In recent years, there’s been a perceptible shift in the motivations people have for trying yoga, with many more coming not for the yoga bod (or the yoga butt), but for the yoga mind. Still of course, there are people who come to it just for a workout, or more controversially, to lose weight. And this is a really interesting issue, since these were definitely not the greater goals of yoga as it evolved, and yoga as a physical exercise probably won’t itself help a person lose much weight. But using yoga as a mental exercise might. Through the many ways in which it helps shift our relationship with ourselves, it also helps shift how we relate to our bodies, and to our own habits.
Let’s look at some of the research here. There’s not a ton of evidence to suggest that yoga as an exercise alone would help people lose weight – in fact, there’s very mixed evidence on whether exercise of any kind alone will help you lose weight. But one study from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that healthy middle-aged people who did yoga, as opposed to other exercise, didn’t gain as much weight over the years as those who didn’t practice; and overweight people who did yoga actually lost a few pounds. But this was just an observational study, so it’s hard to know what other variables might have contributed to these trends. And the team later found that mindful eating might help explain the link more fully.
In fact, yoga’s power to change the body may not so much lie in its physical effects, but in its mental ones. A study a few years ago, looked at the role of Kripalu yoga in helping people lose weight. Participants were overweight and obese, and signed up for a five day yoga program at the Kripalu Institute for Extraordinary Living, which included multiple yoga sessions per day, as well as workshops on healthy eating and cooking. After three months, people in the yoga group had increased in mindfulness, self-compassion, nutrition, and stress-management. After a year, people who participated in it had lost a significant amount of weight, though half the participants had dropped out of the study.
But the key here was likely that the yoga wasn’t just physical – the psychological was heavily stressed. Methods like “riding the wave” of craving were taught, in which people are asked to experience and stay with each sensation in the “wave” of craving, without jumping off of it, until it passes. And this may be the really valuable part of the experience. The kind of overweight that comes from overeating is largely psychological – we eat to cope with our emotional and psychological “stuff,” and we often pick up this habit from a very young age. So a practice that can help us adjust our attitude toward food, cravings, and ourselves may be better than anything that addresses only the physical.
Jillian Pranksy E-RYT 500, an international presenter and director of Restorative Therapeutic Yoga teacher training for YogaWorks, says that the yoga for weight loss question makes her a little nervous off the bat, since she doesn’t think there’s such a direct link between asana itself and body weight. But what yoga can do for us, she says, is to shift our relationship with ourselves and with our own patterns of behavior. “Yes, yoga has given me a fit, strong and flexible body,” she says. “But as a yoga practitioner and teacher my focus has long been on how the practice helps us cultivate more self-acceptance, compassion, presence, mindfulness, happiness, and overall wellness.”
Pransky adds that an early lesson she learned is that more doesn’t always equal better when it comes to our bodies. “One of my favorite teachings is that we don’t have to beat ourselves up to encourage change – harder is not always better. As a lifelong athlete, I’ve often favored intensity over relaxation. I can remember people working out very hard – every day – and NEVER loosing weight. In yoga, I see people breathing, relaxing, growing more mindful and sculpting changes in their body and mind never achieved by working out. It’s a combination mindfulness and self compassion, as well as quelling the stress response, which is known to encourage excess weight gain, and initiating the relaxation response, which is known to help facilitate proper digestion and metabolism.”
Additionally, investigating own patterns, and particularly the internal commentary that often runs in our heads, can be enormously helping in transforming our relationship with our bodies. “From my personal experience, and as I’ve seen with the experience of my students,” says Pransky, “a regular yoga practice has had a great impact on not only how I feel about my body, but the choices on how I nourish myself. In my 20’s, I remember an inner dialogue that was much more self-deprecating and self-destructive – which leads to less self care.”
Being a little gentler with ourselves as we learn new relationships to our own pain and past experiences, as well as with food, is a good goal to keep in mind. Other strategies may be necessary as well for keeping a healthy weight, but yoga can certainly help with this part of it. “Self-compassion and self-acceptance go along way in how we feel about our body and then how we treat ourselves,” says Pransky. “The work you do in class fosters a compassion that flows into every aspect of your life.”
Alice G. Walton, PhD is a health and science writer, and began practicing (and falling in love with) yoga and meditation five years ago. She is a contributor at Forbes.com, and writes for the University of Chicago, as well as other publications. Of all the areas of health she covers, she’s particularly interested in how yoga and meditation affect the brain and behavior. You can follow her on Twitter @AliceWalton and Facebook at Facebook.com/alicegwalton.