In the world of weight loss where calorie counting is king, yoga doesn’t look like the best strategy. Even the most vigorous yoga styles probably won’t burn as many Oreos as a HIIT session or a spin class. Yet the evidence shows that yoga can be great for weight loss and can minimise the risk of weight gain in later life. Even restorative yoga – a practice which burns very little calories – can help people lose significant weight.
The new science of weight loss is helping us understand what we’ve known for a long time: lasting weight change isn’t about dieting and counting calories. Looking good – and more importantly feeling good – is about changing our habits and lifestyle long term. By understanding what drives us to eat the way we do, we can use mind-body practices like yoga and meditation to help us reach our health goals.
Let’s take a look at how yoga beats a diet any day.
You have a long, stressful day and all you can think about is getting home and tucking into a nice big bowl of green salad and a tub of hummus… Didn’t think so. Good intentions don’t stand up well to stress. The body reacts to chronic stress by elevating hormones like cortisol and ghrelin which can damage blood sugar control, increase appetite and swing our preference towards sugary, fatty and salty food.
Yoga is great for helping us chill out: mindful movement, breathing techniques and active relaxation will get your body in relaxation mode in no time. Even more exciting, studies using brain scan technology suggest that the benefits of yoga go much further than the post-class bliss. Regular yoga practice has been shown to increase the grey matter in the left hippocampus region of the brain – a change associated with lower cortisol secretion in times of stress. Yoga doesn’t just help us chill out on the mat, it can actually change the way we respond to stress.
Yogis knew this long before brain scans came along. With ongoing practice, yogis often report being able to deal with difficulties more calmly in day to day life. Things that might have stressed them out before aren’t quite such a big deal anymore.
Self-compassion is a key component of yogic philosophy. Often when it comes to exercise, we’re told we need to push it, work harder, feel the burn! There’s nothing wrong with hard work, but at the same time we must lean in to self-awareness and learn when to push ourselves and when to rest. Yoga invites us to explore our limitations with patience, to go gently and to see ourselves as the glorious work in progress we are.
If you don’t believe me that being kinder to yourself is going to work then take a moment to remember what happened last time you got annoyed at yourself for messing up. Chances are your annoyance didn’t help get you back on track and probably derailed you even more.
Researchers have found that women given a self-compassionate message after eating a doughnut ate less sweets than those weren’t encouraged to be kind to themselves. There you have it: proof that being hard on yourself doesn’t work. Overriding our negative self-talk and learning to be kinder to ourselves is a difficult task – the yoga mat is the perfect place to practise.
In yoga we train our attention on the breath and the body as we move through asana and practise taming the thoughts in meditation. This is the cultivation of mindfulness: a focussed attention on the present moment. Mindfulness is a hot topic and research is starting to build a better understanding of how it can improve our lives.
Studies have shown that mindfulness programs improved function in brain regions associated with attention, emotion regulation, impulse control, long term planning and decision making. These are all functions that come into play when we attempt to exercise willpower and are vital for breaking bad habits and forming new ones.
When we practice mindfulness in yoga, we are building a powerful skill to take off the mat. Practising mindfulness whilst eating has been shown to decrease the amount of calories we consume. One of my favourite books on mindfulness has a wonderful mindful eating exercise in chapter three (it involves chocolate). It’s a great place to start if you’re interesting in finding out more about mindfulness.
It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that changing our bodies will automatically change the way we feel about ourselves; that losing weight equals happiness. Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for getting healthy and feeling fab, but we need to remember this it’s just part of the puzzle.
Learning to love and explore the body you have right now is no easy task. Like so many people, I grew up thinking I wasn’t enough: that I should be skinnier, prettier, less spotty and have waaay bigger boobs. Yoga has been a big part of my journey in getting to know my body and learning to appreciate its beauty and its limitations in a way I never dreamed I could.
You can’t wait until you’re skinny enough, strong enough or perfect enough to learn to like yourself. You have to start now. Get on the mat and take your time to experience what it’s like to live, breathe and move in your amazing body.
The numbers on the scale are not the focus, my friend. You are the focus. You are important: your health, your well-being and your happiness. And I reckon you’re doing great.
Thoughts on weight loss and yoga/ body love? Share them in the comments section below.