Does Yoga Work for Bone Density?

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Debbie asks:

So much attention is given to using weight training to boost metabolism for weight loss by building muscle and preventing osteoporosis. Can the same goals be accomplished by using yoga as your primary source of weight training, since it is essentially body weight training?

This is a really great question, Debbie. There’s a lot of confusion around metabolism, and people are always talking about increasing their metabolism. Ironically, overweight people, in many cases, actually have a faster metabolic rate than thin people. They actually have to in order to sustain that body size. It’s not really all about metabolism.

If you look at somebody who has a very, very, very slow metabolism, would be like a monk in a monastery. They tend to have primarily sedentary lives, they tend to eat very infrequently and their metabolism is very slow and they’re still very thin. And so metabolism is kind of a confusing one. There are ways to increase your metabolism artificially, such as by taking stimulants, which is something common to weight loss pills, and those are just not effective. They just don’t work.

So rather than focusing on metabolism, I always like to tell people focusing on balancing your hormones, balancing your blood sugar, balancing your insulin levels, making your body more leptin sensitive, more insulin sensitive, because that’s really the key. So I wouldn’t get stuck on this metabolism thing, because then you start hearing about these metabolic tricks, like drinking lots of coffee or eating 10 meals a day or all these kinds of things.

If you’re a body builder or something like that, fair enough, but if you’re just trying to manage your weight, those can be counterproductive, confusing and overly complicated.

In terms of preventing osteoporosis, you’re right. Weight-bearing exercises are really important. The important thing to remember is that there are lots of different weight-bearing exercises. Somebody once told me one of the biggest mistakes people make in fitness is they try to get in shape and they start lifting weights, when they can’t even do a push-up. Or they start doing bench presses or leg presses when they can’t even do a squat.

For most everybody, your own body is enough weight and it’s a safer way to start training. So there’s big, big benefits to weight training. Resistance training is fantastic. But there’s a time and a place for it. For almost everybody in the world, they’re going to have more fun, it’s going to be safer and they’re going to get more benefits if they at least start the process with body weight training. That would be things like pushups, things like pull-ups, things like supported handstands, that would be things like planking, that would be things like squats. For most people, those are really, really hard. So why would you add weight until you need to?

So can yoga have enough impact, can it have enough weight-bearing things to prevent osteoporosis? There’s some interesting studies that suggest yes. They tested the bone density of some long-time yoga practitioners with people who were basically sedentary, and this is the only study I’ve ever seen. It showed that there was something like 38 percent improvement in terms of bone density and things like that.

What we tend to get into, is people try to put everything in a box and turn everything into a statistic. Any statistic is a little bit confusing. So people will tell you, “You have to work out 20 minutes a day, your heart has to be 120 or more and if you don’t do that you’ll get heart disease.” Those rules, in real life, never really play out. But what does play out is if you do not use it you’ll lose it, and with bone density it’s really, really true.

So can yoga be helpful for osteoporosis? I think so. Is there enough research to really say that conclusively? Probably not, but I think it’s a safe bet to say that it can, especially if you’re doing athletic styles of yoga and especially if you’re doing a well-balanced yoga practice where you’re using your hands and your feet dynamically, you’re doing dynamic Vinyasa movements. I think that’s fantastic for bone density, but again, there isn’t enough research to say. I think it’s a heck of a lot safer and more practical to be doing body weight training than to be picking up steel when 10 pushups is a challenge.

Does yoga build the type of muscle necessary to burn more calories and maintain healthy bone density?

This is another interesting thing people talk about. Sometimes people will say that yoga builds lean muscle and lifting weights builds short, bulky muscle. That’s not really the way muscle works. You do have fast-twitch and slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are primarily genetic. They can be changed, but in terms of muscle, you build muscle or you don’t build muscle. It’s not a different type.

What happens is, there are certainly, like if you’re lifting weights for example, you will tend to be shortening your muscles in that they will get stronger without being lengthened. So it is true that the strength you build in yoga tends to go hand-in-hand with flexibility, which is really great. The type of muscle, it’s the same type of muscle. Does it burn more calories? Yeah, so a pound of muscle burns five times more calories than a pound of fat. Getting into calorie counting, again, is not something that’s productive, it’s not something that’s helpful. It’s proved ineffective in a gazillion studies. It just doesn’t work. It’s just a benchmark, just a reference for the energetic potential of food. It doesn’t have a whole lot to do with anything when it comes down to weight management. It’s really about, again, internal balance, metabolic balance, managing your blood sugar.

And so does yoga build the right type of muscle? I think it’s a great way to build strength and muscle, because it’s functional. A similar comparison would be things that they’re doing in the CrossFit movement, things that people do in gymnastics or any kind of acrobatics. All of that is functional strength. By functional strength, I mean never in your life will you do a dumbbell curl-style motion with anything. Imagine picking up a book or a pot or a pan or a computer and doing a dumbbell-style curl. You’ll never do that.

