By Dana Bender
People start practicing yoga for many different reasons. For some, it’s a desire to deepen their awareness of self and their physical body. For others, the reason is to begin a fitness program, with some choosing this practice to focus on the weight loss benefits.
Empirical-based research is currently limited on how yoga specifically assists with weight loss. Studies are lacking the inclusion of control groups and large sample sizes, especially since weight loss is complex and affected by various factors such as food intake and nutrition, lifestyle and environment, illness, and biological considerations (Burnstein et al., 2013). However, based on current knowledge of exercise physiology, one way that practicing yoga can assist in weight loss is the caloric burn experienced during the physical acts of transitioning into, holding and sustaining yoga poses, also known as asanas. When an individual holds or engages in a yoga pose, the muscles contract isometrically to hold the body in space. Not only this, but while moving and transitioning between yoga poses, various muscles will contract concentrically and eccentrically, and stabilize, to execute each action. This combination of efforts leads to increased caloric expenditure. In any yoga pose, various actions are all happening at the same time. For example, while holding the Downward Facing Dog pose, an individual will actively press their fingers and inner hands into the floor in front of them, lift their hips, engage their thighs, and push both heels towards the floor. At the same time, they will engage and straighten their arms and forearms, engage their shoulders blades onto and down the back while also keeping the outer glutes muscles firmed. These various actions are occurring simultaneously, burning calories.
It is important to note that not all yoga classes are created equal in regards to caloric expenditure. A gentle or restorative yoga class will lead to a lower caloric expenditure than a faster-paced Vinyasa yoga class, or an Iyengar yoga class where poses are held for longer periods of time. However, research funded by the National Institutes of Health provided preliminary findings that even gentle, restorative yoga can help with weight loss and subcutaneous fat loss better than just regular stretching. The theory behind this is that restorative yoga reduces the level of cortisol, a stress hormone known to increase fat tissue in the abdominals (Caffrey, M. K., 2013). This could be the results of breathing and the longer holds associated with restorative yoga versus general stretching.
Building muscle is the second way that practicing yoga assists with weight loss. In general, yoga is a full-body exercise modality that allows individuals to use their own body weight to strengthen and tone their muscles. This strengthening and toning can help the body become more metabolically active. In other words, as one builds muscle from practicing yoga, the body will burn more calories at rest than they would otherwise. Long-term, a regular yoga practice that continuously increases muscular strength and endurance could lower body fat percentage, BMI, and waist circumference, and increase lean body mass, especially if a healthy diet is maintained as well.
A third way that yoga can help with weight loss goals is the shift in mindset that may occur from a regular yoga practice. The increased kinesthetic awareness and awareness of self that occurs from practicing yoga can help individuals better recognize hunger cues, limit stress eating, and increase more mindful eating (Ross et al., 2016). Mindful eating includes making healthier choices, watching portion control, and recognizing how poor food choices impact the mind and body. The long-term impact of this mindset can lead to lower caloric consumption. Combining this shift in food choices and intake with the physical practice of yoga, can lead to increased weight loss. Beyond weight loss, there are other physical benefits of yoga that support the practice. These include increased flexibility, reduced joint pain, and the improvement of health biometric measures like resting heart rate and blood pressure.
Additional Benefits Unearthed:
An additional benefit that occurs from regularly practicing yoga is that individuals can take the learning lessons from yoga “off the mat” into ones daily life. This implies the shift in mindset and thought processes that change from yoga philosophy and practicing challenging yoga poses. Pushing through and being patient with oneself on the mat during challenging yoga poses can help individuals handle stressful situations better off the mat. Whether that might be sitting in traffic or dealing more positively with a loss of a relationship, yoga can teach individuals to better manage their stress response. That being said, psychological benefits of yoga include reduced stress and enhanced mood. Breaking this down further, yoga reduces our stress due to various reasons. More specifically, breathing deeply during a yoga practice activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which triggers the relaxation response in the body. This is opposite of the sympathetic nervous system which triggers the stress response that leads to physical symptoms such as increased heart rate, perspiration, nausea, dizziness, etc. The long-term benefit of a yoga practice is an enhanced ability to reduce the onset of the stress response quicker than those who do not practice yoga. In other words, the body becomes more efficient at stopping the stress response sooner when stressors occur. This benefit further increases if a yoga practice includes both meditation and specific regulated breathing practice, also known as pranayama. This shift in stress management can enhance mood and emotional responses.
Overall, yoga has an array of benefits that make it an exercise modality that offers short-term and long-term benefits. From weight loss to enhanced stress management, there are various reasons to roll out your yoga mat, start your practice and unearth the many benefits yoga could have for you.