Cardio and yoga are both great exercise, but do separate things for your body. Even with the sweat and elevated heart rate Bikram yoga adds, there is no cardio benefit from it. Does that mean that Bikram and cardio are mutually exclusive?
Cardio workouts are usually repetitive motions done over a period of time (20-60 minutes, or 150 minutes a week, as recommended by the American College of Sports Medicine) with the intent of keeping a sustained heart rate between 50% and 90% (this is different for everyone and depends on age and exercise frequency). This causes you to breathe faster. During a cardio workout, your heart is pumping blood faster throughout your body, carrying oxygen and nutrients with it.
Yoga is more for strength training, balance and focus. Bikram yoga adds heat to this--official Bikram studios keep the room a tumid 105 degrees and 40% humidity. Bikram also does 26 specific poses (asanas), each with different benefits. While this can have the effect of raising the heart rate because of the heat, the heart really only raises by 15-30 beats a minute, about the same as walking around the same room.
Bikram can’t replace cardio, but its benefits can be felt all over the body while doing cardio. Yes, Bikram yoga can actually improve your cardio workout! Some of the poses have benefits which expand lung capacity, while others build muscle memory for movements that prevent injury. And a few of them even raise the heart rate a little--just not enough to count as cardio. With the advice of the Official Bikram website’s poses glossary, here are some of the best positions to enhance your cardio workout, and maybe add a few extra heart beats.
Pranayama (Standing Deep Breathing)
The very word pranayama means “control of life force” and refers to the belief that life force comes from breathing. The ancient yogis who first observed this didn’t know about oxygen being transported through our blood, but they were certainly observant of its effects, because oxygen does indeed give us energy. This pose not only optimizes the flow of oxygen through your body, it also improves blood flow. Both of these are a great enhancement for your cardio workout.
The Triangle Pose is a very coordinated pose that actually activates all of your muscles, but it forces the heart and lungs to work together. This is the very definition of cardio!
Savasana (Dead Body)
This morbidly named pose demands total relaxation. This seems to be the opposite of what is desirable for cardio, but it has the effect of improving blood circulation. Relaxation of the muscles is also important in a cardio workout because muscles that are tight sustain more injuries, while muscles that are relaxed and limber are less prone to overextension.
Not to be confused with the traditional sit up, this pose does resemble it a little. While its primary purpose is to work the lower back, hips, thighs and legs, it also improves leg circulation. Coupled with controlled breathing (also called pranayama, like the stance described earlier), the only cardio function it doesn’t fulfill is the elevated heart rate.
This full pose (there is a standing bow that shouldn’t be confused with this one) provides 360 degree flexion of the spine. We’ve talked before about yoga’s relationship to the spine, but this pose also improves circulation around it. The spine encases the all-important Central Nervous System, so increasing circulation in this area has a plethora of beneficial effects for the whole body that echo cardio.
Supta-Vajrasana (Fixed Firm)
This is another pose for the lower back and legs. In addition to strengthening the knees and ankles as well as relieving back pain and sciatica, the Fixed Firm pose also improves circulation to these areas, the hips, and the lower limbs.
Ardha-Kurmasana (Half Tortoise)
Half Tortoise is loaded with benefits that can enhance your cardio workout. The position of the head in this pose brings a healthy flow of blood to the brain. Aside from the benefits to memory and mental clarity, the blood will be well-oxygenated through breathing. The stretching of the torso in this pose also gently stretches the lower lungs, expanding lung capacity and inviting that oxygen in.
Kapalbhati in Vajrasana
Kapalbhati In Vajrasana (Blowing in Firm)
The final Bikram pose brings the whole routine full circle. As with many of the previous poses, its cardio value is in its stillness, as opposed to action. Sitting with the spine straight and focusing on breathing deeply opens the lungs for more oxygen to enter the bloodstream.
Yoga and cardio may be opposites in execution, but they compliment one another so thoroughly that a well-rounded workout contains elements of both. These Bikram poses may not be a cardio workout, but they give your body a workout that makes cardio more effective. Strong lungs and good circulation make the heart’s job easier, and that in turn makes it easier for the heart to get stronger with cardio!