Yoga is known for being a meditative and relaxing type of exercise. Stretches and deep breaths allow us to really focus on our inner energy and develop better mindfulness. But given yoga’s reputation, can it also be a good cardio workout?

The answer is: YES. Yoga does pass off as an effective cardio workout.

Read on to find out how.

What is cardio?

Cardio means cardiorespiratory fitness or CRF. It refers to any type of exercise that increases your heart rate and keeps it up for a long period of time. When you do cardio, it tests your body’s ability to pump blood and deliver oxygen to your muscle groups.

By constantly engaging in cardio exercises, you are not only becoming more fit but you are also improving your heart health and therefore have more chances of living longer.

Note: Some people might refer to cardio as cardiovascular fitness but this pertains only to the heart. Cardiorespiratory is highlighting the importance of both the heart and the lungs.

Cardiorespiratory fitness level

Cardiorespiratory fitness level shows how much oxygen you use during exercise and is measured in Vo2 max. This is a combination of your heart and lungs’ efforts. However, some factors that comprise your cardio fitness level are unchangeable such as your age, gender, and genetic background.

For instance, men naturally have higher levels of cardio but as people grow older, the gap narrows. The Vo2 max lessens 10% every decade that passes by.

Despite this fact, you can maintain a strong and healthy cardiovascular and respiratory system by exercising regularly. Practicing yoga is a good way to start!

 

Two types of cardio: HIIT and Steady-State

There are two types of cardio, HIIT and steady-state. They are also referred to as anaerobic and aerobic exercise respectively in exercise terms.

HIIT means high-intensity interval training and focuses on intense, all-out effort physical activities. Workouts under this category can be exhausting and at times even nauseating. You feel the heat in your legs and breathing can be a struggle. Unlike steady-state, this doesn’t highlight the importance of oxygen. Although, it helps increase metabolism.

Meanwhile, the steady-state (or sometimes characterized as aerobic) is an effective form of cardio exercise because it is continuous and balanced. It’s been discovered to predict longevity, therefore, improve quality of life. This also helps burn calories which is extremely essential in weight loss.

Basically, steady-state or aerobic exercise is the more popular one because it’s easier to do, it makes us exercise longer, and it helps reduce the risk of injuries.

Note: Most professional athletes practice the system of 80-90% steady-state workouts and only 10% of HIIT.

 

3 Factors in Cardio

Three factors can help determine how effective your cardio workout is at improving your fitness. The factors are as follows:

  • Frequency refers to how often you exercise or work out
  • Intensity – refers to how hard you work out
  • Duration – refers to the longevity of your workout

 

Cardio Recommendations of the Center for Disease Control (CDC)

The CDC provided recommendations for people of all ages on how much they should engage in cardio. This is to help keep us healthy and fit correctly.

For adults ages 18 to 64

  • At least 150 minutes of moderate-intensity workouts such as brisk walking per week.
  • At least 2 days of activities that strengthen muscles per week.

 

For adults ages 65 and up

Adding in activities that improve balance (such as yoga).

According to the CDC, the most important measurement is the total amount of physical activity per week. 150 minutes is the minimum but being able to do 300 minutes is better. Moving from 150 to 300 minutes will significantly increase the health benefits.

 

Is yoga cardio?

Again, is cardio yoga even real? It might be odd for some people to think that a relaxing workout such as yoga would be efficient in improving cardiorespiratory fitness. But in fact, the opposite is true! Practicing yoga can give you a cardio benefit.

One particular yoga class that is an ideal cardio workout is Vinyasa yoga. This one is a more fast-paced class that involves doing a series of poses in a continuous flow. Power yoga is also good at cardio and strength training. These two are considerably more intense than other types of yoga.

How intense is yoga practice?

To determine if cardio yoga is really effective, we must know how intense yoga is. Intensity is being measured through METs which stands for Metabolic Equivalents of Task. The higher the METs, the more vigorous the activity is. However, that same activity can be done at varying levels of intensity. It also easily helps you determine the intensity of different activities.

Here’s an example of doing an activity in different intensity levels:

1.0-1.5 METs

Less than 3.0 METs

3.0-5.9 METs

Greater than 6.0 METs

Sedentary

Very light/light

Moderate

Vigorous

Sitting, reading, watching television, or any activity that involves sitting

walking slowly around the house or any place

Walking at a fast pace or brisk walking

Walking at a very brisk pace

  •  

 

Here’s another example that features different yoga styles:

1.0-1.5 METs

Less than 3.0 METs

3.0-5.9 METs

Greater than 6.0 METs

Sedentary

Very light/light

Moderate

Vigorous

Yoga Core

Hatha yoga

Warm Vinyasa Flow yoga, Power yoga

Sun Salutations, Hot Vinyasa, Bikram yoga

  •  

Yoga is a multicomponent physical activity, which even the CDC thinks so. They consider it to be the type of exercise that touches different aspects of our physical health such as muscle strength and balance. Furthermore, deep breathing exercises enable us to strengthen our cardiovascular and respiratory functions.

