Achieving and maintaining a healthy body weight has benefits other than appearance, since excess body fat puts you at serious risk for a number of health problems. If your body fat percentage is greater than 30 percent for women or 25 percent for men, your risk of developing diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, and colon or breast cancer increases. So in addition to helping you feel better about yourself—which is crucial for those working to lose weight—yoga can inspire your commitment to better health. Besides putting us in touch with our body, yoga makes physical activity easier and more enjoyable. We’ll be motivated to add more cardiovascular exercise into our routine, thereby accelerating weight loss and helping us reduce the likelihood of developing more health problems.
Clearing Out Your Emotional Closet
There are many reasons why people feel powerless over food and gain weight. We might use food as emotional comfort or to calm our anxiety. Sometimes eating seems the easiest way to feed unfulfilled inner hunger. Often, people rely on fast food to speed them through their too-fast lives. Many simply ignore their bodies’ needs for nutrition and exercise. Regardless of the cause, yoga is an antidote for food oblivion—it slows us down so we experience the body and commune with the spirit. If there are emotionally based reasons why a person eats unwisely, it may be that yoga—especially the relaxation—opens a channel for clearing those emotions.
Relationship With Food
When we practice yoga, we develop a deeper relationship with our body, which eventually translates into more controlled eating. After a yoga class, we feel better, because our soul is happy, our energy is moving, our mind is clear, and we’re tuned in to ourself. In this relaxed state, we’re more likely to fix something nourishing rather than grab the first food we crave.
And yoga works where diets often fail. Yoga—unlike dieting—is not about depriving ourselves to look a certain way. Instead, it helps us enjoy every movement and savor every bite of food we take. Yoga is about going deep inside and discovering who we are right now. Yoga helps us accept ourselves at any size, looking lovingly and realistically at how we got where we are today, without blame or shame.
However, shunning diets doesn’t excuse a person from eating well. We all must take responsibility for our food choices. To feel good, we need to implement balanced, healthy eating habits. We usually think of discipline, especially diets, as punishment. But the word ‘discipline’ is actually from the word disciple. In yoga we become disciples, people willingly, excitedly following a new way of doing something to enhance our way of life. By regularly practicing yoga, our habits and choices improve, and we begin living consciously.
Besides nurturing self-acceptance, yoga offers physiological benefits. Yoga may not bring us to the point of burning off that last 10 pounds but we do experience muscle toning. Standing poses in particular tone and trim our legs, hips, buttocks, and abdomen, while developing stability and strong muscles. Building the large muscle groups increases the muscle-to-fat ratio, which speeds weight loss since muscle burns calories quickly.
In addition, yoga increases energy and circulation, which contribute to overall well-being. Yogic breathing oxygenates our body, helping our metabolism function at a higher level. Vinyasa, with its fast-paced, continuous motion, raises the heart rate, though not to the extent of cardiovascular exercise. However, focusing solely on burning calories misses the point of yoga.
The cardinal rule in yoga is to honor our own ability, no matter what our weight is. Driving ourselves too hard is an invitation to injury and discouragement. Stay true to who we are, just tickling our personal edge—the place in a pose between what we can do easily and where it becomes more difficult than is safe. In yoga, we receive the full benefit by respecting our own level of comfort, ability, strength, and flexibility. We undercut the process if we start comparing ourselves to somebody else.
Gentle yoga is essential for someone of substantial size. Work slowly and softly rather than becoming more frustrated than before you start. It’s when people fail at exercise—when they don’t feel comfortable in a class—that they go out and eat from frustration, stress, and anxiety.
If you have difficulty bending, kneeling, or lying on the floor, start with very gentle yoga that can be done in a chair or in bed. Light stretches and attention to the breath leave you feeling deeply relaxed but invigorated. Once you’re comfortable with gentle movement, you can try other levels, using modifications and props. For instance, a series of asanas—including the classic Sun Salutation—can be done in a chair or with a chair for support. Many people with a few extra pounds are incredibly flexible. Conversely, many thin people are quite stiff.
No matter how well-meaning a thin yoga teacher is, she or he has probably never experienced yoga as a person of girth. That’s why it’s important for you to know your abilities and keep your practice safe—but just challenging enough—for you.
Common concerns for us heavy people include reaching arms above our heads, folding into a forward bend (and being able to breathe once we’re there!), sitting cross-legged, holding a pose for a length of time, and experiencing back and knee strain due to added weight around the middle. But in yoga there are always solutions. Place a bolster under the knees to alleviate back strain when lying down; when seated cross-legged on the floor, fold a blanket under your rear. If you can’t reach your arms around your knees to pull them to your chest when lying down, a belt will extend your reach.
We don’t have to sacrifice a posture if our body doesn’t bend like a pretzel. But be sure to honor both the posture and your own body. Err on the side of caution. For instance, if your weight stresses your lower back, proceed slowly, with awareness. If you gently and gradually work into postures such as Cobra and Boat, you can strengthen your back.
Balancing poses require special attention. People of substance run a greater risk of spinal injury in inverted balancing poses and should avoid them. When a heavy person does Headstand, she or he needs considerably more muscle power to correct a slight wobble than a lean person needs to correct the same degree of imbalance, she explains. (Tree Pose, on the other hand, develops balance and is safe for full-sized bodies.) And take credit for your own strength.
Props can help you fully benefit from yoga, compensating for tight joints, limited flexibility, or arms that don’t reach around an expansive body. Props get us to a level in a pose where we feel comfortable and can improve. The key to success in yoga for anybody carrying extra weight is to modify. Accept where you are and don’t be afraid to experiment with modifications.
Often, a pillow beneath the forehead can make it easier to settle into Child’s Pose, or a strap can help open the hips and hamstrings. Don’t worry whether modifications are kosher. Yoga is about being comfortable. The definition of asana in the Yoga Sutra is ‘a comfortable and steady pose. But the word used for ‘comfort’ is sukha, which also means ‘happiness.’ If what you do brings happiness, then you’re doing real yoga.
Practice Brings Patience
Yoga involves so much stretching. There are downward stretches, side stretches, intellectual stretches, and emotional stretches. Indeed, both processes—learning yoga and losing weight—require patience and perseverance. A yoga practice takes time to cultivate; likewise, unwanted pounds won’t disappear overnight.
Because it fuses spiritual with physical practice, yoga offers a path for self-discovery and self-acceptance. Through it, I’m more attuned to my needs and feel better physically and emotionally.
No, yoga won’t always keep you from noshing on nachos.
Yet you’ll respect yourself more than before you started yoga, and be more likely to acknowledge your successes: small ones like holding Downward-Facing Dog for four breaths instead of two, big ones like taking a meditation break instead of a cookie break.