Most people imagine that yoga is something gentle and mindful, not a form of exercise that will help shed excess pounds. But it’s also a fantastic way to get, and keep, the body you want.
There’s not just the anecdotal evidence of many yoga devotees who say it helps them stay trim and toned. Scientific research is increasingly backing up the link between yoga and weight loss.
Researchers in one U.S. study, for example, followed more than 15,000 healthy men and women aged between 53 and 57. Those who started out overweight but did at least one session of yoga a week lost about 5lb over ten years, while those who didn’t gained almost a stone.
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Most people wouldn’t think of yoga as the best form of exercise for losing weight but scientific research is increasingly showing links between yoga and weight loss
In another study, a group of heart patients with narrowed coronary arteries were put on a low-fat vegetarian diet and told to practise yoga regularly. They recorded almost 24lb of weight loss over the first year, and five years later had maintained more than half of that original loss, as well as reversing the heart disease.
The American Journal of Lifestyle Medicine, which recently reviewed several studies of yoga and weight loss, also concluded that yoga is a successful slimming tool, not only burning calories and enabling people to improve their performance in other sports, but making them more mindful of their bodies, which in turn may lead them to eat better.
All this week, in a brilliant new series, the Mail is focusing on yoga and its many benefits for old and young, fit and unfit. We are showing how you can incorporate simple yoga routines into your daily life in the comfort of your home.
The beauty of yoga is that it can be adapted to virtually anyone’s needs — so no matter what your age, shape or fitness level, you’ll be able to take part.
So how can it help you to lose weight?
For a start, there are several styles of yoga that are highly vigorous. If you want to join a class specifically with the aim of burning calories, look for Ashtanga yoga classes — a series of fast-paced postures — or Bikram yoga, a sequence of 26 postures performed in a room heated to around 40c (104f).
The beauty of yoga is that it can be adapted to anyone’s needs and lifestyle, allowing everyone the opportunity to get involved (picture posed by model)
It’s estimated Ashtanga yoga, for example, can burn 300 calories in half an hour — that’s more than tennis or swimming.
But even if you choose a less demanding style, such as Hatha yoga, in which postures are performed at a slower pace, you may be surprised by how much of a workout you feel you have done. With regular practice you will become toned and flexible. Your energy levels will be raised, too, motivating you to take on other forms of exercise.
Yoga also helps to reduce back and joint pain, so many people find it enables them to get into, return to or try out more physically demanding sports and activities.
Designed to take you straight from Bikram to the boardroom, this chic handbag has a separate space to store any sweaty yoga kit, and a concealed yoga mat holder and water bottle holder.
And there are less obvious ways in which yoga helps to boost weight loss. Those who are overweight often suffer not only physically but mentally. They may have low self-esteem or be depressed. This chronic dissatisfaction can trigger the body to produce elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol, which has been shown to encourage stress-related eating.
Cortisol also increases blood sugar when you’re feeling under stress, to ready the body in case extra energy is needed for ‘fight or flight’. But with our more sedentary lives this excess glucose becomes stored as fat.
And where does this fat most commonly get stored? Why, round the abdomen, of course, as any menopausal or post-menopausal woman will tell you. These stubborn deposits of fat are known as ‘toxic fat’, not only because they are so difficult to shift, but because the ‘apple shape’ that women acquire is known to be linked to cardiovascular problems.
For me, one of the most pleasing aspects of taking up yoga as a post-menopausal woman (and eating a healthy diet) was that my waistline shrank by a couple of inches for the first time in years.
Yoga promotes relaxation, lowering levels of cortisol, and so diminishes the desire to eat and the body’s instinct to store fat. Another benefit of regular yoga practice is that it encourages you to be more in tune with your body — more aware of its requirements and of physical and mental changes.
This helps people to understand better the underlying reasons why they overeat, whether it’s emotional issues or because they have developed destructive habits over the years.
Recent studies have suggested people routinely deceive themselves about how much they really eat. As you refine your ability to tune into your body (this happens very quickly in yoga), you may realise you are eating not out of hunger but simply out of boredom or emotional neediness.
Yoga is not only a great tool for weight loss, it will make you more toned and flexible too (picture posed by model)
As a bonus, many people I know who do yoga find themselves craving fruit, vegetables and grains, rather than hamburgers and chips. All that stretching, bending and focusing on the body seems to kill the appetite, leaving a desire to eat healthily.
As someone whose first waking thought is often ‘What’s for lunch?’ I can testify that if I do my yoga practice in the morning, lunch no longer seems quite so urgent.
Yoga can give you the skills you need to maintain weight loss. Make it a regular fixture in your life, persist with the breathing exercises and postures, and you will be less depressed, less stressed and more aware of the reasons you may be overeating, which in turn will enable you to break unhealthy habits. You’ll also become more toned and far more flexible.
