Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Will yoga make me lose weight?

Emphatically, yes! Yoga will make you lose weight just as any exercise will make you lose weight if you haven't previously been exercising. That said, the real question is "How is yoga different from other forms of exercise?" or "How is it better?"

Yoga helps you relax which reduces your cortisol levels or stress hormones. When your cortisol levels are high your body tends to retain fat in expectation of famine or other calorie shortage (i.e. if you are working more you might have less time to eat.) When your body isn't stressed out any more it will then decide it's OK to stop storing fat. By the way, this is the reason small meals throughout the day boost your metabolism. Your body thinks there's a greater supply of food on hand and won't try to store as many calories.

While running and other aerobic activities will burn calories and are great for your cardiovascular system, these activities tend to increase your cortisol levels. Running to your body is flight, of the fight or flight response in the sympathetic nervous system. In other words, your body thinks you are running from a bear or other threat even if mentally you are enjoying your run. It does over time dissipate that same stress and causes your body to release endorphins which are the feel good hormones, (i.e. the runner's high.)

Yoga also produces endorphins without raising your cortisol levels. It may burn fewer calories and might not raise your heart rate to aerobic levels, (though some studies have shown yoga can burn between 250 and 300 calories per hour) burning calories is only one part of weight loss.

Pairing yoga with a good diet and aerobic activity is an excellent way to lose weight. It's a very balanced approach to exercise. Yoga will help you stay flexible and release muscles that have become tight from running etc. It will also give your body some down time and rest which is needed to avoid plateauing.

Plateauing happens when your body is no longer challenged by a particular form of exercise. (This is the reason I'm able to teach 2 to 4 classes a day. My body has adapted.) In the yoga classes I teach I try to consider how hard I've been working a class from week to week. If we've been doing a lot of active poses in the recent weeks, I try to incorporate some more restorative work. Likewise, with beginners I try to build them up to the more challenging poses little by little so that they don't get stuck with just the basics week in and week out. There are some 605 poses that are considered humanly possible so there's lots to chose from.

All things considered, yoga on it's own yoga is great for weight loss especially if you haven't been exercising regularly. It tends to be gentler on your body than pounding the pavement and will prepare your body from more challenging forms of exercise in the future through breath-work and muscle strengthening.

In my own life I've had to give up running and more aggressive forms of exercise due to bad knees. I overused my knees playing tennis and running when I was younger. Brisk walking, hiking, biking and rollerblading are my main forms of aerobic exercise. I don't weight train any more either as I found that yoga alone was enough to keep my muscles toned. (Yoga vs strength training is another blog topic altogether.) Overall, I feel I'm in better shape now than when I was twenty and running four miles or five miles a day. I also weigh less and I definitely notice the difference in my body which feels less run down and achy.

Friday, March 5, 2010

What's the point of Savasana?

"Why do we lie down at the end of class?" It's a good question. I think students should understand the purpose of this exercise. Laying down at the end of class is known as Savasana or corps pose. It's the relaxation portion of the class and usually done for 5-10 minutes.

Some people claim that Savasana is the most important pose in yoga. I agree. I've heard it said that Savasana is like hitting the save button on your computer after you've just completed a bunch of work you'd like to keep. Your body reacts the same way. It needs time to assimilate all the work you've done with it and incorporate the changes made to it.

Besides, it feels really good to just rest. So much of our day is spent being active both physically and mentally. Savasana is a natural recharge for your mind and body. How often do you get a chance to simple "be?" For most of us the answer is very rarely. So enjoy it!

Savasana can be problematic for some students though. I've often watched students as they lay in Savasana and observe that there are some who just can't lie still. They fidget and fuss instead of enjoying the stillness. Some students don't even try; they just roll up their mats and leave. This is usually a sign of over-activity. It's a warning sign that you have been doing too much for too long. Your mind and body no longer know how to relax.

Unfortunately the inability to relax, or hyper-vigilance, is quiet prevalent in our culture. We keep our muscle tense because of constant stress so that they remain in that state. In a sense, we've trained them to be tense. This training of sorts leads to a whole host of problems such as bad posture, muscle and joint pain, vulnerability to injury, insomnia etc.

Our minds work the same way. If you train your brain to constantly run, it will. Then it's a challenge to slow your thoughts down and concentrate on your breath in Savasana. Instead you'll most likely be thinking of what you need to do after class or whatever problem is confronting you at the time.

Think of Savasana as relaxation training or practice. It's a 5-10 minute gift of just being and having to do nothing. There's no obligation or "shoulds" during Savasana. Even if you don't manage to lie still and relax, don't count it as a failure. Instead, be aware of why you couldn't relax and remember that it's a practice. You are relearning how to relax.