Amy Leland Hemphill, a 36-year-old filmmaker and director living in New York City, has always been fit. She’s an avid cyclist who regularly participates in multi-day rides. She belongs to a gym, and she does Pilates. She eats a vegetarian diet.
Until recently, though, she’s also been what most people would consider fat: At 5’6″, she weighed in at over 200 pounds. “I’ve struggled with my weight my entire adult life,” she explains. “When I went through a messy divorce a few years ago, I got up to 225. I tried everything–Weight Watchers, Jenny Craig, South Beach, and a gazillion other diets. I worked out all the time, but it didn’t help, and that just frustrated me more.”
Down in the dumps and down on herself, Hemphill decided to take a Yoga class at the Integral Yoga institute of New York. “What little Yoga I had done in the past had always made me feel better,” she remembers. “So I picked up the schedule–and what was the first thing I saw on it? An all-day workshop on losing weight with Yoga.”
She signed up and met Brandt Bhanu Passalacqua, a certified Structural Yoga therapist, weight-loss coach, and author of a book bearing the same title as the class he was teaching: Peaceful Weight Loss Through Yoga (Lulu.com, 2005). “What blew me away was how simple what Brandt was saying really was,” Hemphill remembers. “He wasn’t saying, ‘Don’t eat this, don’t eat that.’ He was saying, ‘Treat yourself well, learn to quiet your mind, and develop a yoga practice.’ I decided right away to study with him.”
That decision, Hemphill says, has changed her life. “I’ve been working with Brandt for over a year,” she says. “It’s only been in the last six months that I’ve started losing weight. But I’ve lost 20 pounds without even thinking about it. Now I’m a Yoga evangelist. I tell everyone, ‘You can stop freaking out about your weight.”‘
Practice Yoga, Lose Weight
Hemphill’s results might come as a surprise to anyone who thinks Yoga is just another form of exercise. “Yoga works for weight loss, but burning calories is the least of it,” says Timothy McCall, M.D., author of Yoga as Medicine: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing (Bantam, 2007), a new book that seeks to explain the scientific reasons for Yoga’s healing mechanisms. (The book addresses several conditions including cardiovascular disease, back pain, diabetes, cancer, migraines, and, yes, obesity.) “In fact, significant weight loss even happens in the most gentle forms of Yoga, such as Integral Yoga, where there are very few calories burned.”
McCall cites a news-making 2005 study published in Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine in which researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle found that healthy people between the ages of 45 and 55 who regularly practice Yoga are less likely to gain weight over a ten-year span and more likely to lose it if they’re overweight–even if they’re not trying to. The study’s authors speculated that body awareness and mindfulness may play a role.
“The study is significant in that it is seen by Western medicine as evidence that Yoga works,” says McCall, an internist who now practices and researches Yoga fulltime in the San Francisco Bay Area and aims to make yogic tools more accessible to conventional medicine. “Yoga evokes dozens of mechanisms at the same time–it burns calories, stretches the body, conditions the cardiovascular system, reduces blood cortisol levels, lowers blood pressure, improves brain function, and on and on. One at a time, these changes might be small, but when you add small changes together, you can get big results.”
Stress Less, Weigh Less
So what’s the secret to Yoga and weight loss? Reducing stress, says McCall. “Many of us are walking around in fight-or-flight mode, pumping stress hormones, including cortisol, into our bodies,” he says. “Cortisol is associated with binge eating; high cortisol levels cause calories to be very efficiently turned into fat. It’s a double whammy. Yoga has been shown to lower cortisol levels.”
“Stress is the primary issue in weight loss,” agrees Passalacqua. “The people who come to me already know everything they need to know about how to lose weight. The problem is, they feel too busy and harried to take care of themselves.” Just as he did with Hemphill, Passalacqua–whose own Yoga practice helped him drop 100 pounds after years of struggle–starts by asking his clients to adopt a 20-minute practice of gentle movement and breath work every day. Only after they master the art of present-moment awareness–and compassion for themselves–does he move them on to more challenging practices. “It’s not about building strength or flexibility, though those may be side benefits,” he explains. “It’s about moving in a way that makes you feel good so you can experience less stress and learn to be present.”
This approach has made a huge difference for Hemphill. “My Yoga practice is about finding peace within,” she says. “What I choose to eat has changed because of that.”
Eat Mindfully, Drop Pounds
Lanita Varshell is a San Diego–based Yoga therapist whose students fondly call her “the queen of relaxation.” She started practicing gentle Yoga in 1995, after being diagnosed with chronic fatigue syndrome at age 39. At the time, standing at 5’4″, she weighed 250 pounds. With regular practice, the pounds (and the pain) began to fall away; today she’s at 200 pounds and holding. She has since opened a studio called A Gentle Way that helps make Yoga an accessible weight-loss tool for fellow plus-size practitioners.
“Yoga is about balance,” Varshell says. “When you start finding balance and start observing where you’re out of balance, you realize that it’s not really satisfying to sit there eating nonstop just to numb yourself. Pleasure can be found in every single bite, bur you have to be there for it.”
Being more mindful has helped Hemphill discover what she isn’t hungry for. ‘As a classic comfort food eater, I always turned to pizza,” she says. “Now that Yoga has helped me tune into my body, I notice that after I eat three slices of pizza, I feel pretty sleepy and gross. Comfort food isn’t really very comforting.”
Tune In, Tone Up
The fruits of mindfulness are available through meditation alone, but yoga goes even further: Practicing the postures (or asana) helps those grappling with weight issues to get in touch with their bodies. “It’s possible to live unconsciously,” Varshell says. “But you have to feel to heal. If you’re disconnected from your body, why would you do anything about it?”
Yoga poses can also teach persistence, says McCall. “In a Yoga class, you learn to do things that go against the grain,” he says. “You can stay in a pose even though you might like to come out of it.” Likewise, you learn that “you can skip the chocolate ice cream even though you think you really want it.”
Take, for instance, Triangle pose–a fundamental Yoga asana. “In Triangle pose, you establish balance, you stretch, and you relax. Those are doorways into being more conscious and aware of ourselves,” says Aruni Nan Futuronsky, a senior teacher for the Integrative Weight Loss Program at the Kripalu Center for Yoga and Health in Massachusetts. “In this pose, you learn to create tension in your body on purpose and then let it go. Off the mat, you see that you have tension in your life and you can let it go without having to resort to doughnuts as a coping mechanism. When you practice that and memorize it, you can do it in all your affairs.”
Hemphill says it was crucial for her to find a foundation in Yoga before making major diet changes. “I failed at diets partly because I had nothing to replace the solace I was looking for in food,” she says. “With my practice in place, I could turn to that instead of food.”
Rewire, Slim Down
Swami Vivekananda–one of the first Indian yogis to come to the United States back in 1893–said, “The only remedy for bad habits is counter-habits.” In other words, if you’ve dug yourself into a rut, you need to forge a new path. This teaching is being validated by modem science. “When I went to medical school, the conventional wisdom was that the brain architecture was fixed,” says McCall. “Now neuroscientists are finding that the brain is constantly rewiring itself and forming new connections in a process called neuroplasticity.
“The new saying is, ‘Neurons that fire together, wire together,”‘ he adds. “If you have deep-rooted patterns of dysfunction around food, your best bet is to create a new pattern that’s so strong, it can compete with the old one. You can literally change your mind.”
Yoga is a good habit–and in the end, that itself might be the key to how it works to help people slim down, says McCall. “Weight-loss experts think they just need to yell louder when they tell people to exercise more and not to eat unhealthy food,” he says. “Everybody has gotten that message. The problem is, we aren’t giving people a means to implement the changes they want to make. And that’s what Yoga does.”
The new groove that Yoga gave Hemphill has been a lifeline. “Brandt was very clear that you build a Yoga practice first before you start taking anything away. That’s why we did so much foundational work before the weight started to come off,” she says. “But I was willing to be patient because I knew that it would. And I know now that 20 pounds are gone for good.”
SMALL STEPS TO SUCCESS
Ana Forrest, founder of Forrest Yoga, a powerful form of Yoga that’s predicated on helping students get in touch with feelings long buried, says she struggled with bulimia for years. “Yoga helped me figure out when I was hungry and when I was craving, which is not really about food. Craving is often about something else–love, or beauty,” she says. “When you use food for anything other than nourishment, you’re asking it to do something it can’t–food can’t give you love.”
Overcoming bulimia meant finding a way to coexist peacefully with food. The process took the form of small steps that helped Forrest gain a sense of control and accomplishment. She shares some of her tips:
GIVE THANKS FOR YOUR FOOD “I always acknowledge that the food on my plate came from something living—whether it was a carrot, an apple, or a soybean,” she says.
EAT WHEN YOU’RE HUNGRY “Make the choice to eat until your body says, ‘Oh, that was good–I feel good now,” Forrest says.
STAY HYDRATED Often we can’t tell the difference between hunger and thirst, Forrest explains. Drink water, not coffee.
BREATHE DEEPLY Forrest recommends a simple breathing exercise: Close your eyes and take ten deep belly breaths three times a day to keep energy high and stress low. “Do it when you find yourself reaching for a cup of coffee or something sugary,” she says.
SET REGULAR MEALTIMES Soaring and dipping blood sugar levels are rampant among the distracted and stressed out, so make a lunch date with yourself.
CHEW, CHEW, CHEW “Chew your food until it’s liquefied,” Forrest says. “It sounds boring, but it makes sure you taste the food and helps digestion.”
TUNE IN Whenever you notice yourself doing something harmful–say, making your way through a bag of chips-stop wherever you are, take a couple of breaths, then reward yourself for noticing. “Take a walk or book a massage,” says Forrest. “Do something that’s not about food.”
LEARN MORE: Study Yoga’s healing tools, from asanas to niyamas (yogic rules to live by).
Article by: Hillari Dowdle, Natural Health