I often tell myself not to compare things, not to measure one thing against the other but to simply accept each thing for what it is: everything is perfect in its own way. However the one comparison I have often found myself coming back to again and again – with myself, with friends and with my instructors – is that of yoga versus the gym. They are both forms of exercise, both are good for your health and both give you a large dose of endorphins – my favourite medication!
I have decided to find some evidence – with which you and I, as the jury, can make an informed decision. Whether you have a busy life and want to know which to dedicate your precious spare time to or whether you are just curious, like me, as someone who enjoys both. For me there are three main strains of thought I have when mulling over this question – how it makes me feel, how it makes me look and how it works for me on a practical level. Like I said: I really don’t like to compare things, but if it’s for an article then it doesn’t count – right?
Weight Loss and Toning
Yoga is exercise, and any form of exercise will help with weight loss. However, an average Hatha yoga session will burn around 298 calories, according to LiveStrong, while a 45-minute spin class at the gym can burn up to 800. This appears to be black and white evidence that the gym is better for weight loss than yoga, and for many it may be, but this doesn’t take into account the toning aspect of yoga.
The first thing my personal trainer ever told me was that building muscle mass and toning your body helps continual weight loss. It’s to do with the amount of calories it takes to use your new, larger muscles in all activities. Yoga poses are brilliant for toning: from toning the calves and glutes in Chair Pose, arms in Warrior II and abs in Boat Pose… the list goes on. Practicing yoga regularly will see changes to your body shape without having to lift heavy weights at the gym.
Although exercise definitely helps with weight loss, a more positive, healthy attitude to food is perhaps the most important part — changing your understanding of your body. Of course the gym does this too, we learn about how our body works, how far we can push it and how our muscles adapt. Yoga does something different, though. It makes us more mindful of how we approach our life, and for many people, this includes our approach to food. When I leave the gym I am often ravenous, I have used a lot of energy and seek to replenish myself with large portions. When I leave yoga I feel calm and in control, I have spent the last hour really appreciating my body and how amazing it can feel and I want to continue to nourish it.
Yoga is well known for its calming, mindful benefits. I always finish a practice feeling content and appreciative of the present. I release negative energy and harness all the positive energy accumulated in my practice into the rest of my day. I am more tolerant on days I have done yoga: I don’t mind if I don’t get a seat on the tube or if I queue a little longer for my morning drink. I feel good about myself on days I have done yoga: I appreciate everything my body does for me, I accept it as it is and I feel a sense of power.
Going to the gym definitely has aspects of this too: it helps you to feel good, gives you energy and is a great place to pump, punch or run out unwanted energy or negativity. I really do enjoy going to the gym yet there is one major difference in terms of my mental wellbeing that I notice is absent: self-acceptance. Many people go to the gym to change themselves, a cycle that is never-ending — once we have one thing ‘perfect’ we realise that we aren’t happy with something else. It isn’t like this for everyone but there is definitely a gym-culture of striving for perfection and competition that doesn’t come from yoga as often.
Yoga is very much about your own journey, your own balance and power, whereas the gym (and all the social trends surrounding the gym) seems to encourage you to follow the journeys of others – those you perhaps feel you should aspire to be. Does this promote physical prowess over mental wellbeing? I believe it does in many cases. Because of this I have to say my vote goes to yoga. That is not to say that everyone has the same experience at the gym or that it has no psychological benefits. Maybe it’s worth thinking about how this affects you though and adjusting how you divide your workouts accordingly.
Practicalities: Time and Money
When I first began to practice yoga I believed that in order to do it ‘properly’ it had to be at a yoga studio — I shied away from practising at home, as I felt I needed a perfect studio environment with a trained instructor. But yoga doesn’t have to cost a penny!
As my job became more demanding I struggled to fit in the studio sessions. I stopped going for a while but one lunch time after a particularly stressful morning I took my phone to a meeting room, locked the door and googled ‘yoga for anxiety’ on YouTube. In the middle of all the rushing, all the meetings and all the stress, I found 20 minutes of solace. I felt liberated — like a child who suddenly realises they have the key to the toy shop. I could practice yoga, for free, anywhere — all I needed was the will to do so, and I could.
By this measurement yoga comes up trumps as the gym is a physical place, rather than a type of exercise, and so does need to be visited in order for the benefits to be reaped (something I have explained many times to my mother). Yoga on the other hand doesn’t need that kind of effort to maintain, although it’s always good to check in with a teacher from time to time to make any alignment changes and help prevent injury.
So Which One Wins?
I approached this article wanting to find one winner, the gym or yoga, but I have come to the conclusion that both are beneficial in their own way and variety is the spice the life. Going to the gym is not bad and only practising yoga is not limiting — I suppose it depends what your motivation is — but a combination of both may really complement one another. I will always need yoga to anchor, nourish and teach me but that’s not to say I won’t always enjoy putting on my trainers and jumping around to loud music at the gym.
I’m a yogi gym-goer, who are you?