Finally, practising yoga will do something even more important — it will help improve your self-image and make you happier.
DROP ONE DRESS SIZE IN SECONDS
Simple changes to your posture, following basic yoga principles, will transform how slim you look
1. SQUEEZE YOUR BUM, FLATTEN YOUR TUM
All yogis and dancers know that when the pelvic floor is engaged it triggers other muscles in the core of the body to support the lower back and spine. This action protects your back and alleviates back pain, but also gives the appearance of a slimmer, more toned abdomen.
2. WALK LIKE A SPACEMAN
The biggest enemy of good posture is gravity. The downward force of gravity makes us slump and appear less tall than we really are. Stand tall and lift yourself up from within. Imagine a thread extending the length of your spine and out of the crown of your head. You’ll feel lighter, brighter and taller.
3. BREATHE DEEP INTO YOUR CHEST
Too many of us hardly use our intercostal breathing muscles (the ones between each rib) and instead breathe down into our belly. The result? A protruding stomach. When you are standing or sitting up, get into the habit of breathing into the chest. Feel the ribs expand and the in-breath lift you up. Your posture will be better and you will face the world with more confidence.
4. SHOULDERS BACK AND DOWN
We all hold tension in the shoulders, and when we feel very stressed they curl forwards and rise up towards our ears. If you feel this happening, roll your shoulders back and release your shoulder blades down your back, if you like with a big sigh through the mouth. You will feel stress leaving the body.
5. TUCK YOUR CHIN IN
Not too much — you don’t want to impersonate a sergeant-major. A slight chin tuck lengthens the back of the neck and helps to lift the posture. It also brings the head back into perfect balance on the spine, preventing tension building up in neck and shoulder muscles.
10 steps to a trim tum
This classic flowing sequence of postures is at the heart of modern yoga and can be a complete practice in itself or a preparation for a longer routine.
Traditionally performed in the morning to greet the new day, it forms the backbone of most types of yoga and employs various forward and backward bending poses that flex the spinal column, giving a profound, energising stretch to the whole body.
Because it is an energetic sequence that tones every muscle group in the body, it’s great for burning calories, building strength and stamina, improving circulation and detoxifying your internal organs through enhanced oxygenation.
It has a deeply relaxing and rejuvenating effect, too. In other words, this is a full body workout like no other, which explains its popularity.
I would recommend doing this sequence at least five times a day if weight is an issue. But even if you only do two sequences a day, you’re doing your figure a massive favour.
There are small variations in the way yogis do this sequence, but the most important thing is the synchronisation of the motion of your breath with the movement of your body. Basically, all upward movements are coupled with inhalation, and downward movements with exhalation.
1. MOUNTAIN POSE
Start in Mountain pose: stand up tall, feet together or a little apart, arms at your sides. Place your palms together in a prayer position, roll your shoulders back and down and lift your chest.
Inhale through your nose and extend your arms above and behind your head.
3. SWAN DIVE
Swan dive into a standing forward bend, exhaling through your nose and placing your hands on your legs as close to your feet as you can. Bend your knees a little if your hamstrings are tight, to protect your back.
CHOOSE YOUR YOGA STYLE
sometimes called ‘power yoga’, Ashtanga is a fast-paced, aerobic style in which practitioners perform a series of postures that are linked so you move swiftly — often by jumping backwards or forwards, which is called Vinyasa — from one to the next.
A style developed by an Indian yogi called K Pattabhi Jois, who died in 2009 aged 93, it is intended to build up internal heat, so you will sweat a lot.
Because it’s so energetic and requires stamina, it is not suitable for those who are less fit and flexible.
A large part of an Ashtanga class is devoted to Sun Salutations — a linked series of postures that aim to energise the spine. Breathing is also key, with in-breaths and out-breaths synchronised with each movement.
Famous devotees include Madonna, who is said to practise Ashtanga yoga for two hours every day, Gwyneth Paltrow and the actor Ralph Fiennes.
4. HALF STANDING FORWARD BEND
Inhale and lengthen your spine forward into a Half Standing Forward Bend, with your fingertips on the floor and gaze focused ahead.
5. PLANK POSE
Exhale and step, or lightly hop, your feet behind you to get into a Plank pose, arms straight underneath your shoulders and legs straight behind you. Your back should be flat and your core engaged. Hold for a second, then, in a snake-like movement, lower yourself towards the floor. Then lower your chest and chin to the floor, keeping your elbows close to the sides of your ribcage, and flatten your feet to the floor.
