through this morning's routine.

The Benefits

I am not anti-yoga. I simply have an opinion regarding what it’s useful for, and what it ISN’T useful for.  Yoga is a great way to get people off the couch and moving. The practice engages millions of people world-wide, and I know quite a few people who swear by it and the positive benefits it has provided them. Obviously, I am a huge proponent of physical activity. If someone happens to enjoy practicing yoga, it isn’t causing them harm, and they find success incorporating it into their daily life, more power to them. Go for it. Keep it up, and use yoga as your modality for staying active and healthy.

Most forms of yoga, that I am aware of, are very low-intensity. There are exceptions; for instance, inversion yoga incorporates a ton of hand/head/forearm-stand work. This will provide a decent stimulus towards building shoulder, arm, and core strength, but it still cannot be considered high intensity exercise in the same way that performing multiple sets of heavy squats and 100 meter sprint repeats are.

This point holds even more water when you become proficient at these movements. Proficiency leads to efficiency, which leads to less energy expended for the same amount of work. Due to the fact that yoga is very low-intensity in nature, it lends itself to being a fantastic tool foractive recovery days. Moving through various postures and engaging your muscles through their full range-of-motion is going to promote blood flow throughout your tissues, which helps clear out the metabolic byproducts produced from higher intensity activity and promote tissue recovery.

This one may be the most obvious, but practicing yoga can also help improve flexibility. A ton of the postures that are utilized in yoga revolve around stretching, so obviously this is going to help with your overall general flexibility. HOWEVER, it’s important to understand why certain structures are tight, and why some of your muscles are inflexible.  This article by coach Kelsey gives a fantastic introduction to your hamstrings, why they’re tight, and what you can do to fix them. Yes, stretching is a part of the equation, but it’s only one variable. A yogi in-tune with neural tension understands these concepts, and should apply activation work following the stretching movements to reinforce proper joint centration.

The Limitations

Yoga isn’t going to produce the strength improvements that many people are looking for. It’s just that simple. Improvements in strength and hypertrophy require progressive overload, and in yoga, you can only progress things so far. Since you are working with bodyweight, technically, you will need to gain weight in order to make a certain posture more challenging. Assuming this weight gain is fat, this is obviously counter-productive to why you’re engaging in physical activity in the first place. Resistance training provides a much more efficient and long-term solution to building strength. You can always add more weight to the bar.

Yoga isn’t going to be the modality that fosters improvements in power production, or rate of force development. There are no yoga postures that require rapid force production and absorption. This skill is developed through plyometric and strength training.

Yoga alone isn’t going to prepare you for high-level sports. You need speed, you need strength, and you need power to succeed in sports at a high level. The ability to stand on your hand, or contort yourself into the shape of a pretzel is not going to help you tackle that 200 lb running back barreling down at you full speed.

In Conclusion

I hope that you don’t feel that I am bashing yoga, because that was not my intention whatsoever. The intent of this article was simply to help point out the positives, and the negatives, that are the reality of the practice. I will dive into how to incorporate yoga into your weekly routine in a future article, but I’ll leave you with this for now: Do your best to never look at any form of exercise with the idea that it can be either “good” or “bad” for you. What is good for you might be really, really bad for me. There are always exceptions, and there are (almost) always instances where a modality is wildly appropriate.