Chubby in 2008 and bulked up in 2012 – scroll down for post-yoga…
People ask me about this all the time, whether they come to class because they want to lose weight or whether they are skeptical of how something so relaxing can help. I can personally testify that yoga can do wonders for your waistline. When I first started exercising about five years ago, I was 30 pounds heavier than I am now. I overdosed on cardio and lifted insane amounts of weights, I kickboxed and bellydanced and ran 25-35 miles a week, and within about a year of exercising at 6 AM every single day without exception, I was 30 pounds lighter.
At first, I casually attended a couple of yoga classes each week to soothe my overworked joints and muscles, and also because I liked the peace and quiet it left me with. Then, I began attending classes more and more regularly as a way of coping with new stressors in my life. But I became totally enamored by the way it made me feel – I could see myself getting more flexible, sleeping better, eating less, feeling more relaxed, toning muscles I hadn’t previously targeted, and chiseling away fat from areas that traditional cardio just wasn’t reaching. And all this without the aches and exhaustion of my crazy workout routine.
I’m definitely not saying that you can’t lose weight and stay healthy from a well-structured workout and sensible eating habits – it totally works, and it can be really fun. But, it also requires a lot of self control and can take its toll on the body. For instance, arthritis runs in my family. At the ripe old age of 22, I can already feel my knees creaking – but I kept convincing myself that running was natural, so it must be good for me. Well, after running the More Women’s Half Marathon last April, I could barely bend my knees for a week – I stubbornly admitted that I had to stop running. I mentally prepared myself to put on a few extra pounds, and gave up the gym every morning for a daily yoga practice. Many athletes seek relief in yoga while recuperating from injuries, and now I had become one of them.
As for self control? Look, I have considered myself a devoted yogi for several years now – but I’m not one to turn down a couple beers or even the occasional Chinese takeout, especially after a tough workout. Every morning when I hit the mat, I had the thought in the back of my mind that I was not doing something that would make me lose weight like the gym would. However, every time I came home from the gym I would be positively ravenous. I would devour everything in the kitchen, not really tasting it or caring how much I ate because after burning 973 calories, I could eat a lot and still lose weight. I was also exhausted, often relying on caffeine to get through the day and sometimes even falling asleep at my desk.
But after a morning yoga practice, I was not hungry. I sipped a thermos of tea on my way to work, and usually made it until lunch before feeling peckish. Instead of a huge bowl of protein and carbs, just some sushi or a banana with peanut butter would do the trick. I felt less stressed all day, even during a rush hour commute and an action-packed day in a crazy office. I could sit all day without getting stiff or sore, and at night I would fall asleep easily. I woke up each morning refreshed and ready for another day. I felt like despite spending so much time in an office (far outside my natural habitat as a woodland creature), I was using my body the way it was intended.
The best part? I lost more fat – and felt better – than when I exhausted myself at the gym every day. I no longer had to stop and refuel every hour, because my body was using food more efficiently. I didn’t even feel like I was using willpower to resist not-so-good-for-you foods because they just didn’t appeal to me. Yoga gave me not only a crazy workout without my realising it, but I developed enough body awareness that subconsciously, I only craved things that made my body feel good.
So why is yoga for weight loss so effective?
Well first of all, I practice Ashtanga – it is a very physical practice that leaves me dripping sweat more than running ever did. So from a calorie-burning perspective, it’s pretty high up there. Any active yoga class is a great balance of strength training and cardiovascular exercise – if you’re not warm after ten Surya Namaskars (Sun Salutations), then you are doing something incorrectly. Also, yoga does not rely on weights or machinery for resistance and form – we use our own body weight and isometrics, so the body compensates by using lesser muscles that big machines just don’t target.
2013 (how much do you hate when people crop photos like this? My bad.
But even if you prefer a gentle yoga class, the breathing and meditation incorporated in a practice will still give you the body awareness to eat less and feel more full. Yoga can also eliminate a lot of the stress that many people shut out by eating, and the gentle twists and folds in a restorative practice still stimulate agni, the digestive fire (metabolism, as it’s called in the west).
However, you will notice I did not say I lost weight when I switched to full-time yoga. Depending on your size, you may initially lose weight – but it’s quite likely that you will put it back on as muscle. When I was a runner, I was a size 6 or 8 and about ten pounds lighter than I am now. But as a full-time yogi, I am a size 4 or 6 – thinner, but heavier because muscle weighs more than fat. As long as you can shift your thinking away from the number on the scale, yoga is a pretty perfect method for fitness.
Why is yoga for everyone?
It’s gentle on the joints, but tough on the muscles and the mind. A well-structured yoga practice can be a complete workout with cardio and strength, as well as proper breathing exercises – all in one session. Ongoing meditation throughout the practice helps you gain control of your thoughts so you can target the real reasons behind weight gain, like stress and emotions. Like I said, you don’t have to quit your running and weight lifting routine – if you enjoy those things, yoga is an awesome complement to them. Trust me, there are so many different schools that there is definitely one that you will like. You’ll reap all the same benefits of your existing workout – and you’ll be less sore the next day. But most importantly, yoga is a lifestyle change that you can take off the mat every day.