Before I became a certified personal trainer and yoga teacher, I asked several fitness experts if yoga could help me lose weight, but I never got a straight answer. Then last week one of my readers asked me the same question, and I knew exactly what to tell her. Today, I'm sharing my answer with you, too.
A little context - I answer this question not only from the perspective of a fitness pro with certifications in Power Vinyasa and Yoga Sculpt, but also as someone who has lost weight doing yoga.
A few years after I returned from my first yoga teacher training in India, I went back to my "normal" fitness regime which included running, strength training and yoga. As a personal trainer, I knew the effectiveness of a balanced exercise practice to maintain weight, as as someone who used to be over 200 lbs, maintaining my weight loss was very important to me.
But on a trip back to Toronto one snowy winter, I slipped and fell on the ice, injuring my back, and thus, eliminating my ability to "workout" for several months. I could however, still do yoga.
So that's what I did for 3 whole months. I found some online yoga classes that weren't overly challenging and did them about 3 or 4 times a week.
You know what happened?
I lost about 10lbs of body fat.
Why? I suspect all that yoga made my cortisol levels adjust to a normal level. Instead of always stressing my body with intense workouts, I was able to reset my nervous system.
Stress and cortisol play a huge roll in weight gain, and yoga is great for turning on the parasympathetic nervous system (your rest and digest mode). When this system is activated, your body can better regulate hormones as well as stress and hunger levels.
I was also sleeping like a boss and eating way less because I wasn’t constantly hungry from all the running I was doing (excessive cardio elevates hunger levels). So the net result was less hunger/exhaustion/stress and therefore, less overall calories consumed.
So then, Yoga CAN help you lose weight?
Yes, yoga can help you lose weight and/or maintain decent fitness. From the perspective of cardiovascular heart health, as long as you're working strenuously enough to get your heart rate elevated for at least 30 minutes, you doing great. Vinyasa or power flow are great for getting your heart rate pumping.
From a strength perspective, holding challenging poses or a yoga sculpt class will improve overall muscle definition. You’re not going to win any bodybuilding competitions, but for most people, that’s just fine.
From a balance, agility and flexibility standpoint, yoga is king, so you’re not going to get much better than this kind of training.
Why it's beneficial to do MORE than just yoga?
While yoga is a great exercise for weight loss, the thing to watch out for is repetitive movement injuries. Yoga has a lot of forward folds, back bending and pushups, so the more you do it, the more you increase the risk of overuse injuries.
Also, the typical yoga class has a lot of push movements (chaturunga), squats and lunges, but there's not a ton of pull movements. As a result, most classes are deficient in movements that improve the strength of your back muscles. For this reason, I think strength training one or two days a week is a great addition to a regular yoga practice.
If you are going to make yoga your one and only exercise, switch up your styles to keep things interesting and safe.
Yoga Sculpt promises a full body workout in every class, so those back exercises will be incorporated.
Power yoga is perfect for strengthening arms, legs and core. In these classes, you tend to hold challenging poses long enough to really engage and strengthen large muscle groups, like abdominals, glutes, chest muscles and quadriceps.
Vinyasa Flow is more of a fast moving practice. Poses aren't held for very long, so you'll get a good cardio workout from this style.
Yin yoga is a slow class where you hold supported (easy-ish) poses for a long time to get more of a release of tension than a workout. This is something you might want to do once a week.
The Other Pillars of Weight Loss You Can't Ignore
When it comes to weight loss, the key thing to remember is that fitness is a just a portion of your overall health and fitness result. If you want a lean physique, you'll have to improve your nutrition more than anything else.
In fact, 75-80% of your fat loss efforts result from what you put in your mouth, so just keep reminding yourself of that! If you need help cleaning up your eating habits, consider investing in 2B Mindset or the Ultimate Portion Fix. Both are great programs for helping you make better food choices and losing fat.
Your stress levels and sleep quality is equally (and perhaps even more) important than exercise, so keep your fitness efforts in perspective. It's not the end all be all.
How to get started Losing Weight With Yoga?
I recommend trying a few different styles of yoga by investing in an online membership. Many studios offer yoga online, but you want something that will give you a variety of options. For this reason, I recommend Beachbody on Demand. It not only has every style of yoga available, from power to yin, but it also offers tons of strength training and cardio workouts as well.
Start with a few classes a week if you're currently not working out at all. If you are a regular exerciser, try to get two classes in a week in addition to what you're already doing, and again, try different styles.
Overtime, you will find the kind of yoga that makes you feel the absolute best, and it won't be a chore to get yourself to your yoga mat on the regular.
Yoga + Your Diet
As I mentioned before, if weight loss is your goal, it's important to make changes to your diet as well. The great thing about yoga and weight loss is that they are mutually beneficial. The more yoga you do, the more sensitive your body will become to certain foods, and you will naturally crave better choices.
Are you a fan of yoga? Have you ever focused on that exclusively? It might be worth a try for 30 days to see how it makes you feel.
Caren is a certified yoga teacher, fitness instructor and author of The Fit Habit. Here she shares simple, low carb recipes, quick home workout ideas and practical ways to foster mind + body wellness.