is ashtanga aerobic? primary series on a heart rate monitor

I got this niftykeen gadget that sends the signal from a chest strap to an app on my old wood-burning ipod touch and now I walk around experimenting with what makes my heart rate go up or down. I’m sure I’m driving my family crazy, because, however much they may love me, knowing my heart is beating 114 or 103 or 82 times a minute at any given moment of the day is just not that interesting to anyone but me.

BUT I am now positioned to answer that age old question we all wonder about: IS Ashtanga Yoga Primary Series aerobic?

Let’s find out.

Some context for the numbers: My resting heart rate (measured upon waking) seems to be about 70. Fairly typical. I’ve been doing Primary for about 3.5 years, so I figure my cardiovascular system is acclimated at this point. I mean, it isn’t like in the beginning when I felt shaky and nauseous just trying to get through standing, you know what I’m saying? I did not imbibe caffeine this morning before practice so as not to artificially elevate the numbers. Also, I’m not sure it matters but it’s about 60 degrees in the yurt this morning, and I practiced in two long sleeve shirts and long pants and did not sweat a drop—I even had to remoisten the electrode pad thingies on the chest strap with spit half-way through. This is fairly typical for me. Anyway! Here’s what I got…

Oh, and in case you’re thinking what a crazy anal chick to make heart rate graphs, it only took about ten minutes at this fun kid’s website. The hardest part was trying to spell the asana correctly (which I probably didn’t do). Isn’t the internet grand?

[ETA: it just occurred to me that I should mention that the poses and vinyasa mentioned on my graphs are just the points where I noted down my heart rate, usually because it had shifted one way or the other. This isn’t a list of every pose and vinyasa I did!]


Aren’t my graphs pretty? Anyway. Although my HR did get up to 140 during chair pose and vira 1 and 2, it only lasted a minute at most. More typically, high points, vigorous standing poses or vinyasa were around 120 and lower points, forward bends, hovered around 100.

100-120. Pretty low. It’s a little lift off my doing-the-dishes rate of 85ish. It’s a little higher than walking the dog which seems to stay around 100 (except for that one hill where it might touch 120). But not by much.

In fact, I never noticed it before but the series seems designed to keep the heart rate low-ish, with forward bends coming right after each more vigorous pose (long padangusthasana after surys, for example, and long paschi after the viras). Vinyasa in between all those seated forward bends keep me warmed up a bit but not so I’m “working out” breathing hard or anything. Which makes sense since we’re supposed to be doing long slow deep breathing.

I’m kind of surprised, though, because the practice can seem so intense. I’m usually tired afterward, a bit wobbly even, for a little while. I practice at a fairly brisk rate, this was full Primary minus the butt balance poses (my sacrum has been hurting) in about 58 minutes. But I also don’t push.

I’d be interested to try again back in that David Garrigues workshop last spring where I was sweating a ton (90 degree shala) and felt wrung out after. I don’t practice that hard at home, too hard to maintain.

Conclusion? Is Ashtanga aerobic? I’m going to say No. Got to get that cardiovascular workout (if you value such a thing) elsewhere.

Has anyone else tried practicing with a heart rate monitor? What were your results? Maybe ashtanga just isn’t aerobic for me? Or for the way I practice? I’d love to hear.

Sidebar! For anyone who is curious, I’m using (birthday present!) a Wahoo key that plugs into the bottom of my ipod and collects data from other devices such as a heart rate monitor chest strap (what I have) and translates it to a variety of apps on the ipod. It works great, although my ipod is so old that most of the apps out there do not run on it because you can’t update the iOS to 5, boo hoo. But I found an app that works on iOS 4.2.1 (last supported update for ipod touch 2) and I’m in business.

In addition to heart rate, the key plugged into your ipod or iphone can also collect data from such things as a sensor on your shoe to collect strides, pace, etc, or a sensor that can go on your bike, tracking distance, speed, and it can even map your route with the GPS in your iphone (if you have an iphone and you get service where you bike), or all of these, plus heart rate, at once. It’s pretty cool. Totally makes working out like a video game with stats and graphs and all. You can practically see the energy bar floating above your head as you sweat.

