Yoga wasn’t exactly developed to be a workout, but it does seem to have a number of benefits for the body. Past studies have looked at its physical effects, not the least of which are muscle building, bone strengthening and flexibility. There’s even some evidence that it rivals aerobic exercise for heart health. Two new studies, published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, find that yoga can in fact burn calories—but mostly if it’s done at a faster clip. And as it turns out, there’s a difference in the number of calories burned in changing poses versus holding them.
In one study, the team from the University of Miami had participants do sun salutations for eight minutes, either at regular speed or faster speed. Their oxygen consumption and carbon dioxide production was measured to determine how many calories they were burning as they did the exercises. It turned out, not too surprisingly, that people when people did the faster version of the postures they burned significantly more calories than when doing them standard speed.
In the other study, the electrical activity of the muscles was measured to determine how hard the muscles were working throughout a yoga routine (again, sun salutations). Here, the researchers were interested in whether muscles were more active when participants were holding a pose or moving between them, and again at the standard speed or a faster one. Again they found that muscles were more active in the faster routine. But they were also more active as people were moving between postures, rather than when they were holding them.
Other research has found that yoga has some significant effects on other physical measures, like cardiovascular and metabolic markers. One study, for example, reported that yoga has about the same effect as aerobic exercise on a number of metabolic variables: cholesterol, triglycerides, blood pressure, body weight and heart rate. Others have found that yoga can help with other, more structural problems like chronic lower back pain.
Though yoga may well help with the physical, it’s accrued at least as much evidence for helping with the mental. Another study this month found that people with major depressive disorder had significantly reduced depressive symptoms after being assigned to take 90-minute yoga classes that included breathing exercise, either three times a week or two times a week for 12 weeks. Those in the high-dose group (three times per week) had even lower scores on the depression measures than those in the low-dose group.
Clearly yoga has some pretty significant benefits, for body and mind. For the body, the practice may provide a workout and burn some calories—especially, as the two new studies have found, if you do it at a faster pace. Of course, doing it faster, and focusing on the physical aspects, may detract from its mental benefits, which are considerable. As with most things, and especially in yoga, finding the right balance is generally the trick.