Yoga is not often paired with the term “weight loss”. Most approach their journey of shedding pounds armed with strict diets and intense workouts. But this does not work for everyone—in fact, despite these efforts, many only find themselves feeling fatigued and discouraged at results.
Studies are actually showing that getting on the mat may be a much more effective way to lose weight.
What’s going on? One word: cortisol.
Those HIIT workouts and treadmill sessions release this powerful hormone, also known as the stress hormone. These start-and-stop, limit-pushing movements activate the sympathetic nervous system (our fight or flight response). As a result, the pressure is on, more cortisol enters the bloodstream, and more is demanded on the body.
The problem is—many of us already have too much cortisol in our bodies. When we add more via an induced stress, everyday activities can be misinterpreted as life-threatening as our bloodstream carries this surplus. Making breakfast, checking email, or other simple tasks are suddenly accompanied by anxiety or agitation. The body also becomes inflamed, requires a higher caloric intake, and hanging onto weight.
Symptoms of heightened cortisol:
- chronic fatigue
- lack of motivation
- decrease in power while exercising
- mood changes
- recurring illnesses
How does yoga fit into this? Practicing yoga can help actually lower cortisol levels. Slow, deep breathing, practicing being present, and allowing the body to recover allows for a healing state of safety and rest. It also creates mindfulness—a state that moves off the mat into everyday life, tuning into WHY we have a craving, instead of indulging on autopilot.
A study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine in 2016 found that practicing yoga can help to reduce cortisol levels in the body. In the study, 75 participants were randomized to either a yoga group or a control group. The yoga group participated in a 12-week yoga program that included asanas (postures), pranayama (breathing exercises), and meditation. The control group did not practice yoga.
At the end of the 12 weeks, the yoga group had significantly lower cortisol levels than the control group. The yoga group also had significant improvements in body weight, BMI, and waist circumference. The researchers concluded that practicing yoga can help to reduce cortisol levels and improve body composition.
And yes, body composition is important. Yoga does not fail to tone, strengthen, and increase flexibility. It’s a practice that might just be the best avenue to find your way back to homeostasis, and ultimately a stress-free space to lose weight.
Reference: Chen KM, Chen MH, Lin MH, Fan JT, Lin HS, Li CH. Effects of yoga on stress-related hormone cortisol and body composition in healthy adults: a randomized controlled trial. J Altern Complement Med. 2016 Apr;22(4):247-54. doi: 10.1089/acm.2015.0250. Epub 2016 Mar 8. PMID: 26954450.