What My Apple Watch Taught Me About My Yoga Practice

by Heidi Kristoffer

Alyssa's note: While drinking my morning coffee and reading various articles I found my spirit sister. Have any of you seen me without my apple watch? I thought if I could relate so easily I'm sure many of you can too! Of course, Yoga and Pilates are different. Read the article and I promise you will see how it applies to your Pilates practice and cardio training!

Hi, my name is Heidi and I am a fitness tracker junkie. #truestory

When the Apple Watch came out as not just a smart watch but a tracker too, I needed to get one! I was more than a little bit disappointed to find the incredibly limited list of activities the Apple Watch categorizes, which left the bulk of my workouts to the "other" category. But, being the tracker-lover that I am, I faithfully set the watch to "other" every time I started my yoga practice.

Unlike my previous tracker, which only counted steps, the Apple watch flashes every so often with notifications about my different heart rates. The results were fascinating, and not at all how I thought it would go. While I'm practicing some of the most challenging "advanced" yoga postures and moves like inversions, my heart rate drops super low (even below my resting heart rate), and during Kundalini breath exercises, like breath of fire, as well as during back bends, my heart rate sky rockets.

It left me wondering: If I can raise my heart rate that high with a breath exercise or a back bend, do I really need cardio? And what exactly does my heart rate say about the kind and quality of workout I'm getting? For answers, I went to an expert: Sara Seidelmann M.D., Ph.D., a Harvard researcher and health and nutrition expert.

What's In a Heart Rate? It's about more than just your workout. "Your underlying genetics, nervous system, and circulating chemicals and hormones—together—are responsible for [your heart rate]. If you're under stress, fatigued, or at different climates or altitudes, your heart rate can change," explains Seidelmann.

Turns out, yoga does more than tone your muscles; it also tones "the nerve supply to the vital organs of your body, such as your heart, brain, and digestive track," according to Seidelmann. That's one reason why it can lower a person's heart rate, like I noticed during my workouts. This is partially due to how it affects the body's autonomic nervous system. Yoga seems to increase parasympathetic tone (the "rest and digest" part, which decreases heart rate and blood pressure and increases digestion) and decrease sympathetic tone (the "fight or flight" mechanism which, when activated releases stress hormones and chemicals), "resulting in the benefit of lower resting heart rate and blood pressure as well as increased digestion and metabolism," says Seidelmann. "During the practice of yoga, the parasympathetic nervous system is generally inhibited and your heart rate and cardiac output increase as your muscles have a heightened demand for nutrients and oxygen to power movement," she says, but "in the long run, as you become more physically conditioned and fit, parasympathetic tone increases and your resting heart rate will fall."

Does a lower heart rate mean better health? "When your resting heart rate falls in response to the regular practice of yoga, your heart becomes more efficient, necessitating fewer beats per minute to perform the same job," explains Seidelmann. "The ventricles, or the main chambers of your heart, have more time to fill in between beats, delivering more oxygen and nutrients to your heart muscle as well as to the other tissues of your body such as your skin, brain and digestive track."

Based on Seidelmann's wisdom above, practicing yoga may not only reduce your risk of heart disease, but it may help you to live longer. "Research has shown that heart rate is inversely correlated with longevity in all species, including humans," says Seidelmann. "So keep practicing yoga." Doctor's orders!

So, Do You Really Need Cardio? If breathing exercises or wheel pose can raise my heart rate and give me those health benefits, do I reeeeallly need cardio? Unfortunately for anyone who is looking for a reason not to run, "increased heart rate due to sympathetic activation does not carry the same benefits of aerobic exercise," says Seidelmann. "In a healthy person, raising your heart rate during aerobic exercise tells your body that your heart is working hard to fuel its tissues with nutrients and oxygen. And as you condition your body through regular workouts, the heart becomes stronger and more efficient and your muscles also get more efficient at extracting oxygen and nutrients from the blood." In general, workouts at lower intensity (around 65 percent of your maximal heart rate), like yoga, will burn less calories per minute but will be fueled primarily from fat stores, whereas workouts at a high intensity (90 percent of your maximal heart rate), like cardio, will burn more calories per minute but will be fueled primarily by carbohydrate stores. (Related: The Hidden Benefits of Exercise.)

Traditional yoga may not be the aerobic exercise my body needs, but based on my heart rate, I am toning my vital organs and burning calories primarily from my body's fat stores. And the kind of deep, thoracic breathing we practice in yoga "aerates the important lower portions of your lungs, increasing pulmonary function and respiratory strength and delivering more oxygen to your body," says Seidelmann. This will help your body better meet increased oxygen demands during more stressful situations (exercise or otherwise!).

How Heart Rate Can Enhance Your Yoga Practice Let's talk about the times during my yoga practice when my heart rate got super high, like during breath of fire, a heating breath often used in Kundalini yoga which involves taking short, sharp, even inhales and exhales through of your nose, pumping the air at your navel center. According to studies, sympathetic tone may increase during this type of breathing, which could result in a higher heart rate. In backbends like wheel, when I noticed my heart rate super high, Seidelmann surmises that the blood was pooling in the arms, head, and legs, which could cause a sudden shift in thoracic blood volumes, resulting in a reflexive increase in heart rate. (In handstand and forearm stand, Seidelmann notes that the opposite can occur, when the blood moves from the lower limbs to the upper body, resulting in the decrease in heart rate.)

Armed with all this new information, I made more of a point to consistently work in CrossFlowX (a hybrid yoga/HIIT I created) several times a week (either at home or at the studio where I teach, The Movement), to make sure that I was getting all of the benefits of yoga and all of the benefits of aerobic exercises. I used to think that if a flow was fast-paced enough or technically challenging enough, it would "count" as cardio. Now I know better. And hopefully, I'm now balancing the two a little more evenly. It's been said that yoga teachers teach the class they need. Apparently, I was teaching mine long before I knew I needed it!

Sara Seidelmann M.D., Ph.D., is a Harvard researcher and health and nutrition expert source for this story. Original published: