Yoga is great to develop flexibility and strength, and also incredible for mental health with mindfulness and mediation benefits, we all know that. But when it comes down to it, purely on a superficial scale (even holier than thou people get superficial you know): will it make me lose weight? As fast as, for example, running? Or HIIT training?
I'm about to embark on a new training regime. You know the one, you've probably been planning it in your head since Christmas too, right? I was supposed to start Monday but can't seem to pick an exercise (also known as procrastination). Will yoga give me the results I'm after? 'Cause I don't have time to waste here, I'm a working mother, and if you know anything about working mothers, you'll know that time is not something we have a lot of.
Don Peers, the yoga guru extraordinaire who got me addicted to the bendy practice over a decade ago (when I had what now seems like eons of time), says a lot of it has to do with the type of yoga.
"If you do the more sedate styles, like Iyengar or slow Hatha, you essentially won't be lifting your heart rate a great deal," Peers says. "If you do the more dynamic styles like Ashtanga or a power yoga class, your heart rate can be lifted to the level of a cardio workout – you will be burning calories. That's on a purely physiological aspect. If you talk about yoga on a deeper level, all forms of yoga stimulate the glands and organs, making them more efficient."
Peers maintains that if the body is running at optimum, you'll naturally eat less food. "Also, some yoga has an effect on the 'bandha', which is the core, and as a result your stomach and intestines work a lot more efficiently and the digestive mechanisms work better. The more yoga you do, the better your body will function, and the more weight your body will disperse."
Besides that, because it is a breath practice, Peers says it makes your body use oxygen more effectively and, if you are breathing better, you will end up eating less. "There are a few new studies about the effects of breathing and people who don't breathe properly are more stressed," he says. Stress eater, anyone?
So are there specific yoga poses that will help you lose weight?
"Inverted poses reverse the gravity effect on intestines – when you're upside down your intestines widen and in turn move food through the body more efficiently. Secondly, because it drains the blood out of the legs it stimulates the whole lymphatic system. When you come down after the inversion, it recalibrates the lymphatic system, which is really beneficial for weight loss."
He also attests that twisting yoga poses squeeze the intestines, kidneys and liver, therefore making them function better. Not to mention the muscle you'll build with all the other poses, which in turn will help the body burn energy even when you're at rest.
Peers cautions, however, if you are starting out in yoga, you need to move slowly because you're prone to injury if you go too hard, too fast. And if you're moving at a slower rate, you might not lose weight initially because of that. "Tell someone to jump straight into an Ashtanga class and they'll probably never come back! I think power yoga is good to start with, but always be careful and move with control," he advises.
Fitness expert Richard Chew, owner of the Elixr Health Clubs, says that the fastest way to lose weight is not yoga or running.
"Food is the main factor in weight loss – what you're eating and how much," says Chew. "Yoga is an activity that will burn calories but as with everything, it depends on how much you do and what intensity. There's no magic trick. The main problem is that we eat too much sugar. Anything that says fat-free is full of sugar and then you get the fat for free afterwards." I think this is particularly funny, thanks Richard.
His philosophy is to enjoy the exercise, so it doesn't become a chore.
"Most people start out very enthusiastically but overdo it and then quit a short while later. It's better to underdo than overdo. I recommend exercising 8-10 times a month for 30-45 minutes at a time. That way you'll be consistent, over a long period, which will create new habits and that's what will make long-term changes."
Chew says the best weight loss exercise combines resistance training with cardio training. So for example you can do yoga plus running. It shouldn't be an either/or question.
"You get out of yoga what you put into it," says Peers. "I would say you should do yoga three to four times a week. If you want to do more, you get the benefits of doing more, like everything in life."
I'm starting with yoga because I know that's what got me into training regularly in the first place. Richard is right: The best exercise is one that you actually do - and do continuously. And if that is yoga for me then fantastic. I get all the breathing and meditation benefits as well. Because these days training is as much about mental health as it is about physical.