How much is enough? Intensity vs. Duration, and applying it to Ashtanga Yoga

How much is enough? Intensity vs. Duration 

Research and applying it to ashtanga yoga

I’ve always been a proponent of shorter duration, high intensity exercise over long duration, lower intensity exercises. Lower intensity moderate duration exercise is beneficial and reduces the risk of heart disease and most diseases in general but it does not improve fitness. It is safe to do 5 or 6 days per week. Marathons are stress on the body and detrimental.

Shorter duration high intensity exercise builds more muscle and bone, increases VO2 max, burns more calories, and improves overall fitness. High intensity exercise needs more recovery  time and should not be done more than 2-3x per week. Sprinters and other high intensity exercisers do have to be careful of tendon/ligament injury, they do incur a higher risk of injury.

Over the years (I used to be a personal trainer in the early 90s) I’ve heard wavering advise about low intensity vs high intensity. It used to be believed that staying at a lower intensity, which is a fat burning state would burn more fat. But lately I’m hearing high intensity which puts you in a sugar burning state is better and burns more fat overall. In addition it raises your metabolism for several hours after exercise where as lower intensity does not.

Long durations exercising and marathoning on the other hand creates a lot of oxidative stress, overuse injuries, and increases cortisol (stress hormones) in the body. Long-distance runners and endurance athletes tend to develop cardiovascular problems (I know two long distance runners who died in their mid-50s), they actually get scars on their heart. Long duration exercise also reduces immunity. Marathoners have an increased risk for illness following a marathon.

Long distance exercise puts your body in a state of fight or flight. If you think about our evolution, long distance traveling would only be done to escape a place or situation due to danger or lack of food.

Visceral fat and marathoners vs. sprinters

Also of interest is visceral fat. Visceral fat is the invisible fat that wraps around our organs. How much visible (subcutaneous) fat you have has nothing to do with how much visceral (invisible) fat you have. You don’t really know how much visceral fat you have unless you look at it with an MRI or similar device. The only marker found to correlate so far is chronic inflammation. Take note, frequent long duration exercise increases the risk of chronic inflammation.

Sean O’Mara, MD, JD started doing MRIs on individuals when researching visceral fat and its implications on health. This was very interesting and worth your time to read and listen to the links below. What he discovered is that marathoners, while looking skinny on the outside, had a lot of visceral fat making them fat on the inside. A word he coined as TOFI (thin outside, fat inside). They also had fat marbled through their muscle, which my guess would be put there by the body to be used for fuel during durational events.

He then looked at visceral fat of sprinters and found they had virtually none! Especially the sprinters who did not eat processed foods. He concluded there is a benefit to sprinting and reducing visceral fat (though he doesn’t know the why).

Your fat on the outside, subcutaneous fat, has nothing to do with how much visceral fat you have. He also scanned quite a lot of people who had abdominal fat but very little visceral fat. Coined FOTI (fat outside, thin inside) and showed they have less risk factors for disease than someone who may appear thin on the outside with lots of visceral fat.

The number one promoter of visceral fat is ultra-processed foods, but also effecting visceral fat is: high alcohol intake, lack of sleep, stress from increased cortisol, too much exercise — especially durational exercise!  Most likely this is due to increased ROS (reactive oxygen species or free radicals).

Dr. O’Mara did not give detail on the sprinting intervals, just shared that he feels its important to have some variety in how often you exercise (frequency). And he personally averages about 3x per week short intense workouts that include intervals and weight lifting. He said most important is to exercise at an intensity that builds up lactate, and to increase your fast twitch muscle fibers. He also stressed its important to build up to it. If you don’t regularly do high intensity exercise, to work with a trainer and/or start slow and build up to it.

I’ve included a link to his website showing pictures and some of his research: 

And a link to a podcast I listened to with him. 

Overview of causes of visceral (bad!) fat

  • Ultra-processed foods
  • High alcohol intake
  • Lack of sleep
  • Stress (too much cortisol)
  • Too much Exercise!

Endocannabinoids and exercise and the yoga high (or runners high)

It turns our endocannabinoids, not endorphins (the feel good hormones dopamine and serotonin) are responsible for the yoga/runners high. Anandamide, which is an endocannabinoid that attaches to CB1 and CB2 receptors and gives us that feel good high feeling, can cross the blood brain barrier where as our endorphins are too large to cross the blood brain barrier. Anandamide also reduces inflammation, pain, and promotes well being feelings. The name anandamide is a spin off of the Sanskrit word ananda which means bliss.

We want our exercise and yoga practice to release anandamide! How much exercise do you need to release anandamide? Basically some effort in either duration or intensity.

Looking at several studies I found at least 30 minutes exercise with moderate intensity increases anandamide. Shorter bouts of higher intensity exercise also increases anandamide. ( ).

Some research pointed to the longer the duration of exercise the higher the anandamide release.

45 minutes of moderate intensity running released more endocannabinoids into the blood stream than 45 minutes of walking. (

However 15 minutes of muscle strengthening exercise also increased anandamide. 

