The Benefits of Yoga for Weight Management

Once I started practicing yoga seriously, I noticed some significant changes in my body. It was almost as if, one day, I woke up and realized that I was a little more toned, I weighed a little less, and I was naturally making better food choices.

What had happened? Turns out I was experiencing many of the benefits of yoga that researchers are now beginning to quantify in regard to weight loss and healthy habits.

Better Food Choices

Several studies show that a weight-related yoga program can help people improve their food choices. One such study, published in Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Journal, found that people who engaged in a yoga program for weight loss developed a new relationship to food. Researchers concluded, “Subjects became aware that their practice was impacted not only by the amount of food they are eating, but also by the type of food eaten [as well as] the effects of certain foods on their bodies during their yoga practice, including sugar, dairy, meat, and alcohol.”

Shifting their focus away from calorie counting and toward how different foods make them feel might also have supported better food choices. Some of the participants in this study found that their unhealthy food habits almost seemed to drop them—without much conscious effort on their part. They discovered that, the more they noticed their bodies and the impact of what they ate, the less they wanted to eat sugar or junk food, because it simply didn’t feel good. A Kripalu-based yoga program had a similar outcome—participants found it easier to make healthier food choices than they had been making prior to doing yoga.

Improved Body Confidence

Research also shows that yoga helps increase acceptance and appreciation of one’s body, and reduce self-judgment. One of the ways it does this is by shifting our mindset from a focus on weight and calorie counting to a focus on maintaining a healthy lifestyle.

One study participant noted that yoga “has made me more body aware and … more mind aware, so I have been able to make better choices.” Rather than focusing on a purely cognitive approach to diet (how many calories will I gain or lose with the food or activity I am doing), the invitation in yoga programs is to explore a body-based inquiry around movement and food choices.

More Social Support

In these studies, it is not just the yoga itself that offers weight-management benefits, but also the connection to a positive social environment. All the studies mentioned above were done within a group—either a group focused on yoga for weight loss or a group simply coming together to do yoga. In a pilot study that incorporated both yoga and Ayurveda-inspired components, participants reported improved psychosocial health, as well as weight loss.

Scientists have found that social context plays a role in your eating choices, as well as other lifestyle choices you make. If you hang out with people who engage in unhealthy behaviors, like not eating well, you are more likely to take on these behaviors. This is also true in reverse—when you hang out with people who choose kale over candy, you are more likely to choose kale, too.

Greater Mindfulness and Less Stress

These benefits may also spring from increased mindfulness practice. People in each study noted that with increased mindfulness came improved ability to manage mood and to notice the impact of certain foods on their body. This allowed for a greater ability to choose healthier food options. Mindfulness, which is an important part of yoga practice, allows us to notice our experience—even when it’s unpleasant—without needing to push it away. It helps us tolerate our feelings, so we can make a conscious choice about whether or not to stay aligned with our intentions (in this case, around food choices).

Moreover, yoga reduces stress, in part by increasing levels of GABA—a feel-good neurotransmitter in the brain—and in part by providing self-regulation tools that help us manage thoughts and feelings. When we are more relaxed and better regulated, we are less likely to use food as a way to soothe our emotions.

Increased Exercise

And finally, of course, is the exercise itself. Start practicing yoga, and you will soon notice your body become more flexible, more energized, and stronger. Based on the type of yoga you practice, you might also notice more muscle tone and strength.

My weight loss came from a combination of the factors noted in the research—including the support of my fellow yogis, the invitation to notice how food impacts mood, and the effects of stretching and moving several times a week. It also came from greater self-compassion—not being so judgmental when I didn’t make healthy food choices, and knowing that I could simply begin again.

But, most important, yoga helped me develop a better relationship with my body in general. I began to treat it not as something to tolerate and push to the max, but rather as a home that I wanted to care for and support.

Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

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