Here are 4 ways that taking up even a basic yoga practice can support your nutrition and weight loss goals:
- Deeper breathing. One of the fundamental concepts in any practice of yoga is its focus on coordinating breath with movement.
Try this: sit or stand with your spine tall and long. Close your eyes and observe how you feel physically and mentally. When you feel ready, inhale as you reach your arms out to your sides with your palms up, through shoulder height and then up to the sky, where the palms turn to face each other. Then flip your palms out and exhale as you reverse the movement, bringing the arms and hands back down to your sides. How was it to coordinate your breath with the movement of your arms? Just notice. Repeat this a few times, seeing if you can slow the movements of your arms, thereby lengthening your breath.
Why this matters: Slowing down the breath helps to calm the body, reducing the effects of chronic stress and inducing a relaxation response. When the body is in relaxation response, digestion improves, nutrients are better assimilated, and toxins are more easily released. Bringing this deep breathing off the yoga mat and into our daily lives helps us become more present to what is happening now, so we learn to pay closer attention to our food as we’re eating. In other words, we become aware of the colors, textures, tastes and sensations that naturally encourage our bodies to metabolize food as part of the cephalic phase, leading to natural appetite regulation (not to mention, actual enjoyment of our food!).
- Increased body awareness. How were you able to “notice your breath” in point one? Well, there’s a part of you called the “wisdom body” or “witness consciousness” in yoga, which has the ability to observe what you’re doing, thinking and feeling. In the practice of yoga postures (asanas), instructors encourage their students to “listen” to their bodies–for example, to notice areas of tightness, where there may be more space to move, how to improve their alignment by feeling the body, etc.Try this: For one day, set an alarm to alert you every 30 or 60 minutes. (Here’s a chime I like, if you happen to work at a computer.) When you hear the alarm, pause what you are doing, close your eyes and pick a word to describe how you’re feeling emotionally (e.g.: happy, sad, overwhelmed, frustrated, confused, etc.) Don’t think too hard about it, just go with your first, best guess. Then, scan your body for sensations, starting at the crown of your head. Move your focused attention all around your face. Notice the areas around the eyes, the jaw. Feel your neck and shoulders. Scan down your arms to your wrists and hands. Observe the body all around the torso, front and back, along the spine, up and down. Connect your mind to your hips, moving your attention down your legs to your toes, first one side and then the other. Where are you tightening your muscles? Are there any places that feel “uneven” between the right and left sides? Is anything pinchy? Repeat the scan, this time making small adjustments–see if you can relax the tight areas, balance the uneven ones, or tweak your posture to feel better. When you’re finished, call to mind a word describe your emotional state. Maybe it’s the same one as before, or perhaps a new one. Whatever comes up is perfectly OK. Now continue with what you were doing until the next alarm, when you will repeat this process. See if you can discover places in the body you favor, or whether new areas of your body grab your attention.
Why this matters: Increasing body awareness has many benefits for nutrition and weight loss. Much like the breath, our body does a lot for us without our needing to attend to it. But in today’s busy world, we often “dis-embody”–meaning we tune out important signals, such as when we’re hungry, when we’re tired, when we’re feeling full, when we’re holding a shape that’s causing muscular stress (e.g. sitting with poor posture), and when we’re feeling upset. Dis-embodiment often lead us to overeat and binge eat, since both are “unconscious” activities that are really serving as distractions from difficult emotions and inducing relaxation (which we might find in other methods more supportive of our weight loss goals). By receiving our bodies’ signals about when we’re naturally hungry, we improve our eating rhythm (i.e. have more regular times of day when we nourish ourselves with food). This reduces the likelihood of us getting ravenous, eating too fast and too much. We also benefit from better regulation of blood sugar and energy throughout the day.
- Yoga postures help improve digestion. Arranging the physical body in different shapes offers your internal organs a gentle massage, including the ones involved in digestion and metabolism regulation.Try these:
Seated forward fold, wide-legged standing forward fold with twist, half lord of the fishes pose, cobra pose, bridge pose (or supported bridge). See also Best Yoga Poses for Digestion.Why it matters: Yoga postures (asanas) help improve blood and oxygen flow to the digestive organs, are stimulating to the digestive tract, and help to regulate the thyroid gland2 “which is important for not only digestive function, but also the nervous system, reproductive system, respiratory system and metabolism regulation.3“Yoga has also been known to help with chronic digestive issues like constipation and diarrhea, bloating and gas4. A healthy, optimally working digestive tract is critical to meeting any nutritional and weight loss goals. If your system isn’t working properly, your efforts will be in vain.
- More compassion and self acceptance. Yoga isn’t just about physical postures and breathing. It’s “a progressive process of replacing our unconscious thought patterns and behavior with new, more beneficial patterns that are helpful towards a better life1.” Yoga provides a way for students to experiment with different class styles and instructors until we find some that suit us. It invites us into a safe space where we can explore letting go of our egos, going only as far in a posture as we can in that moment, regardless of what we may have done before or what we hoped we could do. Yoga encourages us to surrender competition with self and others, and to accept that this body is what we have to work with right now.Try this: Wearing something form fitting that allows you to really see your body, strike a simple yoga pose in front of a mirror. (Mountain pose is the easiest one to start.) With your eyes open, notice what comes up for you as you sustain the pose for a comfortable time. Are you holding your breath? What are you thinking? Are you worried about doing it perfectly? Are you involved in an internal dialog about a part of your body that you wish looked different? Are you comparing yourself to a photo of someone else in the posture? Do you want to look away? See if you can simply notice these thoughts as they pop up in your mind. Practice accepting whatever comes up for you. If it’s helpful, you can imagine putting the thought into a “thought bubble” (like you see in cartoons) and allowing it to float away.
Why this matters: Finding a style of yoga that you enjoy can replace the punishing exercise that you may do solely for the sake of calorie burning. (Note that over-exercise and exercise one doesn’t like can contribute to the stress response, therefore defeating our best intentions at improved metabolism and weight loss.) Yoga’s focus on acceptance and self-love can also help improve body image issues for those of us who struggle here. As Marc David says, “acceptance moves energy”. Meaning, when we become more aware of our self-criticisms, self-judgements, and ways we habitually cause “self-induced hate stress”, we can figuratively and then literally “lighten up”. If you’re someone who constantly beats yourself up over losing that last 5-10 pounds, or feel impatient at your progress if you have a lot of weight to lose, this refined view of the situation may be just what you need to not just let go of body weight or fat, but also toxic beliefs about yourself and the importance of these things in the grander context of your life.
Notice that I’ve said nothing about what food you actually eat. 😉