6. COBRA POSE
Inhale as you push down with your arms and raise your head, shoulders and upper body as far as you can without straining. This is the Cobra pose. Look upwards, roll shoulders back and down and keep elbows in. Firm up your kneecaps and thighs to prevent them lifting off the mat.
IT’S THE PERFECT ALL OVER EXERCISE
Although you may be thinking of taking up yoga to lose weight or shape up, you’ll probably notice all kinds of other positive changes.
For an all-round workout, yoga is hard to beat. There is now a large body of research proving its benefits for physical health.
Because of our increasingly sedentary lifestyles, huge numbers of people in the UK will suffer back pain, joint pain and the various knock-on effects of these. Yoga is an excellent way to counter the problem.
‘It’s particularly good for healthy joints and for prevention or symptom control in arthritis,’ says Dr Tom Margham, a GP and spokesman for Arthritis Research UK.
‘The gold standard for arthritis is something that provides a combination of flexibility work, aerobic work and strength exercising — and yoga ticks all the boxes.’
But unlike most other forms of exercise, there is an emphasis on relaxation and mental well-being.
‘Yoga keeps the joints healthy and supple — it helps people avoid hip replacements,’ says Paul Fox, vice-chairman of the British Wheel of Yoga. ‘It strengthens muscles, including the core muscles, which protects against back pain, and it provides weight-bearing exercise which is good for the bones. But it’s one of the very few exercise systems that also deal with the mind.’
Yoga poses were originally developed to prepare for meditation, so a class can help to clear the mind, reduce stress and change how you respond to everyday situations.
This can be hugely helpful to people living with chronic health conditions, from arthritis to diabetes to multiple sclerosis to cancer.
‘A lot of pain is in the mind, and yoga is about accepting things and being aware of them rather than having an angry response, which can make pain or illness feel worse,’ says Fox. ‘This is why, for example, many women use yoga to deal with childbirth.’
7. DOWNWARD FACING DOG
Exhale into Downward Facing Dog; walk hands forward and slightly farther apart than shoulder width, and spread fingers wide for stability. Then curl toes under and press your hips upwards so your body is in the shape of a triangle, with your bottom as the apex. Make sure your neck and shoulders are released and relaxed. If your hamstrings are tight, keep your knees slightly bent. Take five deep breaths.
8. FORWARD BEND
Inhale, step forward one foot and then the other between the hands, looking ahead. Then exhale into a forward bend.
Inhale and come up, arms above and behind head.
10. STANDING POSE
Lower arms into original standing pose.
HOW TO EAT LIKE A YOGA EXPERT
- Eat nothing — or only a light, healthy snack — in the two to three hours before a yoga class. ‘You should arrive on an empty stomach,’ says Alessandra Pecorella, a yoga teacher at The Life Centre in Islington, London. ‘Otherwise you’ll feel heavy and your body will be busy digesting your food, so it will be less able to support you during the poses.’
This also helps to build discipline and will get you into the habit of eating when you’re hungry and not when you’re bored or emotional.
- Eating in moderation is an important part of yoga practice, according to Alessandra. ‘Yoga texts recommend eating until the stomach is three-quarters full,’ she says. ‘Always leave a space to aid digestion.’
- Eat the same foods as yogis. ‘The yogic, or Sattvic, diet is about eating fresh foods in season, when they are at their most nutritious,’ says Alessandra. ‘So it’s lots of fruits, vegetables, grains, nuts and seeds.’
These foods are full of vitamins and nutrients important for brain and body health; they also provide fibre and release energy slowly, so you’ll feel fuller for longer and be less tempted to overeat.
- The yogic diet is based largely on vegetarian, alkaline foods, meaning acidic foods and drinks, such as coffee and sugary pop, are to be avoided. Fizzy drinks can also be high in calories. Instead, drink plenty of water, especially on the day of your class, to avoid cramps. If you’re sensitive to caffeine, limit your intake, as this may affect your ability to relax and get into the calm state needed for optimum practice.
- A yoga class will stimulate your digestive ‘fire’ or appetite, says Alessandra. After class, she recommends a high-protein, low-carbohydrate meal such as a warm salad with chickpeas and nuts, or lentil soup. This will satisfy the appetite and help repair muscle without losing that post-yoga lightness.
- Keep your diet varied. ‘Each food has its own unique vitamin and mineral profile, so don’t just eat the same thing every day,’ Alessandra says.
- Yogis try to eat at an optimal time for their body to digest food. Work out what time of day your hunger is at its peak, and have your main meal then. Again, this encourages mindful eating and paying attention to the body’s needs. ‘I find I’m most hungry between noon and 4pm,’ says Alessandra. ‘For some, it’s earlier or later, though I wouldn’t recommend having a big meal close to bedtime, as this can disturb sleep.’