by Lori Hall Steele
Yoga may not conjure up the same images of a calorie-burning, sweat-inducing workout as bootcamp workouts or cardio dance-party routines.
But don’t be fooled by yoga’s deep breathing and sometimes-slow poses: doctors and personal training experts say it can seriously trim and tone your body — and also work on your mind and spirit to help you get healthier overall.
So take in what experts say about how to do yoga for weight loss, and get ready to pare down with some downward dogs.
Go beyond the burn
Calories burned during yoga vary widely — from 180 to 360 per hour — depending on the type of yoga you practice. Fitness director Guy Caracciolo at the Dedham Health and Athletic Complex in Dedham, MA, places Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and other forms of “power yoga” at the top, along with yoga fusion workouts that accelerate calorie burning by mixing it up with dance or kickboxing.
Big Apple Power Yoga owner Nanci Muriello in New York City agrees, recommending power yoga for its weight-loss triple threat: strength, flexibility, and cardio. During a typical 90-minute session, the deep breathing techniques heat you up inside, helping to flush out toxins and water weight and boost performance of the lymphatic system and organs. “It’s a great physical workout,” Muriello says.
But as with all styles of yoga, there’s a deeper benefit: you’re tuning in to your body.
“Suddenly you actually get the signal that you are full or that a particular food doesn’t digest well, or you notice after you eat something that you feel amazing,” says Muriello.
Sometimes, less is more
“It’s not necessarily the hardcore class that’s going to help,” says Oakland, CA, physician Baxter Bell, M.D., who’s also a yoga instructor and medical acupuncturist.
Ironically, gentle and restorative yoga can help with weight loss, Bell says — by kicking on the parasympathetic nervous system, which regulates breathing, digestion, and hormones.
As you jet through the day in fifth gear, your body is often in fight-or-flight mode, and high-octane hormones are circulating. By activating the parasympathetic nervous system, you’re stepping (gently) on your internal brakes, which lets everything take a rest: hormones rebalance, injuries begin repairing, and digestion proceeds normally — all of which can aid weight loss, Bell says.
YogaTuneUp® creator Jill Miller, whose method headlines classes at Equinox Fitness Clubs, points out that yoga’s weight loss benefits are both physiological and psychological. “Practicing yoga helps to increase your sensitivity to your inner signals such as hunger and cravings,” she says. “There are physical components to both of these sensations, but true hunger to feed our body’s basic needs is a totally different experience than craving foods that do not nourish us.
“Yoga helps to slow you down mentally,” she explains, “so you can learn to distinguish between the urge to eat and the emotional impulses that sometimes drive us to eat to quell our feelings. Yoga can help us discern what we are truly hungry for, and knowing what makes us tick internally can help us lose weight by making better food choices.
Gentle yoga is also a good way to start slowly, which is crucial if you’re new to yoga to avoid injuries that could immobilize you and blow all hopes for weight loss at least for a while — and serving as enough of a buzzkill that you write off yoga altogether.
Strike a (fat-burning) pose
Certain poses, or asanas, are “killer apps” for weight loss, with “benefits that far exceed mere calorie-burning and muscle-strengthening,” says Nicole Persley, a teacher at Yoga and Inner Peace in Lake Worth, FL. “Yoga speeds up the metabolism by stimulating endocrine glands that regulate the metabolic rate,” she explains.
Certain poses can also help with trouble spots. Persley suggests the following:
- Shoulder stand and fish pose: Both rouse the thyroid, helping to give your body a metabolism boost.
- Valrasana (spinal twist), a lengthening child’s pose, and cobra pose: These twisting poses massage the abdomen, target internal organs and aid with optimal digestion.
- The dogs: Downward-facing dog and upward-facing dog poses are particularly helpful in toning hips and thighs.
Ask your doctor before you begin, and then go to a class, get a yoga DVD or get other how-to on basic yoga positions. Yoga expert Jill Miller’s Yoga for Weight Loss Workout Kit is an amped-up routine designed specifically for burning more calories and fat while still getting the benefits of yoga. Miller also uses techniques like modifying standard yoga poses with special props.
But while you’re striking poses — particularly in fast-moving vinyasa or power yoga — it’s crucial that you pay attention to your body, says fitness instructor Patricia Moreno, founder of intenSati and creator of several yoga-fusion and weight loss DVDs for Gaiam.
“Good alignment is always important but when people are too focused on burning calories they sometimes compromise alignment,” says Moreno.
Broaden your goals
Think big picture — considering not only your physical body, but also your spirit. “Ask yourself, ‘Why do I want to lose weight?’” Bell suggests. Is it for self-image, a relationship, to boost energy?
Whatever it is, devise some related goal such as reaching a career milestone or being able to take the stairs or play with your kids without getting out of breath. Then notice your total successes as you move forward, Bell suggests. If, say, your goal was better health and your breathing has improved and your lower back has strengthened due to yoga — even if you haven’t yet lost much weight — give yourself some credit and keep up the good work.
Expect long-term results
Research shows that yoga can help stop middle-age spread. Overweight folks who regularly practiced yoga for 10 years between ages 45 and 55 lost five pounds on average, compared to a 14-pound gain for those who didn’t, according to a 2005 study from Seattle’s Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
“From my experience, it has to do with the way that yoga makes you more aware of your body,” says Alan Kristal, Ph.D., lead author of the study.
Yoga practioners also simply ate more mindfully — and had a lower body mass index – than non-practioners, explains Kristal. In other words, they notice when they’re full, and more easily avoid eating out of stress or boredom.
“Yoga teaches awareness of the self, which is important for long-term change,” Moreno points out. “Use this higher level of awareness to help you make healthier eating choices and decrease mindless eating.”