Monday, November 27, 2006

The Skinny on Yoga - December Newsletter

Food and weight are such difficult issues for most of us – I can’t think of anyone who has a straightforward relationship with either food, or their weight. As children, we are often rewarded with sweets, or punished by having dessert withheld.

These and many other societal pressures shape our eating habits and self-images. It really doesn’t help most women that all our role models are super-skinny. Not all of us are made to be like that, and we can all be gorgeous, in our own unique way, which is better than the homogenous images we see in the mass media anyway!

Many, many people have asked me if yoga can help weight loss, and my answer is ‘Yes, but…’ As with all things yogic, there are many grey areas. On the most basic level, yoga will help you lose weight by getting you moving and burning more calories than you would sitting on the couch. However, even the sweatiest, most strenuous yoga session burns fewer calories than more traditional aerobic activities like running. So this is part of how it helps, but maybe not the main part.

Secondly, as with all resistance-type activities, you build muscle mass with yoga, so your basal metabolic rate (the amount of calories you need for basic bodily functions like breathing) rises. Muscle uses more energy than fat, even when you are idle, and most committed long-term yogis have high muscle tone.

By far the most important way yoga seems to help with weight loss and management, is that it makes you more conscious of how and what you eat. Unconscious eating habits are largely responsible for the ‘kilo creep’ that sneaks up over time. Once again, there are often emotional uses for food, and yoga can bring these into sharper focus, helping you to deal with your discomfort without having to ‘medicate’ it with food. After a while, you may even find that you want to eat in a healthier way because you are more aware of how food makes you feel.

Ironically, most people who are trying to lose weight are unhappy with themselves as they are, and since they don’t like themselves, they often do things that will sabotage their best efforts at self-control. A regular yoga practice will tend to improve self-image, when you discover that you are stronger or more flexible, possibly more graceful than you thought. You may discover that the breath awareness from a regular yoga practice helps you to be more in the moment and more inside yourself, rather than always reacting to what others expect, what the media tell you should be, and so on.

Becoming more aware may also start to shift your relationship to food, and you might begin to eat for nourishment, rather than to dull the pain of unresolved issues, or because you can’t help yourself, or because you are exhausted…..

I have personally seen some minor miracles with yoga and weight loss – one of the case-study patients I met in India had managed to reduce his weight by 40kg over a period of four years, with very simple yoga, and eating guidelines which he only began to follow several months after he began a regular yoga practice. His rationale was that if yoga was really so powerful, it would make him want to stop overeating, and it did! His success was also partly due to the fact that he knew it was going to be a long-term process – yoga is not a quick fix, since it involves changing your entire lifestyle.

I also lost a considerable amount of weight, primarily from my yoga practice. I lost around 14kgs, and have maintained a healthy weight for years now. I do yoga every day for an hour and a half, and sometimes I pig out on chocolate. It always makes me feel rotten though, and in a few days I come back to eating well. So I know that greater self-awareness is one of the most important aspects to the complicated weight-loss equation.

One thing yoga can’t do, is make you into someone you are not. For instance, I may be slim and wear small sized clothes, but I still look curvy and always will, unless I develop an eating disorder. Mostly I am OK with this, because when I am doing my asana practice, my body feels strong and open, and in some postures, beautiful. I have no idea how it looks – not important! If you are made with hips or a tummy, you will probably always have a little bit extra in that area. Embrace your uniqueness, your perfection as you are now. If you can do that, you may find weight loss disappearing from your to-do list!

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