Gina Kornrumpf had struggled with her weight all her life. The results of her on-again, off-again dieting were discouraging, and only served to fuel her preoccupation with the numbers on her scale. She led an active life—traveling, bike riding, and exercising—but that didn't seem to help her shed the extra pounds or get her higher-than-normal blood pressure under control. By the time she topped 207 pounds in 2008, she realized she needed a new plan. "A friend of mine is passionate about yoga, and encouraged me to at least consider trying it," Kornrumpf says. So she registered at the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health's Integrative Weight Loss program, a residential immersion program that incorporates multiple aspects of healthy living in an integrative approach to weight management.
The program includes twice-daily yoga classes, pranayama instruction, nutritional counseling and cooking demonstrations, life coaching, sharing circles, and mindful-eating exercises, with yogic philosophy as a foundation for assimilating the information. Within 18 months of completing the weeklong workshop, Kornrumpf had lost 47 pounds. Her blood pressure dropped from 140/90 to a healthy 120/70, and her cholesterol settled within normal ranges. Today, she says, "I feel fit; I feel healthy, lighter, happier, and more open."
Yoga may not be the first thing that comes to mind when you're formulating a weight loss plan, but recent studies linking yoga with mindful eating and weight loss suggest that maybe it should be. The combined effects of the self-acceptance, increased body awareness, and inward reflection that are natural byproducts of a regular yoga practice can increase your ability to achieve and maintain a healthy weight, and can have a positive impact, whether you're significantly overweight, just wanting to lose a few pounds, or struggling with a body-image problem despite being at a healthy weight.
"Yoga may not be a glamorous, quick fix to weight loss, but it creates fundamental shifts that lead to lasting change," says Ashley Turner, a yoga teacher and psychotherapist in Los Angeles and New York and the creator of the Element DVD Yoga for Weight Loss. Turner says that yoga's emphasis on self-acceptance is the key to creating such transformation. Unlike traditional methods such as diets and exercise boot camps, yoga philosophy teaches students to approach the body with compassion, understanding, and friendship.
"Yoga teaches us that what is in this moment is perfect," says Turner. "And it's possible to maintain that non-judgment and compassion, even as we strive for self-improvement." With this mind-set, her clients can get on the mat and enjoy the experience of being physical. On an emotional level, practicing self-acceptance makes it easier for you to truly observe your habits and get to the root of what has caused the weight gain. "Such an internal process might take longer to see the physical results, but it is a much more effective and sustainable course in the long run," says Turner. She adds that this slow, steady, consistent approach is, in fact, crucial for keeping the weight off. "The Yoga Sutra of Patanjali outlines how lasting change is only possible from focused, inner work," she says.
Begin With the First Step
Turner, whose approach combines asana with nutritional and psychological counseling, notices that her clients and students are bombarded with media messages about what a beautiful body looks like, messages that tell us to look outside ourselves for validation and acceptance. But trying to live up to an ideal that is unrealistic and often unhealthy is likely to backfire, Turner says, especially when used as a motivator for weight loss. John Bagnulo, PhD, nutritionist for Kripalu's weight loss program agrees, adding that people often develop a false sense of what their body should look like, and yoga can help them work through that. "Western diets encourage people to ask the 'should' questions. How long should I work out? How many calories should I eat every day?" he says. Yoga, on the other hand, suggests kinder and ultimately more transformative questions like, How do I feel in my body right now? What choices can I make that are healthier for my whole being?
Liz Dunn, a massage therapist in Cheshire, Connecticut, lost 125 pounds over a year and a half and says that the self-acceptance she learned through yoga was a crucial part of her weight loss journey. "When you're that size, your thoughts are dominated by things like 'I can't sit in that chair,' and 'I can't do this or that.' But yoga taught me that I'm OK where I am today. Yoga was like a warm, welcoming embrace saying, 'Let's find you and take time to just be here, now.'" This, Dunn says, is what enabled her to get past the plateaus that invariably accompany significant weight loss over a long period of time. "I never set weight loss goals; I just integrated yoga into my view of how I was physically in the world," she says. "That made it OK when I hit those plateaus and wouldn't lose any weight for weeks, which is when a lot of people give up."
