Hear the word “yogi”, and the image of a skinny, impossibly flexible vegetarian may pop into your mind. It’s the image from any yoga magazine. And studies indicate that longtime practitioners of yoga tend to be more slender than the average American.
These images have created a self-perpetuating problem for yoga: Yogis are thin, so thin people seek out yoga. As some of my teachers put it: We are attracted to what we already are. Yet yoga is for everyone and some forms are particularly suited to those who struggle with their weight.
The good news for the not-thin: Yogis are so much more than their bodies, just as yoga is so much more than the poses. Other key attributes of many a yoga practitioner: inquisitive, open-minded, desperate. Wait a minute, desperate?
Yep. I started yoga when swimming no longer served to stop crippling back pain. My teacher, Manouso Manos, said in an interview in Yoga Samachar that a friend recommended yoga to Manouso after reading that yoga was for the hopeless.
Yoga is a refuge for the hopeless, for the desperate. It is a last refuge. If you are desperate for change, yoga is for you.
Studies show improved weight control with yoga
Several studies since 2005 have found lower body mass index associated with yoga practice.
A regular yoga practice of four years or more correlated with a smaller weight gain than among non-practitioners, 3.1 pounds less among those with a lower body mass index, but 18.5 among those who were overweight, according to a cohort study of 15,550 people in 2005.
Vigorous poses are associated with lower BMI, but it's not just the physical work that helps. A 2012 study of more than 1,000 Iyengar yoga practitioners found a correlation between philosophy study and lower body mass index.
The more years of yoga practice, the lower the BMI, according to a 2009 survey of 211 practitioners ages 45-80.
Overcoming obstacles to doing yoga
If you're desperate enough to try yoga, but definitely in the not-thin category, what next? Seek out the traditions that offer individual modifications, such as viniyoga and Iyengar. Los Angeles offers the latter at many studios, including the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Los Angeles, and at the YogaWorks locations in Los Angeles and Orange County. These studios and many others offer introductory classes or those good for beginners. Those with health concerns or weight issues should seek out these foundational classes.
Starting with a smaller class and a teacher able to adapt poses to individuals can help students find some hope. The LA institute offers an introductory six-week class on Tuesdays, 2:30-4, beginning Feb. 26, at a cost of $75. The course is limited to 20 students. YogaWorks offers several options and pricings: Yoga Basics, a package of classes and semi-private instruction with individualized attention, ideal for those with injuries, health concerns, or seeking to start with a strong foundation; Iyengar yoga, with attention to alignment for safety and health benefits; restorative, also Iyengar-based and designed to soothe the nervous system.
Breaking a sweat is not the only way to tackle our self-image issues. Restorative yoga was shown in a 2008 published study of people with metabolic syndrome to have been successful in reducing blood pressure, increasing energy, and improving well-being. The study found that restorative classes were well attended and students were consistent at home practice.