How this ancient practice can melt away pounds—plus strengthen the heart, tone muscles, and reduce stress.
If you ever watched the grueling exercise programs on “The Biggest Loser,” yogamay seem counterintuitive for weight loss. “Some people say yoga is not designed for weight loss, but we can take what we know from science, that practical evidence-based information, and the reality is, it does have application [for weight loss],” says fitness expert Jessica Matthews, founder of the Masters of Kinesiology in Integrative Wellness program at Point Loma Nazarene University in San Diego, and a senior advisor to the American Council on Exercise (acefitness.org).
That said, there’s more to it than just picking a random yoga class and expecting the pounds to melt away. “Yoga takes many different forms,” says Matthews. “If you have a specific goal like losing weight or maintaining weight loss, it’s important to know the best style of yoga that will align with your goals.”
Critics of yoga for weight loss generally believe the practice doesn’t provide enough heart-pumping movement, but when researchers have taken a closer look, this isn’t always the case. A study at the University of Pittsburgh found that a specific style of yoga, vinyasa, was intense enough to produce scientifically supported heart benefits and increased calorie burning. And another study, funded by the American Council on Exercise at the University of Wisconsin-La Cross, found that power yoga—another name for a vinyasa type of practice—burned nearly twice as many calories as a less physically intense form.
“Vinyasa means ‘breath-synchronized movement,’” says Matthews, “So you’re moving, you’re flowing, if you will, from one posture to the next, so a vinyasa style class can actually elicit the increased heart rate needed to help facilitate weight loss.” In gyms and studios, other names for this type of yoga may include “power yoga,” “flow yoga,” or “athletic yoga.”
Whole-Body Resistance Training
Any complete exercise program also needs resistance training, and yoga can fit that bill too, in a more integrated way than doing one exercise to train biceps and a separate one for triceps and other isolated muscle groups. “One part of the body affects another,” says Matthews. “Yoga trains the body in a very functional way.”
A Different Weight-Loss Experience
Researchers at the National Institutes of Health interviewed people who had lost weight with yoga after struggling, unsuccessfully, with other methods. In addition to improved muscle tone and metabolism, yoga benefits included less stress and stress eating, reduced appetite, fewer cravings, more mindful eating, a better mood, greater self-esteem, social support, and healthy role models. “This weight loss experience was markedly different than past attempts,” the researchers concluded, “in that the weight loss was easier, and subjects felt more confident in their ability to maintain lasting weight loss.”
Where to Start
If you’re new to yoga, Matthews recommends learning the basics in a gentler hatha yoga class before trying the more intense vinyasa. Better yet, try a series of introductory classes, often held over an eight-week period, or at least try going twice a week, for a month, to see how it works for you.
“My goal for my new students is to just be aware of the experience, how your body moves through space, and see how it feels,” she says. Rather than looking at the scale right away, look for more subtle changes. Maybe you can hold a pose longer, feel more flexible, or notice a difference in your attitude toward food. Yoga is well known for reducing stress, which helps balance hormones that regulate appetite.
In choosing a yoga class, look for an instructor who is experienced and can guide you to learn in a way that builds your skill and confidence. If some people in a class are more advanced, a good teacher should help you to do poses at a level that works for you. To find someone in your area, try searching IDEA Fitness’ online directory: ideafit.com/find-yoga-instructor.
Who Can Benefit
It doesn’t matter how fit or unfit you are, or how much weight you’d like to lose. “When it comes to significant weight loss, the more that somebody finds a form of activity they enjoy, the more they’re likely to stick with it,” says Matthews. Start with two gentle yoga classes a week and gradually add more. “Don’t try to go from 0 to 60 all at once,” she adds. Aim to learn the fundamental principles and postures, progress gradually, and enjoy the process.
In addition to reducing stress, helping to balance hunger hormones, and improving fitness, studies have found that yoga helps prevent heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and depression, reduces pain, improves mood, enhances sleep, lowers blood pressure, and keeps the heart young.