Turner finds that self-acceptance gives students the courage to inquire within about what is at the root of their struggle with weight, and identify the underlying thoughts or emotional stirrings that cause them discomfort and contribute to actions that aren't serving their weight loss goals.
When you feel the urge to overeat, Turner suggets asking yourself questions like "What am I really hungry for?" and "What is truly causing me stress, and what do I really need in this moment?" Maybe it's a walk around the block, or a phone call with a friend. The ability to observe your feelings without judgment becomes a tool that helps you figure out what you need from moment to moment, says Turner. Then, instead of automatically reacting to a stressful situation with established patterns like reaching for comfort food, you can learn to recognize the moment of choice. "We can simply notice that we can choose to eat more or not. Either way, there is no judgment," she says.
Wendy Althoff, an actuary in New York City who had been overweight all her life, expected to feel out of place when she took her first yoga class in 2005. "Sure enough, I was the largest person there," she says. "In fact, you probably could have added the two people on the mats next to me together, and I still would have weighed more." After she went to class regularly for several months, Althoff's focus subtly shifted from the other students in the class to her own experience. "I didn't realize this was happening until one day after class a student told me I had a lovely practice," she says. "I was shocked to realize that I couldn't return the compliment. I had absolutely no idea what her practice looked like, because I may as well have been in that room by myself. It had become my own practice."
Althoff, who today teaches yoga at her office and is enrolled in the Integrated Science of Hatha, Tantra, and Ayurveda (ISHTA) teacher training program in New York City, says this shift was a turning point in the way she felt about her weight. "In class, when you stop worrying about what you can't do, you appreciate where you are now," she says. "Yoga taught me to give myself a break. I no longer think things like 'I'll be happy when I weigh 150.' I'm slowly shedding the weight I've been carrying for so long."
From the Inside Out
Physically, a dynamic yoga practice burns calories and can increase strength, stamina, and metabolism. A 2009 pilot study at the University of Pittsburgh demonstrated that a 12-week yoga program successfully helped participants lose weight, decrease their blood sugar and triglyceride levels, and lower their blood pressure. But the benefits of putting in time on the mat go even further: An asana practice is another way to build much-needed body awareness. "When I first started doing yoga, I couldn't feel my body," says Dunn. "It felt like my head was completely disconnected from the rest of my body, which was how I managed to get to that weight in the first place." Though in the beginning the poses were difficult for her, Dunn says their effect on her was immediate. "Yoga created an awareness—of my fingers, my toes, my breathing. It was a complete awakening for me."
In a recent study by researchers at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, people who practiced yoga were found to be more likely to eat mindfully—that is, to be aware of why they ate and to stop eating when full. They were also found to weigh less than those who ate when they weren't hungry, or in response to anxiety or depression. The researchers concluded that the increased body awareness (specifically a sensitivity to hunger and satiety) learned through yoga had a greater effect on participants' weight than did the exercise aspect of the practice.
This suggests that yoga leads to a greater sensitivity to how the body responds to food, and therefore naturally leads to better food choices. "It's all about listening to your body," says Kripalu's Bagnulo. In Kripalu's weight loss program, conscious-eating exercises aim at creating a deeper awareness of the connection between the body and the food that goes into it, and teaching participants to become more in tune with the body's signals and messages.
"Yoga put me in my body, so that I have a five-sensory experience of what it feels like to feel good," says Cheryl Kain, who completed the Kripalu program in 2006. "I can make a decision about what to eat from a full-body wisdom, rather than just from my head."
