Yoga Asana & Weight Loss

Yes, it’s January and the usual topics rear their heads. I’ve railed against marketing yoga for weight loss as much as a stretching routine. I’ve waxed mildly philosophical about contentment & acceptance as more transformative focuses than self-improvement. And yet… And yet.

Weight loss is no superficial matter. Being overweight increases infalmmatory processes in the body, as well as risks for all the major causes of death and disability: heart disease, vascular disease, stroke, diabetes.

Moreover, feeling overweight compromises how we are in the world, what we allow for ourselves and what we imagine. I’ve written here about quitting smoking, I’m writing a memoir about sober vinophilia, and I still write occasionally about my icey fascination with adreneline and extremes. So why not write about my experience with yoga and weight?

Weight has always been a sensitive topic for me. I started serious weightlifting when I was a young teenager & still feel safest, most at home in a spare, bright room full of metal and benches and bars and sweat. When things go really bad, I go to the gym. Because of having built a physique more muscular than the average woman, I’ve often heard extreme assessments of my appearance. Whether appreciative or derisive, it’s always felt intrusive, like someone commenting on your religion.

And of course through the years age, divorce, career change, night shift & the poignant stresses of living have taken their own tolls adding padding here & there, only to be shed as I process the emotions and memories they embody.

And this is where yoga comes in. My practice has given me the structure to observe the relationships between the shapes I embody and ideas, emotions, sensations and experiences I am processing. Yoga specifically addresses how we process and digest energy, specifically our food, emotions, rest and desire. Through breathing, circulation, motion and rest we can intentionally influence the efficiency with which we process our life experience. And this is the most important thing about weight, because even yogis die and in the end it’s always the heart that stops. Even yogis age, and in the end the face is never the same as it was when we were born. Even yogis struggle, and in the end stress shares the same physical processes regardless of where it is born.

From my own observation, weight stores emotion. Sometimes this is benevolent: we may not be ready or have the resources to process it we will soon possess. And the more thouroughly we process, the more time it can take, but the more we will understand and the freer we will be. When I was raped during my teacher training three years ago, I began a slow weight gain that was resistent to all my diet and exercise attempts. As that weight dissolved this last year, I was sometimes awash in emotions that were clearly out of context for my current existence. They were remnants washed out in the process of renewal. Cultivating witness consciousness (which is palpably and functionally different than disassociating), staying connected to breath and listening to my body for the poses and seats that would best support my activity were crucial in caring for and supporting this part of my process.

The weight that I carried wasn’t always comfortable, but it was often comforting. Loosing it wasn’t always comfortable, but my lighter body feels at home in my world. I lost thirty pounds during 2008, which is a steady & sustainable rate.  As important as the physical activity in yoga is the constructive rest and meditation. The eight limbs (yama, niyama, asana, pranayama, pratyahara, dharana, dhyana, samadhi) are as necessary to yoga practice as to an octupus.

Overall, daily practice and meditation are crucial. Even if it’s just a moment on the mat, the imprint that I carried into my day was sustaining. What I did on a given day was based on a general structure which I refined over the course of time, but tailored each day to my needs. My sleep patterns were stabilizing, my food habits were changing, my practice varied depending on my health, my cycle, the time I had set aside, emotions, work demands and classes I was prepping.

What I recommend for students who are designing a practice with weight stabilization in mind is first to be clear about what emotions and meanings you anticipate processing. Be open for change, and stay grounded in your overall process. For some drawing and journalling help with putting a particular day’s events in the larger context of their life. Remember that your practice is ultimately supporting you in digesting your experience and that no emotion, no day or night or wash of feeling is definitive of anything. It is information, it is color and you can be present for it and be the space and awareness of it.

I begin my own practice with breathing and pranayama. Kalabhati & Stomach Churning are particularly mind clearing and energy producing. They are also helpful for generating warmth on a cold morning, or on a camping trip. I follow these with 20-30 minutes of sun salutations beginning slowly and meditatively, feeling every centimeter of motion exquisitely with every cell of my body and working up to crisp motion in concert with breath.

Standing postures with lots of twists and revolved poses felt integrative, strong and cleansing, and by Fall I was closing with Sarvangasana, or shoulderstand, for 5 minutes each day, followed by Halasana, or Plow, a final twist & squeeze. After a luscious Savasana I like to practice Nadi Shodhana, or alternate nostril breathing, before silent meditation, focusing on my breath. Some chanting brings me nicely into the rest of my day.

