‘Can yoga help me lose weight?’ Many students have asked me that question. My answer is, ‘Yes it can!’ – through activity and awareness.
Maintaining the correct weight is like all of the great truths in life – simple, but not easy. It is the balance between the amount of calories taken in and the amount of calories burned off. As stated in the October 2009 Special Report Supplement to [the] Mayo Clinic Health Letter, an important advantage of practicing yoga is that it combines the elements of five different and important kinds of exercise – aerobic, strength training, core stability, flexibility and balance – into a unified form of all-inclusive exercise.
When it comes to yoga, no effort is wasted and every movement matters. We do what we can. It could be a one-hour class 3 times a week, 30 minutes each day, and/or little bits linked to our regular routine. For instance, if each time we sat down in a chair we lifted our arms out in front of us and lowered ourselves slowly and mindfully with our weight in our heels, instead of just plopping down, we’d have added dozens of “flowing chair pose” to our day. The activity of yoga helps us to burn off excess calories. Yoga brings our awareness into our bodies and helps us to pay attention to how movement makes us feel. If we recognize that too much causes pain and damage, and too little leaves us stiff and cranky, we have more incentive to nourish ourselves with the correct amount of movement. If we find what works for us, we are more likely to stick with it.
The awareness we learn in yoga can bring light to unexamined habits. On a recent phone call my son told me he had just run 2 miles and was so proud of himself. But as he was talking he was also drinking a can of soda and reading the label. When he realized it contained more calories than he had burned off during the run he said, “I think that is the last time I’m going to let that happen!” Bingo! Awareness is reading labels and realizing for ourselves that there is nothing to nourish us in processed food filled with fat and sugar.
What do we eat, when do we eat, why do we eat, how do we eat and how does it make us feel? The awareness of yoga brings our minds and bodies together and helps us to notice things about ourselves. For instance I found that counting calories makes me hungry; weighing myself makes me eat more, so I don’t do either. Diet soda tastes nasty and makes me hungry so I don’t touch it. Sweets don’t satisfy me because no matter how much I eat I always want more. With fries and chips I know if I eat one I’m going to eat the whole bag but if I don’t start I really don’t miss them. I know I eat more when I’m stressed or tired or bored and I eat less when I’m engaged in activities that feed my mind and spirit. Yoga relaxes and nourishes me. Conscious choices are more likely to be healthy choices. Healthy choices give us fewer excess calories to deal with.
It doesn’t have to be complicated; we just focus on eating less processed foods high in fat, sugar and salt and more fruits and vegetables high in nutrients and fiber. Any talk of healthy eating has to include the “F” word – fiber! As in “Being older doesn’t make you wiser, it just means you ate enough fiber.” Fiber helps to make us feel full and also moves things along. It is easy to switch to brown rice, whole grain cereal, bread, flour, and pasta.
I was standing in the check out line with my new and improved groceries when the couple behind me commented on how healthy my food choices looked. They then went on to explain why they did not have time to eat that way. I nodded and smiled and thought to myself, what can be quicker, easier, or cheaper than a banana? (Or an apple or a carrot or a sweet potato … you get the idea)
The point is, we don’t need to beat ourselves up with a “boot camp” mentality to maintain the appropriate amount of movement. We don’t need to punish ourselves with “a diet” to ingest the correct amount of healthy calories. The yogic way of eating is the same as the yogic way of moving; very gentle, very effective, and very gradual because it is meant to be a change that lasts for the rest of our lives. When we remember that our body is our friend, we realize that deep down we know that whole body movement along with wholesome nutritious food gives us what we need to be healthy. We can listen to the experts, and take advice from healthy friends, but ultimately we need to learn to trust our own wisdom and to act on it. A friend once told me “Consistency is 80% of the time.” Yoga helps us to pay attention to how we move and what we eat so we can consistently aim for the healthier choice.