If yoga doesn’t scream weight loss to you, you’re not alone. When most folks are ready to lose weight, they typically turn to activities like interval training, running, and jumping jacks to shed those unwanted pounds. Fewer folks out there turn to yoga—but maybe they should.
What the Research Says About Yoga and Weight Loss
Over the last decade, a growing number of research studies suggest that yoga may be a great way to help people lose weight. By increasing the flow of blood through your entire body through active postures like tree pose and plank pose, yoga helps to stimulate the organs of your digestive system, which can help you metabolize food faster. When you are better able to metabolize your food, your stomach may produce less acid, helping you to feel lighter and healthier.
Yoga is also considered an effective way to reduce your body mass index (BMI). BMI is your weight-to-height ratio; it is increasingly used by healthcare providers to determine whether someone is underweight, normal weight, or overweight.
Even a five-day yoga intervention can have a profound effect on weight loss efforts. In a study published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 37 overweight/obese participants were enrolled in a five-day Kripalu yoga weight loss program. Participants completed questionnaires at baseline, post-program, and at the three-month follow-up. At the one-year mark, participants were asked to report their current weight. Researchers found that participants dropped a significant amount of weight after one year—despite the fact that the weight loss intervention lasted a measly five days. In addition to improving their physical health, participants also reported significant gains in the following:
- Nutrition Behaviors
- Non-dieting behaviors
- Stress management
Many yoga instructors incorporate themes like self-compassion, acceptance, stress management, and mindfulness into their classes. Learning and practicing behaviors like these—even for a short time—is linked to long-term weight loss. People who are able to minimize their stress levels through mindfulness, better nutrition, and other self-care behaviors are less likely to hang on to stubborn belly fat. They are also less likely to become obese.
How Awareness and Mindfulness Help With Weight Loss
One of the most beautiful parts of practicing yoga is the way in which it develops your self-awareness. It encourages you to look inward instead of outward. In fact, one thing you’ll notice in most yoga studios is an utter lack of mirrors. There may be times when you want to check yourself out, but can’t. Never fear—it’s all by design. In yoga, it does not matter how a pose looks or how other people look doing a pose, what matters is how the pose makes you feel and how it heightens your inner awareness. By focusing on yourself in this non-competitive environment, yoga has the power to boost your self-esteem and promote a positive body image (both of which contribute to overall health).
Through regular practice, you can become more mindful through yoga. Mindfulness is when you are able to focus on the present moment without judging yourself, dwelling in the past, or worrying about what the future may bring. It is a wonderful way to live. At first, it may be very difficult to focus entirely on the present moment—the mind is a tricky thing, giving you glimpses of past events at inopportune moments and enticing you to predict or control the future (an impossible feat). By bringing peace to your active brain through the practice of mindfulness, you will find that you are better able to relax and enjoy more of life’s pleasures.
Research has found that people who practice mindfulness through activities like yoga, tai chi, or meditation are much more likely to be mindful in other facets of their lives, namely in their eating patterns. By becoming more in touch with how your body feels, you are more likely to listen to your body during mealtimes. This, in turn, can help you partake in the following healthy eating behaviors:
- Slowing down
- Savoring each bite
- Avoiding distractions, such as smartphones and television
- Becoming more aware of how your food looks, tastes, and smells
- Avoiding eating when you are sad or stressed (known as emotional eating)
Mindful eaters may be more sensitive to hunger cues and feelings of fullness, which can help them make better food choices. These eaters are less likely to respond to environmental hunger cues like the sight or smell of food. So work on being more mindful—both in your physical activity and your eating habits. Who knows? With dedicated practice, you might be the one turning down donuts at work on a Friday morning, opting for a walk or a banana instead.
Recent surveys have found that those who practice yoga are not only more aware of their bodies, they are also more satisfied with their bodies and less critical of them. If you’re struggling with your weight and looking to boost your self-esteem, look no further than yoga.
Maximize Your Calorie-Burning Benefit
Sure, most yoga classes don’t have the same calorie-burning benefit as more strenuous classes, such as high-intensity interval training. Even so, any activity is good activity when it comes to getting healthy and trim.
