When considering a yoga class, the benefits of stress relief and stretching probably come to mind, more so than sweating and torching calories. But you can say Namaste to a serious heart-pumping workout with just a few tweaks to your flow. In fact, new research from the American College of Sports Medicine proves that sun salutations can count as your vigorous exercise for the week — as long as you push yourself through some powerful poses and add in a little strength training.
Learn what actually counts as high-intensity exercise and why it’s so important to do every week. Plus, follow our fast-paced yoga workout below, designed to kick up the calorie burn on a typical routine.
Vinyasa Yoga: What Makes It Vigorous?
First off, the reason you need to up the intensity on some of your sweat sessions: It improves heart health and lowers your risk stroke, according to the American Heart Association (AHA). The AHA recommends getting 25 to 30 minutes of moderate- or vigorous-intensity aerobic activity three to five days a week to gain health-boosting benefits. That doesn’t mean you have to do it all at once, either. Breaking up hardcore exercise into 10- or 15-minute increments throughout the day will have the same payoffs for your ticker.
To figure out if yoga fits the more intense exercise mold, researchers rounded up all the studies they could find that tracked energy expenditure (aka calorie burn) during various practices. They found that while most parts of a yoga session qualified as low-intensity exercise, sun salutations and certain standing balance poses — including warrior III and dancer’s pose — could count as moderate- to vigorous-intensity exercise.
“Poses that involve isometric contractions with jump transitions between asanas would be expected to increase overall energy cost and intensity,” the researchers write.
How to Measure Your Intensity
If you’re wondering how to actually calculate whether you’re working hard enough to reach serious workout status, there are a couple of options. The first is rate of perceived exertion, or how hard it feels like you’re working. You can base that on heart rate, breathing, sweating and muscle fatigue. On a scale of 1 to 20 — with 20 being the hardest you can work — moderate-intensity activity should reach an 11 to 14, while vigorous exercise means you’re around 17 to 19.
You can also measure your intensity by looking at heart rate: Find your max by subtracting your age from 220. During moderate workouts, your heart should be pumping at about 50 to 69 percent of your max and during vigorous gym sessions, it should be at about 70 to 90 percent.
One other, super quick way to know if you’re turning up the calorie burn is if you have to start working at controlling your breathing, says Johnny Gillespie, CSCS, founder of Balanced Athlete, a training method that combines yoga, mindfulness and fitness. (Wearing a heart rate monitor will also do the trick.) If it becomes difficult to concentrate on your inhale and exhale as you move from one pose to the next, you’re probably doing some intense work.
Your High-Intensity Yoga Workout Plan
All that said, yoga isn’t all about breaking a sweat. The stress-relieving advantages are what usually make it stand out from other workouts. But it’s nice to know that you don’t have to pick between mindfulness and meeting your fitness goals.
“What is the practice of yoga? It’s a practice of transformation,” says Gillespie. “And you’re not going to transform without being uncomfortable, and you’re not going to transform without a burn.”
Here’s one way to turn up that burn on your yoga flow.
Start with five rounds each of sun salutation A and B to jumpstart your cardio. Remember to focus on deep, slow breaths, while still moving swiftly through the postures.
Sun Salutation A
Begin in mountain pose, standing with arms at heart center. Bring arms straight up and arch your back slightly for upward salute. Bend at the waist, over your legs and place hands on the ground for standing forward fold. Straighten legs, place hands on shins and flatten back for half standing forward bend.
Step or jump back to plank pose and lower half way into four-limbed staff pose. Flow into upward-facing dog or cobra pose. Push back into downward dog. Bend knees and jump or step to half standing forward bend. Then, let your head and arms hang for standing forward fold. Bring arms straight up, arch back slightly and look to the ceiling for upward salute. Finish back in mountain pose.
Sun Salutation B
Follow this sequence: From mountain pose move into chair pose with feet together in a low squat and arms straight above your head. Straighten legs and let head and arms hang for standing forward fold, then flow into half standing forward bend. Jump or step back to four-limbed staff pose (mid push-up position). Move into upward-facing dog or cobra pose, then into downward dog. Step one foot forward to warrior I, hold for a breath. Circle hands back down and step back to four-limped staff pose.
Move to upward-facing dog or cobra pose, then downward dog. Step the other foot forward to warrior I, hold for a breath, then circle hands back down. Step back to four-limped staff pose, then switch to upward-facing dog or cobra pose. Push back to downward dog. Step or hop to half standing forward bend. Let arms and head drop to standing forward fold. Bend knees and lift arms to chair pose. End back in standing mountain pose.
After you finish your sun salutations, perform a high lunge, lowering your back knee down toward the ground and back up to transform a traditional yoga lunge into a fitness one, suggests Gillespie. Repeat for 45 to 60 seconds, then switch to a lunge on the other leg. Do the same thing with your yoga squat, pulsing in and out of it for 45 to 60 seconds. Next, transition back and forth between high plank and side plank for about 30 seconds. Repeat the entire strength sequence (lunge, squat and planks) for two to three rounds to finish off your workout.
Remember to focus on alignment and engaging your muscles, instead of rushing through postures, Gillespie says. “This creates more muscular energy and more core engagement.” Because of course, technique is key for building strength.