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Yoga teacher training students practicing in a studio

Yoga and Weight Loss

5 minute read

The dangers of being overweight, particularly when the weight is stored centrally around the abdomen are considerable. Type 2 diabetes, hypertension, lower back pain, heart disease, sleep apnea and some cancers are just a few of the health complications associated with being overweight or obese. Yoga isn’t the first mode of exercise that springs to mind when talking about weight loss but it just might help!

These conditions are commonly compounded by the damaging psychological pressures and stigmas associated with being overweight – low self-esteem, self-worth, depression and self-efficacy are rife in overweight and obese populations. Many of the fad weight-loss regimes are short-term, unhealthy, unsustainable and generally unsuccessful, which invariably only reinforces a person’s feelings of inadequacy and low self-worth. This has a real impact on exercise motivation and adherence, often resulting in any newfound level of activity or exercise being discontinued.

People always do what they do for a reason, even if that reason doesn’t really serve them well. Eating foods that are devoid of any real nutritional value, leading a sedentary life, or procrastinating are all activities that people ‘choose’ to engage in- emphasis on choice.

Before a person is able to make lasting changes to their daily actions, behaviour and lifestyle, they must first understand and unravel the true reason why they engage in these destructive behaviours in the first place. If they are not true and honest with themselves, they are simply deluding themselves and they will never really make any lasting or permanent changes to their habits. Affirming their commitment to change is a worthless and futile effort if they don’t truly believe in themselves- isn’t this what typically what happens with most New Year resolutions?

From a weight-loss perspective, Yoga clearly isn’t the most effective mode of exercise because it doesn’t result in a significant increase in energy expenditure. What it does do, however, is starts a person on a path of self-discovery, and helps them to understand their deeper innermost self. This holistic approach to exercise can do wonders for calming the mind, and giving a person the mental, emotional and physical strength to make significant and lasting changes to their lifestyle.

According to Dr Timothy McCall, the author of ‘Yoga as Medicine’, “a multi-faceted Yoga program that includes dietary modification, physical postures, breathing practices and meditation can help people to address all angles of weight loss”.

There is limited scientific research to support the use of Yoga as a strategy for promoting lasting weight loss because most of the research techniques employed by traditional scientific studies are look to find a ‘direct’ cause and effect relationship between the two or more of the variables being tested. In this scenario, conventional science would say that “Yoga doesn’t expend calories like other modes of exercise, and so it is ineffective as an approach”

If however Yoga was able to give a somebody an introspective view of themselves, and assist them in developing the confidence, motivation and belief that they can and will achieve their goals if they persevere for long enough, surely this is a positive effect, regardless of whether it is direct or indirect!

One study conducted by Dr. Anand Shetty of Hampton University in the USA, found that a 12-week yoga program performed on 4 days per week for 40 minutes produced an average of 6 pounds of weight loss. This study used only physical postures (asanas) and breathing techniques (Pranayama) and did not involve any dietary modification whatsoever; the participants were also generally healthy and not significantly overweight or obese. The results of this study suggest that Yoga does have a place in weight loss programmes, and even when performed on its own it can produce modest reductions in bodyweight.

When Yoga asanas are practised dynamically, they will clearly burn more calories than static postures, which can further increase the benefits associated with Yoga for weight loss. It is, however, worth noting here that some dynamic Yoga postures are not appropriate for all participants, particularly those who are deconditioned; for this reason extra care should be taken when using these with overweight and obese individuals.

It is likely that overweight or obese Yoga participants will benefit from gentler posture and breathe work to promote mobility, reduce muscle tension, stiffness and stress. When stress is lowered, so too are levels of the stress hormone ‘cortisol’, which in many cases obstructs a person’s ability to lose weight healthily because of the destructive effect that cortisol exerts on the organs, skeletal muscles and metabolism.

It is the same stress patterns that result in cortisol secretion also often cause people to over-eat, further compounding their weight gain. Many studies have also shown an association between stress, cortisol and abdominal fat- so managing the stress response would play a key role in reducing central fat storage.

In summary, Yoga may not be the most effective mode of exercise for weight management but it does certainly have its place. Where Yoga is perhaps most effective however is helping a person to tune in to their inner self, their untapped potential and their natural biological rhythm.

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