One of the most common questions about Bikram Yoga is whether it is an effective way to lose weight. On the surface, it’s a simple question with a simple answer (yes). Depending on what calculator you use — and how much you weigh and how hard you work in class — you are burning between 600 and 900 calories in a 90-minute class. If you eat what your body needs and you are burning that many calories, you will lose weight. You are also toning your muscles and helping your digestive system work more efficiently, so the overall effect is going to be slimming.
But … you knew there was a but coming …
The devil is in those details.
People who expect quick weight loss are often frustrated because it does take time and effort. The postures and the sweating are not magic. Unfortunately, your body is trying to hold onto that weight — particularly if you are a woman of child-bearing age — because it is genetically programmed to treat excess weight as protection, a kind of storage locker of nutrients in case of a famine. Our DNA has not gotten the memo that in our society at least, famine is highly unlikely. So we have to clear a hurdle created by our own bodies.
The other variable is diet. Many people who begin exercising increase the amount they eat, either subconsciously or consciously, because some part of their brain believes they can eat more because they are exercising. But studies have shown even keeping your diet the same and adding exercise may not make you lose weight.
The fact is, reducing what you eat — and making healthier choices — is essential to losing weight, whether you are practicing Bikram yoga or doing other kinds of exercise. Most Americans eat far more than their bodies need to fuel them, perhaps twice as much. We have lost the connection between what our bodies need and what we eat.
Restoring that connection means eating when we are hungry and stopping when we’ve had enough. Eating mindfully requires cutting out all the other signals that interfere with that one. One of the benefits of yoga, according to a 2009 study by the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is the mind-body connection it fosters. Yoga practitioners, the study found, are mindful eaters who are much less likely to be overweight.
So don’t count calories, follow weird diets and deprive yourself of what tastes good. Those things are counterproductive because they aren’t sustainable. What’s better is learning to eat enough to fuel your body and stopping there.
It helps to eat real food and avoid processed food (your body can deal with real food much more efficiently); cut back on meat (it requires more of your body’s energy to digest); start the process by shopping mindfully and stocking your kitchen with healthy alternatives that are quick and easy to prepare, so you when you are tired or frazzled, the easiest thing to reach for is not the number for Domino’s.
In the end, it’s about finding a healthy equilibrium. Bikram combined with mindful eating worked for me, slowly but with wonderful results. I recently saw the Twitter hashtag #nothingtastesasgoodasskinnyfeels and laughed out loud. It’s true. But you can still taste good food. I love good food. Mindfully.