As yoga is relatively cheap and accessible to all, researchers are starting to pay more attention to it as a way to achieve both fitness and weight loss. In fact, new evidence shows that, with long-term regular practice, yoga can help you lose weight by lowering your waist-to-hip ratio and body-fat levels, help with better appetite control and stabilize your posture.
And it's an exercise that's available to just about everyone. One study of men with type 2 diabetes, which described yoga as a "slow, static type of muscular exercise", noted that it can be performed even by patients with "limited joint mobility [and] physical unfitness associated with overweight and sedentary lifestyles".
But yoga is not a poor relation to a hard workout at the gym. Opting for yoga, with its quality-over-quantity approach to exercise, will have far-reaching consequences for the mechanisms that affect how we deal with fat and whether we store it or burn it for fuel.
A recent Dutch review of the yoga research to date, citing 37 randomized controlled trials and 32 pooled analyses, reported that regular and sustained yoga practice can improve not only body weight and body mass index (BMI), but also the heart-disease risk factors associated with weight gain, such as cholesterol levels and ratios, triglycerides (fats in the blood), blood pressure and heart rate.
The above-mentioned diabetes study showed that daily early-morning yoga sessions on an empty stomach for six months reduced blood glucose levels significantly in 30 diabetic men aged 36 to 55.2
Weight loss is not simply about engaging in punishing exercise to burn calories; in fact, exercising to the point of stress can actually hinder losing pounds, as it keeps levels of the stress hormone cortisol up, so signalling our bodies to lay down fat around the middle. As this fat is 'white fat', the static kind for storage rather than fuel-burning, it can remain hard to shift.
If we see yoga as simply an exercise regimen and approach it as 'the more power the better', we can both lose sight of the aim of yoga itself, and not benefit from the more subtle and transformative effects of its well-rounded practice.
Our state of health and weight management are determined to a great extent by what we put into our bodies and how much we move around, and also by how efficiently our body systems and metabolic processes are working. Our entire being needs both activity and rest, stimulation and recharging.
Appetite levels, food choices, energy and sleep patterns can all be affected by the poor posture, high stress levels and disordered breathing patterns that yoga helps to address. These are states that may be forgotten as underlying causes of faulty digestion/detoxification, and blood sugar imbalances and addictive patterns, all of which can contribute to ill health and weight gain.
We also practise yoga to help tone postural muscles and those involved in breathing; in both cases the abdomen is involved, as it supports our whole bodily structure and its functions. Moving and compressing the digestive organs helps improve their function and elimination of toxins, the tendency to bloating and efficient assimilation of energy from the food we eat, so reducing the need to consume more than is necessary.
Better posture and breathing also helps our metabolic rate and fat-burning capacity when exercising. Add in the proven stress-reducing effects of yoga, and we have a recipe for muscle strengthening and weight loss.
Yoga is not simply a physical practice, as reconnecting with our bodies through our breath helps to foster the integral sense of self that leads to positive changes in body relationships. The practice needs to be steady and regular to see benefits-little and often can have better effects than one intense class a week.
As we may be used to damping down overwhelming emotions and reactions with food and particularly sugar and junk fats, training ourselves to relax into such feelings and accept that they come and go has been found to affect food choices, and to reduce mindless eating and giving in to cravings.
In one study, 15,550 long-term yoga practitioners were shown to have lower-than-average weight gains over 10 years. Although the study doesn't draw any definitive conclusions, one theory is that this is because the inherent mindfulness from an attentive practice like yoga trains us to have a non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, feelings and bodily sensations from moment to moment, and the practice of getting into the various positions trains us to relax into strong physical (and emotional) sensations.
This, in turn, helps us to become more attuned and non-reactive to the discomfort of cravings and able to resist giving in to them. Indeed, one study of obese women showed that two classes of yoga a week helped to improve food cravings and body image.
Good stress for fat-burning
Yoga postures are essentially positions into which we wouldn't normally place our bones, muscles and joints in everyday life, and represents a 'good stress' challenge for us physically, evoking a positive response in circulation, muscle strength, release and length, hormonal balance and oxygenation through the breath. As yoga includes attention to breathing and focusing on the present moment, it helps to reduce stress responses and increases the resilience that encourages us to maintain good habits. It has also been shown to help alleviate insomnia, sleep issues, depression and lower back pain-all known barriers to weight loss.
