I often get asked if you can lose weight by practicing yoga.
My answer is always the same: Sure, but not if you are practicing yoga with the goal of weight loss in mind, then by definition, you are not practicing yoga.
I know it may sound crazy, but one of the most important principles of yoga philosophy is to let go of the results (“vairagya” in the yogic language, Sanskrit). This concept is so hard for many of us to fathom since we live in a world that is focused on results almost 100% of the time. What is the point of doing something if you are not going to achieve a goal?
“Doing yoga poses to work out” is different than a “yoga practice”.
The lure of physical results draws so many people into yoga, me included. Years ago, I read that you can burn 500 calories in a hot yoga class, and let’s just say that you had me at 500 hundred calories! Jennifer Aniston, Madonna, Adam Levine, and other celebrities who attributed their “perfect” bodies to yoga poses help support the idea that yoga can be a weight loss workout, and that you will become lean, chiseled, flexible, strong and beautiful by practicing yoga poses & exercises. The issue is that once you start to attach goals to your physical yoga practice, you may be using yoga poses to exercise, but you are not actually practicing yoga. Again, practicing yoga means that you let go of the results.
Yoga Poses Can Lead to Injury when the Weight Loss is the Goal
Since yoga poses can cause a body harm if not practiced safely and intelligently, it is very easy to injure yourself in a yoga pose if your goal is to lose weight because you will want to push as hard as you can. Often, our minds will tell our bodies to push through something even if our body is screaming “no!” Attaching yourself to the idea that yoga “should” help you with weight loss can cause you to ignore your body’s’ signals and push way too hard or work through the pain.
Shoulder injuries are very common amongst people in yoga classes who are there just for the workout. Yoga students may force themselves through countless “chaturangas” (a yoga pose similar to a push-up) in an effort to burn calories, but this can be detrimental to the shoulders if the student is too tired to practice the pose safely & intelligently or is too stubborn to stop when the body has had enough. This can lead to injuries that can limit your physical practice, leading you to feel like you have “failed” at your weight loss goal since you will have to take a break from your vigorous practice.
There is no such thing as “success/failure”, “good/bad”, “better/worse”, “should/shouldn’t have” in a yoga practice.
In a yoga practice, you get to steer clear of the judgmental language and replace it with curiosity. When you get to your mat, simply ask your body, “How do you feel today?” just as you would ask a friend (notice I didn’t say “How should you feel today?”) Then, simply meet your body where it is at in that given moment and remind yourself that your body is meant to change all of the time. The beauty of a physical yoga practice is that you never have to take a break, even if you are injured. When practicing yoga, it is so important to heed another important yogic principle, called “Ahimsa” in Sanskrit. Ahimsa means that we avoid harm. If your shoulders hurt, then you can skip the poses that put pressure on your shoulders and do a different variation. If you are sick and have no energy to move at all, you can meditate. Remember, yoga is so much more than the physical practice!
Letting go of the results gives you the opportunity to explore a new relationship with your body.
If you let go of the results, you can focus on the present moment and begin to have a real conversation with your body. In my classes, I give students choices so they can decide which pose would be right for their body in that given moment. I’ll say “Does your body want to go into a Downward Dog now? Or does it need a restful pose?” I always stress that the more strenuous pose is not “better” and that you are always a person who tends to push past 100%, it may be interesting to see what it would feel like to take more rests throughout the practice.
As you begin to practice yoga more with no goal in mind, you may notice that you are developing a deeper understanding of your body both on and off the mat. Body signals and sensations that had been previously muffled or ignored can become much louder. For example, you may start to recognize when your body has reached its limit and stop before you risk injury. Alternatively, you may realize that you actually have more stamina than you thought and that you can hold a yoga pose for a few more breaths than you ever realized.
This deeper relationship with your body can lead to a more peaceful relationship with eating.
If you are someone who struggles with your relationship to food, you may start to notice natural feelings of hunger and fullness before and after meals. Cueing into your body’s innate signals can help you re-learn to eat when you are hungry and stop when you are full, just like we did when we were babies. This is called “Intuitive Eating” and allows your body to eventually reach the weight that is optimal for YOUR body and where you feel the healthiest. The idea of non-attachment extends to every part of our lives so that rather than attach to a certain number on a scale that is always going to move up and down, we focus on how our body feels. At Body Positive Works, we embrace the Intuitive Eating philosophy. For more about our nutrition services, click here.
So, yes, you can lose weight when practicing yoga if that is what your body truly needs, but beyond that, a yoga practice can also open up an entirely new relationship with your body and yourself. For more about our yoga philosophy and schedule, click here.