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Weight Loss and Yoga

By David E. Morgan

Yoga can be a fun and fulfilling part of an overall weight management strategy with the added benefits of stress reduction, control over cravings and impulses, even spiritual growth.

Or, as is too often the case, yoga can lead to pain and joint injury.

Yoga-related injuries have grown exponentially over the last few years. This is due in part to the rapid spread and "Americanization" of yoga -- it is now socially acceptable, even en vogue in many parts of the country to practice yoga, whereas just two decades ago yoga was seen as suspect, even cultish.

It could be argued, however, that yoga, intended to be a spiritual practice, should have no injuries whatsoever.

Two factors are to blame in the rise of yoga-related injuries:

The problem is compounded by weight. A person struggling with obesity or even just a few pounds over optimal weight has more stress on the joints already. Force the body into a pose it's not accustomed to -- or enter or exit the pose unsafely -- and you will soon have an injury on your hands.

One of the first precepts of yoga is the Sanskrit word ahimsa, which most often is translated as "non-violence." It's ironic that yoga is used sometimes as a tool of violence against the self, when someone strives to be someone else with a different body, rather than accept, love, and nurture themselves into health.

It doesn't have to be this way.

First, find a teacher with at least a 200-hour certification, minimum.

Next it's important to develop a yoga practice that's suitable for your body as it is today -- not how you'd like it to be. With that in mind, yoga can be a very powerful tool for weight management.

Use yoga to breathe more deeply and simply relax. Yogic breathing (pranayama) increases the delivery of oxygen to the cells, allowing the organs to function as they should. This will give you more energy.

Deep breathing also triggers the "relaxation response," reducing stress and the production of cortisol. Cortisol is one of the "fight or flight" hormones that your body produces when it gets stressed -- like when a tiger is chasing you, or its modern equivalent: traffic and work. Overproduction of cortisol can lead to damage in the cardiovascular system as well as -- get this -- weight gain.

Conscious relaxation, as opposed to unconscious relaxation like sitting in front of the tv, activates the parasympathetic nervous system and the creative side of the brain. This allows you to explore creative possibilities for your life, maybe showing you choices you didn't know you had and new ways to meet life's many challenges.

Secondly, explore yoga postures, also called asanas, slowly and easily while your body builds strength and flexibility. There's no need to force yourself into anything. Take your time.

The experience is what is most important, not what you look like in the mirror. When your body becomes stronger and more flexible, your mind and emotional well-being will become strong and flexible, too. A daily practice of yoga could very well open the door to self-acceptance. It's a spiritual awakening.

When you accept yourself as the beautiful expression of the divine (however you define it) that you already are, self-nurturing will automatically arise. Profound and lasting change -- including weight loss -- can occur much more easily when we accept who we are, not when we reject and commit violence against ourselves.

David Morgan is a certified Kripalu Yoga Teacher registered with the Yoga Alliance. He teaches gentle and moderate yoga for weight management in Knoxville and Farragut, TN.

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