When it comes to using exercise to encourage weight loss, doing yoga might not be on your list. You might think about running, daily brisk walks or something super intense like Crossfit – but, yoga? Well actually, when it comes to exercising to lose weight, yoga can absolutely play a role… and here’s why and how to get the best results from it.
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The Proof That Yoga Aids Weight Loss
The first study that showed that yoga could trigger weight loss happened in 2006. Researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in the US found that on their group of over 15,00 adults those who practised yoga for at least four years were two to four times less likely to gain weight as they age than those who didn’t practise yoga.
And they also discovered that people who were overweight who started practising yoga lost weight.
On paper, it wasn’t much – just 5lb over the 10 year period of the study – but their peers who didn’t practise yoga gained, an average of 14lb – meaning the yoga group were potentially 19lb lighter at the end of the trial than they would have been if they hadn’t started their practise. And that is significant.
Since that first trial, there have been over 55 different studies showing that yoga can lead to weight loss.
But Yoga Doesn’t Burn Many Calories
If this, is the thought currently buzzing around your head, you’d be right.
An hour of a relaxing form of yoga like hatha will burn around 180 calories, which even done five times a week, would theoretically only trigger a weight loss of about a quarter of a pound.
More intense forms like Bikram (which is done in a hot room) can see women burning about 330 calories in a 90-minute session (men burn a little more) but that’s still less than you’d lose doing a brisk walk.
But the thing is, yoga doesn’t work simply by making you burn energy. It has other powers…
It Changes Your Attitude to Food
Back in 2016, a group of researchers at the National Institutes of Health Clinical Center in Bethesda decided they wanted to investigate why people doing yoga were losing weight.
They recruited a group of people who had seen this happen and asked a LOT of questions.
The results were fascinating – and the big one was that 90 per cent of their subjects said they had started eating more healthily once they did yoga.
They said they were more conscious of how foods made their body feel during their yoga practice – they noticed how uncomfortable overeating made them feel or how different foods positively or negatively affected their practice.
A follow-up study by the Fred Hutchinson team also found people who practised yoga were more likely to not eat if they weren’t hungry – and stop eating before they go overfull.
This doesn’t surprise yoga and meditation master Sri Swami Purohit who says, ‘when we practise yoga, we become more sensitive to our body and its needs. This is because the postures require us to be more aware of every part of the body as we move and breathe during our practice.
This awareness is particularly important when it comes to our eating habits. Most of us eat according to timetables and routines, rather than waiting until we are truly hungry.
In fact, most of us barely know what real hunger feels like as we have food easily available at all times. Often, we will ask “Shall I eat something or not?” If you find yourself asking this question, then the answer should always be “Not!”
If you have any doubt about whether to eat, then you are not truly hungry. You may be bored, tired, upset or stressed but none of these is a good reason for eating.’
To harness this benefit, remember Sri Swami’s advice above and ask yourself if you’re really hungry. If you’re not, try and identify what actually needs feeding instead – you’ll probably find its an emotion rather than your stomach. You’ll find some other advice on beating food cravings here which might also help power up your results.
Also, look at how foods make you feel – do some leave you overfull or sluggish. What happens if you leave them out? Thinking about food in reference to how it makes you feel, rather than how it tastes, could change your attitudes foods that don’t make you feel good.
Yoga Reduces Stress
Stress can be the enemy of weight loss. While extreme stress can trigger loss of appetite, the mild, annoying stress most of us feel each day is more likely to trigger us giving in to comfort food and food cravings when you’re stressed.
Stress also affects metabolism – according to research at Ohio State University, women burned about 100 calories less of a meal the day after a stressful experience than on a calmer day.
‘On top of this, the stress hormone cortisol is an appetite stimulant, hence why we tend to eat and overeat when we’re stressed and to crave unhealthy foods in particular,’ says Sydney-based Holistic Health Coach and Yoga, Meditation Teacher Kirsten Scott. ‘A relaxing yoga practice can help you deal with stress in a healthier way and even avoid it, and the related weight gain, altogether.’
Sri Swami Purihot agrees, saying, ‘we overeat for many reasons. Sometimes we comfort eat, as eating lulls our senses and reduces our awareness of negative emotions. However, Yoga teaches us that the best way to live is by being aware of all negative emotions so that we can accept them and manage them.
