Is yoga a good exercise option for weight loss? The short answer is yes, absolutely. The long answer is, not in the way we might usually think about exercise and weight loss. Yoga is a complex system of health and wellness that connects our mind, body, and spirit with the breath as the bridge of connection.
With certain types of yoga, for example, Bikram or Ashtanga, doing the practice itself may help you take off some pounds. Power yoga done in a heated room with a number of sun salutations can definitely stoke the metabolic fire, which can burn extra calories and lead to weight loss. Power yoga and vinyasa yoga—poses linked together with the breath—also utilize more strength-building poses such as arm balances, which can increase muscle mass by supporting our own body weight. Greater muscle mass in turn burns more calories at rest, which can lead to weight loss. Other types of yoga, such as restorative, yin, or hatha focus on deep stretches held for a longer time. These more relaxing types of yoga will not burn as many calories in a session.
But here’s the thing about yoga—it’s so much more than a physical exercise. There are actually eight limbs of a yoga practice, of which only one is asana, or physical poses. To reduce it to a weight loss mechanism diminishes the power of the practice.
Yama - five restraints, moral duties or vows. See below for more information
Niyama – positive duties or observances, see below for greater detail on the niyamas
Asana – physical poses. This is what most people think of when they think of yoga
Pranayama – restraint or expansion of the breath. Also commonly described as breathing exercises
Pratyahara – withdrawal of the senses to prepare for meditation
Dharana – concentration on a single point
Dhyana – meditation on a single object
Samadhi – pure contemplation which has been interpreted to mean union with the universe
As some of the limbs are connected, when we practice yoga we are practicing breath work, pranayama, and dharana, concentration. The yamas consist of five vows: ahimsa or non-violence; satya or truthfulness; asteya or non-stealing; brahmacharya or celibacy; and aparigraha or non-coveting.
The niyamas or observances are saucha or purification of the body; santosha or contentment; tapas which means heat building activities; svadhyaya or greater study; ishvara pranidhana or dedication to a God or higher power. The yamas and niyamas are worthy of a separate article dedicated to them.
The mindfulness or dharana we learn from practicing yoga helps us make food choices. As we learn to listen to our breath and tune into our body, we start to make healthier choices. We start to think, “Hmmm. If I eat that bacon double cheeseburger I won’t feel as good as if I eat the salad.” With a regular practice, we will begin to choose healthier items to eat.
In addition, if we start to believe that ahimsa is a good thing, it can extend to include the food we eat and we may choose to stop eating meat as a non-violent choice. On a physical level it is not comfortable to practice yoga after we have eaten a large meal. It can be uncomfortable to move, stretch, and get into some yoga postures with a full belly. Therefore it is advantageous to practice on an empty stomach, which means lighter meals.
The mindfulness that yoga teaches us to cultivate also helps us pay closer attention when eating. So instead of zoning out with a bag of chips and realizing, “Oops! Finished the bag,” without tasting much of it, we pay attention while eating and really taste our food, which helps to guard against mindless eating. Mindfulness also helps us focus on the act of eating itself, taking our time with both food choices and with eating.
Yoga can also help to improve our body image. When we turn our focus inward we gain an appreciation for all the things our bodies do for us, every day. We start to accept our bodies instead of criticizing our less favorite body parts. I found that when I began to practice yoga I became more loving and accepting of my body, even my least favorite aspects. I had always been critical of my large thighs, but began to see them differently, thanking them for being strong and supporting and carrying me through life. When I stand in warrior pose or the standing balance poses like natarajasana or royal dancer, I am grateful for my strong, powerful thighs. A yoga practice can help someone with a distorted body image or eating disorder for this reason. We start to tune into our bodies and our feelings, but also begin realize that we are not just our bodies. We are so much more.
In addition, the zen-like feelings which we experience following a yoga practice can help us with curbing emotional eating. As we feel better in our skin, and more in touch with our whole self—mind, body, and spirit—we are less likely to eat out of sadness, anger or boredom.
Meditation, which often concludes a yoga practice during final relaxation or savasana, helps to connect our mind, body and spirit through the breath. Sitting or lying quietly, focusing on our breathing, or pranayama, allows us to be present in the moment and increases our peace and calm. When we can release stress and stay present, we are less likely to eat out of nervousness or other reasons that have nothing to do with nutrition or hunger.
When we practice more intuitive eating, we eat when we are hungry and listen to our bodies' natural hunger cues. Our diet culture brainwashes women into thinking they need to lose weight and diet from a very young age, which can set us up in a negative pattern of yo-yo dieting which can wreak havoc on our metabolism. Meditation and mindfulness practices can help us break that habit by tuning in and listening to our bodies, eating when we are hungry and not to fill another emotional need. Having a yoga practice can help with that process.
So you see, yoga helps with making better food choices, becoming mindful, appreciating our bodies, and excercise.
For optimal fitness and weight management, I always encourage people to vary their workouts. A variety of fitness options keeps exercise interesting for your mind and your body, as the body quickly adapts to new fitness routine once a base of fitness is achieved. Yoga should be one part of a fitness routine that includes cardiovascular, strength, and stretching components. Find something you love, and you will stick with it. If you get bored, it is time for a change.