Yoga comes with many health benefits, from strengthening muscles to improving sleep to reducing stress. Can it help with weight loss, too?
There are a few different ways yoga can help with weight loss, and it’s not just a matter of the calories you burn on your yoga mat, says Judi Bar, the yoga program manager at Cleveland Clinic Center for Integrative Medicine in Ohio, who is certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists and Yoga Alliance.
“Yoga, if done right, becomes a lifestyle change,” she says, which in turn can help increase physical activity and decrease emotional eating. And it can help you manage stress, which can also help with weight maintenance, she says.
Bar says she’s seen yoga help with weight loss in people she works with in her practice. And her research says so, too.
Bar is coauthor of a review published in July 2013 in the American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, in which she and her team reviewed dozens of studies evaluating the effects of yoga on weight loss.
The data showed that yoga is tied to weight loss and weight maintenance because of a handful of factors, including: energy expenditure during yoga sessions, encouraging more exercise by reducing back pain and joint pain, heightening mindfulness, improving mood and reducing stress, and by helping yogis feel more connected to their bodies, their satiety, and eating habits.
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Another study, published in 2016 in a special issue of Yoga in Prevention and Therapy, analyzed data collected from interviews with 20 adults who reported losing weight through a yoga practice. The participants’ answers pointed to five factors the researchers concluded helped with weight loss: a shift to healthier eating, impact of the yoga community and culture, physical changes, psychological changes, and the belief that the yoga weight loss experience was different than past weight loss experiences.
If you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, here are three big ways that yoga may help, according to Bar and others:
1. Yoga Can Help With Mindful Eating
You’re strengthening more than just your muscles on your yoga mat, says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, an associate professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School in Boston and director of research at Yoga Alliance.
When you’re holding a posture for an extended period of time, you’re connecting with how your body feels, Dr. Khalsa says. Your instructor may be asking you to monitor your breath and pay attention to what your mind and body are telling you, which is a way of learning and practicing mindfulness.
And practicing mindfulness on your yoga mat can help when it comes to practicing mindful eating habits, too. Mindful eating is recognizing hunger cues and limiting binge eating. Over time (and with practice) you may even zero in on which foods make you feel fueled and energized, and which ones have more negative effects (like making you feel lethargic or bloated), Khalsa says. And it’s all of these behaviors that can help you stick with a diet or weight loss eating plan — or in making healthier food choices overall.
Khalsa points to a review published in July 2015 in the International Journal of Yoga that found that yoga has been linked to changes in eating behavior, specifically cutting back on dietary fat and adding more fresh vegetables, whole grains, and soy-based products.
A study published in 2015 in the Journal of Sport and Exercise Psychology analyzed survey data from 159 women who either regularly practiced yoga or cardio-based exercise. The yogis were significantly less likely to have disordered eating patterns than the cardio-based exercisers.
“This is where yoga shines,” Khalsa says. It’s not just about the physical activity you’re doing. “It’s about listening to your body’s cues.”
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2. Yoga Can Help You Manage Stress
There are many ways stress can contribute to weight gain — and particularly unmanaged, chronic stress. Yoga can help lower chronic stress levels.
Breathwork and meditation are the cornerstones to yoga practice. And both contribute to boosting energy, improving mood, and lowering stress levels, says Sundar Balasubramanian, PhD, assistant professor at the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, whose research focuses on how yogic breathing can promote well-being in people with chronic and other disease. (Dr. Balasubramanian is also founder of the PranaScience Institute, which offers course in yogic breathing and an International Association of Yoga Therapists–certified yoga therapist.)
“Stress can make weight loss very difficult because it can cause cortisol to rise, stress-eating, and trouble sleeping,” Balasubramanian explains. Deep breathing helps undo stress and reverse some of these negative effects that can make weight loss more difficult (or contribute to weight gain).
