YOGA FOR THE ATHLETE OF AGING
by Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC
Yoga practice may have beneficial impacts on your physical training, and vice- versa.
As promised, we continue our series on ancillary physical exercise practice for the Athlete of Aging. If you haven’t already, I strongly urge you to look at the introductory article on this topic and our recent essay on martial arts for the Masters Athlete. Today, we turn our attention to Yoga.
It is incumbent upon me to begin with the explicit disclaimer that I have only the most superficial and passing familiarity with Yoga. I have never studied the discipline or practiced the exercises in any meaningful way. My exposition here is entirely didactic and based on research, not personal experience.
As you might imagine, the word Yoga is of Indo-European origin (like almost all of the words you use every day). The Sanskrit root word, yuj,युज्, is the progenitor of the word yoke, and carries the same meaning: to bind, affix, or unite. Thus, the purpose of Yoga is to “yoke” or unite the practitioner with a spiritual realm or awareness. In this sense, the word is akin to the proto-Indo-European leyg, the progenitor of ligos, also meaning to bind, which in turn gives rise to words like ligature (a suture or knot) and religion. Religion and Yoga are thus complete synonyms: both refer to joining.
In the West, when we hear the word Yoga, we tend to think of a physical system of exercises that extend the flexibility, mobility, and balance of the body, and we probably associate them with Indian culture, breath-work, and an unfamiliar, poorly-understood mysticism. Yoga does indeed profess to be a complete system of spiritual exercise and development, but that purpose lies beyond our scope, and the physical discipline contained within this much larger structure (which is virtually bottomless) is our emphasis today. The physical exercise of Yoga can be practiced by anybody without any corresponding religious or spiritual commitment, just as one can practice t’ai chi without being a Taoist, karate without being Shinto, kung fu without being Buddhist, and black-belt-level Bible-Thumping without being particularly Christian.
Hatha Yoga is a physical branch of Yoga. Hatha in Sanskrit means force, referring not to any mystical force but actual physical force (Isaac Newton, not Obi-Wan Kenobi). In the Western practice of Hatha Yoga, the primary emphasis seems to be on the asanas, the uncomfortable-looking postures that we tend to associate with Yoga practice.
Hatha Yoga does not appear to have been a central feature of classical religious Yoga. The history of Hatha Yoga’s development and spread is a bit murky and contentious and not relevant to our purposes. Its introduction to the West seems to have occurred in the late 19th century, and since that time it has to a large extent been stripped of it religious connotations and become a market commodity. Hatha Yoga has evolved and become extensively hybridized, and is sometimes combined with martial arts practice, weights, barre work, and—get this—with goats. Because why not? We’ll buy anything, and who doesn't love goats?
Henceforth, when I use the term Yoga, I will be referring entirely to the physical practice of Hatha Yoga and related systems, with or without goats, and the remainder of this essay will focus on Yoga as exercise.
We can very roughly divide the commercially available forms of Yoga instruction in the West into three major divisions or “styles:” The first, exemplified by Sivananda Yoga, incorporates more spiritual teaching into Yoga practice, the second, represented by Iyengar Yoga, emphasizes correct technical performance of the asanas, and the third, exemplified by Bikram Yoga, has a more “aerobic” or vigorous quality, and is associated with so-called “hot Yoga.”
Claims of benefit for Yoga range from the reasonable to the silly to the fantastic. We will not address claims of being able to inhabit other bodies or prevent the unwanted shedding of semen.
Claims of improvement in mental health, such as benefits in depression, are based on uneven evidence of varying quality, but are not unreasonable, given that all forms of physical exercise (especially those with a social component, like Yoga) are beneficial in such settings. Claims of salutary effect on cancer, neurodegenerative disease, rheumatic disease, inflammatory bowel disease, hypertension, diabetes, and other medical conditions cannot at present be supported by good data. Yoga is exercise, and exercise is almost always better than no exercise, but it won’t make your brain tumor or your heart failure go away. It is also worth pointing out that, similar to the difficulty of interpreting studies of vegetarian diets, it can be extremely difficult to separate the effects of Yoga from those of lifestyle parameters commonly associated with Yoga practice. Yoga practitioners tend not to be hard-drinkin’, meat-eatin’, fast-livin’ Marlboro men, although I’m sure there are exceptions. People are weird.
Claims for beneficial impacts of Yoga on general fitness attributes seem, on the face of it, rather more credible. Yoga is claimed to benefit virtually all fitness attributes: strength, power, mobility, endurance, balance, and body composition. Based on the nature of the practice and the available evidence, there seems little doubt that Yoga improves mobility and balance. The asanas are essentially a series of mobility and stretching exercises, some of them performed standing in postures that explicitly require the practitioner to Not Fall Down.
Claims of improvement in strength, and in power (the first derivative of strength), are not well-substantiated, nor would we expect them to be. Weak and deconditioned individuals might be expected to gain some strength through Yoga practice based solely on the novice effect, but progressive improvements in strength are not to be anticipated. Similarly, power is unlikely to be progressively developed by Yoga practice, because (a) it doesn’t progressively improve strength and (b) it is inherently non-explosive in nature. Some endurance benefits have been reported, but this data is uneven, and I do not believe the conditioning effects of Yoga itself are particularly robust, although hybrid systems may promote very good endurance (how much do goats raise your heart rate?). Improvements in body composition are, again, difficult to differentiate from those produced by associated lifestyle factors.
As exercise medicine, therefore, Yoga is wanting in some respects. Let’s look at our criteria:
Yoga appears to be safe, although injuries do occur, and competent instruction and careful practice are of course essential.
The therapeutic window is not clear to me, but the precision of dosing seems to be lacking. The only real quantitative metric available would seem to be time/frequency—how often do you train and how much time do you spend per week or in this or that asana, etc. Intensity in Yoga practice does not have a clear objective metric.
For reasons we have described above, Yoga cannot be considered comprehensive—it does not hit all the fitness attributes in a progressive manner. Nor can it be considered specific and effective for any particular component of the Sick Aging Phenotype.
On the final criterion of simplicity and efficiency, it appears that Yoga practice can be efficient. I cannot speak to simplicity, although it seems to me that the practice can become quite elaborate.
If this all sounds somewhat negative, that speaks more to my shortcomings as a communicator than the shortcomings of Yoga. As an ancillary physical practice, I think Yoga is wonderful. If you enjoy Yoga, have some basic aptitude for it, and tolerate it, I would encourage you to pursue it, as long as it does not interfere with a productive strength and conditioning program. Yoga practice is likely to have some beneficial impacts on your physical training, and vice versa. My only caveat would be to refrain from Yoga practice, or any form of static stretching, prior to barbell-based strength training. The data is fairly clear that stretching prior to weight training is not helpful and may be counterproductive.
If you have had experience with Yoga, and particularly experience combining Yoga with a barbell-based strength training program, we’d love to hear your perspective.
Jonathon Sullivan MD, PhD, SSC, PBC is a retired emergency physician and research physiologist, and the owner and head coach of the Greysteel Strength and Conditioning Clinic in Farmington Hills, Michigan, which specializes in training adults over 50. He is the author of The Barbell Prescription: Strength Training for Life After Forty, with Coach Andy Baker.