After reviewing many studies, it seems most exercise (except for swimming for some reason?) will increase endocannabinoids (and BDNF a beneficial brain neurotrophic that is increased with exercise). Endurance exercise and higher intensity exercises preliminarily show an increase anandamide release. Age, sex, and type of exercise all play a role. Each study concluded more research needs done as to which exercise — endurance vs intensity is best. In my conclusion it seems you can do either longer duration, or short duration with high intensity intervals to get your anandamide hit. 

Anandamide benefits: Improved memory, controls appetite, improves neurogenesis, reduces pain and inflammation, regulates mood, and reduces depression.

There are some foods that contain anandamide as well, they are: the essential fatty acids such as those available in chia seeds, flax seeds, hemp seeds and hemp oil. Herbs and teas like lemon balm (Melissa), hops, cloves, cinnamon, oregano, and black pepper. Chocolate 🙂 and black truffles.

Other things you can do to increase anandamide? Take CBD, exercise, reduce stress, and meditate.

Balance is important

Most people either exercise too much or too little. And ashtangis are pushed to overexercise or do too much practice, especially vinyasas. Personally my balance after over 27 years of ashtanga yoga is:

  • 1-2 days per week of some strength and intensity type of exercise, these sessions are short and sweet; about 15 minutes. I like to use skipping as my aerobic interval, 20-30 seconds on and 30 seconds off for 3-5 rounds. Or I skip around my gardens moving the hoses from plant to plant as I water 🙂
  • I live a daily active life, moving throughout my days and being mindful of not sitting too long. I still like to have at least one day per week of a nice beach walk that is 45 minutes to an hour and usually with a friend and always with my dog <3.
  • I do my yoga practice 4 days per week now. Some days a short practice, some days 45 minutes to an hour. I always try to have a short peak in my yoga practice that works up a sweat and challenges strength and balance — be the balance on my feet or hands.

Ashtanga Yoga and exercise balance

Being told you need to do a full series which is 1-1/2 hours of practice, or more and doing all the vinyasas including in between right and left sides, 6 days per week is detrimental to health. It is overtraining, and increases the risk of injury which is high in ashtangis. In retrospect after over-practicing myself for too many years I now advise practicing 4 days per week, no longer than an hour but even 20 minutes can make for a good practice. Start slow, set your breath and calm your nervous system, then work up to a peak that lasts just a couple minutes —two or three peak intensity poses, then bring it down and end the last 20 minutes or more of your practice with a restful, mindful of your breath practice.

No matter what exercise or style of yoga you choose; Reduce oxidative stress after exercise.

All exercise will produce some amount of oxidative stress. To get the most benefit from your exercise or yoga practice there are some practices you can do to minimize oxidative stress. And follow practice or exercise with herbal tea, and with foods flavored with herbs and spices. Herbs and spices are some of your best tools to reduce the oxidative stress. Herbs and spices are powerful anti-oxidants that do not get enough credit!

Nasal breathing during exercise (except for high intensity intervals) will produce less oxidative stress. Remember to use your nasal breathing whether you are practicing yoga, going for a walk, intensely exercising — or cooking dinner or taking a shower! Nasal breathe most of your life.

Choose yoga as your main form of exercise (its a work-in) It is designed to exercise the body while reducing oxidative stress (unless you follow mainstream ashtanga advice). When exercising end your workouts with a few minutes of slow breathing, stretching, and the first two finishing lotus flowers (baddha padmasana and padmasana), then take rest just like you do after yoga to reset your nervous system.

Which spices are best to reduce oxidative stress? The top spices to reduce Oxidative Stress (OS): allspice, star anise, cloves, cinnamon, and oregano. Make a chai tea after practice or exercise. 

Essential oils reduce oxidative stress, and cortisol. To help get the most benefit from my practices I like to diffuse essential oil that reduce cortisol, and then in the evening  take a bath with essential oils that reduce oxidative stress.

Common essential oils that reduce cortisol include orange, rosemary, lavender, and bergamot.(Watanabe, E., Kuchta, K., Kimura, M., Rauwald, H.W., Kamei, T. (2015). Effects of bergamot (Citrus bergamia (Risso) Wright & Arn.) essential oil aromatherapy on mood states, parasympathetic nervous system activity, and salivary cortisol levels in 31 healthy females. Forsch komplementmed, 22, 43-49. doi: 10.1159/000380989)

A nice blend diffuser blend would be 7 drops each orange and lavender and 2 drops rosemary.

Essential oils that reduce oxidative stress include citrus oils, helichrysum, rosemary, wintergreen, and any essential oil high in the sesquiterpene beta-caryophyllene such as black pepper (and cinnamon but it has its challenges to use). 

Topically on an sore area you could use my relax and heal topical analgesic liniment as it contains wintergreen, rosemary, and cinnamon and is safely diluted for topical use, just don’t use on broken skin.