That’s what I’ve devised. I’ve recently read Deepak Chopra’s Seven Spiritual Laws of Yoga with great pleasure and he has a routine at the end which has many of the same elements. I wouldn’t recommend diving in without a teacher, because no amount of reading will enable you to transition between postures or guage your readiness like a teacher. But if you have experience or a teacher to guide you, either through private or group lessons, it’s a well rounded program, and regardless, the thoughtful first chapters are valuable for the clarity & simplicity of his explanation.

I continue to observe the changes of my body and mind through my practice and while I’m now at the weight I was before, my body continues to grow slimmer and more muscular, though of a different  density than my 145# benching days. (Yeah, I actually used to loose boyfriends because I could bench more.)  I regard this as evolution, information, experience and contribution to the wisdom I seek. I invite you to share your story, plan, experience or struggle through comments or email. Remember, it’s all Gunas acting on Gunas (Bhagavad Gita) or loosely translated, “It ain’t nothin’ but a thing. Another thing.”

Bikram? Really?

Yes. I’ve shocked myself. I never thought I’d be practicing 26 asana & 2 breathing exercises in a 105 degree room, but here I am. Priorly, I thought the increased heat was a cheat, the repetition of “26 postures and 2 breathing exercises” (it’s like a mantram for them!) facile and the “dialogue” of the “teachers” a total copout. I’d been to one class a couple of years ago and was completely turned off by the humorless lack of attention of that teacher.

Well, I’ve been looking for a fun challenge that doesn’t require unearthing my whole life, and this was an adventure I wanted to have. A new Bikram studio opened up near the studio where I teach and it was drawing my attention. I’d been going to more & more classes at YogaNow where I’ve been a student for 7 years and took teacher training myself. I wanted something new but familiar. I need to loose some weight that’s been very stubborn. I want to do it with yoga because I don’t want to take yoga time for things like the gym. Albuquerque Downtown Bikram Studio (in EDO) has a first month special that’s hard to turn down… so I dove in. I took two classes in 24 hours, bought the book, and all I know is that I feel good. I have concerns about alignment issues, I’m still pretty underwhelmed with the dialogue, but the teachers at this new studio are attentive and kind and steady. And the heat is very comforting.

I do wonder what this means for me… how it will affect my teaching, is this just another obsession, will I loose this weight that is so stubborn. Will I have enough water? But I know what feels good and this is it. I’m enjoying really immersing myself in classes – I plan to do one Bikram and one regular Hatha at YogaNow every day I’m not on duty starting tomorrow, after my regular monthly break.

The book was a wonderful adjunct, because it explains things in more detail than the dialogue (or script) the teachers use. The sequencing in really very good. I’m still not sure about the knee locking thing, but have been really impressed with how much attention they get me to pay to squeezing the muscles of the leg, which seems to be the major point. The instruction that it should feel like you don’t even have a knee almost sounds like my teacher’s admonition that the knee is really just the karma between your thigh and your lower leg.

I’m also very impressed with how deeply and specifically Bikram goes into the squeezing and flooding actions of yoga asana in his writing. This is something I heard about in my own teacher training and of course in Iyengar’s Light on Yoga, but I’ve never seen or experienced a practice completely built around it.

I could personally do without the constant chatter of the teacher’s dialogue. I was reading about giving instruction  on the Yoga Journal website and one of the teachers said the silences are as important as the instructions, and this seems crucially true to me. I wish the Bikram teachers would use more.

The frequent sivasana, too, at first annoyed me. It felt like preschool children scrambling to get on their nappy mats fast enough. But I now feel it as more of a rhythm, and the frequent horizontal flooding of all body structures between intense effort makes sense to me.

Bikram Yoga may not become my primary practice, but it is teaching me a lot. And if it helps me shed these pounds it will be a successful adventure. I also seem to be better able to turn down vices – the 3 am cigarette on duty seems pointless, the extra glass of wine a bit much.

So, here’s to growth, appropriate change and stretching our preconceived notions. Action with compassion, the unplanned plan and conscious intensity. Peace, love and rock and roll.