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November 02, 2005

The 5,000-Year-Old Weight-Loss Plan

I recently returned to yoga after several fits and starts over the years.  Recognizing my tendency to be gung ho for short periods of time about new ventures on my part, I’m very cautiously optimistic about the potential of this centuries-old method to help me in my quest to be physically active and enjoy it. So when Eleanor Kohlsaat, whom we heard from a couple of weeks ago on this blog, sent me this piece to post on the blog, I was excited to share it.  To me, it underscores the fact that yoga isn’t just another method to lose weight - it’s an inroad to changing the way you think and act, paving the way to those healthy lifestyles that often seem unattainable.  As far as the 10-year follow-up study goes, I’d wager it exists because the yoga lifestyle is something that’s easy to stay with.  Hence, the researchers were able to find 15, 500 people who had practiced yoga for 10 years.  Try to find that many people who’ve followed the latest weight loss scheme for that long.

Some folks have tried everything to lose weight except standing on their heads. Now, it turns out, standing on your head is not such a bad idea.

According to new research, doing yoga regularly may prevent midlife weight gain and actually help practitioners shed a few pounds. In a study of 15,500 people between the ages of 53 and 57, published in a recent issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine, those who practiced yoga regularly lost about five pounds over 10 years, while those who didn’t do yoga gained about 13.5 pounds over the same span.

As is usual with emerging health news, this announcement was soon followed by contradictory reports. An article in the Washington Post disputed the supposed link between yoga and weight loss, pointing out that because yoga does not meet the American College of Sports Medicine’s criteria for moderate-intensity exercise, the pounds lost by participants in the study were likely not the result of the calories burned while doing yoga. Instead, the article suggested that people who do yoga are already more concerned about their bodies and more inclined to eat healthfully.

It’s true that yoga is not generally an aerobic exercise -- the kind you’re supposed to do if you want to burn calories and lose weight. With the exception of a few variations that emphasize constant flowing motion, yoga focuses mostly on gentle stretching, breathing, posture and alignment. Could it still conceivably prevent weight gain?

I asked Jill Johnson, my yoga teacher at Ancient Healing Arts yoga studio in downtown Lebanon, N.H. I attend Johnson’s early morning class on Wednesdays, and I can vouch for one thing at least: headstands are not compatible with big breakfasts.

“From my own experience,” Johnson agreed, “because I can’t eat two hours before I practice or teach, it keeps me from eating frequently or from eating large amounts.”

But, she added, yoga’s effects go further than that. (After all, it’s not always practical to do a few downward-facing dog poses every time you get the urge to snack.) Johnson explained a regular yoga practice helps to cultivate a sense of equilibrium and the desire to avoid excess, both on and off the mat. “You learn to practice moderation in all aspects of your life.”

But how exactly does yoga inspire people to change their lifestyles? One theory is offered by Dr. Timothy McCall, a yoga practioner and a specialist in internal medicine, writing in the fall program guide of the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Lenox, Mass.  In his article, “Yoga as a Technology for Life Transformation,” McCall describes seeing patients who sincerely wanted to improve their diets, exercise regularly and stop smoking, yet couldn’t stick with their programs.

“The more I’ve studied yoga,” McCall writes, “the more I’ve become convinced that it offers the piece doctors and public health authorities are missing: a way to implement the changes people want to make.”

According to McCall, the ancient yogis had a word for habits of action and thought: samskaras. He compares samskaras to ruts in a muddy road, an image that might seem particularly vivid to some twin state residents. “From the yogic perspective,” McCall writes, “every time you do or think something, you increase the likelihood that you will do it or think it again. That’s true of both desirable and undesirable things.”

The key, the ancient yogis believed, was to replace the negative habits with positive ones, and to repeat those positive habits over and over -- as you would in a regular yoga practice. Each time you replace a bad habit with a healthy alternative, you are building a different road for yourself. Eventually the new samskaras begin to feel more comfortable than the old ones.

As Johnson puts it, “As you practice more, you come to prefer a feeling of lightness in the stomach vs. heaviness.”

What makes the yogic approach so intriguing is that it goes far beyond the old “eat less, exercise more” formula that so many people know they should adopt but somehow can’t. In my four years of regular yoga practice, I’ve become more aware of how my body feels at any given moment and less willing to subject it to unnecessary punishment. Yoga puts you and your body on the same team. Instead fighting a battle of wills each time you drive past the Dunkin’ Donuts, you suddenly recognize that inhaling a jelly-filled might not be in your best interest.

So even if your half hour or so on the mat every day is not creating a huge caloric deficit, its effects are spilling over into the rest of your life, causing you to make healthier choices in general.

Some would argue that weight loss is not really the main objective of this 5,000-year-old system of philosophy and spirituality, and they have a point. What does Johnson think of the millions of Americans flocking to the ancient practice of yoga in pursuit of eternal youth and a “yoga butt”?

“I’m fine with people starting yoga for the purpose of weight loss,” Johnson said. “It really doesn’t matter what brings people to yoga, only that they come.”

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Posted by Marsha on November 2, 2005 | Permalink


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