The rules of weight loss are simple: Overall, you need to burn more calories than you're taking in. And while there are plenty of diet and exercise programs that adhere to these basic tenants, some seem to work better than others -- at least in the real world of food temptations, overbooked schedules, and lack of motivation.
One weight-loss "gimmick" that seems to have some staying power is yoga. A 2009 study by researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center found that overweight patients (BMI > 25) who did yoga at least once a week for four years lost about five pounds, on average, over the study period. Those who did nothing, on the other hand, gained about 14. [Source: FHCRC.org]
Sure, yoga is exercise -- but it doesn't have nearly the calorie-burning potential as a cardiovascular activity, like running or biking. Instead, researchers think that people who practice yoga may be more in tune with their bodies and more likely to be "mindful" eaters, less inclined to scarf down fatty fast food or pile on second helpings without thinking about it.
It seems that yoga, in its many different forms, can influence weight loss efforts in several ways. Whichever branch of yoga gets you into the studio is likely to have some benefits, but these may offer some of the biggest payoffs.
When you see the word Vinyasa on a yoga schedule, you can assume that you're in for a vigorous, fast-paced class during which postures flow from one to the other in a fairly quick sequence. You'll go through well-known yoga sequences, such as sun salutations, and will likely work up a sweat and raise your heart rate.
Even the most fast-paced Vinyasa classes, however, still take place almost entirely on the mat. For true calorie blasting potential, experts recommend pairing your yoga routine with a separate cardio workout (like brisk walking, jogging, cycling, or swimming) at least a few times a week. [Source: Hensrund]
Any form of "hot yoga" will increase your heart rate and help you burn more calories, just due to the fact that you're in a heated room; Bikram classrooms, for example, are kept at 105 degrees Fahrenheit.
According to Bikram Yoga's official website, it is recommended that you take at least 10 Bikram classes to see the benefits of weight loss; after that, you should take class at least three times a week. This will help your digestion system to work more efficiently, and it will also help normalize your appetite and diminish unhealthy food cravings. [Source: Bikramyoga.com]
Like Vinyasa, Ashtanga classes have a faster and more vigorous flow. Most classes last 90 minutes and include constant movement between postures that require considerable strength and balance.
Within a certain level of practice, all Ashtanga classes consist of the same sequence of postures. Some classes are led by an instructor, while others are "open" and allow for students to practice at their own pace. Only when a student masters the first level of Ashtanga postures does he or she move on to more challenging levels.
Although Power Yoga isn't an official branch of the practice, it is a popular class name at studios and gyms around the country. "This usually means that the instructor might put more focus on getting a really good workout, versus a calming meditative experience," says Sophie Herbert, a yoga instructor in Brooklyn.
Power yoga classes may include a lot of strength-training moves, like planks and chaturanga, or they may incorporate cross-training or props, like hand weights, to rev up calorie burn. Also look for classes with names like "cardio yoga," "boot camp yoga," or "core yoga."
Of course, a class doesn't have to be super intense or super hot to help you achieve your weight loss goals. Colleen Saidman Yee, creator of the Gaiam DVD "Yoga for Weight Loss," believes that meditative, restorative styles of yoga may, in the long run, have even more benefit.
"With yoga, it's not so much about the calorie burn as it is the mind-body connection," she says. "When you're doing yoga, you are aware of what's going into your body and its effects on your practice. You're also sleeping better and stressing less, which are both vitally important for managing your weight." To find a calming class near you, search for Kundalini or Hatha yoga -- or check out a meditation and pranayama class, which focus mainly on breathing.
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- Bikram Yoga. "FAQs" (April 22, 2013) http://www.bikramyoga.com/BikramYoga/FAQ.php#23
- Framson et al."Development and Validation of the Mindful Eating Questionnaire." Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2009; 109 (8): 1439 DOI:10.1016/j.jada.2009.05.006
- Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. "Regular yoga practice is associated with mindful eating." August 3, 2009. (April 27, 2013) http://www.fhcrc.org/en/news/releases/2009/08/yoga.html
- Hensrund, M.D., Donald. "Can Yoga Help Me Lose Weight?" Mayo Clinic. (April 27, 2013) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/yoga-for-weight-loss/AN02100
- Herbert, Sophie. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. March 21, 2013.
- Saidman Yee, Colleen. Yoga instructor. Personal interview. April 21, 2013.