Physical and postural integrity
The routine described over the page is designed to move through your whole body. The slow release of muscles allows a loosening in those that have become tight with stress, tension and either inactivity or stressful activity-and makes your body respond to any physical activity in a more positive way. You'll feel more fluid and simply want to move around more.
This practice helps to correct any postural problems that may have resulted from weight gain, while encouraging the joint movements that allow flexibility and the building up of strength.
Yoga opens up the whole body, lengthening muscles to make them longer and leaner rather than shorter and bulkier-it's well known that lean muscle is more efficient.
Leading with the breath
We live in a society where we are continually faced with stimuli that excite our nervous systems and push us towards more shallow and fast breathing. As you move through the postures over the page, stay conscious of breathing deeply and fully to help your nervous system come down from 'constant alert'.
Notice when you might be holding your breath-for instance, if you require considerable effort or you're concentrating-and resettle it by taking a deep inhalation through the nose and exhaling deeply, or even sighing out if you need to.
Regulating breathing increases the flow of oxygen in the body so that chemical reactions can happen faster, and you burn fuel as calories at a higher rate. More oxygen in the blood means the pancreas needs to produce less insulin to transport sugar efficiently into cells. As insulin can make us store fat, calmer breathing helps with both blood sugar levels and our tendency to gain weight in the long run.
Full-capacity breathing is required to move the body's lymphatic system and allow complete detoxification. Holding on to toxins can contribute to bloating, cravings and constipation.
Yoga postures for weight loss
There are three key weight-loss elements in this practice:
1 Loosening and toning
Yoga supports weight management by helping to normalize blood sugar levels and sluggish thyroid, liver and adrenal function. Such a practice, which focuses on forward bends, back arches and twists, stimulates the whole endocrine (hormonal) system and massages your internal organs to increase their circulation and function, as well as loosening and toning the muscles around the waist and abdomen.
2 Strength training
Stronger yoga postures can be classified as lightweight strength-training exercises, known to be among the best ways to increase muscle tone, but also the 'exercise after-burn' of calories, or 'excess post-exercise oxygen consumption' (EPOC). This is the amount of calories you burn after your workout, which is determined by the amount of muscle tone in your body. Lightweight training like yoga can raise your resting metabolic rate (RMR) for longer periods and help weight loss through increased metabolic efficiency.
3 Restorative practice to end
A calming, meditative-type of concluding exercise helps bring down stress hormones, especially cortisol, which we release in response to long-term stress. High levels of cortisol tend to make us lay down fat around the waist, and they also affect sleep; disrupted sleep patterns can affect weight by increasing appetite in an attempt to take on more fuel to make up for tiredness.
Much of our overeating and cravings come from stress and tension, so a calming practice helps to reduce excess food intakes and the worry it causes in turn. Restorative yoga, where we support the body fully with props to allow a sense of being 'held', has proved to be an effective weight-loss component in a fully rounded practice.9 Calming your nervous system and bringing your body into balance also helps you become more connected and intuitive, so quick-fixes like sugar and stimulants will begin to seem less appealing and more like the energy drainers they really are.
(Seated side stretch)
Sitting on a block or blankets, spend a few moments settling into the uplift of your breath through your spine, then open your arms out to the side, relax your shoulders and, on an exhalation, drop one hand to the ground to open up the other side of the body. Inhale back to centre and repeat on the other side, following this breathing pattern from side to side.
(Seated back arch)
Sit on your shins with knees together, putting a cushion between your heels and bottom if necessary. Reaching out with your hands behind you, rotate both your arms out to lift up through the chest and lengthen at the waist. Keep the back and sides of the neck long to support the head, and squeeze the area between the shoulder blades together to open your heart area.
Adho Mukha Svanasana
From a table position on all fours, fingers spread out with middle fingers parallel, exhale as you straighten your legs to lift your bottom towards the ceiling, heels up and knees slightly bent to start with.
Push back from the base of the index fingers to move the tops of the thighs back and lift the sitting bones, lengthening the sides of your body and opening your chest.
Explore and move in the pose to open up the backs of the legs, and allow the heels to move back and down to the floor.
