Yoga can give you flexibility, focus, strength, mental clarity, but rarely, unfortunately, the sustained cardio exercise that’s recommended to stave off heart disease, high blood pressure, and early death.
Now before you come storming into my mentions like a Warrior II: Yes, yoga can get your heart pumping. But the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommend that Americans get 150 minutes per week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise, or even better, 75 minutes of vigorous aerobic activity. In this case, “moderate” is linked to a rate of perceived exertion (RPE) of 12 to 14, which correlates to 120 or 140 heartbeats per minute. Vigorous exercise is an RPE of 15 to 17, or 150 to 170 beats per minute.
This level of cardio activity is difficult to sustain, especially in a traditional strength session or yoga class. The American Heart Association does not count yoga toward the weekly recommended amount of cardio activity. This might come as a letdown to those who love yoga for the strength, balance, mental clarity, and community it provides. Fear not. Here’s an overview of a few cardio routines that incorporate yogic principles and allow you to experience the best of both worlds, achieving a satisfying mind-body experience.
Yoga movement is coordinated with the breath, and the same practice is required in the pool. If you’re swimming freestyle or breast stroke, there are only certain times when you can breathe to do the movement correctly. This attention to breath can make swimming, like yoga, a moving meditation.
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From a cardio perspective, it’s tough to beat: Swimmers have about half the risk of death compared to inactive people, according to the CDC, and the exercise is far easier on the joints than bicycling or running. It’s also a natural interval training exercise: Swim one or two laps, rest, and repeat. Intervals like these—alternating between bouts of intense exercise and rest—have been scientifically proven to burn more fat than steady-state, medium-paced cardio, and they count towards that “vigorous” number from the CDC.
Not a strong swimmer? You can obtain the meditation-like benefits of a smoother stroke with your old friend from beginner lessons—the kick board.
The stereotype of thumping music and shouting instructors is well-earned in the group cycling space, but strip those aspects away, and you’ve got a very yoga-like experience—smooth, controlled movements done communally without competition.
That’s what SoulCycle is selling for $34 per class, and it seems to be working. The New York-based company now has studios in New York, California, New Jersey, Washington, DC, Chicago, Florida, and other locations. At each, the class includes positive affirmations, and a sense of what yogis call “bhava,” used to describe an uplifting group energy.
Other group cycling classes across the country incorporate this mind-body approach. Google “zen spinning” and you’ll find similar studios in Arkansas, Connecticut, and other locations. AQUA, an underwater cycling studio in New York City, offers a “Mantra Flow” class that combines the energy of Spinning class with the therapeutic and meditative qualities of water-based exercise, all set to the soundtrack of mantra music.
It’s no wonder stand-up paddleboards have become another location for yoga: They require great balance and place you in a peaceful natural setting in the great outdoors. To get moving on the board requires rock-solid core stability and rhythmic, repetitive paddling movement. Connect the stroke to your breath: Breathe in each time your draw the paddle forward and switch sides, and empty your lungs as your bring the paddle back to stroke.
Don’t know where to try it? Many kayak rental locations now offer SUPs for the same price. Alternately, a rowing machine offers a similar rhythmic experience indoors at a higher intensity. Breathe in as your draw your knees toward the flywheel, and breathe out as you press back. As with swimming, rowing is perfect for intervals. Start with 30 seconds of work alternated with 30 seconds of rest, going for at least six intervals.
Some yoga studios and gyms offer hybrid classes that combine yoga and elements of cardio training. Heidi Kristoffer, a yoga instructor in New York City, created one program like this called CrossFlow X, a yoga class that incorporates high-intensity bouts of gym exercises, like pushups or mountain climbers, with restorative yoga poses. The high-intensity part doesn’t sound very yoga-like, but the instructor says the intense exercise can actually help improve your practice.
“Our mind can be all over the place in yoga. For a lot of people, especially in type-A environments, people’s heads don’t ever turn off,” she says. This can lead to tight, awkward poses when the mind doesn’t turn off. But the intensity of other exercise can help clear things up. “After the interval, your body is so tired. Your mind isn’t thinking about tense spots anymore, so you have the space to let go.”
Try a mini-class made up of intervals like this yourself. You’ll perform each exercise for one minute, then the yoga pose for one minute. Perform each pair twice (in the case of pair one, alternating the side on the pigeon pose so you do each side once).
• 1 minute mountain climber + 1 minute Pigeon Pose
• 1 minute speed skater + 1 minute Frog Pose
• 1 minute low Boat Pose to Boat Pose + 1 minute supported Bridge Pose