Let’s face it – not everyone comes to yoga to clear their mind and find spiritual bliss.
Just the other day before class, I overheard a gaggle of teenage girls deep in discussion about the potential of getting a “yoga butt.” You may giggle, you may roll your eyes, but be honest, most of us would love to lose a few extra pounds and tone our extra bits while down-dogging it.
Yoga doesn’t burn calories like a good hour-long cardio session, not even power yoga, where you feel like you’re sweating away your insides. A 150-pound person burns just 150 calories in an hour of modest hatha yoga or up to about 300 calories in a vigorous flow. To lose one pound, you must burn off 3,500 calories – that’s about 23 hatha classes or 12 vinyasa classes, without eating a morsel more than you burn.
Studies show a regular yoga practice can actually reduce your basal metabolic rate – the number of calories you burn at rest – rather than stoke your engine. Researchers from the Swami Vivekananda Yoga Research Foundation in Bangalore, India suggest this may be due to yoga practitioners’ ability to better handle day-to-day stress. Yogis and yoginis may also have a more stable autonomic nervous system response than non-yogis, resulting in less excitability and hence, fewer calories burned at rest. Simply put, if you practice yoga, you are probably a bit calmer and less likely to waste your energy than the average Joe – excellent news for your heart and psyche, but not always great for your waistline.
Despite those bits of disheartening research, don’t give up on yoga in your quest for weight loss. In 2009, researchers from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle surveyed 15,500 healthy middle-aged folks over a 10 year period and found that most of them gained about a pound each year between the ages of 45 and 55. Those participants of normal weight who had a regular yoga practice, defined as just 30 minutes once a week for four or more years, gained three pounds fewer than their yoga-eschewing counterparts. Overweight participants got the biggest bang for their yoga buck. These participants actually lost five pounds when incorporating yoga 30 minutes per week, while those who did not gained 14 pounds.
If there’s no big calorie burn in yoga, why the big results? Researchers surmise yoga brings about a mindfulness of your body and your eating habits, which helps you better connect with hunger cues and how food affects your body. Yoga practitioners are less likely to eat when full, are more aware of how their food looks and tastes, are less reactive to external prompts like advertising to eat, are less likely to eat emotionally and are able to focus on their meals, rather than on TV or a book. Yoga’s teachings about being non-reactive translate to the pantry.
Awareness may be the primary way in which yoga helps you reach a svelter frame, but the practice can also increase your mobility which contributes to a healthier body. A regular practice can help loosen muscles tightened by inactivity, tension and stress. You increase your range of motion and flexibility so you feel better and are more likely to move. In a 2002 study published in “Best Practice and Research, Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism,” Mayo Clinic researchers reported that even trivial physical activities, from fidgeting to gardening, increase your metabolic rate. If you are in pain or your muscles are tight, however, you are less likely to undertake these actions. A healthy body that is made supple through yoga is more likely to move and burn calories.
Yoga may also aid your psyche when you work to slim down. Weight loss can be accompanied by self-loathing: “I am too fat, “I look ugly,” “I am out of control.” Yoga can help teach you to counteract these negative thoughts and look at yourself and your goals for weight loss, in a more positive, accepting way. Instead of beating yourself up for eating a cookie, you can learn to acknowledge setbacks and get back on track. A regular asana practice can help you feel empowered and reduce the stress created by sticking to a new dietary regimen.
Yoga also offers physiological benefits that aid in weight loss. In the book “Yoga Burns Fat,” yoga instructor and author Jan Maddern notes that yoga can improve digestion, helping with bloating and constipation. She notes it can also improve blood circulation that may affect hormones and glands related to appetite, mood and sleep. De-stressing through yoga helps reduce the release of cortisol, the famous stress hormone, which triggers fat storage.
While any yoga may help in your weight loss efforts, certain styles may be more helpful than others. Vinyasa, Ashtanga and power versions tend to be rigorous calorie-burners. A 2009 study published in “Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice,” found that overweight Hispanic children and adolescents who practiced Ashtanga yoga regularly for 12 weeks experienced weight loss and improved self-esteem. However, if you are new to physical activity or have an injury, these styles may be too intense and intimidating – and cause you to lose enthusiasm for practice. Ultimately, you have to find a style that works for both your body and mind – not one you think you should do to burn calories. The power of developing a yoga practice lies far beyond the physical.