Successful long-term weight loss has more to do with an increase in mindfulness than the number of calories burned.
As we are increasingly barraged by the food industry’s skillful marketing of fad dieting and processed foods, we gradually forget about the simpler food choices, like eating whole foods. Yoga can help improve your lifestyle by leading you on a path of healthy and mindful eating, without the guilt.
Every New Year, my yoga classes become overcrowded with new members who have made new resolutions to lose weight and transform their lives. While this is a very exciting time, it breaks my heart that less than 3 percent will actually make this reality. When the New Year’s buzz dissipates, the commitment to these resolutions will typically follow suit; and every year, I find that this cycle repeats itself over and over. Does this sound familiar?
The truth is that success in weight loss has more to do with mindfulness and the relationship you have with yourself than it does pushing your body through grueling bootcamp exercises and painfully restrictive diets. These techniques are short-lived and unsustainable – most burn out quickly from the overzealous demands.
There are so many contributing factors to weight loss such as, food addiction, personal lifestyle, individual willpower, and genes. Properly practicing yoga goes well beyond doing just poses; it touches the consciousness of the mind, which can have transformative effects on your life. By marrying the body and mind through one pointed concentration, your life can find brand new meaning.
While it is true that yoga is partially about self-acceptance, let us not confuse this with acceptance of self-destructive habits – ones that lead to obesity and deteriorating health, a life filled with lack of willpower, and taking the easy way out. In yoga, we have a word “ahimsha” – meaning non-violence or to not harm. Ahinsha is a reminder that we need to take care of our bodies and that we are hurting ourselves by being unhealthy or overweight. Bad health is not only a burden to you, but also to those who love you and even society. Another yoga term is “tapas,” which refers to self-restraint and an inner strength of conviction – this helps us build the necessary willpower to accomplish our goals. An authentic yoga practice is a lifestyle that builds character, transforms your life, and teaches you how to transcend obstacles – not run away from them in denial. Far too many have the misconception that yoga, at least indirectly, is all about escaping problems, sugar coating things that need to be changed, and being complacent and lazy. There are no quick fixes that lead to lasting long-term success. There is no easy way to self-transformation, although weight loss can be a great first step.
Weight loss requires both “diet with mindfulness” and “physical exercise.” I have seen people who work out three days a week for 4 consecutive years and not lose any weight because they don’t watch what they eat. And while I have seen people lose weight simply with mindful eating habits and very little exercise, they are not in good shape. In order to truly achieve a healthy life, you must marry these two ideas, adding years to your life and life to your years.
Yoga: The Physical Exercise
The right combination of yoga postures offer flexibility, a solid core, and lean muscle while cleansing and strengthening the digestive system. Digestive health is related to your overall health and has a direct effect on the way we break down food, vitamins and minerals. Digestion not only helps eliminate water retention and constipation, it also improves blood circulation to major endocrine glands (thyroid and pancreas) that are responsible for mood swings, control of appetite, and sleeping patterns.
The best way to achieve weight loss through yoga is attending a “power” yoga type of class three times a week at your local gym or yoga studio. Supplement this with a workout session with a home instructional DVD twice a week. If you are really serious about weight loss, you must organize life around this commitment, including your practices off the mat, which include diet and getting enough rest.
Do a regular meditation practice for 10 minutes or more each day followed by 20 minutes or more of power yoga at home, moving fast enough to raise the heartbeat and making sure you do physically demanding movement that challenges your strength and endurance. The movement and breathing link the poses together, building heat which results in greater calorie burn. Make sure to take a beginners class if you are unfamiliar with power yoga and build the intensity of your practice over time.
When the mind plays the role of the harsh judge of our appearance, it helps push some of us to reach a new standard of excellence, but for most, it leads to self-destructive behavior like weight gain. With yoga postures, we learn to take a seat inside ourselves and generate a renewed sense of control to transform our bodies and thought processes. This process helps counteract the counterproductive messages that often arise in our minds.
Your yoga practice does not start and end on the yoga mat. Since most of your life is off the yoga mat, the transformation needs to continue when class is finished. Ideally, returning to yoga class simply serves to help refresh and reaffirm. On the mat, not only do we practice yoga poses called asanas, we cultivate the power of mindfulness – a power that stands at the very crux of changing your life! The focus on breathing, seated meditation, and the ability to be in the present moment (for at least an hour long class) translates well off the yoga mat into every aspect of your life. These techniques help you consciously decide how you want to react in situations instead of responding mechanically with conditioned reflexes.
Notice that the more you develop this muscle of mindfulness on the yoga mat, the more you utilize it throughout your day, through your thought, eating, and behaviour patterns. This is what is going to help you attain your goal of weight loss. Meditation, diet, and asana practice form the points of a triangle, complementing each other to help you lose weight and develop new empowering habits.
Yoga: The Mind
Now, take what you have learned from the mat (as discussed above) and apply it off the mat.
