Yoga and Aerobic Exercise
by Lori Batcheller
The arrival of warm summer weather motivates many of us to cast off winter sluggishness and engage in a more vigorous fitness program. Whether your favorite summertime activity is jogging, hiking, biking, rollerblading, swimming, or kayaking, you’ll find yoga an ideal complement to your fitness routine.
Aerobic exercise brings a wealth of physical benefits: improved cardiovascular and respiratory function, increased HDL cholesterol (the good kind), reduced body fat, and improved glucose tolerance. Yoga provides unique benefits not found in vigorous aerobic exercise. Yoga’s mindful stretches harmonize body, mind, and spirit and can provide a low-impact workout—the perfect balance to aerobic exercise. And because most of us live hectic lives, yoga can be an antidote to stress, allowing us to release chronic muscle tension and break out of the "fight or flight" cycle all too common in today’s world.
The Relaxation Response
Yoga practice invites us to turn inward, to calm the mind, and pay attention to the sensations in the body. The flowing, conscious breathing that accompanies yoga stretches sends a message to the brain that activates the parasympathetic nervous system and turns on the relaxation response. The relaxation response, first described by Dr. Herbert Benson in the 1970s, has many benefits including lowering blood pressure, slowing the heart rate, and enhancing immune function. Recent research has shown that regular yoga practice lowers the level of cortisol and other stress chemicals in the blood that are responsible for the "fight or flight" response which raises blood pressure, increases heart rate, impedes digestion, suppresses the immune system, and causes breathing to become rapid and shallow. In vigorous styles of yoga, practicing savasana, or corpse pose, at the end of each session activates the relaxation response along with all its healing benefits.
When to Practice
Yoga practice can be incorporated into your summer fitness schedule in a variety of ways. Doing yoga postures before your aerobic activity stretches and warms up your muscles, tendons, and ligaments. This may enhance your performance and help prevent injuries to joints and soft tissues. Yoga can also provide a cool-down after vigorous workouts, keeping your muscles supple even as they grow stronger. Another option is to vary your routine, practicing yoga and aerobics on alternate days to reap the benefits of both.
The key is to find a form of aerobic exercise and a yoga practice that suits you—one that you enjoy and that fits into your schedule. Combining yoga and vigorous exercise can lead to a stronger body, a greater sense of health and well-being, and much-needed peace and relaxation.
Lori Batcheller is a Kripalu Yoga teacher and former Kripalu Center volunteer. As a freelance writer and editor based in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, she writes for Kripalu publications, national magazines, and trade journals about yoga, holistic health, and disabilities.
© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. Originally published in the June 2005 issue of Kripalu Online. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.