And so those types of weight training, fitness training, while it might make your arms look great, it’s completely useless muscle strength and it’s totally imbalanced, and that’s why it can lead to injury and things like that, whereas yoga and other functional movement, other skill-based movements tend to build functional balanced strength. So that’s why you’ll see these really skinny men and women who can do incredible, incredible arm balances and things, because they have this dynamic muscle balance. So I think it’s fantastic. Again, I don’t think there’s any definitive answer on that, though.

Can we rely on yoga for a cardiovascular workout? If so, how can you boost the heart rate? If not, what type and how often do you recommend cardio training to a yoga practice? Many yogas I know do yoga, no extra cardio or weight training, do you recommend this?

Cardio is an invented thing, this idea that you have to do 120 beats per minute for 20 minutes-plus, 3 times a week to strengthen your heart. Is there some merit to that? Yeah. Is that good for you? Yeah, maybe, but there are other ways. If you do any kind of study of the longest living people in the world, they are never, ever the athletes. It’s never the athletes.

Most of the people you’ll find, the thing they have in common is they do really simple things like walking, for example. I’ve studied a whole bunch of these people. I’ve never found anyone who had a 3-day a week, 120-plus beat per minute cardio routine, never, ever, ever. I don’t think that’s the secret. Can you strengthen your heart that way? Yeah, I think so. Is it really the secret to health and longevity? I don’t think that it is. More and more research is coming out showing that the effects of cardio can be counterproductive, especially when people overdo it.

That said, if you love it, like if you love running, if you love jogging, if you love cycling, anything that you love and you really, really enjoy and don’t have to force yourself to do, that’s a good sign that it’s working and jiving with your body’s chemistry, so for sure go for it. But if you hate going to the gym and you’re running on one of those stupid machines and trying to get your heart rate up and it’s just not working, I would get less focused on this math, which has really been superimposed upon movement practices, and I’d get more focused on how you feel, on your cravings, on how you’re sleeping, because all of those things, I think, are a much better indicator of your health.

Now, all that said, it is kind of fun to measure your heart rate. Your heart rate will vary greatly. So an advanced yoga practitioner, their heart rate might stay at around 70 to 90 beats per minute when they’re doing their full practice. That said, if they’re working at their edge, which means they’re doing a really challenging practice, most people will peak up to 160 at various times during their practice. The easiest way to do this is you strap a heart monitor on. They have these great new heart monitors, and they’ll map out your whole practice on the computer.

And so the truth is, there are some really, really beneficial cardiovascular benefits of yoga, depending on the style of yoga and depending on the practice, but especially if you’re working appropriate to your level, if you’re taking a class that really challenges you, to the point where you have to focus very, very strongly to maintain your breath. In a class like that, you’ll often find that you’re hitting 160 beats per second, which is a pretty strong heart rate for a yoga practice. And the great thing about it is it’s sporadic, which those sporadic high heart rates, high-intensity intervals pulsing like that, there’s more and more research to show that’s a really, really great way to strengthen your heart and also to balance your entire metabolism, your internal hormones.

So long answer, so in terms of do I think it’s a great cardiovascular workout, I do. I think it’s balanced, I think it has that intermittent intensity, but you’ve got to be going to the right type of class.

Erica asks:

I’m 6 months pregnant and take a prenatal yoga class once a week. I do some at home as well, but I was wondering, could you suggest 3 important poses that I can practice?

Erica, people are always asking this. People say, “Okay, I play Ultimate Frisbee. I don’t have time for stretching. Give me just one pose, just one pose to do.” It just doesn’t really work like that, in terms of one pose that’s going to be magic. Yoga teachers will sometimes teach this, “Do this one pose and your libido will go through the roof,” or, “Do this one pose and you’ll sleep like a baby,” or, “Do this one pose and it’s like 20 minutes on a treadmill.” That’s kind of magic fantasy talk. It doesn’t really work like that.

The one thing I will say, Erica, is at six months pregnant it’s usually time to slow down, and so working on breathing practices, working on really, really gentle squats and things like this, and more than anything I’d start to work with a teacher. My wife was doing a lot of stuff, we have a yoga trapeze and she was hanging from that, doing hanging pelvic rotations and things like that.

But in terms of three magic poses, I don’t have three for you. The one thing I will say, Erica, is we have a new Yoga of Pregnancy video program that’s coming out. I don’t know if we’ll make it in time for your pregnancy, but hopefully we will, so stay tuned for that.

Estelle asks:

The pose where you stretch your hands up the wall, (that’s called Hangman) is it normal to get pins and needles after a minute or so?

For sure, Estelle, that is a really intense pose. You’ll feel your arms go completely numb.

I really enjoy the pretzel arm pose, but I’m not sure I’m doing it right. Is the aim to get your arms as straight as possible? Also, my chin is resting on top of my overlapping arms.

Correct, Estelle. Arms as straight as possible, relax completely, chin and the weight of your head resting on your overlapping arms. That’s correct.

