Yoga for Weight Loss?

Yoga for weight loss: it’s the latest fad on the American yoga scene, where we’ve grown accustomed to such diverse offerings as yoga paired with chocolate, wine, and even pets. Several studios are now cashing in on the American preoccupation with weight loss, offering series, classes and competitions to help students drop the pounds. 

Yet some argue that practicing yoga with the goal to lose weight is contraindicative of yoga’s loftier aims, and appears to contradict the important messages of self-acceptance and non-identification with ego or embodiment, beloved hallmarks of many a yoga practice. For the tantric yogis, too, yoga for weight loss may seem confusing, since we are believed to be already perfect as we are; yoga just reminds us of this.

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In Brooklyn, NY, the Namaste Yoga studio is awarding $1,000 prize to the biggest loser, in an 8-week competition modeled on the television show of the same name. Contestants will bellydance, kickbox, and practice yoga, with routine weigh-ins, before-and-after photos, and a panel of personal trainers determining who emerges with the “best body transformation.”

Not far from Namaste Yoga is the Buddha Body Yoga studio, established for plus-size yogis. Classes feature plenty of props, adjustment tips, and poses that are accessible in a safe and supportive environment, without any focus on weight loss. Founder Michael Hayes “started [his] practice because [he] was tired of being the biggest person in the classroom.”

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Both studios reflect growing trends. Classes for larger bodies that are not weight loss focused have been sprouting up around the country, with studios in Seattle, Chicago, and Nashville; their presence is nonetheless dwarfed by the number of studios and instructors offering yoga for weight loss.

Science may help us make sense of this. Yoga has been shown effective for weight loss in numerous studies. But the mechanisms by which this occur are are likely more complex than simple increases in energy expenditure. While this no doubt helps attenuate weight gain, and fosters weight loss,  myself and the researchers I work with postulate that self compassion, mindfulness, and self-acceptance may play a larger role in facilitating long-term weight management among committed yogis.

In other words, we believe that some yoga practitioners lose weight, gradually, by first accepting themselves and not focusing exclusively on weight loss, body improvement, etc. Depending on the individual, weight loss may be a side effect of practicing yoga, rather than something that should be strived after from the get-go. In fact, the excessive focus on weight loss initially may prematurely sabotage efforts due to ingrained personal and collective samskara relating to repeated cycles of failed weight loss attempts.

Have you or someone you know lost weight practicing yoga? Do you think yoga is best used for losing weight or for acceptance of your body shape?

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