More gentle on your joints than sports or running, yoga is an effective tool for physical fitness, mental clarity, and spiritual development. Yoga for weight loss is also a wonderful facet of this modality, as holding yoga poses helps you build and maintain strength throughout your entire body.
A Quick History of Yoga
Yoga began in India around 3000 BC. Stone-carved figures of yoga masters holding yoga poses can still be found decorating the Indus Valley. It was developed as a spiritual tool to bring harmony to the soul and the heart and light a path towards divine enlightenment.
More recently the physical benefits of yoga have been given the limelight. Research indicates that yoga may help cure and/or alleviate the symptoms of conditions such as high blood pressure, diabetes, chronic pain, and physical injuries. Yoga is popular worldwide, and is incorporated into many teaching and healing arenas.
There are myriad different types of yoga that incorporate various mental, physical, and spiritual practices, from Western-evolved yoga schools to variations found in Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism practices. The two most well-known types are Rāja yoga (a form of Hindu yoga that aims to achieve control over the mind and the emotions) and Hatha yoga (which includes the practices of asanas, or yoga postures, and pranayama, or breathing exercises, to achieve peace of mind).
- Rāja yoga: Rāja yoga predates Hatha yoga and involves focused control of the mind, clearing it of distractions and obstacles to spiritual thought. Rāja involves the following eight steps:
- Yama: Self-control
- Niyama: Discipline
- Asana: Physical exercises
- Pranayama: Breath exercises
- Pratyahara: Sense withdrawal
- Dharana: Concentration
- Dhyana: Meditation
- Samadhi: Complete Realization
- Hatha yoga: Hatha yoga is the physical practice of yoga, and centers mostly on the asana practice of Rāja yoga’s third step. Hatha is part of the Rāja yoga journey but focuses more on the energy flow of the body, known as prana.
Yoga came West with the success of Swami Vivekananda at the turn of the 20th century, and by the 1980s it was a popular exercise practice throughout the Western world.
Yoga for Mindfulness
Yoga was designed for increased mindfulness, and in this respect can be a wonderful addition to a weight-loss regimen because it can help you become more attuned to how different foods influence your body, mind, and spirit. A 2016 study suggests that those who develop increased mindfulness through practicing yoga may be better at resisting unhealthy foods and comfort eating.
Exercise such as yoga also helps people become more aware of how their bodies feel and more cued into feelings of satiety. Recognizing when you’ve had enough to eat is a great way to reduce calorie intake throughout the day.
Finally, a 2017 study showed that mindfulness training through modalities such as yoga helps curb impulsive binge eating, in addition to promoting participation in physical activities. As with many forms of exercise, yoga is not meant to be practiced on a full stomach, and in this respect can encourage healthy eating choices and help dieters maintain a regular eating schedule.
Yoga for Better Sleep
Research shows that yoga can help improve sleep quality. A consistent yoga practice helps people fall asleep more easily and sleep more deeply, allowing for the 6-9 hours of sleep recommended for adults each night.
Not only is regular, quality sleep imperative to your overall health, but it’s also associated with weight-loss success, as evidenced by a 2018 study that found that those who restricted sleep 5 times per week lost less fat than those who followed their natural sleep patterns. With calorie consumption controlled for, the conclusion suggests that a lack of adequate sleep can have an adverse effect on body composition and fat loss.
Yoga Nidra is a guided relaxation technique that is performed lying down and that may well help to aid deep sleep while increasing mindfulness. Another 2018 study revealed that health care workers who practiced Yoga Nidra for 8 weeks increased their mindfulness levels and improved their daily decision-making abilities. The longer they practiced Yoga Nidra, the more their mindfulness reports improved.
Yoga for Weight Loss and Calorie Burning
Though yoga is not usually thought of as an aerobic exercise, there are certain yoga variations that are more physical than others and can lead to increased calorie burning. Vinyasa, Ashtanga, and Power Yoga are active styles of yoga that help you prevent weight gain and burn the maximum amount of calories. You can find Vinyasa and Power Yoga at what are known as “hot yoga studios,” among others. Both types of yoga keep you moving, which helps you burn calories, increases your heart rate, and strengthens your lung capacity.