John asks:

I have scoliosis and had surgery when I was younger, had two steel rods fused to my spine, so obviously I have limited mobility in my back. I have to be careful when I walk, because if I accidentally trip, chances are that I won’t be able to keep myself from falling down. So whenever I do exercises, yoga, stretching, et cetera, I just do what I can and listen to my body. Besides being careful, do you have any words of wisdom to help me with Yoga?

That’s a great question, John. I can’t give any better advice than what you just said. Listen to your body, doing what you can, taking it slowly. I would also just make sure that your teacher knows. Make sure they know that you have those steel rods also, because a lot of people have scoliosis, but very few people have those steel rods, and that’s a very, very different situation than somebody with mild scoliosis. So for sure mention that to your teacher.

Pamela asks:

I need yoga for Arthritis pain. Any recommendations, please?

First of all, Pamela, if you have arthritis there’s a lot of new research about inflammation arthritis, particularly dietary stuff. This is kind of controversial, but if you’re having arthritis pain I would first of all look at giving up grains, and wheat in particular, anything with gluten. I know this is going to sound weird and it’s going to sound extreme, but people get tremendous benefits from giving up inflammatory foods. The gluten in wheat tends to be the biggest offender. So if you’re eating bread on a regular basis, give that a try.

MSM, Methylsulfonylmethane, which is one of the key ingredients in our YOGABODY Stretch formula, there is tons and tons of documented research on its anti-inflammatory benefits for arthritic patients. It has fantastic results. A huge percentage of our users have minor arthritis, and they’re getting tremendous benefits. Not just cosmetic benefits, but they’re actually helping to heal and reduce that inflammation.

So I would look at dietary and I would look at supplementation with something like Methylsulfonylmethane, and then also make sure you’re eating lots of anti-inflammatory foods, things like turmeric, things like ginger, things like Omega-3 fats, which can be found in chia seeds, flaxseeds, and then in the animal kingdom, in cold water small fish or high-quality fish oils.

Sanjay asks:

I have been practicing gravity yoga for one year. Recently, I have started to practice janusirshasana and paschimottanasana. (That’s a one-legged forward bend and a two-legged seated forward bend.) I notice that my hamstrings and back are still very tight, and although I can put my head on the knees, I am unable to flatten my torso on the legs. I would be thankful to you if you could give me some remedy for this situation.

Sanjay, great question. Okay, so there are two different ways to practice. When we’re practicing just for flexibility, we’ll often practice completely passively, meaning you’ll let your body relax completely. If what you’re doing right now is paschimottanasana, janusirshasana is what we’d call an asymmetrical stretch, and paschimottanasana is symmetrical. There are benefits to both, and you’ll find deeper in different stretches, in different circumstances.

What I would recommend is either of those poses can be done pretty safely, as long as you bend your knees a little bit, as a gravity pose, meaning hold them for a good long time, like three to five minutes-plus and just relax completely. When you’re practicing them dynamically, like in a class and you’re holding them for just a few seconds or up to 30 seconds, instead of letting your back curl and round, look towards your toes and imagine your chest coming towards your big toe. Imagine your chest lengthening out over that big toe. Hope that’s helpful. Let me know how that goes.

Gloria asks:

I am a 13 years old girl and I’m very inflexible. I can barely touch my toes, but I’d really love to do a back bend and the splits. I can’t seem to do a cartwheel. I was just wondering if I hold each pose for a longer amount of time or stretch twice daily, would I be able to double my flexibility in only a week or 2 instead of 4?

The answer is no. Four weeks is really a minimum to get started, and usually at four weeks’ time, that’s when people get really excited and they continue on. I always tell people, within a month you should notice massive results, like doubling your flexibility. And within a year, if you really stick with it, you can really, really transform your body. Don’t be in that much of a hurry though, Gloria, there’s no reason to want to go that fast. You’re going to hurt yourself.

My doctor recommends stretches for tight hamstrings. It would be nice to get some feedback and extra help and tips from you.

What doctors and sports physiologists and runners and all these people recommend, when they talk about stretching, what they’re usually talking about is warming up. Like if you see somebody about to take a run, you’ll see that they bend over and they just kind of hang there for about 10 seconds and then they come back up. That’s called warming up. That’s not really a stretch, in that it’s not going to make you anymore flexible. The way that you’re going to improve your flexibility is by doing long-hold gravity poses, and that means bending your knees a little bit and hanging there for a really long time.

And so while the advice of your doctor or a traditional stretching coach, whether it’s a sports person or something is not bad, it’s not going to increase your flexibility. It’s going to maintain your current level of flexibility and warm you up to prevent injury. These are beneficial, but it’s not going to help you.

So yes, you want to hold the poses for a long amount of time. Don’t be in too much of a rush, Gloria. In two weeks, I wouldn’t expect a revolution. Give yourself at least four weeks, and use the momentum and the excitement from your progress there to carry you forward.