You Asked: Can Yoga Help Me Lose Weight?

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By: , – Jennifer Kries, Master Yoga Teacher
2/21/2014 5:00 AM   :  30 comments   :  112,285 Views

Over the past decade alone, yoga has exploded into 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 why loving 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."

About the Author
An integrated wellness, fitness and lifestyle expert, Jennifer Kries is an internationally renowned mind-body-spirit innovator. The first to bring Pilates, and "The Method," the groundbreaking synthesis of Pilates, yoga and dance to a mass audience, her award-winning videos, DVDs, and TV show revolutionized the fitness community and started the explosive wave of enthusiasm for Pilates and mind-body exercise. She is the creator and producer of several original DVD Series, including her all-new Waking Energy Teacher Training, The Hot Body Cool Mind DVD Series, and The Pilates Method Master Trainer Series. Jennifer has inspired countless readers, practitioners, instructors, and viewers alike to embrace her all-encompassing philosophy of movement, art, health, life and energy. Her attention to detail, superb teaching style, artistry, and knowledge of Eastern healing techniques makes her one of the most sought after mind-body teachers in the world today. Learn more at www.JenniferKries.com.


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Comments

  • EVAHARPER213
    30
    Wonderful post! Yoga however may or may not help a person to loose weight, depending on what kind of yoga one practices. But one thing is for sure, yoga has a lot of benefits to the overall well-being of a person.

    - 9/24/2014   9:09:43 PM
  • 29
    "(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.) "

    I have given up most "power" practices because of this. The sympathetic nervous system's activation increases your cortisol response (akin to what endurance sports such as marathon running does), and is medically contraindicated for my conditions and stress levels right now.

    Even though I depend on moderate low-impact cardio dance to manage my conditions in the main; I've put together my own fusion of yoga and pilates practice; also practice with J. Brown's Yoga video (mild Krishnamacharya therapeutic vinyasa yoga); and have even "stolen" pilates moves from you, as well, as I am a fan of yours. - 7/20/2014   11:25:11 AM
  • 28
    Great article!
    During my weight loss phase and first 2 years of maintenance I considered yoga totally worthless, because it hardly burns any calories.
    But I watched my 20-year old daughter doing yoga everyday and nothing else - no running, no gym, no weight lifting - and her body became muscular and beautiful.
    So I tried it and now I do yoga everyday.
    I love the balance, flexibility, mindfulness, calmness and peace that comes from it.
    Also feeling more connected with all living things and the universe - this may be one reason why yoga resembles a religion for some people. - 7/20/2014   3:44:59 AM
  • 27
    Just checking in about the subject of yoga. Never went into the religion part of it just the flexibility part of it... - 7/20/2014   12:25:58 AM
  • 26
    I enjoy yoga but the weird and the higher self crud I have nothing to do with. If I had my so called higher self together I would not need spark people. ROFL. - 4/2/2014   7:21:54 AM
  • KNAPTURALLYME
    25
    Yoga can be anything people want it to be. It can be a religion if people sincerely think it is or it can be a method used to balance mind and body, and to assist us to practice self-reflection and healing. I enjoy yoga because of its poses that allow me to stretch tight muscles and it enables me to be flexible. After a yoga session, I feel at peace in that I've "stretched" the stress away and my mind is peaceful and I sleep better. Lets face it, yoga does for the body and mind what cardio and strength training can't. - 3/22/2014   10:50:15 AM
  • RHAN0435
    24
    Thanks this makes me want to try it on a regular basis. - 3/7/2014   12:57:16 PM
  • RMW381
    23
    Great article and to the point. Yoga trains the mind as well as the body so it can help you overcome whatever challenges you face including being overweight. As the article points out there are workouts that are more efficient at burning calories. But becoming more mindful is arguably much more important in any process of transformation. On the oh so hot button topic of religion...I just have to say that I've been doing yoga for 15 years and not one time has anyone tried to convert me to Hinduism. Yoga can help to deepen your spiritual connection to whatever you choose to find sacred. - 2/26/2014   10:42:38 AM
  • 22
    Yoga is what you make it .. plain and simple ..if you make it a religious practice, that is what it is .. if you just want to be connected to yourself and your body and your own inner being, then that is what it is .. put into and take out of it what you want it to be.. there is no "worshipping: involved in getting in touch with your inner self for self improvement unless you make it be so.. you can't be worshipping another God unless you make the intent to practice worshipping another God.. if you don't put another God into your practice, then you are not "worshipping" false Gods .. if the Hindu's do Yoga in the spirit of worship of a god, or their god, then that is what *they* are doing, if you practice "Western" yoga you are certainly not worshipping a false god or any god .. again, it is the *intent* with which you are doing it, it is what YOU make it to be .. no more, no less .. - 2/25/2014   2:51:32 PM
  • KRISSITINIO
    21
    I enjoyed this post and love yoga. I feel in control after practicing. I began doing Hatha yoga 18 years ago when I became pregnant with my first child. It helped me feel strong, toned and also helped me control what I was eating.

