Living in L.A., it’s not uncommon to see people walking down the sun-soaked street or around the local Whole Foods with a yoga mat strapped around their back, looking slim and fit as they sip on their favorite flavor of kombucha. Yoga is generally tied to a healthy lifestyle, but is yoga good for weight loss? Does the workout you get make a big impact in terms of calorie burn and improving fitness? Will those weekly classes help you lose weight and tone up? I’ll answer those questions in this blog.
Will Yoga Build Muscle?
Fast-moving classes like Power yoga or Iyengar that focuses on holding poses for a long time can definitely tax your muscles and help gently build strength, especially if you’re more advanced and getting into things like arm balances. If you look at advanced yogis, many of them are very lean and have some good strength and definition. But don’t expect to look like the Hulk after a few weeks, as this type of strengthening is much more subtle and won’t tax the muscles in the same way that weights do. You’re more likely to increase strength and flexibility if you do yoga regularly and are challening yourself in classes.
If you want to build muscle size, however, you’ll need to pump some iron in addition to your yoga practice.
Personally, yoga is what I use to lengthen and loosen my muscles so I can recover from my weight lifting and triathlon training to repair faster, and increase range of motion so that I get more out of my workouts.
Is Yoga Good for Weight Loss?
When it comes to burning calories and getting stronger, some types of yoga like Bikram, power yoga or Iyengar yoga can be quite beneficial. A Bikram, or hot yoga, class could help you burn upward of 400 calories depending on your weight and how hard you’re working in the class. One of my clients sent me a photo of her calorie burn from her heart rate monitor post-Bikram and it was about 620 after a 90-minute class! It should be noted, however, that in hot yoga, a major reason your heart rate goes higher (resulting in higher calorie burn) is due to the heat, not because you’re working aerobically, which is important for both weight loss and cardiovascular health.
I highly recommend using a heart rate monitor of some type to track your calorie burn during a class. I’ve done some classes that felt pretty hard, to realize that I’d only burned about 80 calories in one hour – less than I would have probably burned casually walking for an hour. It’s pretty hard to get your heart rate up very high in yoga if you’re already somewhat active and fit, which is one reason I wouldn’t recommend it for weight loss like I would doing cardio and weight training.
So, is yoga a good workout? Eh, maybe if you’re doing certain styles that focus on strength. Is it good for weight loss? I wouldn’t suggest it as your only form of working out if weight loss is your goal, or if building muscle size is your goal.
How Yoga Can Be Beneficial for Weight Loss
While a yoga “workout” in and of itself probably won’t cause you to lose drastic weight…I would recommend yoga for weight loss and improved fitness – but for very different reasons. Here are some of the primary why I DO recommend including yoga in your fitness routine and why it could help you lose weight and get stronger.
Various studies show that yoga has successfully helped people lose weight, while the exact reasons aren’t always super clear. One yoga study had participants who had previously struggled to lose weight do Iyengar yoga showed that 90% of subjects reported a shift toward more mindful eating, changes in food choices, and decreased emotional/stress eating. Yoga is well known for increasing mindfulness – of body, mind, and spirit – and as I find with most people, once you start one healthy habit, you tend to start eating better as well because that feel-good feeling…well, feels good! So, yoga (and I would say any type of fitness activity) may help you reduce your portions and make wiser food choices, which will result in weight loss.
Reduced Stress & Cortisol
Yoga is also known a very good way to manage and reduce stress. The focus on breath and the positioning of poses and attention to how you’re feeling really can help calm you down (hear me share more about this with my client in this YouTube series, “Fit for Wed” and see our basic vinyasa practice). Stress also causes the release of cortisol, which can be thought of as a fat-increasing stress hormone. Cortisol is also released through physical stress, such as continuous, high intensity workouts. If you’re constantly doing CrossFit or bodybuilding style of workouts that put a lot of strain on your body, you can actually mess with your hormones, essentially performing a “two steps forward, one step back” kind of dance. Your killer workouts will torch calories and build some serious muscle, but they can also, if repeated too often for too long, mess with your sleep, increase cortisol which can increase fat storage, and make you prone to injury.
Practicing yoga once or twice a week, and other things like walking and getting adequate sleep, can all help to reduce cortisol and bring your hormones back into balance, which will also help reduce fat weight.
Flexibility & Performance
I’m a huge fan of yoga for it’s flexibility-enhancing benefits. The older I get, the tighter my muscles seem to be, and the more rest my body seems to need. If I don’t take time to stretch through things like foam rolling, yoga, and basic pre-workout warm-ups and cool-downs, I just can’t perform the same in the gym. And I do a lot more “ooh, ouch, ack, owie!” with my back, knees, shoulders, etc. Too many of those days, and I basically can’t workout, which obviously is not good for weight loss goals. You don’t want to get stuck in that position, believe me.
If any of your muscles are tight, no only will you start to feel the pain, but it hinders you from moving as fluidly and working out as efficiently. For instance, if your hip flexors are tight, it’s hard to get your glute muscles (butt) to activate properly and work in it’s full range of motion. I’m constantly fighting this and yoga helps to loosen up those areas so I can do better squats, lunges, deadlifts, etc. That regular stretching also helps to reduce soreness and take away back, shoulder, and neck pain, especially if you incorporate some restorative yoga. Staying flexible should actually help your workouts feel easier and more enjoyable, which means you’ll get better results.
Helpful Accessories for Yoga
Whether you’re just considering trying yoga, or you do it regularly, I suggest having some of my favorite items on hands for the safest, most comfortable and enjoyable practice.
A Yoga Mat (that one’s probably obvious)
I love this Mandala Mat from ProSource, mostly because it’s pretty and in some weird way, that makes me enjoy the practice more. It’s pretty basic and way affordable – less than $22! They also have some other really cool styles and designs. Make sure you have a non-slip mat and one that you feel comfortable on, whether it’s paper thin, or an extra thick mat to cushion your joints.
2. Yoga Blocks
These are great for poses that are just a bit out of reach. I’ve learned not to strain myself just to say I can do a pose. Proper alignment is way more important than just bending super far, and blocks will help you to get your form right until your flexibility improves. These are also useful for stretching, restorative yoga, learning forearm stands and more. Natural cork yoga blocks are a great way to go as they are made from natural materials, have a bit more weight to them, and just look darn nice.
3. A Yoga Strap
A basic yoga strap, which you can get for about $5 or less, is really nice to have on hand. Like blocks, they assist with certain poses and stretches that are just too tricky otherwise. They can also be used for learning advanced poses like arm balances and handstands. Plus, they double as a basic stretching tool, ideal for shoulders and hamstrings, at least in my case.
So, to sum it all up, is yoga a good workout? In certain classes. Is it good for weight loss? It may help. Is it a good part of a healthy and fit lifestyle? Absolutely. So give it a go!
(Note: I personally do not subscribe to the meditative, spiritual aspects of yoga. For that, I stick to the Bible and prayer and do all of that separate from yoga, which I use only for stretching and functional purposes. I don’t advocate for yoga classes focused on chanting or heavy spiritual focuses. If you want to find out more about why, feel free to ask me!)
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