Yoga and Weight Loss: Healing From the Inside Out
“Yoga body.” It’s a term you hear a lot these days. It might conjure up images of lean legs in yoga pants, six-pack abs pressing up into a handstand, or (we can’t forget) the famous yoga butt.
After about seventeen years of practicing yoga, sometimes more consistently than others, I can definitely say my body has changed. But not for the reasons you might think.
Me, practicing utthita hasta padangusthasana, or extended hand-to-big-toe pose
Weight Loss From the Inside Out
For most people, yoga is equated with the physical practice of doing yoga poses. With the power yoga craze, the practice can be pretty rigorous, for sure. So it might seem a no-brainer that yoga would help people lose weight and attain better balance in their bodies.
For me, it was ten years into my practice, when I took my first teacher training, that I really felt the changes from the inside out that have led to lasting balance in my eating habits and my body weight. Now, after teaching for six years, I can look back and understand how and why that took place.
I think we’re at a place where the old model for weight balance isn’t working. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.”
If this is true, I’d say there’s a lot of insanity in common concepts about dieting and weight loss. My experience has taught me that working from the inside out is more powerful than working from the outside in. I remind students in my yoga classes that the energy set in motion on the yoga mat through pratyahara, pranayama, and asana continues working long after we roll up the mat.
"For me, asana’s ability to cultivate awareness and spotlight dullness in the mind has had more to do with my finding balance than it’s more physical aspects."
As much as traditional ideas would suggest that the physical rigor and sweat of a power yoga practice is the key to weight loss, I believe it’s the inner practices that offer lasting change.
The practice of moving the body into various physical positions with mindfulness toward alignment - specifically looking for a perfect balance between steadiness and ease (sthira and sukha as it’s referred to in the Yoga Sutras).
While this practice can range for restorative (extremely gentle) to power (very rigorous), its role in the eight-limbed path of yoga is to liberate the body so it’s not a distraction. For me, asana’s ability to cultivate awareness and spotlight dullness in the mind has had more to do with my finding balance than its more physical aspects.
Every yoga class I know of begins and ends with the eyes closed for at least a few moments. This invites students (whether they know it consciously or not) into a state of pratyahara or inward-directed focus. For many people in today’s fast paced world, this may be the only time they close their eyes in a wakened state. So the contrast offered by those few moments is very influential to the modern yoga practitioner.
"As much as traditional ideas would suggest that the physical rigor and sweat of a power yoga practice is the key to weight loss, I believe it’s the inner practices that offer lasting change."
Then students are invited to focus on their breath, making it the object of meditation. This allows the student to stay inward without getting overly distracted by their own mind chatter.
From there, the breath is guided into a pattern. In most vinyasa flow classes, the breathing technique is ujjayi, but it doesn’t have to be. The important thing is breathing consciously in a controlled fashion. This is pranayama and there are many types.
It’s scientifically proven that the way we breathe affects the mind and the nervous system. Slowing down the breath and breathing rhythmically for a prolonged period of time forges an awareness of the connection between the mind and the body.
The three yogic practices mentioned above invoke something called tapas. In the Yoga Sutras, tapas is one of three practices said to minimize the power of suffering. This word is usually translated as “to burn or create heat.”
As we know, heat changes things from one form to another - ice to water, water to steam, and so on. So the tapas (self-discipline and self-purification are other nuances of the definition) cultivated during yoga practice acts as a catalyst of transformation from our inside (mind) to our outside (body).
Leslie Kaminoff, yoga educator and anatomy expert, sheds even more light on how tapas could affect eating habits and weight management. He refers to tapas as the “willingness to act outside of your habitual patterns.” Thus tapas begins to intervene and intercept our habitual patterns long after we step off the yoga mat.
"The three yogic practices mentioned above invoke something called tapas. In the Yoga Sutras, tapas is one of three practices said to minimize the power of suffering. This word is usually translated as 'to burn or create heat.'"
