Yoga For Weight Loss-Really? The Facts

A recent
blog by yoga celeb Sadie Nardini
offers a good starting point for
clarifying some popular misconceptions about yoga’s impact on body weight,
caloric expenditure, and cardiac impact. While Nardini offers a perfunctory nod
to those who recognize yoga is “not about being physically perfect,” and that
“skinnier isn’t always better,” she continues on to cite a number of popular
(and often false) claims regarding yoga’s impact on weight loss.

According to Nardini, it’s an “urban myth that yoga doesn’t
burn calories, build muscles, or help students lose weight.” Yet despite limited research evidence
that hatha yoga supports muscular endurance and flexibility, and promotes
modest calorie burn (about the same as
walking on a treadmill at 1.9 miles/hour
), no research conclusively
indicates that yoga supports weight loss (yes, really!). In fact, one preliminary
study suggests that long-term yoga practice may actually reduce metabolic rate
(possibly through reductions in
parasympathetic nervous system activity), suggesting that if yoga does promote
weight loss, it is unlikely to do so solely through physical pathways.

Another popular claim cited by Nardini is that only more
vigorous styles of yoga will facilitate weight loss because gentler and
restorative styles don’t give intense movement or “go very deep.” Yet the
unlikelihood that most yoga fosters weight loss through solely physical
pathways has led some researchers to hypothesize it may facilitate weight
maintenance or loss through psychological improvements (for example, stress
reduction or mindfulness). Any form of yoga, regardless of intensity, can
promote these aspects.

Finally, Nardini asserts that vigorous yoga can replace
cardio. In fact, preliminary research suggests that vigorous
forms of yoga (Ashtanga vinyasa, for example) may burn up to 507 calories per
hour
. Other research, however, suggests that even vigorous forms of yoga
may not meet American College of Sports Exercise’s guidelines for cardiac
fitness
(in other words, the jury is out).

Also unmentioned is the impact of vigorous exercise on
appetite: research has shown that the
greater the metabolic expenditure, the greater the post-exercise calories
consumed.
More importantly, yoga vigorous enough to torch 500-600 calories
per hour is likely not appropriate for those with serious weight issues.

Nardini’s Core Vinyasa yoga aims to be a workout that “comes
with flexibility training, for the body, mind, heart and spirit too.” Yet her
comment that being “too overweight” is an obstacle that practitioners must aim
to improve if “we want to optimally focus on the deeper layers of our being,”
getting weight “under control” in order to create more ease, belies a
philosophy more aligned with today’s pervasive cults of body dissatisfaction
and self-improvement than yoga.

In the end, a practice focused so exclusively on physical
vigor may sacrifice some of yoga’s sweeter, quieter, and gentler teachings: for
instance, that perfection comes in all shapes and sizes.

Have you lost weight through yoga and, if so, was it gentle
or vigorous? What are your thoughts on using yoga as a way to lose weight?

Editor’s Note: This is Part Two of a two-part series. Read Part One here.

Comments 1

  1. You represent a viewpoint I haven’t seen elsewhere in the yogasphere – Brava! I’ve often pondered this relationship myself and have struggled with being perceived as overweight while participating in a wider range of challenging activities than most I know. I know that when I engage my daily practice, I feel better in my body – period. I wonder about the endocrine connection with regard to weight stabilization (a more helpful goal than “loss” which I think goes along with the focus on subtraction, negativity and toxins of much of the yoga community) but haven’t seen any research on that topic. Thanks again for a great reflection on one of the hot button issues in our community!

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