We’ve all seen photos of rail-thin yoga instructors leading equally svelte students in a variety of twists, bends, and contortions. Such images feature prominently in the literature published by yoga studios, but should new yogis really expect to slim down as a result of their practice?

The answer is yes, but perhaps not for the reasons you suspect. And while yoga does help many people shed those excess pounds, losing your love handles may not be the only reason to start learning poses.

Yoga is definitely exercise, however…

Yoga doesn’t burn calories the same way running, swimming, cycling, or weightlifting do. Aside from a few strenuous variations practiced by a small percentage of enthusiasts, yoga burns calories at about the same rate as walking – not running – on a treadmill for the same amount of time. It’s definitely exercise, but it’s not particularly rigorous.

That being the case, what’s the deal with those skinny people in the instructional videos? Is it really the yoga that’s helping them stay slim? According to researchers at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, practicing yoga promotes weight loss not by burning calories, but by encouraging “mindful” eating.

Regularly practicing yoga, a Center study explains, helps people forge healthy connections between their minds and their bodies. Over time, they start to make more deliberate choices about which foods to consume, develop a better sense of when they’re full, and are less likely to eat in response to external cues, like advertising.

Basically, yoga doesn’t help you lose weight by burning fat so much as by changing your relationship with food. As exercise, its effects are modest. But as a strategy for improving nutrition, the practice shines.

Encouraging mindfulness

Using yoga as a weight loss strategy is a relatively new concept. A spiritual practice that began centuries before Westerners were concerned about losing weight, yoga seeks to teach the body and the mind to work in tandem, harmoniously. Benefits for practitioners include improved discernment, awareness, and self-restraint – virtues that can improve every aspect of your health from your dedication to exercise to your relationships with others.

Given this context, it’s also easy to see why many people who practice yoga are slim. Better discernment helps them make better food choices; improved awareness helps them know how certain foods affect their bodies; self-restraint helps them avoid overeating.

But a healthier relationship with food is, in a sense, an ancillary benefit of yoga. It’s not so much a reason to start a yoga routine as it is an effect of engaging in the practice. There are good reasons to give yoga a try whether you need to lose weight or not!

To be sure, everyone who does yoga gets into it for different reasons. Whether you’re trying to slim down, want to lower your stress level, or suspect that even a modest amount of physical activity will be an improvement over the status quo, there is nothing to lose by hitting up a local studio for a beginner yoga session.

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