It’s this transformational energy that begins to adjust the psyche at its roots. Like the shifting of plates beneath the earth’s surface, tapas scrambles familiar grooves that aren’t in alignment with our truest nature. Once connected to that, we begin to make different choices. So rather than feeling like we’re going against our nature by eating the right quality and amounts of food, it starts to feel normal to do that. Then, we no longer need a diet because living from our essence is our way of life.
Me, practicing yoga outdoors
This was definitely true in my case. Before yoga I lived in a body whose weight fluctuated by ten to thirty pounds on a regular basis. I went on my first diet when I was nine years old. From then on, much of my life was consumed by losing weight or trying unsuccessfully not to gain it back. I exercised and went on diets - some of them extreme and all of them temporary. When my diet was over, all the old habits were still there and the weight came back - and then some.
"It’s scientifically proven that the way we breathe affects the mind and the nervous system. Slowing down the breath and breathing rhythmically for a prolonged period of time forges an awareness of the connection between the mind and the body."
I’m happy to say I haven’t been on a diet or stepped on a scale for over a decade. From one who’s lived at both ends of the spectrum, from thirty pounds overweight to twenty pounds under, this is something to celebrate. I have minimal cravings, and if I do go overboard, I don’t beat myself up. I just get back to my practice and the balance is quickly restored.
The Science of Yoga and Weight Loss
Medical researcher and yogi Alan Kristal conducted a study in 2005 that confirmed yoga was a contributing factor in weight loss. His take on the results points to awareness rather than rigor. According to him, "The buzzword here is mindfulness - the ability to observe what is happening internally in a non-reactive fashion. That is what helps change the relationship of mind to body, and eventually to food and eating.”
Two other studies cited in Prevention Magazine linked weight loss and fat burning to restorative yoga and breathing practices. In addition, Jillian Pransky is a well-known yoga teacher who attributes the practice of gentle yoga to permanent weight loss for herself and many of her students.
Why Yoga Works
The fact that you can lose weight without breaking a sweat is counterintuitive to our current models, for sure. But yoga’s effects on both the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems result in:
- Bringing deeper relaxation (meaning better sleep)
- Slowing the heart rate
- Redirecting blood flow to the digestive system (better digestion)
- Inducing less reactivity to stress leading to lower levels of cortisol (linked directly to belly fat)
- Cultivating mindfulness so you are more conscious about what you’re eating, why, and how it really feels in your body.
Over time, spending sixty to ninety minutes on a 24x72” piece of fabric is bound to help us see and feel things we would otherwise miss at the pace of modern life.
Release Your Little Energy Gremlins
The inner-workings of yoga, tapas, or power for transformation, brought on by pratyahara, pranayama, and asana, act as what I like to call little energy gremlins inside us. These mischievous little guys set in motion on our yoga mat run intervention as we move through our days redirecting us, often in surprising ways.
When we find ourselves responding to the same situation in a new way, thinking before we unconsciously put food into our mouths, or spontaneously make a totally new choice about what we eat, we can be sure those gremlins are at work. And as long as we keep practicing, they will keep working, transforming us from the inside out.
1. Patanjali, Yoga Sutras of Patanjali. Translated by Sri Swami Satchidananda. Buckingham, VA: Integral Yoga Publications, 1978.
2. Hillari Dowdel, “The Surprising Way Gentle Yoga Can Help You Lose Serious Weight,” AZ Central; accessed January 20, 2015.
3. Eileen Pfefferle, “The Benefits of Yoga on the Parasympathetic Nervous System,” accessed January 20, 2015.
4. Elaine Gavalas, “Yoga Helps Relieve Sleep Problems,” accessed January 20, 2015.
5. Web MD, “Yoga for weight loss?,” last modified 2015.
6. Priya Thomas, “Leslie Kaminoff Part 2 of 2: North American Yoga, Who Owns This Practice?,” Shivers Up the Spine Blog, December 22, 2010.
Photos 2 and 4 courtesy of Shutterstock.