Over the past decade alone, yoga has explodedinto a multi-million dollar industry. Nearly 21 million Americans actively participate in yoga, spending more than $10 billion a year on classes and products (including equipment, clothing, retreats and videos), with the majority of novice practitioners citing general wellness, stress management or weight loss as one of their primary motivations for taking up the practice.
However, the roots of yoga are spiritual, not physical, which is the way we think of yoga today. Body-focused yoga styles (that focus on toning, weight loss and physical transformations) are a modern, Western phenomenon. There's no doubt that the benefits yoga offers for the physical body appeals to Americans, even though yoga can be so much more than a physical fitness regimen.
So can yoga really help you lose weight? Is there any truth or science to claims that any set of yoga postures can boost your metabolism, help you slim down, or give you that coveted "yoga body"?
In my opinion, as a yoga instructor and practitioner for more than 20 years, yoga's fundamental precepts make it a formidable weight-loss contender—but not for the reasons you might think.
If we're simply looking at calorie for calorie*, when stacked against higher-intensity workouts like running (660 calories per hour), aerobics (460 calories per hour), competitive tennis (470 calories per hour) or swimming (400 calories per hour), yoga doesn't seem like a serious contender. Research shows that most styles of yoga (even "power" styles) don't elevate the heart rate to the same level as this other fitness pursuits, and that yoga doesn't burn as many calories as other aerobic activities. (At roughly 175 calories per hour, it's more akin to a light walk). *Calories burned estimates based on a 150-pound woman.
But these mainstream high-intensity exercise regimens can't hold a candle to yoga's long-term benefits. In the race for weight loss, yoga can truly be the dark horse, because, not just a calorie burner, the practice works on what's inside, both mentally and emotionally. Anyone who's ever lost weight and kept it off can attest that change has to happen there, too.
Yoga's rich legacy is imparted through each downward facing dog and warrior pose—whether practitioners realize it or not. Just like the accidental tourist who stumbles upon one of the world's seven wonders without a guidebook, the "accidental" yogi can actually reap the unforeseen reward of discovering one of life's most elusive, complex and confounding mysteries: not just how to lose weight, but how to keep it off.
My personal yoga journey took me from my back yard in Southern California to the East Coast, where my own thoughts and instincts about yoga and weight loss were corroborated. The resounding message, after interviewing yogis on both coasts, is that if you really invest yourself, not only can you lose weight doing yoga, but you can get to the root of your inner burdens and self-sabotage, putting into practice one of yoga's greatest precepts: letting go of what no longer serves you.
Yoga teaches us how to adopt a new lifestyle, which is the key to permanent change. It offers the practitioner what few other physical exercises can: a potent combination of ancient science and self-mastery, tools that facilitate the self-reflection required to discover why one gained weight in the first place, and the ability to literally (as they say in yoga-speak) "let it go."
The True Secret to Lasting Weight Loss: What Lies Beneath the Surface
Where yoga really shines is when it stays true to its origins, as a science that fosters the union of all aspects of being, rallying us to discipline, helping us to slow down mentally, teaching us to distinguish between the urge to eat and the emotional impulses that sometimes drive us to eat, and helping us to discern what we are truly hungry for.
"Yoga gave me a place to explore what was hidden, a place to feel, and a place to ask myself the tough questions," says Jennifer Schelter, a veteran yoga teacher and founder of Mindful Strategies for Living and Radiant Retreats in Philadelphia. "The actual asana [Sanskrit for "posture"] practice brings these 'places' into existence. Instead of trying to run away, I found myself looking forward to slowing down and investigating the emotions I felt in my body. With yoga, I could feel my mind working things out in a way that it wouldn't be able to with any other form of movement."
Yoga encourages a vibrant, energetic connection to the body, as well as an enhanced awareness of the body, which has all the makings of a lifelong love affair. (Read whyloving yourself is an important step in any weight-loss journey.) The very essence of yoga itself is "union." There is no separation between the mind, the body and the emotions. Few other vehicles for weight loss provide the same catalytic foundation that facilitates a deepening awareness of all three.
