Yoga for Athletes

Flexible and Fit

Accomplished yogis are rarely subjected to the scrutiny from fitness experts that, say, Olympic athletes are. A recent study that took a closer look gave yoga a bit of a pasting, in the mainstream press, at least. But there’s more to the story.

Researchers from the American Council on Exercise (ACE) recruited 17 sedentary women for eight weeks of thrice-weekly hatha yoga classes. By study’s end, the women were more limber, could lift more weight, and had better balance. But they showed no improvement in aerobic fitness. A companion study found that even a heart-thumping power yoga class was equivalent to just a “mild aerobic workout.”

But these findings don’t represent all yoga, says Massimo Testa of the Sports Performance Program at the University of California, Davis. In 2002, he did intensive fitness testing on four yoga instructors who got all their exercise from several hours of yoga a day. “They were about what you’d see in someone who goes jogging three to four times a week,” he says. Those yogis, he argues, better reflect yoga’s long-term benefits than the beginners in the ACE study.

Testa also notes that many cardio junkies would do well to add yoga to their routines. “Cyclists score well in cardiovascular fitness, but 80 percent of them are stiff and uncoordinated, because they do only one movement many times,” he says. “We often recommend yoga to them.”