Stretched Thin

Katie-Marie Fuller
Written by Katie-Marie Fuller

What you really need to know about yoga and weight loss.

Weight loss has become a sensitive and often controversial topic in our modern society. With the important emergence of body positivity and battle against shaming body shapes, weight loss now feels like a back-alley discussion. But there are many valid reasons for someone wanting to lose weight – reducing chronic health conditions and risks, managing existing health conditions and concerns, as well as improved self-confidence and mental wellbeing, the reasons for dropping a percentage of body fat are legitimate and manifold. And this decision is entirely personal – and often a tough one to make. We are intrinsically linked to food and changing our daily eating habits can be a daunting prospect.

But what happens when the delicate discussion of body image and weight loss intertwines with the physical practice of yoga? With a star-studded suite of internet-based yogis attributing their svelte figures to the sacred practice, we find out whether yoga really can contribute to successful weight management or if it’s a myth that the profitable part of the industry puts a clever cover on. 

Why lose weight?

When we talk about weight loss, what we’re really referring to is fat loss. There are many serious health-related conditions that can be remedied by a reduction in body fat – heart disease, stroke, and diabetes are the most commonly discussed, but equally as serious conditions such as cancer are more frequently linked to excess body fat. Lipids (fats) circulate in our blood, deposited around the body, left to build up on the walls of the arteries (and other vessels), restricting blood flow to vital organs, and disrupting physiological processes like hormone regulation, which are also transported through the blood and prone to having their messages blocked or interrupted by the presence of lipids.

Fat is stored in special fat cells (known as adipose tissue), either by enlarging dormant fat cells that occur naturally in the body, or by creating new ones. Weight and body fat ratios are influenced by a number of factors: dietary patterns, genetics, age, gender, and social environment can all affect weight management. An interplay between all these factors is in existence throughout your whole life and some, such as your genetics, can’t be modified. Aspects like our social environments are variable and potentially hold the key to potentially changing our relationships with our bodies, food, and making changes to improve our overall health.

Physiology weigh-in

So, why do we gain weight and what do we do if we want to healthily lose some weight? Often, when we want to lose weight, our first stop is our diets – what we eat is the one factor we have most control over – and usually the easiest to adjust.

Weight gain and fat storage, put very simply, are a result of eating more energy (calories) than you burn off via metabolism. When we talk about metabolism, we often think of what is burnt through physical activity and a natural internal fire that either burns brightly and quickly, (meaning we’re on the leaner side), or is dimmer and slower, resulting in a heavier body. Metabolism is actually involved in every single biological process in trillions of cells within our bodies – creating our Basal Metabolic Rate (BMR). This metabolism helps us breathe, pump blood around the body, turnover cells, build tissues, fight diseases, and so much more.

Alongside BMR, most of us move in one way or another and expend additional energy throughout our day. But, if we then eat more energy than we are expending, we gain weight that’s stored as body fat. In simple terms, to lose this weight (fat), we need to burn more calories than we consume. And the easiest approach to this is to reduce our caloric consumption and increase our physical activity. It’s long been touted that cardiovascular activities (which elevate heart rate) are the most efficient for eating up calories and zapping fat stores. It’s true that they are hugely beneficial to weight loss. Cardio (think running and cycling) increases respiration and heart rate, and tends to use the thighs, which are the largest muscles in the body. So, they require high amounts of energy to keep performing. Cardio can also have a lasting burn – meaning you might continue to burn calories after you’ve finished exercising, depending on how quickly your heart rate returns to a regular rate.

Research over the past couple of decades has evidenced strength training to be equally conducive to weight management. Lean muscle tissue requires more energy, just to exist, than fatty tissue. So, if you hit the weights, you might have an elevated metabolic rate even at rest.

Photo by Mizuno K

The right yoga for you

With a plethora of yoga styles to choose from, it’s hard to know what technique will deliver benefits such as body fat reduction and weight management. In short, the key styles to adopt are energetic, elevating heart rate, and engaging the most muscles through more challenging postures. But that’s not to say they are exclusively reserved for advanced students. A qualified, experienced teacher will be able to guide you through modifications for more demanding postures and support you to develop your physical practice.

Ashtanga Yoga

This is easily one of the most popular styles in the western world. Orientated around a set series of demanding postures, Ashtanga is performed in a continuous sequence and requires an intense level of physical strength and endurance. As well as combining the crucial elements of strength and cardiovascular exercise, conducive to weight loss, it also feeds into our inherent need to seek challenges. Ashtanga is perfect for ambitious individuals that benefit from focusing on a formulaic mode of exercise. A drive to master the rigorous sequence of postures might also serve as a great motivator to establishing a regular routine contributing to long-term weight loss.

And the maths? An average 70-kilogram female could burn around 400 calories in a 60-minute Ashtanga class.

Vinyasa Yoga

Inspired by the principles of Ashtanga, the Vinyasa approach is a beautifully choreographed flow incorporating a wide variety of postures. Ideal for creative people who like a challenge, this practice is more expressive and less structured than Ashtanga, but equally as demanding.

Vinyasa also combines dynamic flows with static postures – so the body is continuously challenged in both strength and endurance. Providing a seamless, cardio style workout, the static postures also engage muscles for weight-bearing exercises. Many Vinyasa classes now incorporate Yin postures at the end. In essence, these passive postures provide a fantastic cool-down.

For an average 70-kilogram female, you can expect to burn up to around 300 calories in a 60-minute class.

Hot Yoga

Previously known as Bikram yoga, the philosophy of hot yoga is that the intense heat influences muscle relaxation, so you can get deeper into postures. This technique turns up the thermometer to 42 Celsius and incorporates a Vinyasa style flow. Researchers at Colorado State University have evidenced that a piping hot room can also help you burn more calories. In a 90-minute session, (yes, really), can reach 330 calories for a 70-kilogram woman.

A system for Health

Yoga can be beneficial in reducing body fat and overall weight management. But it shouldn’t be relied on in isolation. Losing body fat should be viewed as a holistic lifestyle adjustment – modifying your diet forms just one part of the equation. Reducing stress levels, getting more sleep, and taking physical exercise are fundamental to successful weight management, and yoga can help with all of these things.

From becoming more aware of your physical body, to making healthier food choices, the rewards of a regular yoga practice far exceed just losing body weight – they equip us with the tools needed for a long-term approach to a healthy lifestyle.

And, as for what you see online, this isn’t a realistic insight to yoga. The majority of the contortion we see within Instagram content isn’t contributing to a lean, healthy body – it is a performance and should be used as a resource to inspire your practice, not to make you feel self-conscious or intimidated.

So, let’s get off social media, roll out our mats, and embark upon journeys to healthier, happier versions of us!

Main photo by Fuu J on Unsplash