Yoga For Weight Loss–Part 2: 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.

Note: This article “Yoga For Weight Loss” is from a Two-Part Series—Read Part One here.

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.

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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.

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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?


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