Jennifer Aniston does it. Reports are that Liv Tyler, Halle Berry, Madonna, David Duchovny and supermodel Christy Turlington do it, too. Many professional athletes are said to be doing it in an effort to improve their games.
It's true most types of yoga don't have anything near the calorie-burning power of aerobic exercise. A 150-pound person will burn 150 calories in an hour of doing regular yoga, compared to 311 calories for an hour of walking at 3 mph. But it is exercise, after all, and many practitioners believe yoga can indeed help people take off extra pounds.
"Yoga is a phenomenal way to put you in touch with your body the way nothing else can, and yes, it can help you lose weight," says instructor Dana Edison, director of Radius Yoga in North Redding, Mass., and a certified personal trainer with the American College of Sports Medicine.
Celebrity yoga trainers Ana Brett and Ravi Singh, who have worked with such hotties as Madonna and Gwyneth Paltrow, also believe in yoga's weight-loss powers.
"We have seen it in ourselves, we have seen it in our clients – yoga can give you a real workout even if you are a beginner," says Brett, who, with Singh, created the best-selling DVD program Fat Free Yoga.
How Does It Work?
In 2005, medical researcher and practicing yogi Alan Kristal, DPH, MPH, set out to do a medical study on the weight-loss effects of yoga.
With funding from the National Cancer Institute, Kristal and colleagues at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle led a trial involving 15,500 healthy, middle-aged men and women. All completed a survey recalling their physical activity (including yoga) and their weight between the ages of 45 and 55. Researchers then analyzed the data, teasing out other factors that could influence weight change – such as diet or other forms of exercise.
The end result: They found yoga could indeed help people shed pounds, or at least keep them from gaining weight.
"Those practicing yoga who were overweight to start with lost about 5 pounds during the same time period those not practicing yoga gained 14 pounds," says Kristal.
For the study, he says, practicing yoga was defined as at least one 30-minute session per week for four or more years.
Kristal says it's not clear just how yoga might help people keep off the pounds, at least from a scientific standpoint. His own opinion is that the effects are subtle, and related to yoga's mind-body aspects.
"The buzzword here is mindfulness -- the ability to observe what is happening internally in a non-reactive fashion," he says. "That is what helps change the relationship of mind to body, and eventually to food and eating."
Adds Edison: "Yoga makes you more susceptible to influence for change – so if you are thinking you want to change your lifestyle, you want to change the way you think about food, you want to get over destructive eating patterns, yoga will help give you the spiritual connection to your body that can help you make those changes."
Another idea is that yoga forges a strong mind-body connection that ultimately helps make you more aware of what you eat and how it feels to be full.
"Essentially, in yoga you learn your body is not your enemy, and the conscious awareness of the body that you gain translates into better appetite control," Edison says.
Power Yoga: The New Attitude
While some say yoga is too tame for extreme weight loss, many devotees of the practice known as "power yoga" disagree.
Power yoga is an Americanized version of traditional Kundalini techniques. Instructors like Singh and Brett believe it can offer all the fat-burning potential – and heart benefits -- of an aerobic workout.
While traditional types of yoga are based on breathing techniques paired with static poses, Singh says, power yoga combines meditative breathing with faster, more active movements. The result, he says, is a workout that can be more aerobic than . . . aerobics!
"Aerobic means to exercise in the presence of oxygen, so when you are doing the traditional yoga breathing along with the more active exercises, you're doing exactly that," he says. "Our 'breath of fire' technique, for example, is one of many we use to help you burn calories while you breathe."
Edison concedes power yoga may help some people lose weight, but she questions whether it could work for the yoga novice, or the average out-of-shape dieter.
"Can yoga build muscle? Yes. Is a fast-paced, power class aerobic? Sometimes. And can you sweat out water weight in a 105-degree room? Sure. But can the average overweight person effectively shed pounds through a one-size-fits-all physical yoga practice? Not realistically or safely," Edison tells WebMD.
What about using power yoga to jump-start a weight loss plan? Kristal says even the most forceful power yoga techniques won't equal the health benefits of a cardiovascular workout -- nor will yoga ever burn calories quickly at a significant level.
"It's just not medically feasible – it's not going to happen," he says.
Still, Brett and Singh say they've seen firsthand that it can work, even for beginners.
"People come to yoga for many different reasons, but we have seen many success stories in terms of losing weight and learning to control weight," says Brett. "Active yoga, even for the novice, can change your body and your life."
Making Yoga Work for You
One thing all our experts agree on is that yoga can be a terrific introduction to the world of fitness.
To help get you started, they offer these tips:
- Practice in a room without mirrors, and put the emphasis on your internal experience rather than your outer performance.
- Learn to experience the sensation of movement, down to the tiniest micro movement.
- Always try to find your "edge" -- the place where your body feels challenged, but not overwhelmed. When you achieve this, keep an open, accepting state of mind.
- Give yourself permission to rest when you're tired.
- Combine your yoga session with positive self-talk. Appreciate your efforts and praise your inner goodness.
- Go to class faithfully. If you work out at home, set a specific day and time for your yoga session and stick to it.
- Recognize that you are not only working on your body, but are also working to develop qualities like patience, discipline, wisdom, kindness and gratitude.
- Look for a teacher (in a class or on video) who you feel offers a balance between gentleness and firmness, and who inspires you to practice.
- Recognize that simply buying a yoga DVD or attending the class is a step toward creating a better you. Use it as momentum to keep going.
- Realize your efforts are not just inspiring you, but also inspiring others as you become more attuned to who you are, inside and out.