Our Bodies, Ourselves
Of course, a yoga practice for weight loss is not one size fits all. In Kripalu's weight loss program, participants are encouraged to explore a variety of yoga classes, ranging from restorative to vigorous, in order to discover what kind of yoga can best facilitate their weight loss. For example, someone who has trouble handling stress might choose a restorative approach, while someone whose metabolism is slowing as they age might look to a more vigorous practice.
Turner advises her clients who want to lose weight that their physical yoga practice should be well rounded and comfortably challenging. She adds that how challenging a practice is for each individual will depend on their experience with yoga and their fitness level to begin with. She recommends practicing a minimum of three times a week if your goal is to lose weight, and working at a level that feels like a healthy challenge. "Sweating and increased heart rate are indications of that," she says.
For the greatest weight loss benefit, Turner says, your practice should have variety. "If you do the same thing all the time, your muscles will adapt," she says. In the sequence on pages 74 to 79, for example, she suggests practicing it one day as a flow, and another day holding each pose for 30 seconds to a minute. When that starts to feel comfortable, she says, you might try adding a Sun Salutation between each pair of poses. Turner also advises trying different styles of yoga and different teachers, and mixing in other physical activities like walking, hiking, or swimming as ways of moving out of your body's comfort zone and toward enjoying what it feels like to really challenge your body in a healthy, sustainable way.
For people who feel less than comfortable going to a public yoga class, Althoff suggests that practicing poses with a DVD (particularly one that modifies poses for larger bodies so that you can learn to move your body safely) or a private instructor can help you become more comfortable, as can getting a like-minded friend to go to class with you at first.
Five years after losing 125 pounds, Liz Dunn says she never worries about gaining back the weight she lost. She practices asana and meditation daily, "Because life goes on," she says. "It's truly the unity of settling into oneself and the physicality of yoga that is so transformative."
Yoga helped Meghan Bowen, a vinyasa yoga teacher in Santa Monica, California, lose 20 pounds over the course of two years, something she says she was able to do once she learned to read her body's subtle cues about what it really needed. "I had been trying to tell my body what it needed, instead of letting my body tell me," she says. "Yoga taught me to tune in to my body and my sensory experience, and to start trusting the intelligence inside of me."
Once she stopped trying to lose weight, Bowen says, it was no longer a struggle. "The biggest shift was realizing that it had to be a moment-to-moment approach, rather than looking three months out and having a goal," she says. "Yoga teaches moving away from a desired outcome, and moving toward tuning in to what's going to serve my body—what's going to feed my body in a healthy way in this moment."
Get in the Flow: Sequence by Ashley Turner
This flowing sequence is designed to build physical strength and to tone and engage your core and leg muscles. As you move through the poses, notice your inner dialogue and the language you use to describe your body. If you start to scold yourself, see if you can soften your gaze, smile, and let go of those judgments.
Throughout your practice, focus on your breath when difficult emotions or agitated thoughts arise. Even something as simple as noticing how the quality of your breathing changes when you feel anxious or stressed can be illuminating. Where do you feel tension in your body? When you soften and release that area of the body, does the quality of your breath change? The more you tune in to sensation—both on and off the mat—the more you can tell if something enhances you or depletes you, whether it's getting an extra hour of sleep or having an extra helping at dinner.
To Begin: Stand tall at the front of your mat in Tadasana (Mountain Pose), with your palms pressed together in Anjali Mudra (Salutation Seal), your eyes closed, and your head bowing to your heart. Silently acknowledge your efforts for showing up. Begin with three to five Sun Salutations to warm up your entire body. Focus on the quality of your breath and try to distribute it evenly throughout your whole body. During the sequence, concentrate on transitioning mindfully between poses, without holding your breath.
1. Flow Between Warrior Pose II and Extended Side Angle Pose
From Adho Mukha Svanasana (Downward-Facing Dog Pose), step your right foot forward between your hands and bring your left heel to the ground at a 45-degree angle. See that your right knee is directly over your foot, and distribute your weight evenly across both feet. Inhale and rise up into Warrior Pose II, with yours arms reaching out to the sides. Exhale, pause, and straighten your front leg. Check your stance by looking down to see that your ankles are under your wrists.
