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Yoga For Weight Loss

by Meggan Brummer(more info)

listed in yoga, originally published in issue 154 - January 2009

The long, slow stretches, plus the relaxed, deep breaths, meditation and yogic philosophy that form part of yoga won't burn calories anywhere near as well as a work out at the gym, but could be one of the best ways to prevent and reduce weight gain. 

A 2005 study at the National Cancer Institute at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre in Seattle found that 15,500 people in their fifties who regularly practised yoga lost about five pounds over a decade, compared to a similar group that didn't do yoga, who on average gained 13.5 pounds during that same time.  The study also found that yoga promoted weight loss for those with a regular practice.  (For the study, 'regular' was defined as at least 30 minutes once a week for four or more years).

Yoga positions

 

The Benefits of Yoga

To name a few of the many benefits, yoga improves circulation, metabolism and our endocrine/hormone functions, eliminates toxins, and strengthens the immune system and the heart.  The list goes on ... it also increases lung capacity, enhances digestion and elimination, and stretches and tones the muscles and ligaments.  A study from Yale, presented at the American Heart Association Scientific Sessions in November 2004 found that people who practised yoga with meditation at least three times weekly reduced their blood pressure and the risk of heart disease.  However, it's not just the body that yoga affects, but all levels of our being.  While it certainly brings balance flexibility to the body, one of the most beautiful effects is that it also brings flexibility and clarity to our mind.  When the mind is more still, then we're far less likely to ride the emotional rollercoaster, and what develops very naturally is a sense of inner stillness.  When all of this is happening, then stresses simply dissolve and we begin to feel more connected with both ourselves and those around us.  

Yoga postures affect our level of energy (prana) in the subtle body, and this, along with the way in which the cells in the body are energised and oxygenated, increases our body's ability to burn fat.  However, yoga's ability to reduce or maintain body weight may have less to do with calorie burning and more to do with stress relief and keeping us in tune with our body.  "During a very vigorous yoga practice you can burn enough calories to lose weight, but most people don't practise that kind of yoga," says Alan R Kristal Dr PH, lead author of the study on yoga and weight loss. "From my experience, I think it's to do with the way yoga makes you more aware of your body."

Shifting our attitude

"Like a flower bud, human life has the potential to blossom fully. Blossoming of human potential to fullness is yoga" – Sri Sri Ravi Shankar

As well as exercising our bodies, when we practise yoga we're automatically learning and enhancing qualities such as discipline, calmness, patience, wisdom, kindness and gratitude, etc.  These are often by-products of practising yoga.  The more I practised yoga the less bothered I became about things which used to really bother me. 

Preventing Overeating

Often what we think is hunger is actually sadness or boredom, and many people tend to overeat when they're stressed.  The feeling of fullness is often experienced as comfort or security, and so we continue eating beyond the point of what the body requires, gaining extra pounds for the sake of emotional comfort.  When I adopted a regularly yoga practice, I found that my body wanted and needed less food.  It wasn't that I lost my appetite; I just didn't have the desire to eat as much as before. 

Researchers at Yale University in New Haven Connecticut USA reported last year that elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol may lead to fat buildup around the abdomen. On many levels, reducing stress ensures a healthier happier mind and body and the good news here is that yoga lowers cortisol levels.[1]
 
Coordinating movement of the body with the breath, as is taught in yoga, improves oxygenation of the blood and allows better blood flow to the brain, ultimately producing clearer, more concise thoughts, and boosts our mood by increasing dopamine and other neurotransmitters.[2] 

As our stress diminishes and awareness increases, we begin to eat more wisely. Not only will our tendency be to eat more appropriate, healthier quantities of food, but also the type of food we become drawn to is more satvik in nature (pure and full of goodness) rather than tamasic (causing dullness in the body and mind) or rajasic (causing restlessness).   I wasn't a vegetarian when I started yoga, but the more yoga I did, the more my eating habits changed. One of the first major changes was that I no longer wanted to eat red meat.  It felt too heavy on my digestive system, and so I started eating lighter foods that were easier to digest.  

Says yoga teacher Glenda Ford, "If I eat wheat, sugary or highly processed foods for example, I have a negative reaction and I believe it's my yoga practices which really help me say no to these things. Yoga helps me to be more sensitive about what I eat, when I eat and what my body needs."

Different Types of Poses

Yoga poses can be divided into the following categories: standing postures, sitting postures, lying on your front (prone) postures and lying on your back (supine) postures.   Certain poses are best practised before or after other poses, known as counter poses.  For example, a forward bend is typically followed by a backward bend.  It's a great idea to practise the poses in the above order, beginning with the standing ones, and ending with those which are done while lying on your back, leaving you in the perfect position, corpse pose (shavasana) for the final ten minute relaxation.

