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Can Yoga Help You Lose Weight?


As experienced dieters know, your true weight is taken first thing in the morning, naked.

An interviewer in search of material for a January fitness story recently asked me, “Can yoga help you lose weight?”

I ought to expect that question, but I never do, so I blabbered:
some forms burn calories, other forms not so much. . . . even one hour of yoga measurably lowers blood levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which means less stress-fuelled eating. . . . a regular yoga practice changes your preferences, making it easier to eat a more healthy diet and drink less. . . . yoga makes you more friendly toward your body. . . . so yes, yoga can help you lose weight . . . . sort of. . . .

Our weight loss discussion didn’t make it into the article, and I was happy about that, because I didn’t think it was a good answer.

I’ve struggled to give a better one, and the best way I can is through my own experience.
I started to practice yoga at 39. Ten years later, still practicing, I gained 28 pounds during menopause and a year of commuting from Vancouver to Seattle every week while eating chocolate bars to stay awake on the drive.

Then the commute ended, and the hormones settled down. Over the next three years, I lost that weight, five pounds at a time.

Now my weight is mostly stable. It generally rises a few pounds over Christmas and slides back down without too much effort beyond eating less sugar, which, by January feels like a blessing.

That’s not much of a weight-loss testimonial.

But the interior reality is a different story.

Like most North American women, I was dieting by my late teens, always starting a new year by resolving to lose 10 pounds.
I ate what I thought would make me thin. I swam, and jogged, to help me lose weight. I spent hours looking up calorie counts, devising diets, calculating how many calories I’d burned in the day, and what I could afford to eat. My self-esteem fluctuated with the numbers on the scale.

At my most obsessed, I ran nine miles and swam five every week, and did juice fasts on the weekends.

I was indeed thin. I was also lonely, isolated, mourning my father’s sudden death, and just about to start a cycle in which I gained my ten pounds back again, and added another ten – a classic yo-yo.

My weight dropped during six month’s travel in Southeast Asia – the week in Burma was especially conducive to weight loss – and gradually rose again when I came home and settled into my habitual patterns.

But the year I came back from travelling is also the year I started yoga, and the year that everything about losing weight began to change.

I would never claim that the change was instantaneous. It was, and continues to be, more like unpacking an infinite set of nested boxes. I’d stumble on a truth about my way of being in my body, think I’d understood it all, and a few months later unpack another box.

Most of what I learned was in the direction of friendliness and humility.

Western culture teaches us that we are two selves, a mind and a body. The mind is supposed to be in control. The body is the animal self, naturally ruled by the mind.

In truth, we’re a body-mind.

Our genes set our metabolism and predispose us to one body shape or another. And our body chemistry, as we’re now learning, dictates our moods and the way we see the world.

A mind that imagines itself to be “in control” of a body is delusional.
If you doubt this, think back to puberty.

In Wende’s yoga classes, I learned to turn inward and become intimate with my body. I learned where my bones and organs were, how to spread the skin on the soles of my feet, how to lift my inner ankles as my heels move down, how to press my forearms down into the floor to hold me up in elbow balance.

I started to feel powerful in my body, proud of its strength and its ability to take on the shapes of the poses.

Now I want to learn how to soften my groins, how to work my arms, how to even out the stronger, tighter right shoulder and the weaker, looser left shoulder.

I no longer resolve to lose weight. I don’t count calories, I don’t put any food into a forbidden category. I do try to eat more vegetables and drink more water.

My yoga practice changed the context.

When it comes to my body, I have other things to think about than numbers on a scale, and somehow, the numbers pretty much take care of themselves. I am not thin, but I am fit, and at a healthy weight.

Can yoga help you lose weight? Did it help me lose weight?

In fact, I lost the heaviest weight of all – the compulsion to diet.

Photo courtesy of the Italian voicevia Flickr.

If you liked this post, please share. If you’d like to read more, check out:

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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Susan G. Clark July 18, 2013, 1:14 pm

    I am glad that there is not much discussion about this topic. Yoga isn’t about weight or how a body looks. Yoga is for every body! However, I felt uncomfortable one day when asked by a friend, What has been the top benefit of your regular yoga practice? My first impulse was to share how I’d lost 12 pounds and have kept them off for 6 years, but I reconsidered and answered, Flexibility, and changed the subject. Yet, I feel strongly that my daily Iyengar yoga practice (and a daily plain nonfat yogurt) has helped me to maintain a healthy weight as well as increase my flexibility, and so far daily inversions at my yoga ropes wall seems to be preventing me from losing more height as I age. On second thought, that just may be the top benefit!

  • Yogaknitter January 17, 2013, 10:23 pm

    I love this piece! I was put off yoga for years because I saw so many “yoga bodies” – impossibly thin and bendy, and felt inadequate and large. Then I started doing yoga and I realize that a yoga body is one that practices yoga.