A Thin Pose

Yoga’s ability to tone the body and calm the mind makes it useful for weight loss.

by Violet Snow

June 2011

When Emily Butler started attending the Culinary Insti­tute of America in Hyde Park, New York, “They told us on the first day that everyone would gain 30 pounds,” she recalls. “I certainly did.”

After graduation, Butler moved to San Diego and took a position in food marketing. “One day my roommate took me to a power yoga class. The pounds came off! I went from a size
12 to a size 6,” recalls the 29-year-old, who now resides in Santa Monica, California.

Many people report that yoga helps them lose weight. Different people gravitate toward different styles of this ancient wellness practice, and each type contributes to pound shedding in various ways. One of the most obvious is Bikram or “hot yoga,” which takes place in a room heated to 103 degrees. Not surprisingly, Bikram can induce the sort of perspiration that boosts weight loss in many cases.

But yoga’s body-shaping power goes beyond its ability to help you work up a good sweat. While the more vigorous forms provide an intense workout, all yoga styles promote deep relaxation, which allows the body to marshal its own fat-fighting forces.

Hard Work on the Mat

Power yoga is done in a 90-degree environment, so the perspiration is not quite as intense as with Bikram. But the power version does put participants through a vigorous, fast-paced series of poses that burn calories, increase oxygenation and build strength. “It’s more of an exercise than I ever got before,” notes Butler, “even at the gym or playing soccer. I’m stronger than I’ve ever been.”

The main challenge, Butler finds, “is getting there. Balancing your work life and exercise, getting to the mat—it can be hard. But the more you go, the better you feel, physically, spiritually, mentally. If I miss a week, I feel a hole in my life.”

Stacey Halstead, 37, is a mental health counselor and part-time yoga instructor in Philadelphia. She prefers the Vinyasa variation, in which participants remain in almost continuous motion, flowing from one pose to the next.

Halstead says, “People who want a workout—but not a beat-down—really go for the Vinyasa flow class, which works every muscle in every part of your body. You can take a break if you need to, and you finish with a relaxant pose. With power yoga, you may lose weight more quickly, but that’s not where most people want to start—it’s so intense.”

An aspect of Vinyasa—and other forms of yoga—that contributes to weight loss, Halstead finds, is “the focus on mindfulness. You’re calming your mind, listening to your body. You learn to breathe through anxiety or depression instead of reaching for food for comfort. Yoga helps you sleep better and keeps your body more able to do daily tasks without pounding it with caffeine and sugar.”

Gentle Rebalancing

Diane Kobrynowicz, 44, of Austin, Texas, had been practicing Vinyasa flow for years when a sedentary job led her to gradually gain weight. “I’m 5’2”, and I was trying every method to get healthy, but I couldn’t lose 17 pounds. I tried Bikram, and after a month, I had glorious skin from sweating but I hadn’t dropped a pound. I did the treadmill for a month and didn’t lose weight. I decided to dive into yoga teaching,” she says.

As an instructor, Kobrynowicz felt obligated to maintain a consistent practice. A vigorous daily workout seemed too difficult, so she devised her own 30-minute routine.

“I picked the easiest poses that felt the best,” Kobrynowicz says, “ending with five minutes of shivasana, the ‘corpse pose,’ for deep relaxation. Much to my surprise, the weight started melting off. I lost 12 pounds in eight to ten weeks.” Later she took off another 20 pounds.

Kobrynowicz was perplexed until she read about the use of gentle yoga for metabolic syndrome, a group of cardiovascular risk factors that include abdominal weight gain, insulin resistance and high blood pressure. Stress, which results in over-secretion of the hormone cortisol, appears to play a significant role in the development of metabolic syndrome.

Gentle (also known as “restorative”) yoga postures help fight metabolic syndrome by encouraging lymphatic drainage, promoting good digestion and stimulating the thyroid, the body’s master energy controller. Slow, focused movement and easy poses create a relaxation response that carries over into the day, helping to reduce stress levels and moderate the release of cortisol.

Yoga’s effectiveness is backed by research. In one study, adults at risk for type 2 diabetes experienced not only weight loss but also improvements in blood insulin and pressure levels (Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine 8/18/09 online). In another investigation, yoga postures eased anxiety in children and teenagers while helping them lose weight (Complementary Therapies in Clinical Practice 5/09). Women who kept journals during a 12-week yoga program reported eating smaller amounts of healthier foods (Quali­tative Health Research 9/09).

Weight Loss Success

Kobrynowicz was so impressed by yoga’s effectiveness that she started her own business, Austin Health Coaching, which combines gentle yoga with dietary counseling for weight loss and health enhancement. One of Kobrynowicz’s clients, designer Megan Summerville, 37, owns a lingerie business. Kobrynowicz created a set of poses that enabled her client to drop 50 pounds over the course of 16 weeks. Many of the postures were selected to address chronic pain, induced by Summerville spending hours each day hunched over a sewing machine.

“Diane helped me formulate a home practice,” explains Summerville. “Working that into my morning routine was extremely easy. When I start getting into a routine funk, she helps by switching up the poses, figuring out what she can add for different aches and pains.”

Summerville’s quick transition in weight was a little bewildering at first. Ultimately, though, she found it satisfying. Summerville says, “The closet cleaning was cathartic!”

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