The Magic of Yoga

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Turns out, the ancient practice helps you shed a lot more than just stress. Learn how striking a pose can slim you down.

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 cave woman 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.

Another way mindfulness can peel off the pounds: Being aware of how much you’re consuming can help you push away your plate before you overeat. “Mindfulness trains your nervous system and sensory organs to be more sensitive,” Turner says. “You’re more aware of the effect of food and can ask yourself how you feel after eating it.” In a study in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 19 overweight people who completed a five-day yoga and mindfulness program were, on average, 17 pounds lighter a full year later. Cutting out careless noshing, it seems, has lasting effects.

In addition to helping you eat more intentionally, yoga can also teach discipline, says McCall. “In yoga class, you learn that you can stay in a pose even though you might like to come out of it,” he says. That’s like boot camp for your willpower muscles. “In turn, you realize that you can skip the chocolate ice cream even though you think you really want it.” Certain yoga moves serve as life practice, too. Take, for instance, Triangle pose. “In this asana, you create tension in your body and then let it go,” says Aruni Nan Futuronsky, a program advisor for Kripalu Healthy Living programs. “Off the mat, you see that you can let go of tension without having to resort to doughnuts as a coping mechanism. Once you’ve mastered that skill, it applies to anything.”

Retrain your brain 
The other key benefit you’ll get from yoga is flexibility— the neurological kind, not just getting as bendy as Madonna. “The conventional wisdom used to be that the brain’s architecture was fixed,” says McCall. “Now neuroscientists are finding that the brain is constantly rewiring itself and forming new connections in a process called neuroplasticity.” Anytime you do, say or think something, you’re more likely to do so again, he explains. “When you repeatedly have certain thoughts or actions, you tend to strengthen those neurocircuits. When you face adversity with calmness in your practice, you repattern your nervous system not to freak out so much, so you’re not getting cortisol jolts and are less likely to overeat. You can literally change your mind.” All without spending hours on the Elliptical or subsisting on diet food. Just like that, your weight loss resolution is finally within reach. Om run!

Meditate to Lose Weight
No time for a yoga class? Meditation also builds willpower— and it’s easier than you think. Yoga and meditation guru Ashley Turner shares her tips:

Start Slow 
“Nose breathing calms the nervous system,” Turner says. “Close your mouth and simply lengthen your breath to 4 slow counts in and then 4 counts out.”

Take the Next Step
 “Once you have that down, add what I call ‘four square breaths,’ which is inhaling for 4 counts, pausing for 4 counts, exhaling for 4 counts, then pausing for 4 counts,” she says.

Stay Positive
 If just thinking about all that breathing has you panting, you can try meditating with affirmations instead. Identify your biggest self-criticism, like your eating habits or your body image, then turn that problem into a positive outcome, Turner says. “Your affirmation could just be as simple as ‘I will be healthy and fit,’ or ‘I choose to make my well- being my highest priority.’ Repeat that 10 times or more. One of the biggest challenges of weight loss is that you focus your attention on what you don’t want—like being overweight or having love handles. This way you build confidence from the inside out.”

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