This news may confuse and/or disappoint many people searching “yoga for weight loss” or those already enrolled in a sweaty vinyasa-thon to shed a few pounds in the new year. As it turns out, it may be restorative yoga that you really need to lose weight and feel better, according to a new study.
The 48-week study, conducted by Maria G. Araneta, PhD, MPH, of the University of California, San Diego, found that regular restorative yoga was a better means of losing weight and maintaining it than stretching exercises.
The study involved two groups of women, one doing restorative yoga versus a second doing stretching exercises. The yoga group had a mean age of 55 and the stretch group a mean age of 54, and all participants had metabolic syndrome as defined by International Diabetes Foundation (IDF) criteria. The participants started out with semi-weekly classes and then weekly classes during the first 12 weeks. After that it was bi-weekly until the 6-month mark. For the final weeks, almost another whole 6 months, participants were asked to continue their yoga or stretching on their own with classes only once a month.
By the end of the study, both groups had lost weight, but the restorative group lost 2.5 times the amount of subcutaneous fat (the kind found right under the skin that, in excess, is unhealthy) than the stretch group and managed to maintain the loss while the stretch group regained almost half of what it lost by the end of the study.
How can this be? The researchers are still looking for the definitive answer, but a strong theory points to cortisol levels. During restorative yoga, students hold poses for up to 5-10 minutes using multiple props for support and maximum relaxation. When the body is relaxed, stress is reduced and levels of cortisol (the stress hormone known for helping to increase stored abdominal fat) go down. This can also be referred to as the Relaxation Response.
Yoga has already shown promise for people with diabetes helping to steady blood sugar and maybe trim extra weight. Don’t go throwing in your yoga mat towel just yet. This isn’t to say that aerobic exercise isn’t a good way to stay healthy, in fact, the study’s main author stated that rather than a replacement, restorative yoga is a “complementary, ancient practice.” But it can mean that people who were intimidated by yoga based on body size or ability, those who are possibly obese, can have a more accessible way to practice yoga and reap the benefits of the gentle movements when another option might not be practical.