Does Yoga Count as Cardio?

By , SparkPeople Blogger
Yoga has seen a steady rise in popularity over the past few years.  According to a 2008 report released by Yoga Journal, 15.8 million American adults were practicing yoga.  In 2010, that number grew to 21.9 million.  The majority reported that they practice yoga for a number of health benefits, stress reduction and relaxation.  Yoga is a great complement to a well-rounded exercise routine, no matter what your fitness level.   It offers a variety of modifications (as needed), styles and intensities, giving it a wide appeal among exercisers of all fitness levels and goals.
But one of the questions I get most about yoga isn't whether I recommend it (I do), but whether it counts as a cardio workout. Could yoga replace one or more of your weekly treadmill or elliptical dates? 
Before you decide to give up your traditional cardio workout for the new power yoga class at the gym, you might want to get all of the facts first.      
The Definition of Cardio
The American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) defines aerobic (cardio) exercise as "any activity that uses large muscle groups, can be maintained continuously, and is rhythmic in nature." It is also defined as exercise that increases the need for oxygen and elevates the heart rate to a specific level, typically at least 60-70% of one's max heart rate.  Traditional forms of cardio (think running, biking, swimming) use the largest muscle groups in the body in a rhythmic, continuous nature. This is what increases the heart rate to what is defined as an "aerobic" level and holds it there for several minutes at a time.
The Benefits of Cardio
Aerobic exercise strengthens your heart and lungs (which make up the cardiovascular system). During exercise, your muscles demand more oxygen-rich blood and give off more carbon dioxide and other waste products. As a result, your heart has to beat faster to keep up. When you follow a consistent aerobic exercise plan, your heart grows stronger so it can meet the muscles' demands without as much effort. Everyone, regardless of their weight, age, or gender, can benefit from aerobic exercise.

In addition, cardio burns more calories than any other type of exercise, making it the go-to type of exercise for weight loss. As we know, the more calories you burn, the more weight you'll be able to lose. So if weight-loss is a goal of yours, calorie burning is key.
Does Yoga Meet the Criteria of a Cardio Workout?
When deciding whether or not yoga is a cardio workout, you have to ask yourself if it meets the criteria for aerobic exercise.  A true cardio workout will meet ALL of the criteria.
It can be hard to make a blanket generalization about yoga when there are so many styles and disciplines under the yoga umbrella. Some are definitely not much of a workout. Others can be fast-paced and more intense.  But most types of yoga share the same poses—just done at different paces. Some of those poses use the "large muscle groups" of the body (think legs). Others don't. Holding any one pose (even though this is strength-building  isometric exercise) for more than a couple of seconds diminishes the rhythmic nature and therefore the cardio workout potential.
Other types of yoga, such as faster-paced Ashtanga or "power" styles involve fewer holds/pauses and move practitioners quickly from one pose to the next. While these involve more "rhythmic" and "continuous" movements, it may or may not be enough to elevate your heart rate to an aerobic level—depending on the class itself and your own fitness level.
Here's a related example. Walking can be a great form of exercise. Leisurely walking (what most of us do in everyday life) meets most of the cardio criteria (large muscles, rhythmic nature, continuous movement); but at an easy pace, it typically will not meet the heart rate guideline—and therefore would not count as a true cardio workout. Only walking that is brisk enough to bring up your heart rate for an extended period of time truly offers the health and calorie-burning benefits of "cardio" exercise.
A 2005 study by the American Council on Exercise looked at the aerobic benefits and calories burned by a Hatha yoga class, which is considered one of the most beginner-friendly and popular forms of yoga.  The study concluded that while the yoga group showed numerous improvements in participants' strength and endurance as well as improved balance and flexibility, they did not burn a significant amount of calories by practicing yoga. "In fact, one 50-minute session of Hatha yoga burns just 144 calories, similar to a slow walk,” according to researchers.  That's about half the number of calories that traditional forms of cardio burn in the same amount of time. Total calories burned are a good indicator of how aerobically challenging any movement truly is. The harder it is, the more your heart rate elevates, and the more calories you burn—one sign of a good cardio workout.
But this doesn’t mean that yoga isn’t worth the time, because exercise is about more than just burning calories.  It just means that you might want to reconsider swapping a yoga class for your cardio workout, and instead, use it as a complement to a well-rounded fitness routine
What about Hot Yoga?
Hot yoga can be challenging because it is taught in a room that is typically 95 to 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  At temperatures like this, you’re going to sweat—a LOT.  But sweating is your body’s cooling mechanism and not an indicator of how hard you’re working.  Some people naturally sweat more than others.  While hot yoga feels harder because the heat is challenging, that’s only because the room is warm, not necessarily because the workout is challenging enough to be considered cardio exercise. And any heart rate increase due to heat alone doesn't provide the same health benefits as moving your body in order to achieve that increased heart rate.
Some Yoga Counts as Cardio, Some Doesn't
So how do you know for sure whether or not your yoga class is a cardio workout?  Again, there are many different kinds of yoga.  Some forms (like Hatha or Kundalini) focus on gentle movements and breathing, while others are more fast-paced and physically challenging.  Your best bet is to wear a heart rate monitor, which will tell you exactly how high your heart rate gets and just as importantly, how long it stays at that level.  If your heart rate stays in the cardio zone (at least 60%) for at least 10 continuous minutes, then it can be considered cardio exercise.   This probably won't be the case for the majority of yoga routines, but it’s possible for some of the most advanced forms.  If you are new to yoga, you’ll want to start with a beginner class to learn proper form and technique so that you can avoid injury.  Then if you decide to progress to a more advanced practice, you’ll reduce your chances of getting hurt. 
This information isn’t meant to discourage anyone from trying yoga, or to say that yoga workouts can’t be challenging or aren't beneficial.  Just because a typical yoga class doesn’t have the same benefits as running doesn’t mean there is no benefit at all.  Yoga is great for flexibility, strength and improving the mind-body connection.  It develops balance, range of motion and coordination. It can boost your core strength and even improve your posture while also reducing stress.
We know that ALL movement and ALL intensity levels have health benefits and burn calories. Whether your schedule allows for one or multiple yoga sessions weekly, you’ll see a difference in how you feel when adding it regularly to your workout routine.
"Asking whether yoga counts as cardio is sort of like asking whether running can count as yoga," says SparkPeople's Coach Nicole. "Traditional forms of exercise like strictly defined cardio and strength training are what we measure other things against; but that doesn't mean exercises that don't 'fit' aren't any good. Some types of movements are in a league all their own. Yoga, like other mind-body exercises, offers documented health and fitness benefits despite the fact that they don't meet these clinical guidelines." The important thing to remember is that we all need a variety of exercises for best results. No one type of workout can truly be everything.
Do you think yoga counts as cardio? How has yoga benefited your health and fitness level?

