Take one look at someone in Scorpion Pose and you'll know: yoga can build strength and balance. But how does it stack up to traditional strength training — and what can't yoga do for your body?
Illustration: Tara Jacoby
Before we start, it's important to note that there are many different styles of yoga, and some are going to have more athletic benefits than others. If you're looking to yoga for fitness, watch for the words "ashtanga" and "vinyasa" to find the more athletic styles, although individual classes and instructors vary a lot, and may not use those specific terms. Sometimes names are even more descriptive, like "power yoga", but sometimes you just have to read class descriptions or ask the instructor what to expect.
With that in mind, let's talk about what yoga can (and can't) do for your body.
Good for: Strength
Yoga can be good for strength, depending on your current fitness. Like all bodyweight training, it starts out challenging but can be difficult (though not impossible) to maintain that challenge over time.
If you're starting from couch potato status, it's easy to find exercises — yoga poses or otherwise — that challenge you. If a pose feels fatiguing, or maybe leaves you with sore muscles, it's working to build strength.
Of course, the best exercise is the one you will actually do, so at the beginning of your fitness journey (or when you're returning after a break), choose whatever you're excited to start with. For many people, that's yoga.
Once you've begun, though, how do you progress? Strength training requires progressive overload: basically, working harder and harder over time. In the gym, that usually means using heavier weights. With yoga, you progress by holding a pose for longer, by holding it with better form, or by moving on to a more advanced version of the pose.
Here's why that's tricky: yoga moves involve many muscles at once, supporting each other to make the pose possible. That's a good thing, and related to functional training — you're teaching your body parts to work together in useful ways. But this interconnectedness gets in the way of building muscle as big as possible as fast as possible. Your quads may be totally ready for a one-legged chair pose, for example, but it may take weeks or months to get your smaller stabilizing leg muscles ready for their role in that pose.
That may be OK, depending on your goals. If you want to lose weight or to put on a lot of muscle in a short time, yoga by itself won't do the trick. But if you want to use yoga to work on different aspects of strength than what you do in the gym — or if advanced yoga moves are a goal in themselves — yoga is an excellent choice.
In that case, the way you practise matters. At-home videos can only take you so far, because proper form is necessary to build the right muscles in each pose. Pursuing strength through yoga requires that you're getting feedback on how to do it right, so it's essential to find a good instructor.
Good for: Flexibility and Balance
Yoga is excellent for flexibility. Some styles make it their main focus, but even the more athletic styles will usually spend plenty of time stretching as you get ready for the tougher moves of the day, and as you cool down from them.
For those of us who never make time to stretch, this is a great way to get time in for flexibility training. The more time you spend stretching, the more it helps your overall flexibility, so a yoga class will do a lot more for you than a few 30-second stretches at the end of your gym days.
Yoga also helps with neuromuscular training: the coordination between your brain and muscles. Having good communication here helps with balance, and possibly with injury prevention in sports — neuromuscular training (though not yoga specifically) seems to reduce some types of knee injury.
Not Good for: Cardio
No matter how intense your yoga practice is, it's no substitute for running, cycling or other aerobic training: you just never get to where you're breathing hard enough. Some studies have found benefits that may be linked to heart disease risk, like lower BMI and blood pressure. But in terms of cardio fitness — like being able to run faster or farther — yoga isn't likely to help.
Yoga instructors agree: you'd have to be doing some crazy intense yoga, well outside the ordinary, to get your heart rate in the zones that count as vigorous exercise. Cardio-wise, yoga is more comparable to walking: it's great to do, but won't give you the same benefits as something like running.
Not Good at: Flushing Toxins, Aligning Chakras (Whatever Those Are)
If you're going to practise yoga for fitness, sometimes you have to put up with a little bit of pseudoscience from instructors — like they may tell you not to do headstands while you're menstruating, which is a complete myth. Ignore any advice based on a flow of imaginary energy, and focus on the real things going on in your body: what muscles are working and relaxing and stretching, and how your body feels. You know, like you would with any other exercise.