Is Yoga A Workout?: A Look at the Big Picture
Updated: Jul 20
People don’t usually ask about Yoga and exercise in a straightforward way, but once it comes up, it’s a hot topic! There are a lot of conflicting views out there, most of which fall into two opposing camps. In the first camp, we find a part of gym and fitness culture for whom Yoga is just expensive stretching: not really essential to strength goals, but maybe something to check out if you’re bored, injured, or dating a Yoga teacher. There are exceptions, of course, but that’s one extreme.
In the other camp – also with exceptions – a nontrivial part of contemporary U.S. yoga culture turns up its nose at the idea of “working out,” as if exercise were beneath yogic standards. This is especially true for hard efforts, serious weightlifting, and competitive sport. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard a respected Yoga teacher tsk-tsk about getting too physical, working the body too hard, etc. There’s certainly wisdom in that, especially given the imbalanced constructs of work and fitness that operate in general in our culture. But it’s not the whole story, either.
The short answer is that you can have it both ways. You can create a unique balance all your own. If Yoga asana is the only way you enjoy moving your body, that’s great; you can maintain good health with that and short easy walks. If your dharma includes radical feats of athleticism (or attempts at them), that’s also fine; you can use those pursuits, too, as vehicles for Self-discovery. As with all things, the way in which we do something -- the meaning it has for us -- is more important than what we do.
So, the yoga/workout question quickly leads to a deeper question: What’s the healthiest kind of activity for you?
Without knowing you, I can’t say. But I can show you a way to think about that question that helps you not only make that decision for yourself today, but also re-make it over and over again for years to come. Things change, and your big picture will too. But being able to skillfully adjust your daily behavior to stay in tune with those changes helps create and maintain great health.
The Big Picture: Health, Fitness, and Stress
Before we can figure out what activities are best for you, we have to understand how those activities fit into our lives in general. One useful way to do this is to distinguish between health and fitness, and to pay attention to an ideal amount of stress as a key factor in achieving both.
Health and fitness are very different things. A basic definition of health might include the full measure of your mind-body’s ability to maintain ideal balance and create a resilient life by acting, reacting, recovering, and resting on physical, chemical, and systemic levels. You can think of fitness is the ability to “fit” one’s physical performance to a desired outcome. This ability is developed in response to deliberate doses of physical stress (i.e., “exercise”), to which the system responds by learning to accommodate that stress, i.e., by getting stronger. Healthy exercise is an example of eustress, or “good” stress; similarly, other kinds of stress can push us to become better, stronger people in non-physical ways, too. And it all works great if your system is ready for the challenge.
But here’s the kicker (and this is where the Yoga folks are coming from): if you’re already overloaded and out of balance, adding more stress isn’t going to help, regardless of your intention. This is where a lot of people find themselves, for example, when they’ve been super busy or life-stressed and are also working their tushies off in the gym but not seeing results. They’re dosing themselves with stress in their workouts, but because their stress levels are already high, they’re not able to recover – which is what produces the desired adaptive response.
What does it mean to say “stress levels are high”? It means that the body has chemically adapted to perceived stress by changing its chemical environment, adding stress hormones and causing other changes. These chemical adaptations are perfectly designed for short-term success in handling stressful situations. But they are not designed for low-risk-environment optimizations such as getting stronger or running a PR. In fact, they prevent these, sending resources instead to shore up the emergency system. Hormone levels start to change; the nervous system feels “stuck” in “fight, flight or freeze”; sleep suffers; neurochemical changes negatively affect mental health; we lose our zest for life; the body stores more fat; we might never feel full or lose our appetite… and on and on, right up to exhaustion, dysfunction, and disease.
I emphasize this stuff because believe it or not, it’s surprisingly easy for the average person to sacrifice health for the sake of fitness (or any other pursuit that taxes our stress-adaptation abilities). We usually don’t realize we’re doing it, sometimes for months or years. But if we continue down that road, it’s only a matter of time before our efforts backfire and our health gets compromised. Instead of getting stronger or achieving more, we feel worse. This doesn’t happen only to marathon runners, Olympians, and high-level executives. This happens to anyone for whom exercise (or whatever) adds an amount of stress that imbalances the system at that time.
And if you’re thinking, well okay, that means someone could theoretically stress themselves too much without even exercising at all, right? – that is absolutely correct. It’s called burnout. Surprisingly, though, certain types of exercise (which I like to call “innercise”) help to heal burnout – we’ll get to that in a minute.
We know that exercise is stress. But so is the rest of life! And, biochemically speaking – which is what matters most for health – your body can’t tell the difference between stressors. Job worries, family issues, uncomfortable weather, poor breathing habits and posture, eye strain, eating too much, not eating enough, and eating junk are all sources of stress, just like exercise. Your body responds to them in a very similar way. (If you have a hard time picturing this, borrow a heart monitor and wear it all day. Annoying traffic or a difficult conversation might be right up there with sprint intervals, heart-effort-wise, even if you don’t move from a sitting position.) If you’ve ever been involved in athletics, or just followed famous athletes through their careers, you’ve probably observed this. A sustained overload of unrelated stress will always eventually reduce performance.
The good news is that, when the system is able to assimilate and recover from exercise, it does grow stronger. If we manage our various stresses appropriately, we can do incredible stuff. And if we’re smart about our methods, we can keep on doing it.
The other good news is that how you exercise really affects your stress response, and you can actually help yourself relax and recover with some types of activity. If you know this, you can adjust your routines accordingly. Not all activities are stressful and taxing; some actually help restore balance to a stressed system. Different kinds of exercise accomplish different things.
But how do we get and stay balanced, and then choose the right activities for our current state? To do that, it helps to understand the concepts of exercise and “innercise.” That is the topic of this post right here.