12 thoughts on “is ashtanga aerobic? primary series on a heart rate monitor

  1. cori

    For a yoga workout that leaves me feeling great I really like Sadie Nardini – who has a ton of free videos on youtube. You might even break a sweat with one of hers!


    1. maya Post author

      Hello Cori, nice to meet you! Yes, I’m familiar with Sadie Nardini, she has some terrific stuff on youtube. Thanks for the reminder. I’m not really looking for anything new, just exploring what I’m doing more deeply, and some of hers really help with that–I think I learned how to get into Bhujapidasana from her, now that I think about it.

  2. Elaine

    I’m glad someone did this and put the results up to share! As you mentioned, the practice does make me feel quite tired afterwards on some days, although my heart rate stays pretty low. While not entirely aerobic, I think yoga does help increase our lung capacity since we are encouraged breathe in and breathe out with controlled awareness.

    1. maya Post author

      Hello Elaine, thanks for your comment. I’m glad my little obsessions are interesting to someone! I agree, I think it certainly must help our lung capacity. Just not our cardiac capacity, apparently….? I guess this is similar to, say, a weight-training work-out. Unless you do some kind of circuit training, weight lifting doesn’t do much for your heart, even though it can feel intense and leave you wobbly with effort. (And, I know yoga is not an exercise system like weight-training! I know there is much more to it than that! 🙂 )

  3. ElectronicYoga

    Wow! I might sound a bit weird and nerdy, but I have been wondering about this exact issue for quite a while. Im glad to finde this page. So yes, I agree: the Internet is grand! 🙂 Thanks for sharing this experiment.

    As a marginal note I would like to say, that doing ashtanga as part of a guided class, would probably give different results. My experience have taught me that is increases sweating, boosts my efforts and will to go just that bit further and I flow of the session will be fast-paced. Doing ashtanga yoga (or any yoga for that matter) as part of a team, is quite different form doing it on my own. Thats my experience.

    //Lasse (Denmark)

  4. deanne

    Hi, thanks for sharing this! I have been doing ashtanga for 9 years, I wore my heart rate monitor a couple months ago for a led primary (felt completely exhausted after!) and to my dismay, burnt 64 calories (equiv to an apple). My peak heart rate was just over 130bpm, but averaged 86 including savasana. for the link to my graph.
    I also wore my HR monitor to a hot yoga class (Barkan method, vinyasa style), which I’d sometimes do as a recovery if I’ve been running a lot. 75mins and not-so-hard posture wise, but burnt 264 calories – max heart rate 160bpm.
    Ashtanga is a whole lot harder, but I’d say if you were doing yoga for a “workout” then you’d get more bang for your buck doing hot yoga. Of course, there’s more to it than that and I practice Ashtanga 6 days a week 🙂

  5. Jakar

    aerobic? compared to what? Watching TV or running? Aerobic if you do one hour a week or 90mins everyday? Just do it. Shut the fuck up, dig deep and do it. If you want to loose weight don’t eat shit. If you do Ashtanga regularly, (that’s not the same as thinking about doing it) you will transform your body and how you feel. What do runners get? Broken bodies that look like the food chain got busted.

    Don’t forget to smell the flowers once in a while.

    1. maya Post author

      Little bit harsh, there, Jakar. Feels like you’re coming over to my blog and telling me to shut the fuck up. I’m going to give the benefit of the doubt here and assume that isn’t what you meant. THe post is just a curious exploration, not intended to mean anything like “if it isn’t aerobic it isn’t worth doing.” It’s more like “I wonder if it is? Let’s find out!”

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  8. Catbear

    I have been practicing Ashtanga for about 10 years now. When I was about 3 years in I was tested at a gym for flexibility, cardio and strength. I was shocked to see I was a little above average in strength and flexibility (test was touching toes cold and it took me many years to be flexible cold) but off the charts on cardio. Yoga 5x a week is all I do. So I say yes, Ashtanga is definitely cardio.

  9. Rachel Goffe

    I would say it is cardio based on the fact that I can run longer (I’m not a runner) than I could before I started ashtanga 7 months ago. I’ve been trying to figure out the effect of slowing the breath as you do in yoga. If I weren’t doing that, I’d be panting… So how do you account for the effect of breath control? That’s my nerdy musing.
    Thanks for posting


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