Yoga: Slim Bodies, Strong Minds
More than just a leaner and stronger body, yoga offers a path to self-respect and the discipline you need to revamp old eating habits.
By Carol Sorgen
Reviewed By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD
Huffing and puffing your way through yet another aerobics class in an effort to lose weight? Feeling cranky because you're starving yourself? Don't lose hope. Yoga may be just what you're looking for.
This ancient discipline might not give you a whippet-thin body, but it might give you the discipline and peace of mind to think about your eating habits in a new light.
"When you practice the asanas [postures] of yoga, you gain more respect for your body," says New York yoga instructor Anita Goa. "The key element of yoga is breathing. When we learn how to breathe properly -- when we are more aware of our breathing -- we are able to connect our mind and our body."
Goa says yoga gives us control over our mind, and when we have that control, we consciously ask ourselves, "Is this good for me?" In other words, "Do I really need this piece of pizza?"
"When we get to know our body, we automatically want to choose food that's good for us," says Goa.
Many people approach yoga as a form of exercise, says Anne O'Brien, a yoga instructor in Sonoma, Calif., but they soon find that yoga offers a deeper connection to their own body.
"After you take a yoga class, you feel so good that it carries through to the rest of your life and you wind up incorporating it into your lifestyle," she says. "You find that you're not doing yoga because you have to do it to lose weight, but you want to do it because it feels good."
In addition to "nourishing your soul" so that you want to eat what's good for you, yoga has actual physiological benefits as well, Goa says. The various postures are good for your digestive and elimination systems, helping to speed food through the body. And the different poses, with names such as adho mukha svanasana (downward-facing dog), navasana (boat pose), and virabhadrasana (warrior pose), strengthen and tone your muscles. And as you probably know by now, muscle burns calories better than fat does.
Changing Your Lifestyle
Michael A. Taylor, MD, medical editor of Yoga Journal magazine, and a gynecologic oncologist in Carmichael, Calif., cautions that yoga itself will not do the trick in helping you lose unwanted pounds.
"When people are looking for a magic bullet, they're looking for one bullet, one thing that will change their life," he says. "Yoga isn't a magic bullet ... but it does offer the benefit of a change in philosophy and lifestyle."
If you take up yoga purely to lose weight, you may be disappointed, Taylor says. "It's when you become involved with the whole lifestyle process -- that's where yoga fits in."
Even if you're less than svelte, you can join a yoga class. "Not all yogis are thin," Taylor says. "Anyone can do yoga: older people, physically disabled people, overweight people."
What you need to do, however, is know your body's physical limitations -- and make sure that your instructor knows them as well, Taylor advises. "Correct guidance is important," he says. "When beginning the yoga process, it's important to be aware of your own limitations -- to rest when you need to rest, for example -- but it's also important to tell the instructor so that he or she can work with your individual situation."
In a yoga class, it's not important what you look like, Taylor adds. "The image of their body may concern people who want to lose weight, but in class, you're in your own space. You learn not to judge yourself or others, and this creates a safe environment."
Beginning yoga classes also focus less on postures and more on becoming aware of your body and learning how it moves, Taylor says. "You're really learning, from the very beginning, to nurture and take care of yourself."
Something for Everyone
If the poses are difficult for you, modifications can always be made. If you have a hard time bending, for example, you can start off doing the postures in a chair or even on your bed. Many yoga postures can also be done with props, like bolsters or blocks, so that you don't have to bend as far.
If you're still shy about joining a class, there are several yoga videos designed for the more round-bodied. In fact, one series is called just that: Yoga for Round Bodies. Yoga Conditioning for Weight Loss, Gentle Yoga with Naomi, and The Healing Path of Yoga are all suggested by Yoga Journal as good videos to get you started. (As with any form of exercise though, especially if you've been less than active in recent years, get your doctor's approval first.)
As you progress in the practice of yoga, you'll find that it becomes a way of life that will influence every aspect of your life, including what you eat, say yoga experts. "It doesn't happen quickly," Goa says. "But instead of feeling that you're restricting yourself, as you frequently do when you're dieting, you begin to feel better about yourself and you begin to make better choices about what you eat. You become picky about what you're putting in your body.
"Yoga teaches mindfulness and awareness," Goa adds. "It will help you find your natural body."
Originally published September 23, 2002.
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