Even outside of these highly physical yogas, practicing yoga helps you develop muscle tone, build strength, and improve your balance and your metabolism. For example, Restorative Yoga isn’t one of the more physical yogas, but one study reported that it aided weight loss in overweight women, including the famously stingy belly fat. These findings are particularly promising for those whose body fat makes certain yoga poses difficult to execute.
A 2013 review of studies showed that yoga is helpful for reducing stress, implementing behavioral changes, and achieving and maintaining weight loss. All of these facets of yoga can help you lower your calorie intake and increase your fitness level.
How Much Yoga Should You Do to Lose Weight?
It’s recommended to practice yoga as often as possible if you’re trying to lose weight. You could pair one of the active yoga styles with a more meditative one. That combo would account for a low-level cardiovascular workout 3-5 times per week for at least 1 hour per day and incorporate a mindfulness practice to help you develop a calming emotional center…all while strengthening your body!
If you’re just beginning, start gradually, because slow and steady wins this race. Focus on building strength and flexibility to avoid injuries. Allow yourself a full day of rest per week for self-care and relaxation, so you don’t overtax your body as it changes and improves.
If you can, combine your yoga practices with other workouts like cycling, swimming, and walking for additional cardiovascular benefits. When tracking your progress, don’t go overboard. Weigh yourself only once a day, at the same time of day. First thing in the morning is a great idea, as weighing yourself after a hot yoga class may be misleading, since people often lose water weight during workouts. And remember to stay hydrated!
Yoga Poses for At-Home Practice
Here are some yoga poses you can do at home if you can’t get to a class or don’t have time for a full yoga session. There are also many online yoga classes streaming for your convenience.
Plank pose is a foundational yoga pose and terrific starting point for yoga newbies.
- From tabletop position, step your feet back while staying on your tiptoes.
- Align your body into a straight, plank-like line (practice in front of a mirror to make sure that your hips aren’t sinking too low or shooting up into the air).
- Engage your arm, leg, and core muscles.
- Hold this position for at least 1 minute.
Boat pose strengthens your core, engages your whole body, and helps reduce stress.
- While sitting on the floor, put your legs together and extend them in front of you.
- Bend your knees and lift up your feet so that your shins are parallel to the ceiling.
- Extend your arms forward so they’re also parallel to the ceiling.
- If you have the ability, straighten your legs while keeping your torso held aloft.
- Hold boat pose for 30 seconds.
- Repeat at least 5 times.
Practicing 10 sun salutations a day can help you increase your fitness and alertness. If you wish to increase the intensities of these movements, you can either hold the poses for longer, or speed up the pace of this exercise.
- From a standing position, inhale as you lift your arms above your head. Gently arch your back and look up to the sun.
- Exhale as you bend at the waist into a forward bend position.
- Keeping your hands on the floor or at your shins, look up on an inhale.
- Exhale as you place your hands on the floor and step, jump, or walk your feet back into plank pose.
- On the same exhale breath, lower your body to the flower. (Alternately, you can hold plank pose for a few breaths. If you are still building up strength, drop to your knees before lowering your body to the floor. You can also add in an inhale before lowering to the floor on an exhale.)
- Extend your legs and turn the tops of your feet to the floor, keeping your hands placed under your shoulders.
- Inhale as you lift your upper body either partway or all the way up into the cobra pose or upward facing dog.
- Exhale as you lower back down, and then push your body up into downward-facing dog pose (your upper and lower halves will appear to be two sides of a triangle in this position). Just imagine a dog stretching!
- Hold this downward-facing dog pose for at least 5 breaths. Or just 1 breath if you are moving through a series of 10 sun salutations and looking to raise your heart rate.
- Exhale as you step, jump, or walk your feet up to your hands, returning to the forward bend position.
- Inhale as you look up.
- Exhale and look back down.
- Inhale as you lift your body back up and your arms overhead once again.
- Exhale to lower your arms back down by your body or into prayer pose. You’ve now said your first salutation to the sun!
Yoga for Life
Now you know how yoga can help you lose weight, build strength, improve sleep, and achieve mindfulness. The best thing about yoga? You can travel with yoga and take your healthy new practices anywhere you go. If you’re coming to yoga for weight loss, you may find so many more positive results you never expected—embrace them and live well!