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Good to know! Report
_CYNDY55_ 12/31/2020
Thanks Report
MNABOY 10/1/2020
Thanks for sharing! Report
RBARNES27 9/1/2020
I used to love doing Yoga on my Wii Fit! I used it for before stretching, and after workout cooling down. It seemed to work well! Report
RACHAEL2020 7/29/2020
Never tried a yoga class before, but will after everything opens up. Report
EVILCECIL 6/21/2020
Good article. Thanks. Report
LISAMARIE2015 6/3/2020
😁 Report
RO2BENT 6/3/2020
I prefer normal paced (read: slow) yoga and get cardio from other exercises Report
MUGABI123 4/22/2020
Don't know yoga but the article was interesting. Report
Good read. Report
I like the slow relaxing yoga Report
thank you Report
I think Yoga is good cardio Report
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Thanks Report
Thanks for sharing Report
Thanks for sharing Report
I consider yoga as strength training. Report

Very interested article, I used to do yoga years ago and I lost 25 pounds in 28 days. I must start back again. Report
I recently started learning Korean yoga. Part of it is stretching, part is rhythmic drumming on your body, some other moves, and some is squatting (50 squats with arms @ shoulder height, 50 @ waist height, 50 above the shoulders). I definitely count the squats as strength training! They want me to go every day, but I’m giving myself a day off in between until my legs feel stronger. I wear my FitBit Ionic watch & check my heart rate - it’s always up to 100-120. Cardio! Report
It's time I begin to learn some yoga. Good information. Report
"It is also defined as exercise that increases the need for oxygen and elevates the heart rate to a specific level, typically at least 60-70% of one's max heart rate." This is the better definition. Cardio is about the heart working not the large muscles. It is not what activity one is doing that matters; what matters most is what the activity is doing to oneself (or not doing.) Report
Must get into it again! Report
I've done yoga for 15 years now--as a great way to stretch & end my cardio workouts on my treadmill & exercise bike. But yoga alone?!? Nope--it's not cardio for me. If all I'd ever done was yoga, I wouldn't have lost 75 lbs...It's too easy, and too relaxing to be true cardio. Report
I love yoga. One of the great benefits that I get from doing it 3-4 times a week is disciple. Some days my heart rate goes up other days I feel it's more for flexibility and strength. No matter what it is, the important thing is I do something. Report
I enjoy yoga and hope to attend a yoga class at the beach soon. Report
I have to disagree about Hot Yoga. It DOES increase the heart rate, at least for me it does. But, in my case, dangerously so. I had to give it up. Report
The shape I'm in, unrolling the Yoga mat counts as cardio. ;-) Everyone is at a different level, but I do think the benefits of Yoga go beyond whether or not it raises your heart rate. Report
Intresting article. Report
I love doing yoga, for me is really depends since certain poses that work those muscles more then others and my heart rate does go up however like I said it really depends. No matter Yoga is great for the body, mind and spirit. It doesn't necessarily need to burn those cal. a workout for the mind is still a workout. Report
My favorite exercise (cardio) was walking, but I have osteoarthritis in a hip, and I'm in agony in less than 20 minutes and the pain lasts through the day and night and into the next day. I started yoga as at my age (63) I know I need to maintain strength, flexibility and balance. I really enjoy it and it's actually helped with the hip pain, and hasn't hurt it. So Yoga it is as I can't walk fast enough or for long enough periods of time to do much good and it hurts. Report
After doing Hatha yoga 3 times per week for 3 months, I lost between .75 and 1 full inch every where on my body. Neck, Upper arms, Forearms, chest, waist, hips, thighs and calves...... consistently across the board. I lost two pounds but 3 pants sizes with yoga which was very notable with people asking what life transforming thing I had done to achieve such tone. Its not just about calories. Yoga reduces your size even if it doesn't show on the scale, but only if you do it 3 times per week and I recommend Hatha. I assure you, if done properly, it is an incredible work out. Report
We do arm chair yoga for strength and stretching. I have worn an HR monitor while doing it and have noticed that even sitting my HR can get up to a low aerobic level if I am moving my arms and while doing certain standing poses. We warm up muscles and stretch loosen them up - that if certainly worth while. Report