If you are resisting and suppressing your feelings, even if they are related to past events, then they will keep affecting you and your behaviour. A regular yoga or meditation practice can help you deal with all your emotions by making you aware of them, which can be difficult of course, but is the only way to accept them and stop them from controlling your life.’
Any type of yoga will take you out of your head and potentially reduce stress, but, if you’re very stressed out, you might be better sticking to calmer regimes like Hatha or Iyenger – there’s a theory that intense workouts when you’re stressed can actually increase cortisol and decrease results.
It Builds Muscle
This matters because the more muscle you have the more calories you burn.
‘If you’re looking for this effect, a fast-paced heated Vinyasa class is the best practice to choose,’ says Kirsten. ‘A good Vinyasa class will take you through a variety of movements, with a focus on integrating your core and weight-bearing on your hands and feet. You’re getting a core burn, working your triceps, then using your arms to hold up your body weight as you stretch. This kind of weight-bearing move increases heart rate and builds muscle.’
If Vinyasa is not your thing, some specific poses that Kirsten suggests building into your normal practice that are also good for building muscle include Boat Pose, Extended Side Angle Pose, Chaturanga to Upward-Facing Dog and Warrior Pose (above).
Yoga Can Directly Affect Metabolism
As well as raising metabolism through building muscle, certain yoga postures are said to directly work digestion and metabolic rate. Sri Swami Purohit explains it as follows…
‘Yoga has huge benefits for all the body’s internal organs and systems as it generates heat and moves energy around the body, creating a balance that influences all physical and emotional functions and states.
Some yoga exercises are specifically designed to generate heat in the digestive system which is vital to weight loss and to maintaining a healthy weight. This digestive heat is what converts our food into energy so that no unnecessary fat is stored in the body.
There are certain Yoga exercises which are specifically aimed at improving the digestive function and which will activate or awaken the digestive fire, known as Samana. This makes the digestive process much more effective as the greater the heat and energy in our digestive organs, the more efficiently food is converted into energy instead of fat. Therefore, these Yoga exercises, when practised regularly and correctly, can have a direct effect on our metabolism.
One of the most powerful yoga exercises for digestion is Agnisara
Stand up straight and raise your arms above your head. Exhale strongly through your nose twice, pulling your arms downwards in a tugging motion, with each exhalation. Now your lungs and stomach should be empty of air and you may notice that your stomach is pulled inwards a little. Still holding your breath, contract your abdominal muscles and pull your belly in and out 10 times.
Repeat the whole exercise 5 times.
If you do this exercise on a daily basis, you will start to see results after 3 months.
You can see Sri Swami Purohit demonstrating this exercise on his website, as part of the Daily Yoga exercises for super health video. You’ll find that here.
Please note: You shouldnt hold your breath during the exercise if you suffer from high blood pressure. If you have any health conditions, it is recommended you consult with your GP before starting any new exercise regime.
Other exercises that are good for the digestive system are Bhujangasana, the Cobra Pose (above) and, at a more advanced level, Mayurasana, the Peacock Pose. Any pose that puts pressure on the abdomen will help improve digestion.
Yoga Changes Your Body Image
In the NIHCC trial, people noticed a real shift in how they felt about their bodies after doing yoga. They started to focus more on what their body could do than their weight.
This shift in attitude has been shown to have a powerful effect on how we treat our bodies – and the fuel we put in them – and is the key to a movement called body neutrality..
In this, instead of thinking negative, or overtly positive, thoughts about your body, you simply accept how it looks, embrace what it can do and give it what it needs to feel good and do that better. ‘Appreciating what your body does for you each day is a great motivator for treating it well,’ says London- based yoga teacher Jo Sumner. ‘It becomes easier to prioritise eating well, resting more and moving more when you’re trying to fuel the good things your body does than reverse something you don’t like.’
Becoming body neutral helps appreciate your body and keeping it in the optimum condition to do everything you want in life.
Spend some time after your session thanking your body for what it did and focusing on any improvements you made. Did you hold a pose for longer? Do something you hadn’t done before? Or just feel things getting easier. Celebrate that. Hey, you get points just for showing up!
