April 29, 2011

The Real Truth about Yoga & Weight Loss.

Photo: Lululemon Athletica

Recently I was at a late afternoon cocktail party and was standing with a group of attractive, smart and well educated women.

Their jobs were impressive: an Actuary, Interior Designer, and Executive with one of Hartford, Connecticut’s major insurance companies. In that moment, with half a glass of wine warming my body. I felt good about life and content with who I was. I was enjoying the conversation when it turned to bodies and weight and getting into “shape.” When the talk turned to comparing and joining various local gyms, I made it a point to suggest yoga. This is new for me as I shy away from self-marketing but this time I decided to risk it. “Have any of you considered checking out a yoga class or a yoga studio?” Not exactly a direct invitation to my studio but close enough.

Photo: Bark

“I was considering trying yoga,” said the Actuary, “but I decided to join the gym instead because I really have to do something that will help me lose weight. I ate way too much over the winter.” She then looked down at her belly. I followed her eyes and was having a hard time seeing any fat underneath the waistband of her skirt. In that moment, I moved from being content with who I was to becoming painfully aware that the Actuary had far less fat on her body than I, the yoga teacher, did.

The other women in the group nodded in agreement, understanding that none of us should be satisfied with the current state of our bodies, or accept our fat — real or imagined, and if we have the audaciousness to do just that, then we are suspect. To accept ourselves just as we are, with warts, wrinkles or rolls of fat, says complacency, laziness and shame. Then she turned her gaze towards me and briefly scanned me from head to toe and asked,

Does yoga help with weight loss?

I sell out and give the easy answer, the one we are all looking for, which is “yes”. But the real answer is more complex. Yoga does facilitate weight loss but not in the ways we might expect. When we slow down on our yoga and/or meditation mat to pause and breathe, we naturally reduce stress levels in the body and this response is helpful to encourage our natural weight. Stress can lead to binge-ing and out-of-control eating. A decrease of stress hormones in the body influences how we burn and store our fat. Remarkably stress reduction is only one component of yoga and weight loss.

Unlike the gym, yoga is not a “put your time on the mat and burn the corresponding amount of calories” type of gig. I once heard that a moderate yoga class with standing poses, back bends and twists (not a restorative practice) burns as much calories as driving a car. Not too promising of a fat-melting return.

But the good news is that yoga works in a way that is so much more beautiful and brilliant than that. A yoga practice is an hour or so where we meet our selves on our mat, with all of our strengths and vulnerabilities, where we continuously pay attention to what is happening in the present moment and respond skillfully and without judgment. This could be adjusting a pose on the yoga mat so that it doesn’t hurt anymore (even if this means not being perfect) or off of the yoga mat — noticing cues in our environment and attending to them in a way that supports us without compromising our self or others.

We not only strengthen our container when we practice yoga, but we strengthen our ability to witness, discern and compassionately apply our skills. We start small, on a yoga mat, and eventually translate this art and skill to our daily lives.

This practice of awareness has a definite influence on our weight. The more we practice yoga, the more we notice the subtleties of how we view and treat our bodies.

Each session on the mat makes it harder and harder to do destructive things to the body like stuff yourself and feel awful for hours afterwords about what you ate. It gets harder to skip meals when you are hungry. You begin to discern how you feel when you eat this food or that food, when you eat too much or too little. It becomes difficult to eat junk food.

Photo: Maui Time Weekly

Actually, I have found that when presented with junk food, I am simply no longer interested.

I used to feel powerless around certain foods such as cookies or potato chips yet somewhere along the way in my yoga journey I realized that junk food had lost its allure. Unhealthy food no longer had power over me as I recognized that I don’t want to physically or psychologically feel bad later. If I do eat a potato chip or two, I don’t obsess or beat myself up. I refuse to get caught in that cycle. With a regular yoga practice, you become skillful at listening to your body and treating your body with care and respect. This process of awareness will help you get to your natural weight. This is not necessarily your skinniest weight but something that is actually healthy.

Yoga not only influences our weight and our health but also how we feel about our body. I know from first-hand experience that how we feel about our body has nothing to do with our actual weight.

14 years ago I weighed 260 lbs. This was after nursing a baby for six months. A baby that had finally come following 8 years of longing and infertility. I was fat yet so trusting of my body that had grown and birthed and fed such a beautiful healthy being. I was elated that I was finally a mother. Even though I was proud of the work my body had done, I wanted to lose the extra weight because it felt cumbersome. I did not feel like myself. I knew I had my work cut out for me but decided to take it off one pound at a time.

Unfortunately, something happened in my pursuit for losing weight. I stopped listening to signals of suffering in my body and became obsessed. I exercised 2 hours a day and ate 1400 calories. When I had eaten my allotment for the day, I usually went to bed because I was so hungry and it was painful to stay up and starve. This went on for over a year. When I had taken off all my weight and weighed 130 pounds, my lowest weight ever, I became severely depressed. It didn’t matter that I had a beautiful life. What mattered was my size. Why couldn’t I weigh less — like 120 pounds? Why couldn’t I be the next size down? For all my hard work, those seemed like numbers that I deserved to be. And what was going to happen if I exercised less or ate just a little bit more? How could I keep up this grueling amount of exercise and severe restriction of calories? At 130 pounds, the skinniest I had ever been, I lived in pain and fear.

I am thankful that I found yoga before I did any more damage to my body and self-esteem. I no longer weigh 130 pounds but I do not weight any where near 265 pounds either. I work with body acceptance every day and I don’t know if my demons will ever completely go away, but it has been yoga that helped me to identify and quiet those toxic voices and has given me the skills to heal. It was during a long holding of bridge pose guided with lots of attention to sensation and breath that I realized I could no longer go on the way I was. I needed to change.

It has been a slow process with many twists and turns, and some setbacks here and there, but I feel so much more free and at ease with life. I now devote my time to what makes me feel passionate, open, and alive instead of what makes me lose weight. I no longer base the worth of my life on the size of my body. My life no longer depends on being thin. If we base our happiness on the size or shape of our body then our safety and self-identity is fragile. Suffering is right around the corner.

Photo: Lululemon Athletica

If we understand that the size of our body is separate from the size of our lives then we are on the more expansive path of body acceptance. No matter our weight, size, shape, age, injury, or disability, yoga is a practice that when done under the veils of breath, slowing down, feeling the sensations in our body, compassionate awareness and surrender, we eventually find a way to befriend our body. We expand our viewpoint instead of limiting it. At the end of yoga class in relaxation when most students are wide open, I often ask them to thank their bodies. Really thank their bodies. Breathe in gratitude to every cell.

I ask them to thank their bodies and also realize that they are so much more than just a body. All of our bodies hold a sacred and precious being.


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