Different Stokes for Different Folks

Each yoga pose (asana) has a specific effect on the body.  For example, fish pose (matsyasana) stimulates the thyroid great, shoulder stand (sharvangasana) is good for reducing weight around the waist line and boat pose (naukasana) is great for reducing flatulence and constipation.   For those who are more sluggish and lethargic, the more energizing yoga poses (standing postures) and yogic routines can be beneficial.  One great practice to do daily is a series of salutes to the sun (surya namaskar) at different speeds.  This series of 12 yoga postures, done like a dance, can first be practised by doing a few rounds where you take one breath per pose. Next, do a few rounds as fast as you can, getting your heart rate going and finally do five slow breaths per pose.  Remember, your yoga practice doesn't have to be vigorous to have positive effects.  What's important is that you enjoy it as you'll be more likely to continue with it if you do.

How Best to Get Started

Yoga is best learnt from a teacher rather than a book.  So when you begin, you may wish to try out a few different styles as well as teachers.  Find a teacher who offers a balance of gentleness and firmness and whose teaching inspires you to practise regularly.  Look for a style of yoga practice which most suits you.  Ironically it's typically the more fiery constitutions (pitta) who go for a tougher, more Ashtanga type practice, and these people are often more suited to a more gentle form of yoga so as to reduce the heat and bring more balance and centeredness to their body and mind.   Similarly those with more sluggish and heavy constitutions (kapha) tend to gravitate towards a slower more gentle yoga practice, when what they could benefit from is a practice which includes more lively and energetic poses.  If you want the full benefits from yoga, then find a class which includes not only the poses but also breath work, meditation, chanting, yoga philosophy and relaxation. 

Yoga Guidelines

  • Practise in a room which has cross ventilation and fresh air.  When breathing toxins out of the body it's important that you can then inhale fresh air back in;
  • Practise in a place where there is lots of light, no air pollution and free from animal hair;
  • Reduce any possible forms of distraction, such as telephones, etc.; 
  • Wear comfortable, loose clothing which does not restrict your movement in any way;
  • You may wish to keep a bottle of water with you during class, but it's best not to drink during your practice;
  • Yoga is always best practised on an empty stomach.  If you've eaten a light meal then allow at least one hour before your practice.  If you've eaten a large meal then allow between three and four hours for digestion.

Although the more active forms of yoga can burn up to 1200kj an hour, the more physically active styles of yoga are not always better for weight loss.  While gentler forms of yoga may not burn as many kilojoules, they are great for energizing and de-stressing. 

Vigorous Styles of Yoga

Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga: is often used by athletes and those who want a challenging workout which builds power and strength.  The focus is more on building strength, stamina and internal health rather than a meditative experience. Teacher of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, Angelika Knoerzer acknowledges Pattabhi Jois as the inspiration behind Astanga Vinyasa yoga, which she describes as "one of the most vigorous methods of yoga.  It is a movement breathing system which involves linking movement to breath and posture to posture.  We practise a set series of postures which with the use of ujjayi (victory) breath and bandas (seals), which are used to create internal heat and detoxify the body."   www.northsydneyyoga.com.au  

Bikram Yoga/Hot Yoga: This is more of a cardiovascular workout than a relaxation session.  Comprising a set sequence of 26 poses plus 2 breathing exercises done in a room heated between about 100 and 115 degrees and 60 percent humidity.  The founder of hot yoga, Choudhury Bikram, affectionately refers to his studio as his "torture chamber."  Although heat produces a much easier stretch because warm muscles are suppler, it's not unusual for injuries to occur when pushing your body further feels so easy.[3]   Says Bikram's Yoga Teacher, Jody Robertson, "Bikram's yoga is a 90 minute, open eye meditation.  The student's eyes are open all the way through the class while they look at themselves in a large mirror, which acts as a visual guide for body alignment and can also bring up other challenges.   Robertson explains that Bikram says it's best not to drink water in the class, so during the class there is one official water break and then it's up to the individual to drink."  

Slower-paced Yoga Styles
 

Hatha Yoga:  Hatha Yoga is one of the most common types of yoga, combining postures (asanas) with synchronized breathing.  Combined with breath work, (pranayama), meditation and relaxation, this well-rounded approach works to still the mind and rejuvenate the body.   Says Ford, "We're also using the practice of yoga postures to learn about ourselves (our habits and tendencies) and from this we gain a greater awareness.  Yoga philosophy and the 8 limbs of yoga are also a part of hatha yoga and through these we develop higher aspects of our being and enhance the positive human values within us."  

Sri Sri Yoga:
Sri Sri Yoga, inspired by Sri Sri Ravi Shankar, Founder of the Art of Living Foundation, shares the wisdom and techniques of yoga in a very pure, joyful and thorough manner.  According to Korin Kritzinger, teacher of Sri Sri yoga, "this style of yoga is a complete recipe for a happier and more peaceful way of living.  It combines a series of gentle and vigorous asanas for physical health and well-being, with equal emphasis on techniques for nurturing the mind and spirit."  Sri SriYoga  combines hatha yoga with other paths of yoga such as knowledge, service and devotion. Tania Kavathas, Sri Sri yoga practitioner says "Sri Sri Yoga always leaves me feeling so peaceful and has brought a sense of centeredness and balance to my life.  My body weight has also stabilized since I started practising it regularly."  www.srisriyoga.org.au  

Iyengar Yoga: 
This form of yoga, started by BKS Iyengar, offers precise instruction to the anatomical alignment and physiology of the body in conjunction with breath awareness.  Says Iyengar yoga teacher Vim Lane, "The use of props, or 'tools of exploration,' (such as bolsters, chairs, blocks, ropes, straps and sandbags) were introduced to help the practitioner do the poses with more ease; however, an advanced practitioner can also use props to get a deeper understanding of the poses."  Lane also explain that Iyengar yoga could be vigorous or gentle, and that the focus of each yoga class is based on a monthly cyclic format, consisting of standing poses in the first week, forward bends and twists in the second, back bending actions in the third week and restorative in the forth week. 