I think yoga is more about stretching and strength training than burning calories. Report
I don't know about cardio, but if you've ever done the P90X yoga, it's a workout. 90 minutes (if you can do all the poses, which I can't) leaves me in muscle fatigue and dreaming of corpse pose. I dread doing it because I'm so uncoordinated and inflexible, but I know it's good for me. Report
I don't know if it counts as cardio. I tried it last Saturday again after 4 years of not doing it and it felt great. I did not sweat a lot. I didn't feel I got a major workout that would help my fitness goals but it was challenging, and just the right pace to make me feel that some parts of my body were working hard. Report
I've just started doing Jillian Michaels' Yoga Meltdown. It uses yoga positions with repetitions built in to make it a mix of cardio and strength training. I really want to get a heart rate monitor so that I can see exactly how high my heart rate is getting, because it is definitely a cardio workout! Report
I leave my 1.5 hour Hot Moksha yoga class heart pumping like I just ran10k. Love the cardio I get from it. Report
Great article and very helpful! I believe in yoga..but as a strength training exercise. I still do my cardio 5 days a week and use yoga to help sooth my sore muscles :) Report
As the article says, it depends on the type of class you are taking.
No, yoga doesn't count as cardio, but if you live the calm life Yoga teaches you will not need the cardio (running, swimming, etc) that most people claim they do to "release stress." LOL Report
I have done an Ashtanga primary series with a heart monitor. Heart rate never gone above 115, even during sun salutations. I love yoga, but I do not think it can count as cardio. It has a multitude of other benefits nevertheless. Report
Tried yoga years ago but look forward to adding it to my healthy lifestyle action plan. Report
I have a few yoga poses in my ST for balance and flexibility - but I don't take a yoga class (nothing available for me) so I don't really know if it would qualify as cardio. Report
I log the Vinyasa portion of my yoga classes as cardio, even though that section is usually only 12-15 minutes. As Leslie56 points out, repeated sun salutations will get the heart rate up. Report
The Sun Salutation done 12 times in a row, is definitely cardio. Anyone who thinks otherwise, needs to do it. Report
I just participated in a 20 classes in 30 days yoga challenge at my local yoga joint and most of them were Hot Yoga. I will tell you my heart rate was beating a lot of the time and in several poses I began to sweat more because of the strength it took to hold it and maintain my breathing. My heartrate was controlled by my breathing often.

I also did some core yoga classes and Sweet Release (serious stretching and toning) classes. Our hearts were definitely beating in each class and we did do some sweating.

I feel great after this challenge and love what yoga does for my body and mind. It's not so hard but gives me a great work out at the same time. :)

rumbamel Report
"Yoga Journal" magazine had a couple of interesting articles about this. They cited studies in which college athletes did increase their cardio endurance and vO2 capacity after regularly practicing yoga.

The author's conclusion was that while yoga is often not cardio exercise as defined by the West, it does still meet a lot of the same goals as cardio exercise: lowering the heart rate and increasing lung capacity during physical stress (e.g., exercise).

While cardio-style exercise comes at this goal by stressing the heart and lungs until they get stronger, yoga comes at this goal by teaching our heart and lungs to stay calm (for lack of a better word!) under stress so that they can handle more.

All this to say: I think both are important and helpful! Report
Thank you - Very helpful article to clarify this difference. I do not think yoga is cardio, but it is still beneficial in strengthening your long muscles, improving balance, and relaxing you. A yoga practice gives me the inner energy to try other forms of exercise. And I am a person who needs an hour of relaxation to focus my thoughts and keep me on track in my life. Yoga does this better than any other method I have tried.

I agree with other posters: if you are tracking your heart rate, you are not going to get the main yogic benefit... It is not about cardio, it is about the heart. :) Your heart in the sense of your spiritual self.

: ) Report