 

Intensity based on feeling (perceived exertion)

One way to measure the intensity of physical activities is through perceived exertion. This is considered to be the more practical way.

Here are the guidelines to determine the intensity based on feeling:

Moderate exercise intensity

Moderate activity is a bit hard to do. Here are its factors:

  • You feel your breathing quicken but that doesn’t mean that you’re out of breath.
  • You may lightly sweat after doing this activity for only 10 minutes.
  • You can converse but you cannot sing properly.

 

Vigorous exercise intensity

This is a more challenging type of exercise that checks on the following boxes:

  • You have deep and rapid breathing.
  • You sweat already after only a few minutes of activity.
  • You can’t utter more than a few words without having to pause for breath.

 

Regular yoga practitioners can rely on feeling to measure the intensity of their activity. You can also determine it through the way your breathing is.

 

Intensity based on heart rate

This requires the usage of a heart monitor. Heart monitors are typically more objective. It relies on calculation and numbers to determine how intense the activity is. Just to give you a tip, chest strap heart rate monitors are effectively more accurate than smartwatches.

Here, you measure intensity by calculating your maximum heart rate. Simply follow this formula:

220 minus your age = maximum heart rate (MHR)

Here’s an example of the MHR of yoga students from different levels that engage in moderate-intensity: 

Group

MHR

Beginners

50-65%

Intermediate

60-75%

Established

70-85%

 

As you can see, the higher the student level is, the higher their MHR is. This is because our heart gets stronger as we use it.

Simply saying, the more you practice cardio workouts like yoga, the stronger your heart will be.

 

Three stages of fitness

Exercising is not always a habit that’s easy to maintain. Sometimes, we lose track of why we’re doing it in the first place. So to keep you motivated, you can turn to the 3 stages of fitness. This will show you which stage of fitness you’re at and motivate you to keep practicing yoga until you reach your goal.

Here are the 3 stages of fitness progression:

Initial stage (4 weeks)

The first one isn’t always the easiest. In fact, this may be the most challenging out of the three because you are just starting to build momentum for yourself. The goal is to create an exercise habit. You start by exercising at least 30 minutes 3 times per week.

Improvement stage (4-5 months)

This is when your exercise leads to improvements in your cardiorespiratory fitness. The workouts become easier and you start to see the results such as feeling stronger and better than before. The goal is to really improve your cardiovascular and respiratory health by exercising 30 minutes still but now 3 to 5 times per week.

Maintenance stage (6 months and beyond)

Like what its name states, this is how to maintain your fitness. You can keep your fitness level as long as you practice the same workout at least 3 times per week. If you want to surpass what you have achieved and improve some more, you need to adjust the frequency, duration, and intensity.

Note: Once you stop practicing, you can lose 50% of your cardio benefit in just 4 to 12 weeks.

 

Cardio yoga vs other cardio exercises

Many physical activities focus on increasing the cardio fitness level such as walking, jogging, swimming, and cycling. But the reality is, any activity that gets the heart rate up is considered cardio. More often than not, some people perceive that only exercises that involve vigorous activities are good for cardio.

But the truth is yoga practice is also an ideal way to improve cardiorespiratory health. It doesn’t just strengthen the heart but also expands the lung. The extensive form of postures combined with deep breaths is basically a formula for better health. And the great thing about yoga is that it is not pressuring. You can progress at your own pace and have a reliable yoga teacher to patiently guide you through the steps. You can always do your other exercises with yoga on the side. It’s more of a supporting practice that touches certain aspects in you that other activities can’t.

Yoga isn’t just about being physically fit and strong. It’s also about learning how to listen to what your body needs and being able to exhibit a more positive outlook towards life. That’s why it’s considered a physical, mental, and spiritual exercise.

 

The formula for cardio yoga

Here is the secret to improving your cardiorespiratory fitness level through yoga:

 

Type

Power yoga or Vinyasa yoga

Frequency

3 to 5 times per week. For beginners, 2 to 3 times per week for the first 4 weeks 

Intensity

Moderate intensity

Duration

20-45 mins per session until you level up to 60-75 mins per session

 

Note: If you desire to increase the intensity, you may include Sun Salutations for 10 minutes.

Cardio workouts you should try

Here is a particular type of yoga that you can do for cardio fitness: Sun Salutations or Surya Namaskar. It pertains to a series of yoga poses that are commonly done by yoga practitioners. These postures are great for strengthening and aligning the entire body.

The sequence is as follows:

  • Tadasana (Mountain Pose)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Urdhva Uttanasana (Upward Forward Bend)
  • Chaturanga Dandasana (Four-Limbed Staff Pose)
  • Urdvha Mukha Svanasana (Upward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose)
  • Urdhva Uttanasana (Upward Forward Bend)
  • Uttanasana (Standing Forward Bend)
  • Urdhva Hastasana (Upward Salute)
  • Shavasana (Corpse Pose)

About the Author​

Lynette is fully dedicated to the support and empowerment of the growing community of committed yoga students and teachers. As one of the Lead Instructors for Yoga Teacher Training, she is here to share tips on how to grow your profile as a yoga teacher or build a yoga business either physically or digitally.