The Magic of Yoga

Turns out, the ancient practice helps you shed a lot more than just stress. Learn how striking a pose can slim you down.
The Magic of Yoga
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Every year, it’s the same story: On Dec. 31, you vow that this is the year you’ll hit the gym five days a week and go cold turkey on potato chips to lose weight.

Sound familiar? You’re not alone. Most people know how weight loss works but can’t seem to act on it. “Weight-loss experts think they just need to yell louder when they say to exercise more and not eat unhealthy food,” says Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing. “Everybody gets that message. The problem is, we aren’t giving people a means to implement those changes.” Sure, that resolution to work out like crazy and eat like a cavewoman may help you drop a size—but it’s hardly enjoyable. A more pleasant and doable option: letting yoga tone your body and mellow your brain.

So how does slow-moving yoga (where you only occasionally break a sweat) help you lose weight? It’s the cumulative benefits, many of which link back to mindfulness. “Yoga evokes dozens of mechanisms—it can burn calories, stretch the body, condition the cardiovascular system, reduce cortisol levels, lower blood pressure and even improve brain function,” says McCall. “Taken together, you get big results.” Any kind of yoga helps, whether you’re hitting the studio several times a week or developing a 10- to 15-minute daily home practice with a YouTube routine or DVD.

Make better choices
Yoga’s biggest weight-loss contribution is helping you chill out. “Stress is the primary issue in weight loss,” says Brandt Bhanu Passalacqua, a certified yoga instructor and author of Peaceful Weight Loss Through Yoga, whose own practice helped him drop 100 pounds. “The people who come to me already know everything they need to about how to lose weight. But they feel too busy to take care of themselves.” There’s even a physiological reason stress keeps that muffin top intact: “Many of us are walking around in fight- or-flight mode, pumping stress hormones, including cortisol, into our bodies,” McCall says. “Cortisol is associated with binge eating; high levels cause calories to be very efficiently turned into fat. It’s a double whammy. Yoga has been shown to lower cortisol.”

During yoga, you’re reminded to switch off your brain and focus on the present. In that sense, the practice is similar to meditation—and both breed mindfulness, key for helping you implement the healthy habits you ID’d on New Year’s Eve. “Yoga helps you slow your mind and create more space between thoughts so you notice when a moment of choice is upon you,” says Ashley Turner, a yoga and meditation teacher in Marina Del Rey, Calif. “You’ll start to ask yourself, ‘Do I have the third glass of wine?’ or ‘Do I go for a run?’ Mindfulness helps you observe your thoughts, so you realize you have a choice.” You don’t need to polish off the pizza or finish another season of Homeland tonight. Acknowledging that, Turner says, can be truly empowering.