Many yogis are reminded of their excess when they are attempting a twisting pose and a roll of flesh on the hips or abdomen gets in the way. And while most know the importance of reducing unnecessary fat for health reasons, they may not realize how excess weight can hinder their practice by reducing vitality and restricting range of movement.
In traditional Ayurveda each constitutional body type is said to have both its virtues and weaknesses. Body fat is a product of the kapha dosha, which comprises the elements earth and water and generates the physical substances and structures of the body. By virtue, kapha is grounding in nature and stabilizes your being; however, an excess of kapha in the form of fat can be obstructive and weigh you down in life and yoga.
The challenge of excessive kapha, like fat, is that the more you have, the more difficult it is to eliminate. Excess kapha impairs basic metabolism, restricts circulation, and adds unnecessary weight to your practice. Strong practices such as Ashtanga and vinyasa (flow) styles generate the needed tapas (heat) and sweat necessary to counteract kapha accumulation. They stoke the internal fire, increase pitta dosha, and facilitate the burning of excess body fat through a process known to sports physiologists as thermogenesis. Thermogenesis involves a natural intensification of the metabolism resulting in a conversion of fat into heat.
In addition to practicing stronger forms of yoga, you can safely use several herbs in conjunction with your practice to support the process of weight loss. One such class of herbs is known as thermogenics. These herbs induce thermogenesis and increase the conversion of fat into heat. Bitter orange (citrus aurantium), the mature fruit of the green orange, is one of the safest and works by increasing the metabolic rate, generating heat, and stimulating the breakdown of fat (lipolysis). Plus it has none of the unwanted side effects—high blood pressure, insomnia, and nervous agitation—of some of the inferior herbs that have thermogenic properties.
Another herb is Gymnema sylvestre. Its Hindu name, Gurmar, means "sugar destroying," and it has the ability to reduce blood sugar levels and even anaesthetize the sweet-sensing taste buds, thus reducing sweet cravings and appetite. Gymnema sylvestre has great potential for yogis because long-term use results in a higher ratio of muscle mass to body fat due to increased insulin production.
Guggul is highly recommended by Ayurvedic practitioners to purify and rejuvenate the body. Its weight-reducing properties stem from its ability to lower high blood cholesterol and triglycerides through a thyroid-stimulating effect. Similar to myrrh, guggul reduces kapha and many of its undesirable and excessive manifestations within the body and only slightly increases pitta.
Siberian Ginseng has the unique ability to convert fat tissue back into carbohydrate in the blood. This effect is twofold: It reduces fat reserves and provides needed fuel in muscle tissue for both immediate energy and endurance during yoga.
Kaphas often find it difficult to tap into energy reserves during practice. Yet this can be overcome with the gradual loss of extra body fat; muscle mass increases, energy returns, and asanas requiring twisting or reaching around the hips or thighs become easier to do. But keep in mind that these herbs are not magic pills. Their role is to offer support while you focus on a strong and challenging practice, and if you are persistent, the weight will gradually come off.
James Bailey, L.Ac., M.P.H., Herbalist AHG, practices Ayurveda, Oriental Medicine, acupuncture, herbal medicine, and vinyasa yoga in Santa Monica, California.