By Carol Ann Weber
One of the first studies conducted on human beings that measures the effects of yoga on weight was published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine and guess what the researchers concluded? Yoga helps you lose weight. Lead author of the study, Dr. Alan Kristal, states that he and his colleagues at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that practicing yoga for four or more years for a minimum of 30 minutes at least once a week was associated with a 3.1 pound lower weight gain among people who were normal weight at age 45.
Over a 10-year period, the researchers gathered data on 15,500 subjects between ages 45 and 55. They found that in this age group, it is a common pattern for people to gain about a pound a year. However, those that practiced yoga gained less weight. And, the overweight subjects in the group that participated in a regular yoga practice lost on average at least 5 pounds. Those that didn’t, however, actually gained 14 pounds in that same 10-year period.
Dr. Timothy McCall, a board-certified internist and medical editor for Yoga Journal since 2002, is another firm believer in the weight control benefits of yoga, sometimes prescribing it to his patients. He suggests that even with a gentle yoga practice that doesn’t necessarily burn many calories, you can lose weight. Being as brainwashed as the rest of us that you have to achieve and maintain a certain heart rate and duration of aerobic exercise before you can lose excess weight, I asked Dr. McCall how this was possible.
“From studies conducted on rats, we know that high levels of cortisol lead to ‘food seeking behavior,’ i.e., the rats ate ravenously when their cortisol was high,” explains Dr. McCall. “Levels of cortisol, or the stress hormone, go up when stress levels go up. When you are stressed out in the short term, your body releases adrenalin, which is designed to give you energy in a ‘flight-or-fight’ situation. In the long term, cortisol helps you put the calories back on that you mobilized during the crisis.” Because yoga in every form, including the non-aerobic types, has been proven to reduce stress, a connection to weight loss can be drawn.
Co-author of the Fred Hutchinson Research Center study, Denise Benitez, and founder of Seattle Yoga Arts, agrees. “Most people practice yoga in a way that’s not aerobic enough to burn a lot of calories, so there has to be some other reason [for the weight loss].”
Benitez suggests that perhaps yoga cultivates a form of gentle inner strength. “When we practice yoga, although it may look easy, there is some mild discomfort you bring your body to a physical edge that’s just a little bit challenging. And people who regularly practice yoga develop the inner resources to stay with a little bit of discomfort … so that when you go home after yoga class and open up the fridge and see a chocolate cake, you have the resources to stay with the discomfort of not eating that chocolate cake.”
Another aspect of yoga which may promote weight loss is yogic breathing, which, when done properly, can boost your metabolism. Most fitness aficionados already know that the basic physiology of your body’s metabolism is inextricably linked to the presence of oxygen. In glycolysis (when cells break down glucose and capture the released energy in the form of high energy loads like ATP molecules), aerobic respiration can result in the production of an additional 30 molecules of ATP per cell. In other words, the more oxygen present, the more efficiently glucose is metabolized.
Finally, Dr. McCall points out that increased body awareness can change eating habits. When you begin a yoga practice and realize the joy that can come through the body, you naturally want to take better care of that body. As Dr. McCall so beautifully puts it, “When you experience your body is the temple of the divine, you want to feed it really beautiful food.”
Tips for Better Yoga and Weight Loss
1. Practice in a room without mirrors and pay more attention to your internal experiences than to your outer performance.
2. Learn to feel sensations more and more subtly, so that you become deeply involved in and curious about small movements, sometimes called micro-movements.
3. In your poses, find an edge for yourself where you are challenged but not overwhelmed. At this edge, practice maintaining a clear open and accepting mental state.
4. Give yourself permission to rest when you feel overworked.
5. Realize that the development of qualities like patience, discipline, wisdom, right effort, kindness, gratitude and many others will arise from your yoga practice.