I currently do cardio and weight training, but my friend is trying to get me to take yoga. The biggest benefit seems to be flexibility. Are there any other big benefits to yoga versus these other forms of exercise?
The primary benefits yoga boasts over weight training and cardio work are:
- Flexibility of the muscles
- Mobility of the joints
- Strength across entire ranges of motion - for instance, the shoulder is taken through its entire ROM during an up-dog/down-dog series
- Some people find it to be a path for spiritual development. I find that heavy squats can fill that niche as well.
- It provides specific practice for balance and breath control.
As for core strength, barbell and gymnastic exercises are far superior. Holding a plank is one thing to ask of your spinal erectors and abs, but squatting or deadlifting a barbell heavier than you are is quite another.
Though the evidence is clear that stretching before or after exercise does not reduce muscle soreness or injury incidence, I have found anecdotally (and without objective measurement) that a little yoga in the morning reduces muscle soreness from heavy workouts done a night or two before.
In the book The Science of Yoga, William Broad discusses this in detail. My summary: for measures of cardiovascular fitness, Yoga is inferior to aerobic exercise. Indeed a small study of Yoga instructors (who do enormous amounts of yoga) found them to be roughly equivalent in measures of cardiovascular health (VO2 Max, etc) to someone who jogs 3-4 hours per week. Yoga is also inferior to weight training for gaining strength. Not really too surprising: exercises designed to specifically target certain ends are superior to flexibility exercises.
However yoga does have significant benefits. He discusses studies showing that yoga can improve spinal health and treat back pain (one theory being that flexing the spine oxygenates the intervertebral discs, which may not get moved much in a sedentary lifestyle). It reduces stress hormones, may increase testosterone levels in men and various miscellaneous small benefits. The main large benefits seem to come in treating shoulder or back injuries.
Personally, I do all three: yoga, weights and cardio. Of the three yoga is the most fun, so I'd say give it a try. The poses generally feel good, help with my back pain. It may not be superior to other forms of exercise on most measures, but it's worth doing for its own sake.
Flexibility is as you say the clearest physical benefit - but not the only one. Try a few sessions and you should quickly see for yourself that just being cardio and strength fit doesn't mean that Yoga is going to be easy. What do you have to lose by trying?
As a side note, the benefits of yoga extend beyond just the physical. It is a great form of meditation and really helps with stress and mental clarity.
You're right that flexibility is one of the major benefits - this is because yoga helps you stretch your muscles in a safe way and increase the range of motion in your joints. Stretching helps release the lactic acid that builds up in your muscles, which can relieve stiffness and fatigue.
Additionally, holding many of the poses requires you to engage your core and build core strength, which helps improve balance and posture. You also build strength in your upper body by doing poses like plank and downward dog. The standing poses work your hamstrings and quads.
I absolutely agree with them! Yoga stretches help in sculpting both the upper and lower body and in getting it into shape. You might think that it involves only poses and stretches, but when doing it, you actually burn lots of fat and calories and you also strengthen your muscles and tissues.
I feel like it is difficult to pit these two (three) against each other. Having practiced yoga for a few years, and recently making the jump into weight training, they are two very different beasts.
Yoga certainly helps with Flexibility.
It is also a highly meditative or spiritual experience.
Another great benefit that can be missed by weight training alone, is the immense control gained by regularly practicing yoga. Training the smaller, stabilizing muscle groups.
I still practice yoga daily. It is how I start my day in fact. Where as I only train at the gym a few times a week. Not to sound too Yogi-esque, yoga is a way of life.
However most lifters would say the exact same thing about weight training.
My advice would be to give it a try. If you like it, incorporate it into your weekly fitness routine. Think of yoga as a mental and respiratory work-out more than a strength building exercise (it is though...).
I personally use it to cool down after getting sweaty. It seems to help normalize my breathing and heartbeat.
I would not recommend it over shorter, higher intensity exercises if you want to improve your fitness, as it seems a lot less effective. Just look at many Yoga trainers. Sure they can bend in all sorts of crazy ways, but I've seen a lot of them don't have very lean bodies.