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Daily sun salutations can totally change your body composition.
From improving your balance to neutralising stress, there are a ton of healthful reasons to become well-acquainted with downward dog – but can practising yoga help you lose weight?
While everything from spinning to kettlebell circuits are well-documented options for burning body fat in order to shed a few pounds, yoga tends to be left off the list.
Curious as to whether daily sun salutations can change your body composition? LIVENow yoga instructor Tom Wilson-Leonard and yoga teacher Charlotte Reynolds explain how to hit your health goals by using yoga for weight loss:
In short, yes – you can lose weight by doing yoga. Regular exercise, a balanced diet, and a small daily calorie deficit are the three pillars of healthy, sustainable weight loss, and yoga can totally be a part of that. ‘When looking to lose weight through any movement and exercise regime, nutrition is priority,’ says Wilson-Leonard. ‘The consensus is ‘calories in, calories out’ so really, it’s about expending calories and building muscle.’
The faster-paced, more intense styles of yoga – Power yoga, for example – are especially effective for becoming stronger and fitter. And a regular practice also improves your flexibility, which helps you get more out of other forms of exercise. But you don’t have to sign up for two hours of power yoga every day to enjoy the benefits of practising yoga for weight loss. Even a gentle, relaxing yin session can help you reach your goals. Here’s how:
As well as the physical movement involved, yoga is a mental and spiritual practice that cultivates mindfulness. ‘A key benefit of yoga is developing a better awareness of yourself,’ says Reynolds. ‘This is not just awareness of your body and the way it moves, but awareness of your thoughts, and your emotions. Understanding your triggers and patterns in your thought processes can benefit you in all aspects of your life.’
For example, she says, you might notice thought patterns when you are in a pose you don’t like, or emotions might come up for you when you are lying in Savasana – the resting pose at the end of almost every yoga practice. ‘These things give you an opportunity to understand yourself better… to explore and change any patterns that aren’t serving you – which could include any patterns which might be impacting your weight,’ Reynolds says.
A key benefit of yoga is developing a better awareness of yourself, your thoughts and emotions.
There’s science to back this up. Regular yoga practice is associated with mindful eating, and people who eat mindfully are less likely to be obese, according to research from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Centre. And a meta-study published in the journal Elsevier reported that mindfulness ‘decreases binge and impulsive eating and increases physical activity’.
Practising yoga also improves the quality of your sleep – helping you to fall asleep faster and deeper than you might otherwise – which is an important part of any healthy weight loss plan. ‘A great sleep routine is so important,’ says Reynolds. ‘Chances are, if you are feeling groggy you are more likely to make bad choices when it comes to what to put into your body.’
There’s a proven link between sleep quality and weight loss. One study found that when dieters cut back on sleep – from eight and a half hours to five and a half hours – for two weeks, the amount of weight they lost from fat dropped by 55 per cent, even though the number of calories they ate remained the same. They also felt hungrier and less satisfied after eating, and had no energy.
Yoga is a valuable tool for the self-regulation of thoughts, feelings, and behaviours. ‘A consistent yoga practice will develop your self-discipline,’ says Reynolds. ‘This can be through just showing up on your mat regularly, or bringing your attention back to the breath over and over again, or staying put in those intense poses.’
Practising yoga on a regular basis helps foster self-control. In a 12-week study of women with Binge Eating Disorder (BED) – a type of eating disorder characterised by a loss of control while eating – participants who completed a yoga programme experienced statistically significant reductions in binge eating.
Certain types of yoga are more physically challenging than others, and therefore help you develop muscle and boost your metabolism while you’re practising them. ‘Power and Ashtanga Vinyasa yoga are dynamic practices which require strength in movement, through the way in which weight is leveraged in your body by holding and transitioning through certain postures,’ says Wilson-Leonard.
To get your heart-rate up, try Rocket or Mandala Vinyasa yoga. ‘Rocket is a very fun and challenging style of yoga,’ says Reynolds. Most classes ‘play with arm balances and inversions – AKA being upside-down – so you might learn a few tricks along the way.’ Mandala Vinyasa, meanwhile, ‘is quicker paced than a standard Vinyasa class, moving with each breath almost like a dance,’ she says. ‘Each class will focus on one family of poses, such as backbends or twists, so you will be guaranteed a good stretch too.’
Generally, yoga isn’t as energy-intensive as other forms of exercise – HIIT, for example – so if you’re practising yoga for weight loss, bear that in mind. ‘Yoga is a great way to get the body moving and build strength, but don’t expect to burn loads of calories,’ says Reynolds. ‘A student of mine tracked hers during a 60-minute dynamic class of mine and she burnt around 130 calories, which is about the same as running a mile at an easy pace.’
The good news? Yoga needn’t be physically demanding to benefit weight loss. In one study, overweight women who followed a restorative yoga programme lost ‘significantly more’ fat over six months than a group who stretched regularly. The yogis continued to lose fat afterwards, unlike the stretchers, who went on to regain almost half of theirs. The explanation? A drop in the stress hormone cortisol, which is known to increase belly fat.
Pilates vs yoga: which is better for you?
How much weight you lose with yoga depends on a whole host of factors away from the mat – including sleep quality, stress levels, what and how much you eat, your age, your genes, and how much alcohol you drink – so you’ll need to take a holistic approach. Be sure to balance intense classes with slower yoga sessions, too.
‘If your goal is weight loss, you benefit more by focusing on your nutrition, and using yoga as a tool to develop a compassionate relationship with your body, balancing moods and increasing mental clarity, so that we make better decisions around our health – including emotional health,’ says Wilson-Leonard.
You certainly don’t need to be a long-time yogi to experience the mind and body benefits of a regular practice. If you want to take up yoga for weight loss but don’t know where to begin, follow our 5 tips to get started:
Find other like-minded yogis online. ‘Practising at home means lots of distractions, and to keep your mind focussed there is nothing like having a teacher there to give you encouragement and perhaps even push you a little,’ says Reynolds. ‘You also get a great sense of community and an exciting energy with live group classes, even if they are online.’
After all, you can’t be expected to master mountain pose without any expert training. ‘With many teachers now just one-click away, it’s much easier to ‘shop around’ and find a teacher that really suits you,’ says Reynolds. ‘I would urge you to support your local teacher and studios where you can.’
Make time for yoga, and you’ll soon turn your time on the mat into a habit. ‘Prioritise it in your diary and make it a non-negotiable part of your day or week,’ says Reynolds. ‘There are so many classes out there, both live and on-demand, you should be able to find classes that fit into your schedule.’
You don’t need expensive leggings or fancy blankets, but a few staples will make your practice more comfortable. ‘Treat yourself to some great quality yoga equipment,’ says Reynolds. ‘For the more dynamic practices you will probably need a strap, two blocks and a non-slip mat.’
Don’t feel as though you have to practice for hours every day. ‘Start with shorter classes and build it up,’ says Reynolds. ‘Sixty minutes can feel like a long time if you are just starting out, so try to find classes that are 30 to 45 minutes long and then build it up as your practice develops.’
Last updated: 06-02-2021