    As for those concerned about it being a religion, this is not the case. Unless you are born a Hindu, you cannot be one. No one can convert to Hinduism. I learned this after living in India.

    I am a lifelong Christian and do not see practicing yoga as a conflict to my Christianity. It in fact, made me stronger and more peaceful in my convictions. - 2/25/2014   2:40:57 PM
  • 20
    To say that yoga is a religion is like saying drinking wine is a religion. Some Christian churches believe the wine becomes the blood of Christ, or that Christ is present in the wine. That does not mean that drinking wine that hasn't been blessed means you're drinking the blood of Christ. Perhaps one should consider that the Hindus do not believe yoga can be separated from their faith, but unless I believe that yoga is somehow causing me to worship the Hindu pantheon, that connenction with Hinduism has no power over me.

    Look at it this way: reading the New Testament never turned anyone into a Christian. Believe what one reads, incorporating into one's life, that makes you a Christian.

    And lest you fear for my soul, take comfort: I do not practice yoga. I tried it in college, and it aggravated every old injury I had, from a bad shoulder to a bunion. I hate yoga. - 2/25/2014   1:54:20 PM
  • BRAWYN
    19
    Thank you so much for this wonderful post! - 2/25/2014   1:44:33 PM
  • GIRVINIA1949
    18
    In a spirit of concern, please don't be deceived. According to the Website for Hindu American Foundation, "Yoga, from the word "yuj" (Sanskrit, "to yoke", or "to unite"). refers to spiritual practices that are essential to the understanding and practice of Hinduism" Further quoted, "Yoga as a combination of both physical and spiritual exercises, entails mastery over the body, mind and emotional self and transcendence of desire." "The ultimate goal is moksha, the attainment of liberation from worldly suffering, and the cycle of birth and rebirth (my words, reincarnation)." And additionally quoted, "Yet even when Yoga is practiced solely in the form of exercise, it cannot be completely delinked from its Hindu roots."

    So in light of that if you are a Christian and are fearful of serving another God or religion, do not practice Yoga for exercise. As a Christian, who are we to be "yoked" to; who is to be be master over our body, mind, will and emotions, and isn't there only one "rebirth" when we accept Jesus Christ as Savior? Yoga is the practice of Hinduism and therefore a "religion". We are to take care of our bodies, that is scriptural, but we are not to worship them or to worship another religion. Just be careful. - 2/25/2014   1:12:31 PM
  • 17
    Thanks for explaining, MOURERMA! Yoga is not a religion, and in fact there are multiple teams on SP dedicated to Christian- or Catholic-centered yoga practice. I think how comfortable you are with the spiritual aspects depends on your teacher's style. I prefer instructors who focus on the practical benefits of the poses, more so than metaphors about growth and light. - 2/25/2014   10:01:21 AM
  • MOURERMA
    16
    Hi Everyone,
    Let me assure you Yoga is not a religion. This is a prevalent misconception. I have 13 years of Catholic education and have spent a lifetime as a practicing Christian; my weekly yoga class has never conflicted, or in any way tried to usurp my Christian beliefs. My instructor is a good, old-fashioned Lutheran girl. Yes, we chant - Oom is the "sound' the universe makes, it isn't a prayer or some sort of mystic tribute to a deity. And “Shanti “ simply means peace. “Namaste” shows your respect for the holiness that is found in each of us; it is not specific to any religion and is not a prayer. Look around for a "restorative" Yoga class (possibly Hatha Yoga) that "fits" your values. I'm sure there are some that might make you uncomfortable, but keep an open heart....prayer (which we Catholics are very good at) IS meditation - use those moments of meditation and relaxation to renew your Christian beliefs or to thank the Creator of the Universe for all his blessings. Practicing yoga has taught me how to take better care of myself and since our bodies are the "temple of God" (that's right out of the old Catholic catechism) we need to take care of ourselves. Restorative yoga can help you do that.
    - 2/25/2014   8:33:11 AM
  • JHUGHES15
    15
    What is a good yoga style or practice for beginners--especially not so flexible beginners? Any dvd's that are particularly helpful? - 2/25/2014   8:26:00 AM
  • 14
    Reneeetc1 has a valid point. Yoga is considered a religion and as a Catholic, I am not allowed to practice other religions, therefore, I had to give it up. - 2/25/2014   5:16:08 AM
  • 13
    I would like to try yoga, but am concerned about the spiritual aspects of it, especially the Eastern religions. - 2/22/2014   11:44:13 AM
  • JMB369
    12
    Excellent article, but perhaps a little esoteric for the uninitiated! I have been practicing yoga for over 15 years, and I'd like to make a few additional points that perhaps were implied, but not so clearly stated as I would have liked.