Then exhale and bend your right knee again and come into Utthita Parsvakonasana (Extended Side Angle Pose), placing your right fingertips to the outside of your right foot (or on a block) and extending your left arm over your left ear. On an inhalation, draw your navel in and engage your core as you rise back up to Warrior II. Repeat 2 to 4 more times on the right side to build strength and heat. Switch sides by turning your right foot in and your left foot out. Repeat 3 to 5 times on the left side.
2. Flow Between Goddess and Temple Pose
From Warrior II on the left side, exhale and straighten your left leg. Bring your hands to your hips and turn both feet out 45 degrees (stepping the feet a little closer to each other if needed). Roll your weight to the outside edges of your feet and engage your core. On an exhalation, lower your hips until your knees are bent as close to a 90-degree angle as possible, and directly over your ankles. Draw your tailbone down toward your heels, and draw your hip points up. Inhale and reach your arms out to the sides.
Exhale and bring your left forearm to your left thigh or, if you are able, your left fingertips to the floor. Inhale deeply and come back up to center, using your core. Exhale and bring your right forearm to the right thigh, or your right fingertips to the floor. Repeat 2 to 3 more times on each side, breathing deeply. When you're finished, straighten your legs, turn your feet forward, and bring your hands to your hips. Come to a seated position on your mat.
3. Flow Between Table and Boat Pose
Sit with your legs in front of you, knees bent, feet parallel and hip-width apart. Place your hands behind you, shoulder-distance apart, with your fingers pointed in toward yourself. (If that creates too much strain in your shoulders, point your hands away from yourself.) Roll your shoulder blades down your back and lift up through your chest.
Push through your hands and feet equally and, on an inhalation, lift your hips and come into Table Pose. Look down and see that your inner thighs are parallel. As you inhale, press through all four corners of your feet and lift your hips a little higher, moving your tailbone toward your knees. If it's comfortable for your neck, slowly let your head release back. Feel free to stay for 2 to 3 breaths if you have the strength. On an exhalation, slowly release into sitting position.
Bring your fingertips to the back of your legs. On an inhalation, lift your chest and sternum. On an exhalation, relax your shoulders and lean back onto the top of your sitting bones. On an inhalation, lift your feet off the floor, knees bent, so that the thighs are angled about 45 degrees relative to the floor. Reach your arms forward, and, if you can, straighten your legs. Inhale and lift your chest and thighs a little higher, drawing your navel in toward your spine. Release your feet to the floor as you exhale. Repeat moving from Table Pose to Boat Pose 3 to 4 more times.
4. Single Leg Raises
Lie down on your back. Extend both legs up at a 90-degree angle (or, for an easier variation, bend the knees), feet hip-width apart. Rest your arms by your sides, palms facing the floor. Press through the balls of your feet, spreading your toes. On an inhalation, draw your navel toward your spine (there will be a natural curve in your lower back). On an exhalation, slowly lower your right foot until it hovers 6 inches above the floor.
Inhale and pause, bringing the navel to the spine. Exhale and lift your right leg as your left leg descends. Inhale and pause, flexing your feet and spreading your toes. Repeat 3 to 5 more times. On an exhalation, bring both knees to your chest. Close your eyes, wrap your arms around your knees, and breathe into your lower back.
To Finish: Take a simple twist to each side. Start by drawing your knees into your chest. Then drop both knees over to the right, keeping the spine aligned. Keep your left knee directly over your right knee. Place your right hand on the left knee to keep the legs down. Extend your left arm out to the left and look over your left shoulder. Hold for 3 to 5 breaths, feeling the breath sweep up and down the spine. Bring your legs back to the midline and twist to the other side.
Come into Savasana (Corpse Pose). Relax for 5 to 15 minutes. Slowly return to a simple cross-legged position. Sit tall with your hands in Anjali Mudra. Close your eyes and bow inward, acknowledging your efforts.
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