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.
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.
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.
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).
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).
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.