Yoga and exercise are not the same. Today, most fitness programs teach exercises, Yoga asanas, pranayama, Tai Chi, aerobics, martial arts, etc or a combination of these. Though all of these are aimed at maintaining and improving health, few understand the difference between Yoga asanas and other forms of fitness methods.
Exercises are aimed at building your muscles and physical strength and endurance. Exercises involve repetition of certain movements aimed at building a certain group of muscles, thereby increasing the muscle weight and improving strength of those body parts. It increases the blood supply to those parts. Most exercises increase your breath rate and heart rate. You consume more oxygen during exercises than when you are doing your daily routine activities.
Yoga asanas on the other hand, work in a totally different fashion. The idea of asanas is not building muscles, but harmonizing the body, breath and mind, thereby contributing to the overall health of the individual. In the Patanjali Yoga Sutras, asana is described as “Sthiram Sukham Asanam”, which means that which gives steadiness, stability and Joy is called Asana. From this definition, it is clear that unlike exercises, you cannot do asanas with strain or tension. There is no extra load on the respiratory and cardiac systems. It has to be done in a steady and calm manner and should induce peace and sense of well being. The oxygen consumption during asanas is lesser than your daily regular activities. Asanas reduces your breath and heart rate. Yoga decreases your Basal Metabolic Rate while exercises increase it. When performing asanas, your body is learning to use much less resources and be more efficient.
Yoga asana doesn’t burn your calories as much as exercises. Yoga practitioners will need less food consumption than those who do exercises. Exercises can build up toxins in the body, while Yoga asanas help in eliminating toxins. Asanas help in optimal secretions of the endocrinal glands, thereby balancing the emotions and improving relationships and social interactions.
The effect of yoga goes beyond the body. Benefits of yoga include not only strength and steadiness of the body, but also physiological and mental health. Yoga prevents as well as alleviates health problems.
Finally, one has to understand that Yoga asanas were developed as part of spiritual science. The goal of yoga is primarily spiritual. Health and other benefits are secondary, though today most practitioners take to yoga for its physical and mental benefits. Yoga improves awareness in all our activities. Asanas are a prerequisite for the higher practices of pranayama, meditation and samadhi.