Can Yoga Help with Weight Loss?

yoga weight loss

First published in What Doctor’s Don’t Tell You magazine

Yoga has been associated with health for thousands of years. Not just on an immediate physical level, but also as a whole system that extends to how we live and the choices we make. In yoga it is believed that prana, the life-force that we take in through the breath (and healthy food and sunlight) is energising and supports all body systems, enabling more natural efficiency so we feel less sluggish and able to be more active.

As yoga is relatively cheap and accessible to all, it is receiving more research attention, especially in areas of fitness and weight loss, where compliance and results have historically been difficult to attain. Yoga is an engaging practice, the deeper connection beyond a purely physical workout encourages people to continue and genuinely enjoy the experience. With long-term, regular practice shown to create weight loss, specifically lowered waist-to-hip circumference, body fat levels, better appetite control and postural stability (Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2013; 19:32-46), the effects of a happier body relationship feed into the feelings of well-being.

 
iStock_000017754649LargeThe research

A recent review of the yoga research to date (European Journal of Preventive Cardiology, 2015; epub) cited 37 randomized controlled trials and 32 meta-analyses. It reported that a regular and sustained yoga practice showed improvements in body weight and body mass index (BMI), but also heart disease risk factors associated with weight gain; cholesterol levels and ratios, triglycerides (fats in the blood), blood pressure and heart rate.

A study this year (Journal of Clinical and Diagnostic Research, 2015; 9(4):epub) showed that daily early morning yoga sessions over six months on an empty stomach, reduced the blood glucose levels in 30 men aged between 36 and 55 years old with type 2 diabetes. The study described yoga as a ‘slow, static type of muscular exercise’ and noted that it can be performed even by patients having ‘limited joint mobility, physical unfitness associated with overweight and sedentary lifestyles’. But yoga is not the second choice, the slower and less effective alternative to pushing it at the gym. This quality over quantity approach has far-reaching consequences for the mechanisms that affect how we either store fat or burn it for fuel.

 
bharadvajrasana twistThe whole picture

Weight loss is not simply about punishing exercise to burn calories, in fact exercising to the point of stress can actually hinder shifting pounds as it keeps up levels of the stress hormone cortisol, shown to signal our bodies to lay down fat around the middle. As this fat is also ‘white fat’, the static kind we store rather than burn for fuel, it can remain hard to loose. If we see yoga as simply an exercise regime and approach it with ‘more power the better’, we can both lose sight of the aim of yoga itself and not benefit from the more subtle and transformative effects of a well-rounded practice.

Our state of health and weight management is determined to a great extent by what we put into our bodies and how much we move around, but also how efficiently our body systems and metabolic processes are working. Our whole beings need both activity and rest, stimulation and recharging. Appetite levels, food choices, energy and sleep patterns can all be affected by the poor posture, high stress and disordered breathing patterns that yoga helps to address. These are states that can get forgotten as underlying causes to the digestive, detoxification, blood sugar imbalance and addictive patterns that can all contribute to ill-health and weight gain.

We also practise yoga to help tone postural muscles and those involved in the breath, in both cases the abdomen is involved to support our whole body structure and its functions. Moving and compressing of digestive organs helps improve their function and improve elimination of toxins, tendency to bloating and how we efficiently assimilate energy from the food we eat, so reducing the need to take on more than we need.

Better posture and breathing make us feel better about ourselves, but also helps our metabolic rate and fat-burning capacity when exercising. Adding in the proven stress-reducing effects of yoga (Health Psychology Review, 2015; 15:1-18) and we have a recipe for strengthening and weight loss.

 
middle aged woman working outThe mind-body effects

Yoga is not simply a physical practice – reconnecting with our bodies through our breath helps foster the integral sense of self that leads to positive change in body relationships. A practice needs to be steady and regular to see the benefits – little and often can have better effects than one intense class a week.

The inherent mindfulness within an attentive practice allows the non-judgemental experience of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations in each breath, moment-to-moment to acclimatise us to being with strong sensations. When we may be used to dampening overwhelming emotions and reactions with food and particularly sugar and junk fats, training ourselves to relax into these feelings and accept that they come and go, has shown to affect food choices and reduce mindless eating and giving into cravings (Journal of Adolescent Health, 2010; 46:346-51).

In one study (Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, 2005; 11:28-33), 15,000 long-term yoga practitioners were shown to put on lower-than-average weight over 10 years. The study does not draw conclusions, but one theory is that this is because yoga practice trains us to stay and relax into strong physical (and emotional) sensations, we can then become more attuned and non-reactive to the discomfort of cravings and resist giving in to them. Another showed that two classes a week can help improve food cravings and body image (Qualitative Health Research, 2009; 19:1234-45).

