When most people think of physical activity that assists weight loss, they think of fast-paced aerobic classes and crowded gyms. In fact, the culture of weight-loss is largely about being ‘tough’ on yourself, pushing yourself to your limit, and being ‘strong’ enough to restrict yourself from calories and cravings. So where does a holistic, gentle, and mindful practice like yoga fit into this paradigm? It’s true that yoga can help you lose weight, which is surprising to many. To understand how yoga helps with weight loss, you need to readjust your picture of how weight loss happens.
The Science Of Losing Weight
First of all, we must understand the science behind weight loss in general. The only real way for the body to lose weight is for it to be in a ‘calorie deficit.’ This means that the calories expended through activities, exercise, and daily life are less than the calories taken in through food. This, however, is arguably the root of the restriction-focused culture surrounding weight loss. The problem here is that whilst dieting for a calorie deficit may help you lose weight, it does not address the root problems of why weight gain occurred in the first place. Unless you want to remain on a restricted diet or extensive exercise regime forever, it is important to address these root issues. These can range from lifestyle factors such as mindset, diet, sleep, and stress. For example, emotional eating may contribute to binge eating. A stressful job could cause sympathetic nervous system imbalance, leading to increased cortisol and slower metabolism. A sedentary lifestyle could lead to lack of muscle mass and reduced fat burning ability. When you think of weight loss through this lens, you see there are many more factors at play than simply attaining a calorie deficit.
How Yoga Can Help You Lose Weight
It is through managing and realigning these factors that yoga can help with weight loss. The following sections discuss various ways that yoga can contribute to weight loss, whether this is through helping you attain the traditional calorie deficit, or addressing root factors that will enable weight loss in the long term.
Yoga Teaches Mindfulness
Yoga is a practice to cultivate mindfulness – but what does ‘mindfulness’ mean, and how does this relate to weight loss? Mindfulness is about bringing awareness to the body and living in the present moment. Through mindfulness, the yogi releases their ego and is able to clearly see how and why they react to certain situations. An example of this, in relation to weight loss, is emotional eating. Emotional eating is extremely common, and when done in excess it is a likely contributor to weight gain.
The body is your temple. Keep it pure and clean for the soul to reside in. B.K.S Iyengar
After a stressful day at work, many people come home, flop on the couch, and grab a bag of chips to mindlessly munch on while watching TV. Another common instance of emotional eating is the stereotype of eating ice cream when you’re sad. Everyone is individual and has their own emotional eating habits. However, through yoga, the yogi is able to cultivate mindfulness and increase awareness of their eating patterns. They become more in tune with the foods entering their body, whether these foods are nourishing, and how it makes their body feel. As they transition to seeing the body as a temple and a tool for their life energy, it becomes more important to fuel it mindfully. This, in turn, can help reduce binge eating and emotional eating habits, and assist with long term weight management.
Regulates The Stress Response
Many people don’t realize the extent to which stress contributes to weight gain and obesity. It is said that stress is the root of all disease, and it certainly has a role to play when it comes to weight management. But how does chronic stress cause weight gain? Chronic stress causes dysregulation of the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPA axis). The HPA axis is a neuroendocrine system and a central contributor to the body’s stress response, thanks to its release of cortisol and other stress hormones through the adrenal cortex. The body is thrown into ‘fight or flight’ mode, switching its intrinsic goals toward survival rather than weight loss. Individuals with elevated cortisol will have high insulin, high blood sugar, and subsequently weight gain, particularly in the belly area. Now when you consider traditional weight loss exercises, that are fast-paced, aerobic, and hard on the body, you may see the issue with the traditional weight loss system. Often times, these types of exercise will increase stress in an already chronically stressed body. The body is begging to slow down and relax, and instead it is punished and pushed to its maximum.
So how can yoga help with this? Yoga helps the body regulate its stress response. Through various mechanisms such as mindfulness, meditation, diaphragmatic breathing, and lowering blood pressure, yoga can tune the body back to a normal stress level. A variety of research has come out to support this as one of the foundational benefits of a yoga practice. Over time, yoga can help reduce and prevent chronic stress, therefore regulating the HPA-axis and rebalancing cortisol levels, and assisting with weight loss.
Yoga Can Rev The Metabolism
When discussing weight loss, an important concept to understand is the body’s metabolism. Metabolism refers to the chemical processes that occur within the body, primarily its ability and efficiency at converting food into energy. You may have heard people refer to themselves as having ‘slow metabolisms’ or ‘fast metabolisms.’ A slower metabolism is less efficient at converting food to energy, and therefore is more likely to store excess calories as fat. As you can see, the ‘calorie deficit’ which is at the core of weight loss capability, is different for every individual. Some people will naturally be more efficient at losing weight because they have a ‘faster’ metabolism – this could be due to a variety of reasons such as genetics or age. However, there is hope when it comes to metabolisms and weight loss. There are ways to actually ‘rev,’ or increase the efficiency of the body’s metabolism, and therefore improve weight loss. A more efficient metabolism could actually mean doing less exercise but burning the same or more calories. So how can yoga help rev the metabolism?