Sujantra McKeever, founder of Pilgrimage of the Heart Yoga in San Diego, says that yoga gave him the space to tune into what he truly needed. "For me, yoga is awareness that body, mind, breath and emotions are all intertwined. That gives me more influence over the choices I make, with food, for instance." McKeever surpassed his ideal weight of 195 pounds and gained 30 pounds when his mom had cancer. "During that time I was dealing with a lot of anxiety and I was eating unconsciously, trying to fill a void. Yoga helped me to slow down and reflect on why I was eating. I could ask myself, 'am I really hungry? And if I'm not, then why am I eating?' "
Over time, yoga can help any practitioner develop a mind-body awareness that can help when it comes to emotional eating. It induces a deep calm that neutralizes stress and therefore the stress hormones that can affect appetite and the tendency to store excess body fat. And it gives practitioners the ability to sit with and examine emotions instead of reacting quickly (by reaching for food, for example). Yoga is the mirror that reflects the truth of what is inside, revealing what was previously hidden and making it clear and somehow more palatable.
Finding Personal Power through Struggle
We know that weight loss occurs when a person consistently takes in fewer calories than they burn. So aside from actual calorie-burning, what is the real fire behind weight loss success in yoga? It's called "tapas" and according to Yoga Journal founder Judith Lasater, "Tapas is one of the most powerful concepts in yoga." The word "tapas" comes from the Sanskrit verb "tap" which means "to burn."
"The traditional interpretation of tapas is 'fiery discipline,' " says Lasater. "This refers to the fiercely focused commitment necessary to burn off the impediments that keep us from being in the true state of yoga." In the yoga practice, the mind and the body, while usually at odds, join forces through a flow of poses that demands the practitioner endure challenging moments and see them through. This helps people find freedom through adversity and learn that they can triumph over obstacles. When the mind says, "No," reconnecting with the breath helps you to burn through the negative noise of the mind, so that you are able to say, "Yes! I can do this." It's only through adversity that we can begin to tap into the true power within us.
Through hard work, discipline, determination and courage, you start to build the qualities that then spill into your life after you walk off the mat and into your day. And because you have just spent the last hour (or more) generating appreciation for this miraculous machine that is your body, you have reason to pause before eating automatically or unconsciously. You find yourself asking the question, "Do I really want to eat that? Is this food really serving my body?" And the answer that soon comes to replace the justification default, "I worked hard, and so I deserve this cupcake," is "No. Actually, no I don't! I deserve something better."
Stress Reduction & Weight Management: The Science behind Yoga's Magic
As you race through the day in high gear, your body can often secrete fight-or-flight hormones that can stress your organ systems, encourage overeating and fat storage, and wreak havoc on your bodily functions. In yoga, you activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which slows things down, permitting your body's systems to take a rest. (It should be noted, however, that rigorous yoga practices actually activate the sympathetic nervous system and therefore do not have the same effects on the body.) What happens? Our hormones rebalance, our injuries begin to repair, and our digestion proceeds optimally, all of which can aid weight loss.
What makes yoga so effective in winning the weight-loss battle? It is both beautifully complex and simple at the same time. The physical postures in yoga help to bring everything back to a place of equilibrium. And as the mind and body come together, a magical alchemy takes place. What comes rocketing up through the body and to the surface of our consciousness is life force energy; as it flows freely, it sets a positive, life-enhancing chemical chain in motion: Feel-good chemicals are released, calming the central nervous system, lowering blood pressure, encouraging increased blood flow to the digestive organs, and the naturally sedating our fight-or-flight response. This energy quiets of the noise of the mind and the internal protests, and what is left is pure clarity: the space and will power to not only make better choices, but to honor them.
"The more I practiced yoga, the more I actually lived in this new realm of wholeness where I was strong, capable and connected. Yoga gave me a place where my mind could be free—where there was no guilt, no shame, no judgment, just appreciation for what my body could do, and who I truly am," Schelter reminisces. "Yoga helped me to understand for the first time that weight gain is the by-product of my negative thinking. The incredible message you receive with yoga is that it's not about achieving, or losing weight—although most people do. It's about being, which is really just accepting yourself just as you are."