It's a new year and every yoga instructor knows what that means. Classes packed with those recommitting to their practice and new students, many of whom come to yoga to shed unwanted pounds (holiday or otherwise.) While this might seem to contradict the yogic goal of acceptance, it actually provides teachers the opportunity to share yoga's far-reaching benefits. But first, you have to meet students where they are.
Over the years, Baron Baptiste, founder of Power Yoga, has worked with many students who have sought out yoga to aid in weight loss. "I tell them they've come to the right place," he says. "But, I also tell them that they will come out of this with so much more than their initial expectation." Baptiste believes that a large part of yoga is personal transformation, both on and off the mat. Weight loss is just the beginning.
Enough of a Burn?
Before you can help your students meet their goals—and learn other lessons yoga can teach—you have to know a little about the science of weight loss. To lose weight, you have to burn more calories than you take in. But since yoga is gentle compared to other forms of exercise, can it really burn enough calories to lose weight?
According to a 2005 study published in Alternative Therapies by Alan R. Kristal, associate head of the Cancer Prevention Program at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle yoga may help individuals trying to lose weight. The study found that overweight participants who practiced yoga regularly over four years shed pounds with yoga. During the same time period, normal weight men and women who practiced yoga were able to more effectively maintain their weight over time.
Sarah Fazendin, who began doing yoga two years ago, is an example of how yoga can change the number on the scale. The marketing executive started an energetic vinyasa yoga practice to shed post-pregnancy weight and lost 15 pounds by committing to a daily practice. "I used to run and go to the gym," Fazendin says. "I hated it and never felt particularly good while I was exercising. Since I started doing yoga, I stopped all of that. Yoga is seriously the best thing that has ever happened to me."
Baptiste agrees that a strong vinyasa practice can accomplish weight loss, but cautions that yoga is only one part of the equation. "If you just look at yoga as cardio fitness to lose weight, it may or may not accomplish results," he says. "The desired result is to come into balance. Yoga is a wonderful way to strengthen the body. Placing healthy demands and healthy stress on the body sparks the metabolism since more muscle burns more calories." He recommends supplementing yoga with exercise that increases a person's heart rate such as walking, cross country skiing or cycling.
Because of yoga's holistic nature, the key to helping students achieve their weight loss goals is not merely teaching the asanas but guiding novices toward mindfulness. The focus on breath, meditation and the ability to be in the present moment, translate off the mat as well.
Another study by Kristal, published in The Journal of the American Dietetic Association in August of 2009, concludes that yoga increases mindfulness during eating. This leads to less weight gain over time, independent of the physical practice of yoga itself.
"Teaching people to sit still and recognize their thoughts, emotions and perceptions around food is part of it," says Kristal. "You need to give yourself enough time to figure out if you're eating because you're hungry or because [the food] looks good."
Traditionally, losing weight has been one dimensional: the combination of diet and exercise. Yoga, on the other hand, provides increased core strength, flexibility, and lean muscle while cleansing and strengthening the digestive system. Rebecca Brenner, nutritionist and owner of Park City Holistic Health in Park City, Utah says, "Digestive health is essential to all health. It will affect the way you break down and assimilate food, vitamins and minerals. If you are not digesting properly, your body will trick you into cravings that can affect your weight loss." If you're going to give your students nutrition advice, suggest eliminating as much processed food as possible and replacing it with whole foods such as fish, chicken, fruit and vegetables, says Brenner.
Fazendin acknowledges that yoga changed her digestion and eating habits as well as her weight. "I noticed my digestion was greatly improved immediately, and then about six months ago I became a vegetarian," she says.
While yoga teacher training discusses proper nutrition as one of the five points of holistic health, Brenner suggests that instructors stay within their range of professional expertise. "If a student was coming to yoga to lose weight, I would encourage them to speak to someone who is nutrition professional," she says. "Nutrition is such a huge part of weight loss and you don't want to give out wrong advice."
So what are the specific steps that you, as a yoga instructor, can recommend to students looking for a more holistic approach to weight loss? Baptiste suggests that students must first commit to a regular practice, three to six days a week. His ideal combination is three days of classes supplemented at home with an instructional DVD. Next, students need to organize the rest of their lives around that commitment, including their practices off the mat. This means cleaning up their diet and ensuring they get enough sleep.
Finally, Baptiste suggests that his students begin a regular meditation practice for 10 to 20 minutes each day. This can be a guided audio meditation or simply sitting quietly to calm the mind. "These steps all affect each other: meditation, diet and practice," Baptiste says. "They all go hand in hand as a triangle and will have a great impact on how you're relating to stress by creating more of it or less of it."
To help students make these transformational changes, it's helpful to consider yourself as more of a mentor than a teacher. Demonstrate to students how yoga naturally creates balance by reducing stress, calming the mind, and connecting spiritually. Allow ample time for meditation at the beginning of each class and guide students as they settle into this reflective state. Throughout the practice remind students how Pranayama translates into daily life, reducing stress and maintaining focus, just as it does in each asana. Lastly, encourage students to accept themselves (and their bodies) just the way they are. By modeling these behaviors you can help novices fully embrace the practice instead of viewing it as simply a means to achieve weight loss.
The most important thing for any new yogi is not just focusing on the immediate goals. "Yoga is really a process of learning about your body, being comfortable in your own skin, and knowing it is a process that you can be in for a whole lifetime," Brenner says.
That means giving it your all and seeing where the practice takes you.
Liz Yokubison is a freelance writer who lives in Park City, Utah. She loves to write about her passions: yoga, mountain living, health and wellness.