 
8YM_2399Good stress for fat-burning

Yoga postures are essentially positions that we wouldn’t usually place our bones, muscles and joints in during everyday life, which presents a ‘good stress’ challenge for us physically, evoking a positive response from circulation, muscle strength, release and length, hormonal balance and oxygenation through breath. As yoga includes attention to breathing and focus on the present moment, it helps reduce stress responses and increase the resilience that encourages us to keep up good habits. It has also shown to help alleviate insomnia, sleep issues, depression and lower back pain – all known barriers to weight loss (Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice, 2010: 1-8).

 
A practice with physical and postural integrity

The practice here is designed to move through your whole body. Slow release of muscles allows loosening in those that have been tightened by stress, tension and either inactivity or stressful activity – this makes your body respond to any physical activity in a more positive way. You’ll feel more fluid and simply want to move around more. This practise helps to correct any postural problems that may have resulted from weight gain, whilst encouraging the flexibility and joint movement that allow movement and the building up of strength. Yoga opens up the whole body, lengthening muscles to make them longer and leaner rather than shorter and bulkier; leaner muscle is more efficient.

 
tucking under bottom over liftLeading with the breath

We live in a society where we are continually faced with stimulus that excite our nervous systems and tend us towards more shallow and fast breathing. As you move through the practice, pay attention to stay conscious of breathing deeply and fully to help your nervous system come down from this ‘constant alert’. Notice when you might hold your breath – if it feels strong or you’re concentrating for instance – and resettle it by taking a deep inhalation through the nose and exhaling deeply or even sighing out as you need.

Regulating breathing increases the flow of oxygen into the body, meaning chemical reactions can happen faster and you burn fuel as calories at a higher rate. More oxygen in the blood means that the pancreas needs to produce less insulin to get sugar efficiently into cells. As insulin can make us store fat, calmer breathing both helps blood sugar balance and our tendency to gain weight in the long run. Full breathing is required to move the body’s lymphatic system and allow full detoxification. Holding on to toxins can contribute to bloating, cravings and constipation.

 
There are three key weight loss elements in this practice:

 

  1. vajrasana back bendLoosening and toning

Yoga supports weight management by helping normalise sluggish thyroid, liver and adrenal function and blood sugar balance. A practice like this, which focuses on forward bends, back arches and twists stimulates the whole endocrine (hormonal) system and massages your internal organs to increase their circulation and function, as well as loosening and toning around the waist and abdomen.

 

  1. high parsvakonasanaStrength training

Stronger yoga postures can be classified as lightweight strength training exercise, known to be one of the best ways of increasing muscle tone, but also calorific afterburn aka excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC). This is the amount of calories you burn after your workout and is determined by the amount of muscle tone in your body. Lightweight training like yoga can elevate your Resting Metabolic Rate (RMR) for longer and help weight loss through increased metabolic efficiency.

 

  1. supta baddha konasana, supported thighs Restorative practice to end

A calming, meditative type practice helps to bring down stress hormones, especially that which we release in respond to long-term stress, cortisol – of which high levels tend to make us lay down fat around the waist. High cortisol levels also affect sleep and disrupted sleep patterns have shown to affect weight often by leading to raised appetite in an attempt to take on more fuel to make up for the tiredness.

Much overeating and cravings come from stress and tension so a calming practice helps to reduce excess food intake and the worry that this causes in turn. Restorative yoga, where we support the body fully with props to allow a sense of being ‘held’, has shown to be an effective weight loss component of a fully rounded practice (Journal of Diabetes Complications, 2014; 28:406-12). Calming your nervous system and bringing your body into balance helps you become more connected and intuitive, so quick-fixes like sugar and stimulants can begin to seem less appealing and more like the energy drainers that they are.

 

THE PRACTICE – this can take whatever time you need, but allow 20-25 minutes and longer if you can spend that in savasana to fully release stress at the end.

 