1. Start with taking time to sit and clear your mind. Acknowledge your thoughts – how you feel and your perceptions about food. You need to develop clarity on whether or not you are eating because you are hungry or simply trying to deal with emotions like stress or depression. By listening to the body’s hunger signals, we also develop sensitivity to emotional or thoughtless eating. This helps us choose foods that contribute to our health and satisfy our hunger instead of loading up on empty calories.
2. Become mindful when you start to feel 80% full and stop there. Keep in mind it takes about 20 minutes before you truly feel how much you ate. This will help with overeating. Overeating slows down your metabolism, makes you feel sluggish, and adds extra wear and tear on your internal organs. Overeating also leads to consuming more calories than you burn, contributing to unwanted weight gain.
3. Instead of fighting with unhealthy foods and making it about denial, move toward foods that make you feel better hours after you eat it. Make small changes by slowly incorporating the right foods into your diet. It is better to slowly introduce the right foods week by week, even if it takes a year to fully implement. This gradual process sustains healthy eating habits in contrast to the “total transformation in one week” regimen, which is most likely to end in failure. Remember, we are focusing on the long-term marathon, not the quick sprint. Keep your mind focused on long-term results and don’t worry about small bumps along the way.
4. Before eating, make sure you are not in a hurry or stressed out. We want to eat with a relaxed and calm state of mind, savouring the food. Chewing until your food turns into a liquid helps you receive more nutrients.
5. Keep in mind that the desire for an enhanced spiritual life requires the willingness to go through discomfort in the short-term in order to achieve desired long-term objectives. Tapas (willpower and inner strength of conviction) also means you do your yoga practice daily even if you feel lazy and want to watch TV.
Yoga: The Diet
Eating is an integral part of yoga, as well as any activity you do. What you eat forms the basic infrastructure upon which your emotions, clarity of thought, and physical performance can build upon. Imagine if you ate nothing but sugar and caffeine for an entire week, how emotionally stable would you be? How calm and clear would your thoughts be? How long would you be able to keep up with a physically demanding job or activity? It is clear that the nutrients that are taken in by the body are outwardly reflected in your thought, behaviour, and physical ability. The question then becomes, what does it mean to properly nourish yourself? How does one eat like a yogi?
There is an overabundance of diet programs that will continue to emerge to accommodate current trends. Because there is no such thing as a “perfect” diet, you need to monitor what you eat in order to figure out what works and what doesn’t work for you. The diet that works for you may not work for another. The general rule of thumb is that food should enhance clarity and lightness of the mind, keep the body light and nourished, foster a greater sense of wellbeing, and improve sleeping patterns. Your yoga practice should make you feel in an optimal state instead of an exhausted one, so avoid foods that tend to cause bloating, sluggishness, or any type of discomfort.
One of the few areas that nutrition experts have consensus over is using plant-based foods. Refrain from eating processed foods and replace them with whole foods. If meat is part of your diet, stick to lean meats like fish and chicken. Being mindful about the food you eat will help avoid quick fixes that may alleviate short-term energy needs. Your intake of processed carbs and prepared foods will gradually taper off as a result. This is not to say that you should restrict yourself from any sort of comfort food – eat what you want, but be aware of your choices and opt for healthier options. For pizza, choose a thin wholegrain crust and use fresh vegetables; for hamburgers, use lean ground beef or try a tofu burger for a change! Try to eat clean and centre your diet around organically grown food. Organic foods will help avoid consuming pesticides and artificial fertilizers which can be hazardous to your health – if these chemicals are detrimental to insects, fungi, and weeds, it is probably safe to say that they won’t be beneficial to us in the long run either.
When we eat processed foods, our body still looks for an adequate amount of nutrition, so it asks for more food. Eating empty calories contribute to unnecessary weight gain. When we eat clean, we don’t need to eat the same large amounts because the body is getting the nourishment it needs. The pleasure of tasting the food that you love (like dessert) peaks in the first few bites and diminishes afterwards. So, instead of removing sweets from your diet entirely, reduce the portions consumed. Sometimes the trick to weight loss is eating more. Eating 5-6 small meals a day speeds your metabolism up, sustaining energy levels and feelings of satisfaction.
Western science has proven that a poor diet can result in a wide variety of diseases, including high blood pressure, type II diabetes, some cancers, and heart failure. Having a proper diet boosts overall health which in turn diminishes the need for medication, sometimes even reversing signs of disease.
Logging your food is also reflective of the Svadhyaya (self-study) part of yoga (niyamas or yogic observances). “If you bite it, write it!“ Create a food diary. If you write down everything you eat and how you feel afterwards, you will establish a successful recipe for your own personal diet in no time. A specific food may taste great, but if it impedes your sleep, causes less-focused meditation, or leaves you feeling lethargic, the food you are putting in your mouth probably isn’t the best.
The end goal is to create a new relationship with food and eat guilt-free. Your success will center around the mindfulness learned from yoga and will be a series of small changes that cumulate over time, gradually becoming part of your natural lifestyle. Success won’t happen overnight but as you continue to practice, you will build the willpower, patience, and appreciation towards both yourself and your ability to overcome any daunting obstacle. May you feel weightless in guilt and heavy in happiness in every step of your new journey.