It's No Stretch

11.19.07: Timothy McCall, M.D., explains how yoga works weight loss


I'm a big fan of yoga. In the past—back when I was baby-less and loaded down with what now seems like impossible amounts of free time—I used to do tons of the stuff. It was my preferred form of exercise. I did a rather intense and challenging form of vinyasa flow yoga, which I knew I could use to get my heart rate up and keep it there. I liked that I could get my cardio, strength, and flexibility benefits all in one package. I liked that I was working on my focus and helping tune out the stressful bits of my life at the same time. By the end of my practice—when I hit the mat in corpse pose—the relaxation was deep and well-deserved.

In my opinion, yoga was everything it was cracked up to be and much, much more than that (which is to say, it has to be experienced, not read about in some magazine or some, ahem, blog somewhere).

In life post-Truman, my ability to practice has been hampered. I rarely can get on the mat for an hour-and-a-half anymore, or an hour—or a half. I have a hard time, because of my size and my physical condition, pushing myself through a really challenging practice. I don't have the will to do it, and I no longer like it. Power yoga just doesn't work for me anymore.

But that's okay. The latest thinking in yoga land is that the gentlest yoga works best for weight loss. I just finished writing a story for NATURAL HEALTH magazine on the subject, and got to interview my friend Timothy McCall, M.D., a yogi and internist who's making a life's work of bridging the gap between yoga wisdom and conventional medicine. (His new book, YOGA AS MEDICINE: The Yogic Prescription for Health and Healing, is an absolute masterwork, a must-have reference manual for anyone interested in how yoga heals.)

"Yoga works for weight loss, but burning calories is the least of it," Timothy told me. "In fact, the most significant weight loss is seen in the most gentle forms of yoga, such as Integral yoga." You'll have to pick up NATURAL HEALTH to read all about why this is so (the story will be out in the March issue), but I'll give you the gist:

Most of us are stressed out all the time (screaming babies! trashed houses! impending deadlines! piling-up bills! overbooked schedules! endless diaper changes!). Stress leads to increased cortisol production. Increased cortisol production has been linked in several news-making health studies in recent months to efficient fat storage—particularly inter-abdominal fat, which is just what every new mom is trying to avoid. And yoga helps break this cycle.

"Yoga is the best system for stress relief ever invented," Dr. McCall says. For those looking to tap its benefits, he recommends working with yoga's three-step process for transformation, drawn directly from the yoga sutra (sutra II-1, if you're interested). It will work for weight-loss, Dr. McCall says, if you stick with it:

1. Self-study (svadhyaya)

What are you doing and not doing? What are you eating and not eating? "In order to change, you have to see clearly," Dr. McCall says. "If you have a problem with emotionally based eating, you have to get some clarity about that. You don't have to admit anything to other people, but you have to admit it to yourself. Then you can take steps to address it." One powerful tool that can help? A food diary!

2. Practice (tapah)

Once you're clear on what the problems are you can start to do some work. Tapah, or tapas, generally refers to the physical practice of yoga (if you've ever done yoga, you might already have a tapas mat). But you don't have to jump onto your mat thinking you need to burn a gazillion calories or make up for your food sins of the past. Instead, commit to one or two simple practices you can do every day—perhaps a few simple poses—maybe a few fluctuating cat-cows, a downward-facing dog, and then a nice child's pose followed by a brief meditation. That's what I'm up to lately.

"When you do a simple practice, you learn that though your mind can be wanting to get up now, you can choose to stay put," says Dr. McCall. "Yoga gives you the opportunity to not have to react to every urge and emotion, but to be able to pause and choose how you act. That allows you to be much more mindful about what and how you eat."

3. Surrender (isvara pranidhana)

Here in the diet-crazy West, we are goal-oriented. We say, "I want to lose 20 pounds by January 1!" We set nutty goals for ourselves that don't have much to do with how our bodies perform or what our bodies need. Then we proceed to kick ourselves around toward that goal—mercilessly, sometimes—with crazy diets. And if we don't make it, then we feel like horrible failures.

This is, according to Dr. McCall, insanity. "You can eat right, do your practice, get enough exercise, and be perfect, but how much weight you lose in response to all that is not fully in your control," says Dr. McCall. "It depends on your metabolism and your hormone levels and your medical condition and your life circumstances. Beating yourself up about what you can't control is counter-productive. It will raise cortisol levels. When you surrender control, it takes the heat off—if you're doing all you can and you still don't lose weight, it's not your fault. Maybe you'll realize that you're body wants to be at a different weight than the one you have in mind for it, and you can find peace with your size."

That's a very yogic idea, I suppose, though it has parallels in all religious and philosophical traditions. At some point, you just have to accept that you're not steering the big car—you have to let God (or Goddess, or higher power, or nonspecific unified energy field, or infinite void—you pick) drive. And maybe you realize that God/Goddess/Power/Energy/Void likes you just the way you are.

At any rate, I'm finding that doing a simple 15 minute practice every evening after Truman goes to bed is helping me to stay calmer overall, and is—at the very least—distracting me from snacking for a little while. It's also offering me another intangible benefit I hadn't realized I'd needed: It's giving me a little forum for offering my own body a little gratitude every day, something I never do. I find that when I take time to offer my thanks, I'm a little less hungry for junk—as though this appreciation was what I needed all along.

Consider doing the same for yourself, whether or not you practice yoga, especially if you just had a baby. You just created a miracle. You deserve a little thanks.

[Check my blog next week for my own personal meditation on gratitude.]

Hillari Dowdle is breathing, stretching, and living in the now in Knoxville, Tennessee. Contact her at hillari.