One central way that yoga helps improve the body’s metabolism is through building lean muscle. The asanas, or poses, help build strength in every major muscle group in the body. Essentially, a physical yoga practice is a body-weight exercise regime, in that the yogi must be strong enough to support and move their body through weight bearing poses. This is good news when it comes to metabolism, because muscle burns more calories than fat. So if you have increased muscle mass thanks to yoga, your body will be more efficient at burning calories, even when you are at rest.
Yoga Improves Thyroid Functioning
All of the body’s systems are interlinked, so when discussing metabolism, the HPA axis, and stress response, it is also important to discuss the thyroid. The thyroid is a butterfly-shaped glad located in the throat, and is essential to the endocrine system. This means it releases important hormones, many of which contribute to the body’s ability to gain or lose weight. The primary example here is a condition known as hypothyroidism. Many people have borderline or clinical hypothyroidism, meaning the thyroid gland is not excreting enough thyroid hormone. The tell-tale sign of this, along with reduced body temperature, is weight gain. There are medications you can take to help restore healthy thyroid functioning, but a scientifically proven natural remedy is yoga.
Studies show that yoga helps improve thyroid functioning for people with hypothyroid or borderline thyroid. This is likely due to yoga’s previously mentioned benefits relating to the stress response. Often, chronic stress causes thyroid imbalance. By balancing stress hormones through yoga, the thyroid is regulated and thereby helps with weight loss.
Yoga Can Burn Calories
Finally, it is of course important to mention the mechanism behind all weight loss: burning calories. As previously mentioned, the only true way to lose weight is by creating a calorie deficit within the body, either through the food taken in, the exercises performed, or both. Whilst yoga helps address root causes of weight gain, such as the stress response, thyroid health, emotional eating, and metabolism, in the end weight loss simply cannot happen without a calorie deficit. But yoga can actually be a powerful tool when it comes to burning calories!
Yoga increases the body’s efficiency at burning calories, but it also provides a physical practice to burn calories. Many people do not consider a yoga practice to be a ‘workout’ per se, and this is true of slower, gentler practices such as yin yoga or meditation. However, there are equally valuable fast-paced forms of yoga that will certainly build up a sweat, increase muscle mass, provide cardiovascular benefits, and burn calories. These various types of yoga are discussed below.
What Kind Of Yoga Is Best At Helping You Lose Weight?
As mentioned, there are many different styles of yoga and each has unique benefits when it comes to supporting weight loss. Depending on whether you want to focus on burning calories, building muscle mass, regulating the stress response, or improving mindfulness, this may affect which style of yoga you choose to engage in. Here are a few examples of the many types of yoga, and the benefits each carries in terms of weight loss:
This is a fast-paced and flowing style of yoga. Poses are connected by a short ‘vinyasa sequence’ and the yogis often flow through the poses without pause. It can quickly build a sweat and in some instances is considered an aerobic workout. Vinyasa yoga will help with burning calories, in particular, as well as other benefits.
This style of yoga is a regimented sequence performed in the same order, every time. It is the foundation of all vinyasa yoga styles, and incorporates vinyasas and breath counts within it. Ashtanga is an extremely physically demanding practice. It will help burn calories, increase muscle mass, and improve metabolism, among other benefits.
This is a style of yoga that is precise and focused on the alignment in each posture. Poses are often held for longer periods of time, so it may not be as productive at burning calories as vinyasa-based styles. However, thanks to its focus on anatomical alignment, Iyengar yoga will help build muscles and promote a faster metabolism.
Yin yoga is a slow, gentle, and calm style of yoga where poses are often held for long periods of time. There is a great focus on breath and mindfulness. It is the ideal style of yoga for people who know they need to regulate their stress response, rebalance their HPA axis, and calm their sympathetic nervous system.
In short, there are many different ways in which yoga can help with weight loss. They are not all as obvious as simply burning calories. However, this doesn’t mean they are not equally as important. Practicing yoga can help with weight loss both in the short term, and by addressing root causes that may be contributing to weight management in the long term. Ultimately, though, it is important to know that yoga is about more than the physical body. Yoga is a holistic practice that teaches us about our divine Self, that we are all unified, and that we are so much more than our ego or outward appearance. Maybe the most beneficial aspect of yoga for people on weight loss journeys is that it teaches us to identify less with our outward appearance, and more with our shining inner spirits.