I’ve been practicing yoga for years, and I love how it makes me feel and all the health benefits it brings. But I never thought it could be helpful with weight loss. After all, yoga is often slow-paced and gentle, focusing on breathing, balance, and flexibility, not on burning calories. Sometimes I finish a yoga class without even breaking a sweat.
Turns out, when it comes to yoga and weight loss, I was looking at it all wrong. Of course, you’ll burn some calories when you practice yoga. (How many you burn depends on how long and how intensely you practice as well as your size.) But the calories you burn are just a tiny part of the overall role yoga can play in your weight-loss efforts.
“Weight loss is pretty complicated,” Samantha Cassetty, a registered dietitian based in New York City and the co-author of “Sugar Shock,” told TODAY. “People often think of this ‘calories in/calories out equation, but that over-emphasizes the role of burning calories through exercise.”
It’s the other benefits you gain from yoga that can help you lose weight. “Yoga offers benefits that assist in overall well-being and support your weight-management goals,” Jacque Crockford, an American Council on Exercise-certified personal trainer and exercise physiology content manager, told TODAY. “In yoga classes, we’re bringing together the body and the mind in the union. And when the body and the mind are speaking more clearly to each other, the body probably is going to react better to whatever stresses or changes might be occurring.”
How can yoga help me lose weight?
Here are four ways a yoga practice can support you in your weight-loss journey:
- Improved mindfulness. “Yoga can help teach you how to sit with uncomfortable feelings. And that can help if you’re an emotional eater or a stress eater,” Cassetty said. “It can also be helpful with mindful eating, and taking that mindfulness practice off the mat and into an eating occasion.” For example, when you’re reaching for a snack, taking a moment to be mindful can help you consider whether you are truly hungry or whether you simply feel like eating something. “It puts you in a position of choice and control,” Cassetty said. Mindfulness can also help you learn to cue into your sensations of hunger and fullness.
- Better sleep. The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health reported that more than 55% of people who practice yoga say their sleep improved. Changes in your body when you don’t sleep well can make you more likely to overeat and struggle to control your appetite. “Lack of sleep sets the stage for overeating that is hard to control,” Cassetty said. “It also makes carb-rich foods and sweet foods more rewarding than normal, so your brain really wants those foods.”
- Better mood and less stress. Yoga can help you improve your mood, and when you feel happier, you’re more likely to make healthier lifestyle choices throughout your day. Yoga also helps control levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Cortisol can influence what you crave, so controlling it can help manage your cravings.
- Better mobility and balance and less chronic pain. When it’s hard to move or balance or when you’re in pain, you’re more likely to be sedentary. Yoga can help you move more easily and add more physical activity to your day.
How can I get started with yoga?
If you’re new to yoga, you might feel a little intimidated. Maybe you think you aren’t flexible enough, or you might find terminology like downward dog, savasana, and cobbler’s pose unfamiliar. And choosing a type of yoga could feel overwhelming — there are so many.
Crockford suggests searching online, and she points to the Hatha style as a good place to start. “It’s typically not as intense as a Vinyasa flow class, but it’s also not an I’m-going-to-lay-on-the-floor-and-maybe-fall-asleep class,” she said. She recommends ensuring the person you’re learning from has certification in the type of yoga they’re practicing.
You can try a 10- or 20-minute online class to get more familiar with the postures and moves before trying an in-person class. You can also try different styles and different instructors to see what you like and what feels better in your body.
“Yoga can be very approachable, especially if you’re someone in a bigger body who might not want to get on a Peloton bike or if you’re someone who has less experience with exercise. It might feel hard to do something really vigorous — you have to work up to that,” Cassetty said. If you’re looking for a place to start, she shares Yoga with Adriene as an option.
How much time do I need to spend practicing yoga to see benefits?
“Yoga is one of those things you can do for hours and get benefits from, and it’s also one of those things you can do for 10 minutes and see some benefits from,” Crockford said. “Ten minutes of stretching, meditation and breathwork at the beginning of your day can be really beneficial.” Even a little bit of yoga can help support your weight-loss efforts.
If you already exercise, yoga can support your cardiovascular and strength-training workouts. “Yoga can give the body a chance to recover and address the stress that comes from other forms of physical activity,” Crockford said. “Yoga can be a good way to fill the tank back up so you have that energy, mobility, and flexibility to continue with your other workouts.”
Crockford said a lot of people have told her they can’t do yoga because they aren’t flexible. She said, “That’s a little bit like saying, ‘I can’t take a shower because I’m too dirty.’ If you would like to be more flexible, have more mobility, have a better mood state, have reduced anxiety, and have reduced blood pressure, yoga is a great way to do that.”