After practising body neutrality for a while, you might decide you don’t want to lose weight at all – just become stronger, fitter and more flexible. Which brings us to our last reason why yoga helps weight loss.
Yoga Keeps You Mobile
Yoga helps stretch the body, it increases range of motion and can help release pain – and in turn that can help you increase the amount of exercise you do, or change the type or increase the intensity in ways that help you get moving more in other ways – and that will add to your weight loss effects.
If you have injuries or other mobility issues that affect how you move make sure you tell your teacher before you start any class. They can then adapt any exercises that might make things worse to prevent thing – and help you focus on postures that might make things better.
How to Get These Benefits
To start getting these benefits you need to start doing yoga! Kirsten suggests adding 1-2 sessions a week to your normal cardio and strength training workouts.
‘If all you’ve done is weight train and cardio, the addition of yoga once or twice a week will pose new challenges for your body to adapt to. This adaptation is what will get you into better overall shape,’ says Kirsten.
The type of yoga you choose is up to you, more relaxing types like Hatha will work well for stress, more dynamic forms like Vinyasa, Ashtanga or Bikram will help build muscle and fire up metabolism.
Iyenger offers a good balance of physical postures and breathwork. The people in the Bethesda trial were doing Iyenger so don’t think you have to do the more intense types of yoga to get results.
Yoga For Fuller Figures
If you’re a bit fuller-figured, you might not think yoga is for you – you see, in our modern world, yoga has an image – and it’s very much one of thin women in expensive yoga kit – which actually goes against everything it stands for!
The good news is the last few years have seen more and more fuller-figured yoga role models like Amber Karnes and Instagram stars like @mynameisjessamyn who proves that curves do not stop you doing yoga.
Googling phrases like ‘curvy yoga’ or ‘yoga for round bodies’ will also see you find classes full of people who look just like you – and trainers who can adapt moves for a fuller figure. The website Curvy Yoga also has a list of teachers around the world – and also offer online classes if you can’t find one in your area. Click here to see more.
If you’re more worried about how you’re going to contort yourself like a pretzel, than the other people in the class, the good news is there’s plenty of props like yoga blocks, bolsters, straps or ties which can help you move into positions more easily. until your flexibility improves. A supportive teacher will help you use these if you need them.
For more advice on bolsters check out this guide to the best yoga bolsters by YogiWanderer.
Oh, and while you don’t need expensive kit to do yoga, investing in a good yoga-friendly sports bra is essential if you don’t want your boobs falling out of your top in a downward dog.
Look for a bra with a high neck and/or encapsulated cups – have a look at the Panache brand which is one of the most comfortable sports bras I’ve found or try Glamourise who specialise in sports bras for bigger busts.
And lastly, for an extra motivation boost check out Jessamyn Stanley’s book Every Body Yoga.
It’s part exercise book, part memoir – and a bit sweary in places – but you will come away from reading it with a real ‘I can do anything’ attitude.’ Click here to see more details here.
Eating Like a Yogi
While you don’t need to actively change your diet to practice yoga, Sri Swami Purihot says there are a few ideas you might want to consider thinking about.
‘As you become more in tune with your body, you will have a clearer understanding of what your body needs. You may find yourself unconsciously changing your eating habits and the types of foods you eat, favouring more fresh, natural produce and moving away from unhealthy snacks,’ he told us.
‘I teach my students to only eat when they are hungry and to avoid drinking during a meal. You should try to drink only 1hr 40 minutes after a meal as by that time the main digestion is over, and the liquid will not interfere with the process.
I also recommend not eating anything else for six hours after a meal. The body needs to rest and eating again too soon may lead to weight gain.
It is important to chew food sufficiently. When we eat quickly the food is neither savoured nor digested properly and can cause discomfort after eating.
You should try to be fully present in the moment while you eat. Avoid eating while doing another activity such as watching television, scrolling through your social media or working. If your mind is not fully engaged with what you are doing, then you will eat too fast and too much.
A simple but regular Yoga practice will help you create more awareness about your body so that you can begin to make changes to improve your digestion and metabolism, make healthier food choices and adapt your routines to your body’s needs.’
So there you have it – why yoga can play and important role in weight loss and how to maximise your results. So, what do you think – are you going to try it? Have you tried it? Let me know in the comments.