What to expect

When you begin practising yoga, you may find it challenging to stay present; your mind may wander here and there, and perhaps it will be difficult to coordinate your breath with the physical movements and poses.  Most of us are utilizing only 30% of our breathing capacity, and so when we begin breathing more deeply it is not uncommon for us to feel slightly dizzy or light-headed.  Go easy on yourself.  It will all get easier as you go, but to begin with you may need to practise patience.  If you find it difficult to breathe deeply, then put yourself on a breathing course to give yourself a kick-start. See www.artofliving.org.au

What to Keep in Mind if you are not Very Fit

Do not push yourself too hard.  Give yourself permission to rest when you feel you need to. Yoga is not about 'no pain no gain.'  Honour yourself enough to relax at any time during a yoga class, irrespective of what those around you are doing.  Yoga is not a competition.  It's a matter of working at your own pace with respect and self love.  Feel free to ask your teacher for help or guidance at any time.  Remember, they are there to help you.

Warming up Properly

It's very important before you begin practising yoga poses to warm up properly. This means making sure all your limbs and muscles are loose and warm.   Begin by shaking and moving your whole body and then warming up the joints by rotating them in all directions.  Warming up can take between five and ten minutes.

Modifying a Pose

Once you begin, ensure that you do not push yourself too far.  You should not be uncomfortable in a pose; you should be able to feel the stretch, but without losing your smile.  If you find yourself frowning or your breathing becomes constricted, then you are definitely pushing yourself too far.   You can modify the pose by moving out of it slightly so that you are comfortable and able to breathe slowly and smoothly, without much effort. 

How you will Feel the Next Day and in the Weeks that Follow

If you feel stiff and sore the day after practising yoga, it's probably because you pushed yourself too far.  The more often you practise, the more likely your body is to be come flexible and toned.  When I first began practising yoga regularly (on a daily basis), it was a matter of weeks before my body began noticeably changing shape.  For this to happen, you will probably need to practise for about thirty minutes each day for a period of months.  Of course it will also depend upon the type of yoga you're practising, but you certainly don't have to be practising vigorous yoga in order to tone the muscles in your body. 

Getting More from a Pose and Avoiding Boredom

In order to get more from a pose, close your eyes and keep your awareness on your breath.  This will help to deepen your experience by helping you connect with your internal world rather than being focussed on your outer performance. If you are bored in a pose, then take your awareness to your mind and to your thoughts and begin to observe what is happening.  Whatever is happening, do not resist it. If your mind is being bombarded with thoughts, just let them come.  Remember, whatever you resist will persist, so if your mind is busy and you try to stop the thoughts, it will have the reverse effect.  On a physical level, learn to feel and observe even the slightest subtle sensations in your body.  Practising the poses with this degree of mindfulness will induce a calming effect on your mind and emotions and balance the nervous system.

Ideally, a yoga class should be between one and two hours long.  Although you may experience some benefits by practising for just one hour a week, you'll benefit much more by having more regular yoga sessions, even if they're slightly shorter.

Although yoga is not a huge kilojoules burner in itself, its rejuvenating effect increases our sense of enthusiasm and motivation, which in turn increases the likelihood of us being inclined to exercise more.  It's a win-win situation.

Other exercise: It's a good idea to combine Yoga with other forms of exercise. As much a possible, get out into the fresh air, enjoy the benefits of being in nature, going for nature walks, swimming in the ocean and breathing fresh air into your lungs.  The closer to nature you are the higher the life force (prana) is and the more energised you will feel.

Further Information:

www.srisriyoga.org.au  Korin Kritzinger Tel: +61 (0)432 485 164 korin@srisriyoga.org.au
www.artofliving.org.au   Tel: +61 (0)421 320 611  ivan@artofliving.org.au

Resources

1. http://findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_m0NAH/is_7_31/ai_80115031/pg_3
2. http://ezinearticles.com/?Can-Yoga-Enhance-Your-Mental-Performance&id=320374
3. http://www.googobits.com/articles/597-bikram-yoga-the-pros-and-cons-explained.html

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About Meggan Brummer

Meggan Brummer (BA Hons) is a health writer, Hatha Yoga and Meditation Teacher, teacher of The Art of Living courses for the International Art of Living Foundation ( www.artofliving.org), singer and traveller. Having taught yoga in Africa and Asia, Meggan now lives and teaches in Sydney, Australia. Although she specializes in Yoga and Ayurveda, Meggan is dedicated to exploring and sharing the myriad of alternative ways in which we can live happier and healthier lives through her writing. She can be contacted on meggan.brummer@gmail.com

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