To maximize potential weight-loss benefits, it’s important to find a yoga class or at-home yoga routine that incorporates active, standing postures. Look for Power, Hatha, or Ashtanga classes. These classes are typically more physical than other yoga classes and follow a series of postures, such as the Sun Salutation sequence. This means your body is continually moving from one pose to the next, keeping you active and in an upright position. Steer clear of classes that contain words like “gentle,” “relaxing,” or “restorative” in their titles when you first begin your weight loss journey. Although classes like these may be well-suited for you later on, it’s best to burn off those pesky calories with more challenging classes and postures to start.
Keep in mind that increasing your flexibility should not be your primary concern if weight loss is your real goal. Be assured that your flexibility will increase naturally over time. Although it sounds unintuitive, sitting postures may actually be more uncomfortable for larger people to get into compared to standing postures as sitting poses typically require a higher degree of flexibility. So stand strong to maximize your calorie burn. Maintaining upright postures, such as warrior I pose, will challenge your limbs and increase your range of motion. Don’t worry if you are not able to perform the full extension of each posture. The great thing about yoga is that there is a wide array of variations and modifications for each pose, allowing you to find the most suitable posture for your comfort and skill level.
Yoga poses that target your core muscle can help burn off bothersome belly fat. If you’re looking to tone your midsection in a hurry, give boat pose, plank pose, side angle pose, and four-limbed staff pose a whirl. These effective postures help to strengthen and tighten your abdominal muscles, a common trouble spot for many people battling the bulge.
Another thing you can do to ensure you get the most out of your yoga sessions is to incorporate this practice alongside other aerobic activities, such as hiking, swimming (aquatic aerobics), and surfing. As you may already know, keeping your body guessing is one of the most effective ways to make a lasting difference in your body composition. So mix up your routine to get better, faster results.
Turn to Yoga for Social Support
Yoga is a unique, spiritual form of exercise. Unlike a sedentary bike or elliptical trainer, yoga classes encourage you to practice being your best self alongside other people who are striving to be their best selves. It is common for fellow yogis to forge strong bonds—both with their peers and with their instructors. The type of social support that comes from a yoga class is like no other; it can be amazingly beneficial in keeping you engaged and accountable in your weight loss efforts.
Acceptance is a constant theme in any yoga class. If you’re struggling to manage your weight and feel accepted by others (especially in a gym environment), yoga may be your solution to shedding those unwanted pounds in a secure, non-competitive space. Yoga teaches you to love your body at any size or shape while promoting better breathing, awareness, and mindfulness. So get healthy and trim, and make some friends along the way. There’s no better time to start taking care of yourself than right now.
The Huffington Post. How yoga helps you lose weight. http://www.huffingtonpost.ca/dr-divi-chandna-/lose-weight-yoga_b_5471152.html. Updated June 2017. Accessed January 8, 2017.
The American Council on Exercise. Yoga for clients who are overweight or obese. https://www.acefitness.org/education-and-resources/professional/expert-articles/3528/yoga-for-clients-who-are-overweight-or-obese. Updated September 2013. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Braun D, Park CL, Conboy LA. Psychological well-being, health behaviors, and weight loss among participants in a residential, Kripalu yoga-based weight loss program. Int J Yoga Therap. 2012;(22):9-22.
Lauche R, Langhorst J, Lee MS, Dobos G, Cramer H. A systematic review and meta-analysis on the effects of yoga on weight-related outcomes. Prev Med. 2016;87:213-232. doi:10.1016/j.ypmed.2016.03.013.
Harvard Health Publishing, Harvard Medical School. Yoga – benefits beyond the mat. https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/yoga-benefits-beyond-the-mat. Updated February 2015. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Mayo Clinic. Can yoga help me lose weight? https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/weight-loss/expert-answers/yoga-for-weight-loss/faq-20057754. Updated December 2015. Accessed January 8, 2018.
Ross A, Brooks A, Touchton-Leonard K, Wallen G. A different weight loss experience: A qualitative study exploring the behavioral, physical, and psychosocial changes associated with yoga that promote weight loss. Evid Based Complement Alernat Med. 2016:2914745. doi:10.1155/2016/2914745.