    First, yoga requires us to be focused on the body and breath. To be single minded. No multi-tasking here, and no wandering mind. This way of being can extend to the workplace and to our weight loss efforts. In practice, this means that in a volatile meeting at work, I could keep my cool and stay focused on the topic and not the emotions.

    Second, even though it is not primarily a physical practice, it leads to body awareness. That awareness has several benefits: an awareness that if we are overweight, certain yoga postures would be easier or more fun to do if we were thinner. Holding poses requires strength, so it encourages us to add strength building exercises to our routines.

    And for me, a born "klutz", yoga led to better coordination and body balance. Why is this important? Because now I can enjoy activities that are more aerobic and more cardio-based. My husband and I take ballroom dance lessons (we are both over 70) and dance socially three or four times a week. Greater flexibility and strength mean that I can hike farther and climb higher.

    This was an excellent blog, and I was so happy to see someone addressing yoga as more than flexibility and stretching!

    BTW, to the person with mobility issues, there are some excellent DVDs (and classes) to address different limitations. Chair yoga, yoga for people with M.S., yoga post-surgery, etc. In 2008, I broke my ankle, and was in a cast for six weeks -- not a walking cast! I practiced chair yoga and some seated strength exercises, and in the course of those six weeks, I lost five pounds. If you live in or near a big city, you can probably find a teacher with special training who can work with you. - 2/22/2014   11:32:41 AM
  • 11
    Very interesting article. I've never really tried it because it wasn't a great calorie burn, so I just went with more intense exercise. I do see the benefits in this, and I'll give it a more serious try, and focus on the mind/body connection. - 2/22/2014   8:41:46 AM
  • 10
    Really got a lot out of the post. Started practicing about 6 months ago, recovering from lumbar disc surgery. Very helpful with pain control, haven't needed any meds since early recovery. Am discovering I can do things in yoga I never thought I'd be able to, just taking it slow & letting it happen. Letting things go is harder, but practice practice practice :) - 2/21/2014   9:10:13 PM
  • 9
    I have just recently begun a yoga practice and already I don't want to miss a session. The emphasis on breathing, staying in the moment, and balance are helping me with mindfulness throughout the day. My husband is also attending the chair yoga class and feels the difference it makes in him emotionally as well as physically. I'm passing along the idea of letting go whatever isn't serving you. It means taking a risk often, but it's a risk worth taking. - 2/21/2014   10:25:32 AM
  • 8
    I have a couple of her videos and she is amazing. Great article. I often skim articles. This one I read word for word and will refer back to it. - 2/21/2014   9:19:58 AM
  • 7
    Would love to see/find yoga for people with limited mobility and disabilities. I've yet to find something that works for me with my individual challenges. I agree about the benefits and would like to get more involved. - 2/21/2014   8:53:49 AM
  • 6
    I have always enjoyed doing my yoga - I feel strong and powerful and definitely in tune with my body afterwords...I guess this explains why. Thank you for such an informative article! - 2/21/2014   8:50:39 AM
  • 5
    Thank you, this was great!
    - 2/21/2014   7:52:23 AM
  • 4
    A fine blog. I so agree yoga is a way to work on changing mindset and because of that, our life style. I also find that when I am practicing yoga my ST workouts go much more smoothly. I can lift more weight without injury. - 2/21/2014   6:48:55 AM
  • DOSPALMAS_RED
    3
    Yoga may not be a great calorie burner, but the meaning behind practicing yoga does indeed help with weight loss and management. Practicing yoga has made me more aware of my eating habits. Instead of turning to food when stressed or sad, I have an internal calm that keeps me in balance instead of reaching for food.









    - 2/21/2014   6:42:28 AM
  • 2
    I don't think Yoga is designed to help you lose weight, just improve tone and flexibility. - 2/21/2014   6:04:30 AM
  • 1
    Truly great blog post! Thanks! - 2/21/2014   3:16:53 AM

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