Yoga has many well-known benefits. Sure, it helps to increase flexibility, build muscle strength, and reduce stress. But can it really help with weight loss?
The short answer is maybe. To lose weight, you need to burn calories. To burn calories, you need aerobic exercise. The word "aerobic" means "in the presence of oxygen." Thus, any kind of exercise that increases your body’s oxygen capacity will enhance its ability to use food for fuel, rather than store it as fat.
Many types of yoga provide a small amount of aerobic intensity… but nothing near the level of running or swimming. However, some styles of yoga — such as Ashtanga, Vinyasa, and Power Yoga — combine yogic breath work with more active movement. These styles build heat in the body and can burn more calories than slower-paced Hatha Yoga classes. Many people on weight-reducing diets add a yoga practice to other calorie-burning activities like running, biking, and swimming.
Make sure you start with a beginner’s class if you haven’t done yoga before or if you’re trying out a new style. Jumping right into a fast-paced Vinyasa or Power Yoga class without the experience, strength, or knowledge of the poses can cause more harm than good.
The benefits of yoga extend way beyond merely torching calories. Below are some of the main ways that yoga can be a beneficial addition to any weight-loss endeavor.
There is more wisdom in your body than in your deepest philosophies.
When you’re stressed-out, your body responds by producing certain hormones that shift your nervous system’s equilibrium. This can cause you to gain weight. Studies have shown that a regular yoga practice can lower the levels of stress hormones present in your body, restoring balance. Part of this benefit comes from stretching and loosening muscles that may be tight due to tension and stress. Bringing awareness to your breath and doing simple meditations can help to calm your mind. Also, yogic breathing techniques (pranayama) relax and oxygenate the body, releasing tension.
As your body relaxes, your insulin sensitivity also increases. This means your body understands that it needs to burn food as fuel, instead of storing it as fat. As you nourish your body with healthy foods, you’ll be able to use those foods as energy, which will make you feel less fatigued. The result? Less stress, more energy, and no need for excess fat storage!
A Body in Balance
Yoga can help strengthen muscles that are tight or weak due to lack of regular activity. It helps to increase the range of motion in your joints and ligaments. A regular practice improves digestion and elimination, which reduces water retention and bloating. It also improves circulation, which helps to regulate the activity of the endocrine glands. These include the thyroid and the adrenals, which govern your appetite, moods, and sleep.
Yoga asanas (poses) increase the flow of prana, or vital life energy, throughout the body. When prana gets blocked or doesn’t flow freely, you can feel sluggish, fatigued, and emotionally off-kilter. As you practice yoga and get the life force flowing again, you can more easily release old emotions and thought patterns that keep you stuck. When you let go of the old and worn-out, your self-image will improve. This can lead you to continue taking good care of yourself. Finding balance in your body thus helps you to find balance in other areas of your life.
Enhanced Mind-Body Awareness
Yoga seeks to unify mind, body, and spirit. As you become more aware of your internal self, you may begin to question exactly what your body needs. On your mat, this means you might learn to take breaks or to go deeper. Off your mat, you might find yourself choosing the grilled salmon over the fish and chips.
Yoga enhances body awareness and encourages focus, commitment, and discipline. This results in the ability to be in touch with your body; to be aware of the choices you make. You may become more conscious of your food choices. You may notice when you’re full, rather than stuffed. Many yoga practitioners find they become drawn to whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, and grains — instead of processed and fast food.
Integrating mind, body, and spirit can result in a greater understanding of food as nourishment instead of punishment. Under-eating can be as harmful as overeating. Yoga can help instill a desire to treat your body with what’s essential, healthy, and vital.
Focus on the means, not the end! Yoga is an integrated system of movement, breath, and behavior that can transform your life on deep levels. Try not to approach yoga simply as a means to losing weight. The physical benefits feel wonderful, but are only a small portion of the greater yoga package. Keep an open mind and you just might see the pounds melt away without even realizing it!
Yoga Principles for Healthy Body Image
Ancient yoga texts like the sage Patanjali's Yoga Sutras offer guidance through specific ways of living. The restraints (yamas) and observances (niyamas) discussed in the Sutras are yogic principles that guide our choices throughout everyday life.
The principle of satya is often translated as "truth." However, it also refers to living with integrity, and refraining from dishonesty in thought, word, and deed. Being honest with yourself can mean facing up to the emotions that are driving you to overeat. It can mean confronting your fears about losing weight and what it might mean for you. Satya can also mean seeing yourself as you truly are and being able to accept that reality, not the image you’ve made up in your mind.
The principle of santosha, meaning "contentment," teaches you to find joy in your own life, not coveting what you don’t have. The more time you spend thinking about what you don’t have, the less time you’ll have to appreciate what you do have. It might be frustrating to try to make peace with your extra weight, but striving to attain the unrealistic body of a fantasy can be even more disheartening. It’s not worth it to beat yourself up because you don’t look like your idealized self yet. Maybe you have beautiful eyes, or perhaps your hands are strong and flexible. Focus on what is good in your own life, right now.
Yoga can help bring awareness to your body the way nothing else can. Becoming attentive to your true needs and desires can unify the connection between your mind, body, and spirit. Yoga helps you regain control over your thoughts and actions, and can ultimately bring meaning to the previously unenlightened areas of your life.