There are physiological changes that happen in the body in response to breathing exercises, Balasubramanian says. “Studies have shown how mindfulness exercises reduce the amount of cortisol in our bodies.”
A review published in December 2017 in the journal Psychoneuroendocrinology that analyzed data from 42 studies suggested that yoga was associated with lower levels of evening cortisol, waking cortisol, resting heart rate, and cholesterol levels.
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3. Yoga Helps Build Muscle
Building muscle mass is another way yoga helps with weight loss and weight maintenance.
“When we think of strengthening muscles, we think we have to go to the weight room and pump iron. In yoga, we’re using our own body weight as a form of resistance. Your whole body is working to keep you in balance so everything gets a workout,” says Carol Krucoff, an instructor certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists and Yoga Alliance and a yoga therapist at Duke Integrative Medicine in Durham, North Carolina.
Think of holding your body in place in a plank pose. You’re using the muscles of the shoulders, core, hips, and legs to hold your body up, she says. After coming out of a plank, you may flow into a Downward-Facing Dog pose, activating another set of muscles in your forearms, shoulders, and back. This muscle building burns calories, Krucoff says.
A review published in June 2016 in the journal Preventive Medicine that looked at 30 trials with more than 2,000 participants concluded that yoga can reduce waist-hip ratio in healthy adults, as well as body mass index (BMI) in people who are overweight or obese.
Other research has found that even slower, restorative yoga classes improved fasting glucose levels in people who were overweight or obese — a sign of improved metabolic health.
How Can I Make Yoga Part of My Weight Loss Plan?
If you’re considering adding yoga into your weight loss plans, the experts shared the following tips to get you started:
- Start slowly. The key to getting started with yoga — or any form of exercise — is to begin with an introduction. Bar says beginners should avoid harder, faster styles of yoga that include words like “hot,” “Bikram,” “power,” or “flow.” You need to choose a style that’s easy to follow and won’t lead to injuries so you can safely build up flexibility and strength. Look for classes labeled beginner, which are more likely to explain how to do the poses.
- Make adjustments as needed. If you’re out of shape or trying to lose a significant amount of weight, choose a form of yoga that suits your needs — or you may need to make adjustments to various poses you can’t fully do when you start. Krucoff teaches chair yoga to exercisers who have issues with their joints, knees, and hips so they can practice while comfortably sitting down. Seek out live classes, during which you can ask an instructor about how to modify a pose or exercise to meet your needs.
- Find a style, class, and instructor that fits you to a tee. Khalsa says you may need to try out a few different classes, styles of yoga, and instructors until you find the perfect fit. Some focus more on breathing exercises and meditation. Some focus more on strengthening movements. Some move along at a faster tempo; others are slower paced. “The most important thing is to engage in a yoga practice that you can sustain. When you do, you’ll find you will then continue with the practice and reap the long-term benefits,” he says.
- Incorporate other forms of exercise, too. Most yoga styles involve some muscle-strengthening, but not every class will give you a cardiovascular workout. So pair a regular yoga practice with some aerobic exercise, Bar says, like walking, jogging, biking, or other activities that get your heart rate up. Khalsa practices yoga alongside other sports, such as racquetball. Krucoff suggests practicing a gentle style of yoga as a type of active recovery (for those who do other high-intensity workouts, too).
- Keep at it. Practicing yoga is a habit you’ll need to forge slowly, according to Subramanian. He says whichever yoga practice you choose to incorporate into your weight loss plans, it’s not going to work if you only do it once. Pick a practice you enjoy, that you can do weekly or more frequently and stick to it to see results.
- Seek professional input. Not sure how to make yoga part of your weight loss plan? Or if you are having pain, other uncomfortable symptoms, or feel overwhelmed with starting a new yoga practice, seek further guidance from your primary care doctor. If they have a background in integrative medicine, they may be able to help you build a customized program for your specific health goals. Or they may refer you to see a physical therapist who is trained in customizing rehabilitative exercise programs for patients and has expertise in yoga.