Fitness vs. Yoga

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This article was written, edited and/or updated on July 16, 2017.


This is not going to be a debate about which is better, yoga or fitness. This is a discussion of the two physical activities, their merits, and why — if you are going to exercise — there's nothing wrong with doing both and, if you do both, that is much better than sacrificing one for the other. Yoga has become increasingly popular with the 21st century western culture; fitness remains, based on research, one of the best ways to get cardiovascular and strength training.

A Brief History of Fitness

Physical fitness has always been a part of daily life for human beings. Survival required early man to know how to combat a harsh environment as well as avoid predators. Early humans had to walk, balance, jump, crawl, climb, lift, carry, throw and catch things, and fight — sometimes every day. More than likely, playful forms of dancing developed when the work was done.

Ancient Greek and Roman art reveals that man has always been fascinated with keeping a healthy and strong body. This was particularly true in military training and then, later, in sports. The Romans celebrated the body's beauty and strength and embraced physical training. The Greeks, of course, started the Olympics, encouraging everyone to have a sound mind and body.

As time passed, more and more pieces of equipment were tried — some were kept while others were discarded. This was still mostly a man's world, but by the 19th century, both men and women were learning that staying fit meant staying healthy. Slowly, gymnastics and many types of gym equipment became popular.

By the early 20th century, competitive sports and a fitness market had emerged. People like Professor Edmond Desbonnet in France made physical exercise and strength fashionable through his fitness journals. He also opened a chain of exercise clubs and developed his own fitness system because there were more people who thought that physical condition and health were not important. His centres were expensive, however, and were mainly frequented by the wealthy.

During the same time that Desbonnet was developing his programmes, Bernard Macfadden was doing the same thing in the United States. He advocated a minimalist lifestye, encouraged daily vigorous physical exercise, and recommended the elimination of alcohol, tea, coffe, and white bread. He staged competitions to find the most fit individuals. One of these competitions drew the most well-known fitness icon of the 1920's and 1930's — Charles Atlas. At the height of his success, Macfadden's magazines had 35 million readers.

During the 20th century, thousands of methods and programs emerged, each one promising you ultimate health in the shortest time possible. This has produced many methods and devices over the years, some of which have remained and others which have lost popularity, including:

There has also been a serious study of exercise as a science since the mid-20th century. In laboratories, scientists have analyzed and quantified many aspects of the movement of the human body. This, in turn, has produced many organizations that make recommendations about exercise based on the research, including (to name just a few):

As well, the fitness industry began to regulate the training of instructors. Organizations such as the British Columbia Parks and Recreation Association became the group that regulated fitness instructors in British Columbia. [Please note that some instructors are trained by the particular activity they teach — Zumba, for instance, and many different types of yoga, as well as pilates.]

Unfortunately, despite all this huge concentration on health and fitness methods, programs, and resources, we still have a general population that is generally physically sedentary and out-of-shape. Much good has come out of the many attempts to understand the importance of regular exercise. We understand much more about how the human body works and how it responds to training. The secret remains: How do you get everyone to be involved?

A Brief History of Yoga

Yoga includes physical, mental, and spiritual practices which originated in ancient India. Like fitness, it, too, also developed with very early civilizations. However, as within the fitness industry, there are many yoga schools, practices, and goals. Among the most well-known types are Hatha yoga and Rāja yoga.

Yoga most likely developed within the sixth and fifth centuries BCE. However, yoga did not gain prominence in the west until yoga gurus from India introduced it to the west in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Like fitness, it gained popularity in the 1980's — but only as a system of physical exercise without the ancient meditative and spiritual core. In the west the term "yoga" has become synonymous with specific postures or as a form of exercise. There have been periods of criticism against yoga, but at the same time, western interest in all aspects of yoga has continued to rise.

In the 1980s, a man named Dean Ornish connected yoga to heart health. This seemed to legitimize yoga as a physical system of health exercises and unconnected to any religious denomination. Many of his postures seemed modern in origin, and strongly overlapped with 19th and early-20th century Western exercise traditions.

Like fitness, yoga has developed its own regulatory bodies, including the International Yoga Federation and the Yoga Alliance, both of which have their own websites. Yoga Alliance states their goals on their home webpage: "The Vision of this alliance is to support the integrity of Yoga practices and philosophy in Canada and to commemorate our Yogic alliance with the East."

Merits of Fitness

The benefits of fitness are numerous and well-researched. The basic principles will always have merit to anyone who is wanting to stay healthy and fit throughout their lives.

The four basic principles of fitness are:

Merits of Yoga

This comes from a Wikipedia article about yoga:

"Many studies have tried to determine the effectiveness of yoga as a complementary intervention for cancer, schizophrenia, asthma, and heart disease. The results of these studies have been mixed and inconclusive, with cancer studies suggesting none to unclear effectiveness, and others suggesting yoga may reduce risk factors and aid in a patient's psychological healing process."

"The modern scientific study of yoga began with the works of N. C. Paul and Major D. Basu in the late 19th century, and then continued in the 20th century with Sri Yogendra (1897–1989) and Swami Kuvalayananda. Western medical researchers came to Swami Kuvalayananda's Kaivalyadhama Health and Yoga Research Center, starting in 1928, to study Yoga as a science."

As with fitness, the research continues and more information is gathered daily. Since 2001, the popularity of yoga has expanded. The American College of Sports Medicine supports the integration of yoga into the exercise regimens of healthy individuals as long as properly-trained professionals deliver instruction.

Which is "better"?

Each brings its own rewards. One is not better than the other. In fact, there is value in doing both — perhaps two days of yoga and two days of fitness per week. You should not do one and ignore the other. If you do not wish to do both, you might be able to find a fitness instructor who incorporates some yoga postures (perhaps less likely to find a yoga instructor who incorporates fitness exercises). It is becoming more common, however, to see elements of both within the same class.

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I am a BCRPA-certified fitness instructor in Vancouver, BC. I teach four classes at the West End Community Centre in Vancouver, BC, mostly designed for the older adult. The Inevitable Disclaimer: Everything published here expresses only my opinion, based on my training and research. What you do with the information is entirely your own responsibility. I am not liable for any injury you suffer that seems to be related to anything you read here. Always consult your doctor before beginning an exercise program. For other articles, return to the table of contents.

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