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If you haven’t already experienced the many benefits of yoga for yourself, then you’ve at least heard about the many benefits: reduced stress, better flexibility, and healing for back pain. While those are reason enough to practice, in our busy world, we also want our time spent exercising to also help us lose or maintain our weight, right?
In short, yes, it can have positive effects on weight, though maybe not in the most obvious ways. In this article we’ll explain how this form of exercise and meditation can support your weight loss goals, as well as the best types and how to include them into your fitness routine for best results.
One of the main benefits of yoga is mindfulness. The practices help to increase mental focus, body awareness, and thought patterns. Several participants in one study on how yoga promotes weight loss expressed a change in how they viewed and consumed food after participating in a Iyengar yoga program, such as:
The regular, physical practice of yoga can help you become more aware of how your body feels and how it is affected by food. This same mindfulness also helps you to become more aware of how your body reacts to certain foods, amounts, or meal timing. If you’re not paying attention, it can be easy to eat fast food or processed snacks and not realize their impact on your body and mind, such as foggy thinking, bloating, weight gain, joint pain, etc. Additionally, being more aware can help you realize how you relate to food psychologically. For instance, are you using it to deal with stress and anxiety? Are you eating because you’re bored? Are you using food as fuel for exercise or as a coping mechanism? Mindful eating can help change unhealthy relationships with food, which can have a major impact on your weight loss over the long term.
In order to have the best experience in class and perform poses well, you may naturally begin to cut out unhealthy foods with negative effects in order to improve. It is common to begin choosing healthier options to support a more fit lifestyle. These are the type of diet changes that people actually stick to because they are self-made choices that support a lifestyle and desired feeling, rather than forced calorie restriction just to look good.
Typically unhealthy choices beget more of the same, and conversely, one healthy choice helps create both a desire and discipline to make other similar choices. When you discover that junk foods or alcohol make you feel sluggish and uncomfortable during yoga or any type of exercise, you’ll probably reduce your intake so you can perform better. One participant in the aforementioned study reflected, “I found that if I had dairy, the yoga was harder” and another “With [alcohol, sugar and caffeine], I no longer crave some. I think because I became more aware of the downside of them.”
If you go out drinking on a Friday night and try to make it through a 90-minute hot yoga class in 105 degrees the next morning, you’ll probably regret it and rethink your choices the following week if you plan to keep attending that awesome Bikram class.
Yoga is a go-to activity to relieve stress for many people. Part of this is due to the focus required in many poses, which helps get your mind centered on one thing at a time and stop the swirling thoughts. In many forms of yoga, meditation is used for the same purpose, either by clearing the mind or focusing on one single idea. Clearing out the to-do lists and “what if” thoughts has an incredibly calming effect. Additionally, many poses help to stretch and release tight muscles, which also reduces tension and anxiety. Basics like forward fold and child’s pose are excellent for easing tension.
It’s not just all mental, though. Physiologically, yoga has been show to combat stress through changes within the nervous system and hormones. It encourages relaxation, slows the heart rate, decreases blood pressure, and It helps the body to shift from the sympathetic nervous system (fight-or-flight) to the parasympathetic system (relaxation). In fact, it helps inhibit the areas of the brain responsible for fear and anger, and stimulates the pleasure centers.
As a result, there are two ways these responses can help reduce weight and/or prevent weight gain. If you tend to eat out of anxiety, fear, or a need for comfort, then yoga may help you feel these things less often, leading to less overeating.
Additionally, yoga practices help to reduce cortisol levels. Cortisol is a hormone which increases from stress and contributes to weight gain. Quite often when you’re having trouble losing weight despite exercise and dieting, this can be the culprit behind the problem due to increased blood sugar and glucose. So, when you’re less stressed, you have a much easier time losing weight.
Cortisol can also be a product of too much high intensity exercise (over training), so for individuals who participate in sports, CrossFit, or body building type workouts, yoga can help provide a break that may actually help your body to recover better and even reduce muscle loss that can occur from over training.
