Iron Yoga: Mind Over Muscle

Multitasking in yoga class: While you're balancing on one foot, why not do bicep curls, too?

Reviewed by Brunilda Nazario, MD on January 20, 2004

You think yoga is difficult? Here's a new twist. It's called iron yoga, and it's not for lightweights.

In fact, we're talking about yoga plus light weights. That's right, balancing on one foot while doing bicep curls -- that kind of thing. Go ahead, try it! If it sounds hard, doing it is even harder.

Yes, multitasking has infiltrated the ancient art of yoga.

The Heart of It

About a year ago, Anthony Carillo -- triathlete, marathon runner, and former CPA -- started teaching iron yoga classes in upscale New York City health clubs. He hatched the concept of iron yoga while striking a traditional yoga pose.

"I was doing the Warrior II pose -- legs separated, extending my arms, working my upper body," Carillo tells WebMD. "I could feel my legs burn out faster than my upper body."

The arms, shoulders, chest, and back were just along for the ride. What were they contributing to this workout?

Carillo picked up a set of light dumbbells. A few bicep and tricep exercises later, he had invented a new breed of yoga class. "With the weights, you get extra upper body work and challenge," he tells WebMD.

Mind Over Muscle

With iron yoga, you won't bulk up. These weights are three-pounders, five at the most. "Eight is too much," says Carillo. For big muscles, you can't eliminate weight training. But iron yoga can improve your "mind-muscle connection."

He's taken 25 traditional yoga poses and created 30 different iron yoga exercises. For people used to traditional yoga class, this is way different, he says. "They're holding weights and adding movement, so a lot more focus is required -- and a lot more strength. It's been a lot of fun, and I've gotten a lot of positive feedback."

His iron yoga classes are 60 minutes long; some poses require weights, others don't -- to give students a break.

"People ask me, 'When does it get easier?' It doesn't," says Carillo. "As you're getting stronger, better balanced, you're continuously working harder. If you need more challenge, you'll move to a heavier dumbbell. But you never want to use a weight that's so heavy that it compromises your form, breath, or balance."

For those who want to bulk up, iron yoga does offer benefits, he says.

People who work with weights often just "throw the weights around," Carillo tells WebMD. "They're not using them properly. What's nice about iron yoga is that every movement is controlled with the breath. You're doing deeper and fuller breaths, slower movements, so you achieve shaping, toning, and sculpting."

"Back in the weight room, you find yourself focusing better, controlling your movements and your breath -- all of which improves your weight-lifting workout," he says.

In fact, iron yoga helps Carillo and other athletes better deal with overexertion during marathon runs. "Athletes have very short, shallow breathing. In yoga, you practice deep abdominal breathing. When you run a race, there's a point when getting your next breath is a challenge. Yoga has opened a new oxygen source for me through breath awareness."

It's All Good

"Yoga, strength training, and aerobics are good, but one does not replace another," says Sal Fichera, an exercise physiologist, owner of Forza Fitness in New York City, and spokesman for the American Council on Exercise. He offered to comment on Carillo's program.

"There are benefits specific to every modality of exercise. Granted there are benefits that do overlap," he tells WebMD. "But normal weight lifting and doing 60 minutes of iron yoga will produce different results, because they have different effects on the muscles. With light weights, you'll definitely feel a burn. But it won't generate the same results as if you used heavier weights."

Tony Sanchez teaches yoga class at the San Francisco Yoga Studio and has been practicing yoga since 1976.

Sanchez trained in India, where a weight-lifting room was available for people who couldn't do certain poses -- to help them build strength. "If someone is very flexible, it's not unusual that they don't have very much strength," he tells WebMD. "But the two [disciplines] were separate."

"I see some benefits to iron yoga, but I also see some dangers," Sanchez says.

There's the danger of getting hurt -- falling over or straining muscles, he points out. "Especially if you're doing the Warrior or Sun Salutation poses -- extending postures -- they require a lot of balance, a lot of concentration, alignment and weight distribution. When you incorporate another element into the pose, it becomes much more difficult to maintain the posture."

Bottom line: You could lose your balance. Like that never happens in yoga class.

Show Sources

SOURCES: Anthony Carillo, iron yoga instructor, New York Health & Racquet Club, New York City. Sal Fichera, exercise physiologist; spokesman, American Council on Exercise; owner, Forza Fitness, New York City. Tony Sanchez, principle yoga teacher, San Francisco Yoga Studio.

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