(Horse-riding or equestrian pose)
From downward-facing dog, step the right foot between the hands while inhaling and, on the exhale, gather in the right hip and draw the knee into the chest and forward; come to all fours and move the back foot forward if need be. Have the feet placed parallel to the sides of the mat and a hip-width apart. Come up onto the fingertips to lift up through the chest and lengthen all the way from the heel of the back foot to the crown of the head. These lunge poses can be practised with the knee down too, supported by a blanket if necessary.
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana 1
(Twisted crescent pose)
Keeping the back heel pointing up to the sky, lift the left arm to rotate the belly upwards, while the left thigh keeps facing inwards. Bring the right hand onto a block if you need more height. Come back through Ashva Sanchalanasana (equestrian pose).
Parivrtta Anjaneyasana 2
(Twisted crescent pose)
Keeping the left fingers on the floor (or on a block if needed), this time turn the belly to the right, keeping good ground contact with the ball of the right big toe to stabilize the right thigh. Lengthen the back and sides of the neck. From the horse-riding pose, come back to Adho Mukha Svanasana (downward-facing dog) and repeat with the left leg forward.
From downward-facing dog, step
the right foot between hands as before, this time dropping the back knee. With feet a hip-width apart and parallel to the sides of your mat, lift up from the hips to raise your arms, opening them out as wide as you need to release shoulders. Draw your belly in and up to protect your lower back.
Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Downward-facing dog pose)
Repeat as before, then move left foot forward into Anjaneyasana and back to downward-facing dog.
(Side angle pose)
Stepping your right foot forward, turn the left foot to a 45-degree angle and come up, keeping the right thigh parallel
to the sides of the mat and right knee pointing in the direction of the foot. Bring the right elbow onto the right thigh and lift the left arm up-and if you can, keep opening the belly and chest towards the ceiling, and even try dropping the right hand to the floor or on blocks. Breathe to reach back to the outer left foot. Come up, turn the feet to the other side and reach towards the left.
(Spread-out-feet intense stretch pose)
Turn heels out so the outer edges of both feet are parallel to each other (to protect the knees). With hands on hips, bend forward while reaching your hands down your shins and release your head. Create a strong foundation to lift the inner legs from the feet by pressing down at the base of the big toes and lifting the insteps.
Parivrtta Prasarita Padottanasana
(Revolved spread-out-feet intense stretch pose)
Release hands and lift the chest to bring the right hand to the middle of the floor under your shoulders or up onto blocks to give you the height to lengthen the front spine. Shift hips a bit to the left and twist your belly to the left and up. Lift the left arm-but if this compresses the shoulder, bring it onto the left hip-and open up the collarbones.
Adho Mukha Svanasana
(Downward-facing dog pose)
Repeat as before.
(Child pose over bolster)
Drop down to your knees, bringing the big toes together, and open the knees wide enough to place a bolster between thighs without lifting the bottom. Walk your hands forward to drop the upper body down onto the bolster, taking your head to one side and then the other. Breathe to bring a feeling of heaviness and release to your whole body.
Supta Matsyendrasana variation
(Spinal twist over bolster)
Sit with your right hip in line with the bolster. Bend the right foot in towards its own thigh and the left out towards the left hip, so you're sitting to the side. Inhale to lift up through the spine, then twist from the belly and exhale your front body onto the bolster. Turn your head in the direction of your legs, or in the opposite direction if it doesn't strain the neck.
(Corpse pose with belly focus)
Lie down with the head supported (if it feels like it's falling backwards) and with legs as wide as your lower back needs to feel comfortable. Place your hands on your belly and focus your attention on the breath, creating movement and flow there. Stay meditating on this deep body connection for at least three minutes, then turn to one side before coming up slowly and consciously to finish.
1 Altern Ther Health Med, 2013; 19: 32-46
2 J Clin Diagn Res, 2015; 9: CC01-3
3 Eur J Prev Cardiol, 2014; doi: 10.1177/2047487314562741
4 Health Psychol Rev, 2015; 1-18; DOI: 10.1080/17437199.2014.981778
5 J Adolesc Health, 2010; 46: 346-51
6 Altern Ther Health Med, 2005; 11: 28-33
7 Qual Health Res, 2009; 19: 1234-45
8 Complement Ther Clin Pract, 2011; 17: 1-8
9 J Diabetes Complications, 2014; 28: 406-12