Depending on the frequency and intensity of your routine, yoga may increase your muscle strength and endurance. Maintaining lean muscle mass requires more energy on a daily basis, so the more you have, the more calories you burn even at rest. You will need to practice regularly – several times per week – if you’re not doing any other form of strength training, because consistency is key for building muscle, however you’re doing it. Once a week or a few times a month probably isn’t going to add enough strength to make any major difference.
One study had participants perform 24 cycles of sun salutations 6 days per week, and results showed that strength increased in both male and female participants for chest press and shoulder press exercises. They also showed improved muscle endurance in sit-ups and push-ups, and body fat decreased slightly in females only. While these amounts of sun salutations are far more than an average practitioner performs, it goes to show that certain yoga poses can be used to increase strength when done repetitively and consistently.
Now you can see how, for a variety of mental and physiological reasons, yoga may help promote weight loss. However, from purely an exercise standpoint, it is not likely that you’ll lose significant weight from yoga alone. This is because most yoga practices are not intense enough to burn a large amount of calories. When you come back to the basics of diet and nutrition, the “calories in vs. calories out” equation still applies.
For instance, say you are eating 2,000 calories per day and want to lose 1 lb. in a week. You’d need to cut out 500 calories per day through diet and exercise. If you’re performing yoga 4 days per week and burning 300 calories in one session, but don’t change your diet or do any exercise on alternate days, then you won’t hit that daily 500 deficit. Or, if you burn 400 calories in a hot yoga session 3 days per week, but then eat a bit more because it made you hungrier or you think you “deserve a treat” for your hard work and end up at 2,100 calories, you’ll only be at a 300 calorie deficit on those days, so weight loss would come slower.
The best way to use yoga for weight loss is to incorporate it into an overall fitness program using strength training, cardio, and a healthy diet. An example of this might look like yoga on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, strength training on Tuesday and Thursday, and some cardio on Saturday or Sunday. If you can burn 300 calories through exercise and cut out another 200 from your diet, then you can consistently hit that 500 calorie mark.
But what about power yoga? Or Bikram yoga? Aren’t those supposed to be like cardio and yoga all in one?
While hot yoga/Bikram may feel like you’re working out intensely, most of that is due to the heated room and elevated heart rate that comes from increased blood flow. However, little research exists to support any drastic weight loss benefits from this style of practice, and shows that most people will burn about the same amount of calories as they would with a brisk 90-minute walk (the length of most Bikram classes).
Power yoga will likely come in at slightly fewer calories, partially because most classes are 60-minutes and have no additional rise in heart rate from the room being at normal temperature.
So, what type of yoga should you do for weight loss?
Look for more vigourous styles like Vinyasa that keep you moving quickly, or even fusion classes with words like “sculpt” in the name that incorporate weights into the series for more muscle-building potential.
Keep in mind that calorie expenditure can vary greatly depending on your gender, height, weight, and level of physical fitness. For instance, a very fit 130-lb woman will burn far less calories than a 160-lb woman who hasn’t been working out, while an average 175-lb fit man will burn far more calories than the 130-lb woman.
According to HealthStatus.com, a 150-lb woman can expect to burn the following amount of calories in 60 minutes of each practice.
Hatha Yoga: 180 calories – A general term for basic yoga as commonly practiced by Westerners, such as at your local gym
Power Yoga: 351 – Quick-moving with a focus on strength, cardio, and flexibility with many standing postures
Bikram/Hot Yoga: 477 - A series of 26 postures performed in a room heated to 105 degrees
Vinyasa: 544 – Known as “Flow Yoga”, it’s a continuous, fast-paced flow of postures that keep you
If you’re looking for a well-balance approach to health and weight loss, then yoga is a great addition to your workout regimen. It can help you stress less, cope better, eat healthier, become stronger, and enhance your overall weight loss and fitness goals.
What do you think? Has yoga helped you lose weight? Have you experienced any other benefits? Share in the comments below!