Many new yogis have asked me how often they should practice yoga as though I were a doctor doling out a prescription for a set number of classes to achieve specific goals. I don’t really have a short answer to this question. Because whether you’re interested in getting stronger, more flexible or losing a few pounds, a quick yoga fix doesn’t really exist.
Many yogis will say that yoga is not just another workout. There are volumes upon volumes of ancient texts that explore yoga’s many aspects, and the physical elements are a relatively small portion of the discussion. Plus, scientific studies increasingly show yoga’s positive role in maintaining mental and physical health.
Yoga is an all-encompassing practice that cultivates a connection between body and mind. And when its aim is to unite—yoga does mean ‘yoke’ after all—it’s not easy to break it into limited fitness objectives. Rather, there’s some fine print to go along with this yoga prescription.
Yoga doesn’t come in a pill
Whenever people ask how often they should get on the mat to stay fit, I say it takes time and a dedicated practice to truly see the effects—which can be a frustrating answer for a culture used to fast results. Ashtanga yoga founder Sri K. Pattabhi Jois notably said, “Practice and all is coming.”
Yoga can help develop strength, flexibility, as well as help heal from various issues. However, commitment is the key. That may not be a big surprise, but in some ways, yoga requires a little more long-term dedication than other exercises, since it doesn’t typically have quick, dramatic physical results.
When I committed to a regular practice (i.e. at least 3 times a week if not more), I began to notice improvements to my coordination, balance, strength and flexibility. A consistent practice encourages you to refine your body awareness as well as move more intelligently and efficiently. If you only practice once a week, it is challenging to sustain that kind of awareness. Also, it might feel like you’re reinventing the wheel every time you get on the mat, which can be discouraging.
If you’re short on time, practices don’t have to be long either. Many yoga instructors agree that it can actually be more effective to practice frequently for shorter amounts of time (i.e. 15-30 minutes) than to have fewer longer yoga sessions. However, if once a week is all you can manage, than do it and enjoy. The benefits of the practice will still be there.
Yoga isn’t an escape
In my opinion, something that separates yoga from most other workouts is that it advocates presence. Yoga is a mindful practice, not mindless.
One of the niyamas (observances) in the Yoga Sutras, svadhyaya, is translated as ‘self-study,’ and it encourages us to reflect on our habits, choices and behavior. In this way, yoga teaches you to be present for every moment, to be an active participant and less an automaton resigned to a routine. When you approach your fitness with the intention of staying mindful and present, it reinforces your commitment to your health in a broader way. You can learn to be more attentive to your needs and, ultimately, feel more comfortable in your own skin.
Before yoga, I used to be a person who exercised because I felt I had to, not because I had a deep desire to sweat it out. I could easily tune out using headphones, televisions, or magazines while I exercised. Truthfully, I was half-assing the majority of my workouts this way because I wasn’t really paying attention to the workout. Yet, when I stepped on the yoga mat, I couldn’t get away with tuning out.
I was challenged by the poses, amazed by the power of the breath and was intrigued with the encouragement to take a deeper look at myself minus life’s distractions. Yoga renewed my commitment to me. The practice even rejuvenated my old workouts by inviting me to stay present when I got on the Stairmaster sans magazine.
Yoga is not a cookie cutter
No one person is alike. The same can be said for yoga. As a practice in deepening the relationship between mind and body, yoga is hard to make into a one-size-fits-all formula. Instead the practice is more individualized, and indeed, there are so many styles and techniques to choose from that it may take time to find the kind of yoga that jives with your needs.
Different styles focus on different components, from more vigorous movement practices to therapeutic healing to more meditative, contemplative practices. Even different teachers can offer varying spins on the practice that can be illuminating. Just like the benefits one can get from cross-training, it helps to explore and change things up a now and again in your yoga, to stay engaged, learn, grow, and ultimately, remain dedicated to your overall wellness.
Yoga doesn’t stay on the mat
Most of this fine print is linked by one thread: for yoga to be a truly effective “workout,” be prepared to be more accountable in the practice. It’s not just about how often you get on the mat. By being an engaged participant, you can achieve much more than mere physical goals. If you’re open to it, this practice can change the way you operate off the mat, too; from the relationships you have, the passions you cultivate, down to the food you choose to eat.
You can still practice yoga while patiently waiting in line at the grocery store, working at the office, at home cooking a meal, or on your mat in the yoga studio. This practice unites every part of your life.
If you’re still looking for a short answer to how often you should practice yoga, the answer is…Every day, but with one footnote: It doesn’t necessarily mean you have to get on your mat every time (though that can certainly help, too!).