Can yoga help you lose weight? This is a question yoga teachers are asked frequently and the answer is, yes! Yoga helps to bring the body into balance and a regular yoga session, several times a week, will certainly bring you tangible benefits such as shedding a few extra kilos and increasing your muscle tone.
Move more, eat less: that's the basics to losing weight and yoga can help in both the physical and mental aspects. Regularly practising yoga gets your body moving and burns kilojoules, and the spiritual and emotional dimensions of yoga can encourage you to address any eating and weight problems on a deeper level.
How does yoga build fitness?
There are many variables at work but one recent study from the US indicates that muscles respond to stretching by becoming larger, extracting and using more oxygen more quickly and efficiently.
In other words, while you're increasing your flexibility in a yoga class, you're also building muscle strength and endurance, which makes you fitter. Other studies suggest that the specific breathing techniques used in yoga help increase lung capacity by improving flexibility through the torso, shoulders and back, allowing the lungs to expand more fully.
While not all yoga styles are aerobic, if you practise vigorously or try vinyasa or astanga classes, you can boost your heart rate into the aerobic range. These sequences increase the heart rate, making yoga aerobically challenging and encourage weight loss.
And, anyone who's practised the yoga sequence of sun salutations or other continuously linked poses will know you can get your blood pumping and sweat dripping in a yoga class. But, even yoga postures that don't get your heart rate up that high can improve cardiovascular conditioning.
Many yoga poses, especially standing, balancing and inverted ones, build quite a bit of strength because they require sustained isometric contractions of many large and small muscles at once. And if you hold the poses longer, this increases the effect. Studies have found that yoga can lower the resting heart rate, increase endurance and improve your maximum uptake of oxygen during exercise all indications of improved fitness.
The mental aspect
But successful weight loss isn't only about the physical, there's the mental aspect, too. In fact, these aspects of yoga could be the most potent for weight loss.
Yoga helps us mentally unwind by assisting to lower the hormones that are released in the body when we're stressed. Stresse is, unfortunately, a chronic state of being for many, especially in our cities. Studies have shown that when we're stressed out, angry or upset we tend to engage in "food-seeking behaviour", and most of us don't make the most sensible food choices in those situations, reaching for the chips instead of an apple. The body takes all those extra kilojoules and distributes them as fat in the abdomen, contributing to weight gain and increasing our risk of disease.
Yoga could inspire you to become a more conscious eater, choosing healthy, natural foods which fuel your body's energy. Paying attention to the body's signals on your yoga mat, and distinguishing these from your thoughts and emotions, can help you listen to your body's rhythm of when to eat and how much, as well as help build your intuition in other moments of your day.
Poor food choices, opting for convenience over nutrition, often contribute to weight gain. Becoming aware of the present moment and practising mindfulness can help you enjoy every bite of food creating a sense of fulfilment, instead of grabbing anything on the go thereby leaving yourself feeling unsatisfied.
Yoga can help you make changes in your life and importantly, sustain and support those changes. The ancient yogis have a word, tapas which is Sanskrit for "heat", and refers to the fire, discipline and dedication that fuels the practise of yoga.
This principle can be extended to the rest of your life to overcome inertia or dullness and change dysfunctional, self-sabotaging habits. You may find that without making a particular effort to change things, you start to eat better, exercise more, or are finally able to keep off excess weight.
How to achieve results
So if you want to become and stay physically and mentally fit, make sure the type of yoga you practise includes a mix of postures that build strength, stamina, and flexibility, along with breathing and meditative techniques to help develop body awareness.
Look for yoga classes in your area that touch on all these elements or work with a DVD at home. But, if you practise yoga for less than an hour twice a week, you'll probably need to either do moderate intensity exercise like walking or swimming, or increase your yoga time or frequency to achieve weight loss. As with any activity, commitment and consistency is key.