Sukhasana variation (seated side flank stretch)Sukhasana variation (seated side flank stretch) Seated on a block or blankets, spend a few moments settling into the uplift of your breath through your spine. Then open out your arms to the side, relax your shoulders and with an exhale, drop one hand to the ground to open up the top side of the body. Inhale back to centre and then repeat, following this breathing pattern from side to side.
Vajrasana variation (seated back arch)Vajrasana variation (seated back arch) Come on to your shins with knees together, putting a cushion between heels and bottom if you need. Reach your hands behind you, rotating your whole arms out to lift up through the chest and lengthen in the waist. Keep the back and sides of the neck long to support the head and squeeze the area between the shoulder blades together to open your heart.
Downward-facing dogAdho Mukha Svanasana (Downwards-facing dog) From all fours, hands spread and middle fingers parallel, exhale as you lift bottom to the ceiling, heels up and legs slightly bent to start. Push back from the base of the index fingers to move the tops of the thighs back and lift the sitting bones, lengthening sides of the body and opening the chest. Explore and move in the pose to start to open the backs of the legs and allow the heels to move back and down.
Ashva Sanchalanasana (Horse pose)Ashva Sanchalanasana (Horse pose) From down-face dog, step the right foot between the hands by inhaling and on the exhale, gather in the right hip and draw the knee into the chest and forward – come to all fours and lift the foot forward if you need. Have the feet places parallel to the sides of the mat and hip-width apart. Come up onto the fingertips to lift up through the chest and lengthen all the way from the back heel to the crown of the head. These lunge poses can be practice with knee down too, supporting with a blanket if needed.
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana 1 (Twisted crescent pose) - right sideParivrtta Anjaneyasana 1 (Twisted crescent pose) Keeping the back heel pointing up to the sky and lift the left arm to rotate the belly upwards, whilst the left thigh keeps rotating inwards. Bring the right hand onto a block if you need more height. Come back through Ashva Sanchalanasana (Horse pose).
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana 2 (Twisted crescent pose) - left sideParivrtta Anjaneyasana 2 (Twisted crescent pose) Keep the left fingers to the floor (on bloc if needed) and this time revolve the belly to the right, keeping good contact with the ball of the right big toe to stabilise the right thigh. Lengthen the back and sides of the neck. From Horse pose, come back to Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downwards-facing dog pose) and repeat with left leg forward.
Anjaneyasana (Crescent pose)Anjaneyasana (Crescent pose) From down-face dog, step the right foot between the hands as before, this time dropping the back knee. With feet hip-width apart and parallel to the sides of your mat, you can lift up from the hips to raise your arms, opening them out as wide as you need to release shoulders. Draw your belly in and up to protect your lower back.
Downward-facing dogAdho Mukha Svanasana (Downwards-facing dog pose) Repeat as above and then left foot forward to Anjaneyasana and back to down-face dog.
Parsvakonasana (Side angle pose)Parsvakonasana (Side angle pose) Stepping your right foot forward, turn the left foot in to a 45 degree angle and come up, keeping the right thigh parallel to the sides of the mat so you keep the right knee pointing in the direction of the foot. Bring the right elbow onto the right thigh and lift the left arm up, if you can keep opening the belly and chest to the ceiling, even dropping the right hand to the floor or blocks. Breathe to reach back to the outer left foot. Come up, turn the feet to the other side and reach to the left.
Prasarita Padottanasana (Spread-out-feet intense stretch pose)Prasarita Padottanasana (Spread-out-feet intense stretch pose) Turn the heels out, so the outsides of the feet are parallel, to protect the knees. With hands on hips, fold forward and reach your hands down your shins and release your head. Create a strong foundation to lift the inner legs from the feet by pressing down the base of the big toes and lifting the insteps.
Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana (Revolved spread-out-feet intense stretch pose)Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana (Revolved spread-out-feet intense stretch pose) Release the hands and lift the chest to bring the right hand to the middle of the floor under your shoulders or up onto blocks to give you the height to lengthen the front spine. Shift the hips a little to the left and twist to revolve your belly to the left and up. Lift the left arm, but if this compresses the shoulder, bring it onto the left hip, so you can open the collarbones.
Downward-facing dogAdho Mukha Svanasana (Downwards-facing dog pose) Repeat as above
Balasana (Child pose) over bolsterBalasana (Child pose) over bolster Drop down to your knees, bringing the big toes together, open the knees wide enough to place a bolster between your thighs without lifting your bottom. Walk your hands forward to release down onto the bolster, bring your head to one side and then the other. Breathe to feel heaviness and release into your whole body.
Supta Matsyendrasana variation (Restorative twist over bolster)Supta Matsyendrasana variation (Restorative twist over bolster) Sit with your right hip in line with the middle of the bolster. Bend the right foot in towards its own thigh and the left out towards the left hip, so you’re sitting to the side. Inhale to lift up through, the spine and then twist from the belly to exhale your front body onto the bolster. Turn your head in the direction of your legs or away if it doesn’t strain the neck.
Savasana (Corpse pose) with belly focusSavasana (Corpse pose) with belly focus Lay down with head supported if it feels like it falls backwards and legs as wide as your lower back needs to feel comfortable. Place your hands onto your belly and your attention to your breath crating movement and flow there. Stay meditating on this deep body connection for at least three minutes, coming up from the side slowly and consciously to finish.

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