September 3, 2010

Can yoga help me lose weight?

It’s not the question most commonly asked of a yoga teacher, but definitely ranks up there.

And since I don’t teach the kind of frenetic, fast-paced, sweat-dripping down your limbs type of yoga class anymore, whenever I’m asked if yoga helps with weight loss, the wise-ass in me wants to say, “Absolutely: since you’re not eating while practicing yoga, yoga definitely helps.”

Luckily I know when to muffle my inner wise-ass and provide more sensitive responses. The answer that actually comes out of my mouth is something sober about total amount of calories you can burn in yoga versus more dynamic exercise. But the fact is that the answer is a lot longer and few people have enough interest or patience to hear it.

I once saw Suzanne Deason’s “Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss” DVD and expected at least some sweat to roll off the participants’ forehead here and there. Just like I expected the “Better Sex Through Yoga” DVD to actually contain something different than what I was already practicing or teaching. But no on both counts. (Which I suppose means I could do a “Make A Million Dollars A Year Through Yoga” DVD, use the same poses, and argue that it applies too, but I digress.) The point is that the approach to weight loss espoused in Suzanne’s DVD is that you lose weight not by increasing how many calories you burn but by increasing how conscious you are of your body, your body’s cues for hunger, and generally speaking, how conscious you are, period, in your daily living.

The thing is, weight loss wasn’t a particular focus of those yoga dudes and dudettes who accumulated and passed wisdom down through the ages. They didn’t care if you could handle your love handles or not. They wanted the whole caboodle – total body health, total mental health, total emotional and spiritual health. They were the original health nuts. So they left us a legacy of how to breathe well, arrange our bodies into positions that can restore the natural length and flexibility, achieve balance in our inner and outer worlds, and tricks to get our minds and emotions to be less scattered. But they couldn’t tell us not to do stupid things we hadn’t come up with yet. Nowhere in the Vedas, the Yoga Sutras or the Bhagavad Gita do you have someone spell out, “Don’t eat sugar. That doesn’t mean ‘don’t add sugar to your cereal.’ That means, ‘Check your cereal, because it probably already has sugar.’ And while you’re at it, check your ketchup, your bread, your frozen entrees, your canned foods, your tomato sauces (and everything they go on), your healthy drinks, your unhealthy drinks, and if it ends in –ose, it’s sugar, baby. Sucrose, fructose, dextrose… and all those clever names like ’dehydrated cane juice’ ‘evaporated cane crystals‘ ‘rice syrup’ and everything else they use to hide the fact that while you think you’re having it in moderation, you’re actually continually pumping yourself more full of sugar than a kid at Halloween.” Nor did they say, “Oh, and by the way, don’t eat food that’s been stripped of its nutritional value like white rice and white wheat. Your body knows the difference, feels short-changed and remains hungry and on the lookout for more food.” Nope, they didn’t say that. For that matter, they didn’t specifically say anything about hydrogenated fats, diet colas, artificial sweeteners, canned or frozen items, or microwave ovens. They were interested in the big picture, because when you take care of the big picture not only does your body find its ideal weight but you also get a host of other benefits, such as being centered, enjoying the full spectrum of physical and emotional health and leading a life of conscious choices. So, can yoga help me lose weight? A yoga class here and there while mainlining syrupy drinks or maxing out my dinner every night isn’t going to do diddly-squat for weight loss. It’s still good to practice yoga for mental, spiritual and emotional benefits, and you can know that at some point the practice of yoga will tip your attention and interest toward balancing out your eating and your emotions and help you to become wiser and act on consciously-taken choices. Which may be why Suzanne Gleason’s Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss DVD actually works. Now, anybody up for a big Mac? Just kidding.

Photo credit: Yukari

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