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Yoga As Cardio: How Sun Salutations Can Boost Heart Health

A halfway lift
Moving through Sun Salutations provides benefits on and off the mat

When we think of Yoga Asana, or the physical postures of Yoga, we often think of the benefits like flexibility and mobility. While both are true, one that is missed time and time again is the cardio endurance that’s gained from coming onto your mat regularly.

The asana practice has many families or sects of Yoga, from Vinyasa Yoga to Hatha to Ashtanga to Iyengar to Baptiste. Although these types of yoga have different ideologies, practices, and sequencing, they all include a foundational yogic concept: Sun Salutations.

What are Sun Salutations?

Sun Salutations A, B, and C are often included in the beginning of the Asana practice to prepare the body. The common postures between all three (A, B, and C) is Mountain Pose (Tadasana), Forward Fold (Uttanasana), and taking a Vinyasa or a flow (Plank, Chaturanga, Upward-Facing Dog, Downward-Facing Dog).

For example, in Sun Salutation A, you start with reaching up (to the sun) and greet more length in your spine. You take a deep breath in and notice what the inhale does for your physical body reaching up. Then the exhale folds you down into Uttanasana, or Forward Fold. Another inhale brings you into a Halfway Lift, lifting your chest up halfway, welcoming strength in your upper back and length in the back of your legs. The exhale cues you to plant your hands down and step your feet back into a Plank, maybe you take a breath in there, then use an exhale to shift your chest forward and bend the elbows back into Chaturanga (or a yogi push-up, focusing on your triceps as your elbows draw in). An inhale lifts your chest up and opens the shoulders for an Upward-Facing Dog, or a Cobra Pose, then an exhale shifts the hips up and back for a Downward-Facing Dog. And you continue this cycle of moving with your breath, landing in Mountain Pose to ground and breathe. As you move from posture to posture, notice how the inhales give you expansion, length, and energy and the exhales give you release, heaviness, and ease.

The variations of Sun Salutations allow you to focus on moving with your breath and feel the heat building in your body. Over time - even with a few rounds - you’ll feel your heart rate increase. You’ll feel sweat form on your forehead or your back. This specific series of movements prepares the body for what's ahead and improves heart health.

How To Add More Cardio Movement Into Your Yoga

Do you have a home yoga practice where you are craving to move more? Or are you a yoga teacher and want to create a yoga class to increase the students' heart rates throughout their practice? Below are some tips I have for creating a cardio-heavy yoga flow.

  1. Start slow. You need to prepare your body for what’s ahead. Think of a hard workout or going on a run. You need to find dynamic stretches or light cardio movement to get your heart rate up at a safe pace. Your yoga practice is the same.

  2. Build your foundation. From your Sun Salutation A, move into B or C - adding in chair pose, warrior 1, low lunge, or a few twists to allow your body that same amount of prep in the muscles, tissues, and joints.

  3. Rinse and repeat. Find the flow that feels good in your body and keep doing it. I often repeat a sequence 2-3 times, maybe with more variations or leveling up as I flow, but keeping the same base postures so my body can continue going deeper.

  4. Take moments to pause. Between flows, take a moment to close your eyes and breathe. In every Sun Salutation, we begin and finish in mountain pose (Tadasana). This gives you a chance to feel how your body feels, check in with your heart rate, and see how much energy you have left. If you still have more in the tank, see what it feels like to move at a faster pace (continuing to link your breath to your movements).

The Importance of Cardiovascular Endurance

Cardiovascular endurance is one of the key elements of physical fitness. Just like flexibility, it’s necessary to build your fitness level and more importantly, live a healthy life with longevity and ease. Cardio endurance makes it easy to walk up and down the stairs as you age. It helps you walk all day when you’re on vacation, exploring a new city. It’s useful in the moments when you feel out of breath from a simple task you didn’t expect - like walking a long distance with arms full of grocery bags.

One of my favorite books that gets into the science of yoga is Eddie Stern’s One Simple Thing: A New Look at the Science of Yoga and How It Can Transform Your Life. He says on page 54

“The coordination of movement and breath warms the body, opening the arteries and capillaries, allowing for the blood to flow more freely, and the capillaries expand, allowing for a greater surface area to be created for gas exchange. The feeling is invigorating, and it is also good for our health. The increased blood flow is also beneficial for healing a variety of pains and injuries that can occur in the body.”

Cardio is talked about a lot in the Fitness and Wellness industry but rarely in the context of yoga. As an athlete, a fitness professional, and a yoga practitioner, I thought for a long time that cardio was an activity where you're running, jumping, or sweating buckets. But cardiovascular activity means you're increasing your heart rate and working hard physically while your heart rate is elevated. When you're training with cardiovascular endurance, you are working on maintaining these efforts for a long time to continue to strengthen your cardiovascular system: your heart, your arteries, and your circulation of blood flow.

I love yoga for so many reasons, but I think this specific aspect can be overlooked. I encourage you to get curious about your practice and let it be exactly what you need. If you feel more energy in your body, do a few more Sun Salutations or move through one more flow. Whether you need faster movement or need to just sit and breathe, it's all yoga. And the more you show up for your practice, the more lasting benefits you'll gain.

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