The debate over yoga and weight loss persists today with "fitness experts" often arguing that yoga doesn't burn enough calories to be considered "exercise" and yoga practitioners adamantly testifying to its benefits.
As a veteran of long-term sustained weight loss and a yoga devotee for eight years, here's my perspective on yoga for losing weight.
There are many different types of yoga, all requiring different energy (calorie) quotients and physical capability. Some styles of yoga (vinyasa and flow types) require students to move quite a lot throughout a yoga class; others increase demand through heat (Bikram, Forrest); and some are quite gentle and slow (yin, restorative).
Calorie usage, however is not the beginning and end of the story as far as the benefits of yoga are concerned - though much of the fitness industry wrongly insists that calorie usage is the beginning and end of the story. This is a temporary mindset, which is why 99% of the weight loss we see in the U.S. is temporary and doesn't make it to the requisite 5 year marker to qualify as permanent weight loss.
Losing weight permanently requires a broader, "big picture" perspective. What we accomplish during a yoga or workout session is not the end of the story. If you are working out effectively in the gym, you'll burn additional calories long after the workout is over and also build muscle that boosts the body's metabolism from that day forward, forever.
With yoga, we may build muscle a little more slowly and use less calories during a class but we receive other benefits such as pliability, agility, balance, coordination and flexibility. In addition, many practitioners say they receive an added bonus - mindfulness and body awareness. This is the intrinsic that cannot be measured by calories, a machine or device, or anything else known to man and, yet, it is powerful.
Shortly after beginning a consistent yoga practice (2-3x a week), many people report:
1. More awareness of their bodies and the body's communication signals like hunger, fullness, fatigue, pain, lack of energy. Learning to hear this type of communication, from within the body, is very meaningful for those who have let diets run their bodies for years.
2. Better use of food. Many yoginis report their tastes in food naturally change without effort or deprivation after establishing a yoga practice. Being more in touch with their bodies, they feel the negative impact of high fats or sugars on their bodies, and find themselves avoiding those energy-draining foods. This is the very definition of a permanent change because it comes from within the person, not from someone outside, in a book or program, telling them what to eat. When we eat according to our body's communication to us (not our minds, which is a diet), we almost always eat in a healthier manner.
3. More holistic thinking. Yoga integrates the entire being. Because it requires your body, mind, heart and spirit to be present, we are suddenly called into a new way of living - unified, instead of the diet way, in which we impose our mind/diet in opposition to our bodies in an attempt to control natural physical, emotional and spiritual needs.
The Bottom Line: Yoga is perfect for permanent weight loss, but may seem ineffective for temporary weight loss.
And, yet, one of the reasons to move more slowly through big changes like lifestyle adjustment, is that they are much more likely to remain with us forever, instead of flee at the first sign of difficulty.