A bath is a nice way to end an evening, whether you did an exercise that day or not. A nice bath blend would be 5 drops bergamot, 3 drops black pepper, and 1-2 drops rosemary in a half ounce of carrier oil. Add in a cup or more of epsom salts and about half cup of baking soda. Crawl in, relax and breathe deep.

I’m going to leave you with a excerpt from my May 2016 topic of month archives (it’s a good read if you are a pukka ashtangi):

Six day per week full series practices are too much for most people.

Yoga should enhance our life, not be our life . . .

Consistent practice does not necessarily mean a full series 6 days per week.  Many teachers of ashtanga like to tell you that you have to do practice 6 days per week having off full and new moon days only and menstruation days for women.  For those of us that have no family yet, or maybe do not have a demanding job; a full series six days per week might be good for us.  For those of us who have a family and/or career, 1-1/2 hours of practice per day is not logical or possible . . . or may be putting us in an overtrained state. 


Most people either exercise too little or too much . . . there is a goldilocks zone with exercise and intense practices like Ashtanga.  All exercise creates oxidative stress in our bodies — what makes the difference between oxidative stress that helps us grow vs. breaks us down is if it is acute or chronic.  When our body is faced with oxidative stress it has to use the anti-oxidants from the food we eat to correct the imbalances; if our diet is not adequate or we are creating too many free radicals (oxidative stress) by overexercising then the aging process will set in leaving our skin saggy, and our muscles weaker instead of stronger.

So the difference between developing vitality from oxidative stress or getting older from it stems on finding the right amount or practice.  Acute oxidative stress can help our body be stronger.  Chronic oxidative stress will make us age sooner.  The issues that cause chronic oxidative stress are over-exercising, bad diet, and chemical exposures.ref:

The Yoga Rahasya teaches Yoga in 3 stages of life;

  1. Brahmacari stage = a young person who seeks knowledge of Brahma.  This stage is called the shristi stage, shristi means “creation” — practice should create strength.
  2. Grahasta stage = householder — Most obstacles in life to practicing.  Pranayama is very important in this stage.  This stage is called Sthiti, meaning “to stay”.  Use your yoga practice to maintain health and fitness in the stage.
  3. Dhyanam = sanyasi or renunciate.  This stage starts around 75 years of age and is called the Samhara stage, which means “going back to the source” or antyah (end). Practices are about peaceful mind, pranayama and meditation.

If you learn ashtanga in your youth like the old yogic texts teach then the approach is different.  It seems Mysore today is like a college whether you are college aged or not.  In an academic college; Usually you are young, not tight yet, maybe thin, no family.  You can take on a six day per week course that includes studies and a lot of physicality, you have no job. You spend many hours working on this per day just learning and strengthening.  You build a fine machine 🙂

Now you have to go out in the world and work, maybe raise a family.  Your yoga practice becomes a memory . . . but if you hold on to bits and pieces you do really well because you built a strong foundation and your body remembers.  You may not be able to do what you were doing in college, but you maintain a sound body and mind by making time to breathe and move on your mat each day — even though it may be short and sweet more days than you would like. 

Problem is . . . more people come to yoga already in their householder phase, they didn’t get the base of years of practice prior to having other responsibilities.  They can not take on a rigid six day per week practice, family, cooking real food and spending many hours “hunting and gathering” (because grocery store food will kill you) without breaking down.  And honestly practicing yoga by being present with your children may be more yoga than doing asana on your yoga mat.

Learning yoga later in life, we tend do have more family/work/life stress and our bodies are stiffer, maybe with some aches and pains . . . so we might need the poses to look a little differently than if we learned them in our 20s.

The old time rumors that ashtanga yoga is for teenage boys holds some validity if you want to teach a rigid system that you can only do if you are young, flexible, and strong.  However if you take the frame work of this very intelligently designed system and adapt if for many different bodies in many different stages of life you have a system for a lifetime for many different people.  

For example the Mysore college student who had to grow up and get a job and family, now he may be on the other side of that — children grown up, less work responsibility….. Practice can once again have more time each day 🙃However it might be different again — maybe more pranayama, less asana. Or less asana and more time in closing inversions … or just sitting by the river . . .  But chances are the practice of ashtanga will yet again be best as a framework than a rigid impose-ment.  

Even if you had to learn and detoxify and maybe you need to create strength in your householder phase because you did not get to do that in your brahmacari stage . . . you can still use the practice to do that, however the practice should still be different for a person just learning in their householder phase than a person learning the practice in their brahmacari stage.

And remember Pattabhi Jois’s quote “Sun salutes and standing poses, no backsliding”.  During your busy times do not make your yoga practice one more “thing” you need to do.  Or worse yet, feel guilt over missing a practice or doing a short practice.  Remember to keep your practice in perspective; the recommendation of daily practice is to connect us to our breathing and meditative mind each day, then take that with you off your mat and into your life.  Yes we need some physicality to keep the body healthy however a full series with all the chaturanga vinyasas six days per week is overtraining for people in their householder phase.


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