Yoga has long been known to increase flexibility, reduce stress and improve well-being. But does all that “OM”-ing and bending have a significant impact on weight loss?
Losing weight is simple in theory but much more challenging in practice. To lose weight, you must burn more calories than you consume — in other words, eat less and exercise more. Practicing yoga certainly qualifies as the exercise component of this strategy, as yoga is a terrific calorie-burning exercise that strengthens and tones every muscle of your body, waking up deep muscles and using more of the body more intelligently than many other exercise modalities. (See one example in this clip from my Yoga for Weight Loss Workout from Gaiam.)
Yet while the math is clear on paper, once you begin your yoga practice with weight loss in mind, your mind can turn to a thousand other distractions to pull you from your weight loss goal.
This is precisely where the mental benefits of yoga step in to help with weight loss. Practicing yoga helps to increase your sensitivity to your inner signals such as hunger and cravings. There are physical components to both of these sensations, but true hunger to feed our body’s basic needs is a totally different experience than craving foods that do not nourish us. Yoga helps to slow you down mentally so that you can learn to distinguish between the urge to eat and the emotional impulses that sometimes drive us to eat to quell our feelings. Yoga can help us discern what we are truly hungry for, and knowing what makes us tick internally can help us lose weight by making better food choices.
Because yoga also helps you be totally present, it also helps you eat more mindfully — so you pay more attention to the taste of food and learn how to savor each bite instead of wolfing food down unconsciously. Yoga teaches you to feel true satiation instead of eating until you feel stuffed.
Couple that with the breathing and relaxation techniques yoga teaches us, and you have a system that acknowledges your total health every time you practice. Stressed out bodies are overloaded with cortisol, which packs on intra-abdominal fat. The stress-reducing properties of yoga help you relax more effectively so that fat cannot accumulate.
The physical changes from yoga are evident immediately: Your muscles burn, you break a sweat, you feel loosened up and relaxed for hours afterwards. But it’s the mental transformation that really keeps the weight off. A mind tuned in to the body’s deeper thoughts and feelings about itself is a mind that is no longer willing to accept extra weight or excess mental baggage.