Yoga has gone mainstream.
Once thought of as a training routine reserved for soccer moms and granola-crunching free spirits, yoga offers mental and physical benefits can no longer be ignored. Elite athletes are embracing yoga in a big way, and the total number of yoga practitioners in the U.S. is expected to exceed 55 million by 2020.
But just how good of a workout is it? We often associate the effectiveness of a type of activity with the number of calories it burns, and for good reason. To lose weight, we must burn more calories than we consume on a regular basis. But consistently consume more calories than you burn, and you're guaranteed to put on pounds. In this article, we'll examine how many calories yoga burns, but also explain why the practice's effectiveness cannot be judged off this figure alone.
Estimating the number of calories a specific type of training burns is tricky business. The gigantic number of variables involved include height, weight, age, gender, body fat percentage, metabolism, intensity of the workout, duration of the workout, etc. The number of calories burned by yoga also depends on the type of yoga being practiced. Styles like Vinyasa (frequently referred to as "Power Yoga) and Ashtanga are more physically rigorous, while others, like Yin and Restorative, are more relaxed.
The Harvard Medical School estimates that a 125-pound, 155-pound and 185-pound person burns roughly 120, 149 and 178 calories in a half hour of Hatha Yoga, respectively. Hatha yoga is a general category which includes most yoga styles—the vast majority of classes you encounter in the United States will fall under the umbrella of Hatha yoga. Compared to other activities included in the same article, such as moderate rowing, general circuit training, vigorous weight lifting and the stair step machine, yoga falls on the low-end of the scale.
Performing yoga in a heated room, as is the case with Bikram yoga, where the studio is heated to 105 degrees Fahrenheit with 40-percent humidity, can slightly increase the calorie burn, but it's by no means a quantum leap. A Colorado State study on Bikram yoga found men averaged about 460 calories burned per 90-minute session while women averaged 330. The researchers said that caloric burn was "roughly equivalent to walking briskly (about 3.5 miles an hour) for a full 90 minutes."
But, like any research, you've got to take it with a grain of salt. Your approach to yoga and your personal fitness DNA may help you burn more or fewer calories than indicated.
I've practiced yoga on and off for the past few years, but it's largely been of the at-home variety. I'd head to YouTube, find a yoga workout that sounds enticing (I'm partial to Sean Vigue's videos), and follow along on my mat. Many of Vigue's videos feature Power Yoga, and I've found them to burn significant amounts of calories. Ever since I got my hands on the Apple Watch Series 4, I've been closely monitoring how many calories I burn during yoga sessions.
I burned 301 calories while following this 35-minute video, and 117 calories following this 15-minute video. It is important to note that I run about 6-foot-6, 210 pounds, and thus burn quite a few more calories than your average person. Based on my Apple Watch Series 4 data, I'd estimate I burn between 2,100-2,300 calories per day before accounting for any "active" calories.
I recently began practicing in an actual yoga studio, which I think helps me reap greater benefits from yoga. The constant form cues from the instructor help me get into better, stronger poses, which I believe helps me burn more calories (I recently burned 536 calories in one 70-minute Hatha yoga class and 624 in a 75-minute class). But I also believe practicing in a studio helps me reap more of the mental benefits of yoga which can be harder to quantify.
This leads me to my next point—while a yoga class isn't going to burn calories like a CrossFit class, yoga seems to have some special benefits that may aid in weight loss.
Yoga offers a whole host of benefits beyond just burning calories. Research has found that regular yoga practice can help combat things like stress, anxiety, inflammation, depression, chronic pain and migraines while helping to increase strength, promote healthy eating habits, promote better breathing, improve balance, enhance flexibility, increase sleep quality, and improve heart health.
When practiced regularly, yoga builds mindfulness. Mindfulness is defined as "a mental state achieved by focusing one's awareness on the present moment, while calmly acknowledging and accepting one's feelings, thoughts, and bodily sensations, used as a therapeutic technique." A growing amount of research is finding increased mindfulness can have a potent impact on many unseen factors which attribute to obesity and poor physical health.
A 2016 study published in the journal Evidence-based Complementary and Alternative Medicine sought out to expand our understanding of the "experience of losing weight through yoga." The researchers concluded that "yoga may offer diverse psychological, physical and social effects that may make it a useful tool for healthy, sustained weight loss. The yoga practitioners reported less stress eating, reduced appetite, fewer cravings and a shift toward healthier, more mindful eating. Yoga provided them with social support and healthy role models. The subjects believed that yoga led to physical and psychological changes that supported weight loss including increased muscle tone, improved metabolism, reduced stress, as well as increased awareness, improved mood and greater self-acceptance and self-esteem. This weight loss experience was markedly different than past attempts, in that the weight loss was easier, and subjects felt more confident in their ability to maintain lasting weight loss."
A February 2015 article from the Harvard Medical School detailed that "people who practiced yoga for at least 30 minutes once a week for at least four years, gained less weight during middle adulthood. People who were overweight actually lost weight. Overall, those who practiced yoga had lower body mass indexes (BMIs) compared with those who did not practice yoga. Researchers attributed this to mindfulness. Mindful eating can lead to a more positive relationship with food and eating."
A 2018 study published in the International Journal of Behavioral Nutrition and Physical Activity found that regular yoga practice was associated with "more servings of fruits and vegetables, fewer servings of sugar-sweetened beverages and snack foods, less frequent fast food consumption, and more hours of moderate-to-vigorous physical activity," though more research must be conducted to see if regular yoga practice was a cause of such differences.
"Many of these individuals felt that yoga increased their motivation to pick healthy foods, helped them to be more mindful while eating, reduced food cravings, and they received social support from their yoga community to eat healthfully," lead author Allison Watts told the Minnesota School of Public Health.
A 2009 preliminary study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that a 12-week yoga program helped adult women with binge eating disorder improve their relationship with food. "Self-reported reductions in binge eating and increases in physical activity were statistically significant (and) small yet statistically significant reductions for BMI, hips and waist measurement were obtained," the authors wrote in their abstract.
Even if you aren't interested in losing weight or eating better, I believe integrating yoga into your routine still has benefit. The focus, flexibility, body control and full-body strength you build via yoga is unrivaled.I consider myself to be a fit individual. I generally work out six days a week, and my routine includes a mixture of CrossFit, biking, running, bouldering and rowing. But yoga is consistently one of my toughest workouts. Don't just take it from me—a number of pro athletes have been amazed at how difficult yoga really is.
Eddie George was one of the most freakishly fit men in the NFL at the time he discovered yoga, yet it immediately humbled him. "When I first got into a Down Dog, I couldn't hold myself there for more than 10 seconds," George told STACK. "Here I was benching 400 pounds and squatting 500 pounds, but I couldn't even support my own body weight for more than 10 seconds ... It made me think, 'This is something I want to get good at.'"
Yoga might not torch an absurd number of calories, but it certainly beats sitting on the couch. However, judging yoga's effectiveness solely off this figure is unwise. Regular yoga practice seems to lead to a cascade of powerful effects that can help build a better body and achieve a healthier life.
Photo Credit: GibsonPictures/iStock
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