Summer often gets people thinking about weight loss. In our appearance obsessed culture, how can we not? There’s just so much more flesh showing in the summer, and without the bulky sweaters and pants to hide behind, many of us become more than a little consumed with blasting fat, firming up what jiggles, and losing inches all around. I admit, I am not without my body obsessions, and would love to wake up tomorrow with my pre-kiddos abdominal muscles. Sigh.

So does yoga enhance weight loss? I spoke with someone today who said that they couldn’t get into yoga, that they liked their regular cardio practice of running because they felt they’d accomplished some serious exercise by the end and were moving toward greater weight loss. This made me wonder about how much illusion we have to move through in order to begin to gain the benefits of a regular yoga practice. The benefits of a regular yoga practice are ones that are often more refined than the ones we may experience from, say, a diet regime that is meant to produce rapid weight loss. Yoga is not really meant to produce rapid anything. It is a life long practice that peels away layer upon layer of unneeded self. And what does this have to do with weight loss or even weight management? A whole lot, actually.

Talk to anyone who has fallen in love with yoga, who has committed to a regular yoga practice, and everyone speaks of the same thing–the increased awareness that begins to unfold. As we peel away layers of ego, of emotional and physical pain, of bad habits, of the intensity of living life, a beautiful understanding of self begins to rise out of the depths. First, it comes in the form of noticing the way that the toes feel as they spread in Mountain Pose. Then comes the acknowledgment of tension residing in the jaw that eases away when we give our attention to softening our exhalation. Suddenly, there’s a softening that happens around the hips, that often leads to a huge release of a lifetime of emotional baggage. And then, sometimes quite suddenly, comes the feeling that two cookies was enough; that maybe instead of cookies plums taste better; that going to yoga class on Friday night is important enough to start cocktail hour a wee bit later. I have many many bad habits of my own, ones that make me question how darn long it will be before I reach the illusive path of enlightenment. However, what I can say for my practice, is that it has given me the awareness that allows me to see and feel when I’m creating practices that feel good, and when I’m creating ones that leave me feeling crappy. I don’t like feeling crappy–and I’m aware of that so I continue to practice and try again.

Back to the weight loss thing. Increased awareness aside, how do we use yoga physically to get in better shape? Regardless of the style yoga you practice, weight bearing where you use your own physical resistance, builds muscle, which in turn helps to burn more fat. Also the lengthening of the muscles due to stretching will help to relieve the body of toxins and cellulite that gets stored in key locations, especially around the abdomen and butt, and so will help to give the appearance of even more weight loss. And then there’s the really butt-kicking yoga practices, like Ashtanga, Power Yoga, Hot Vinyasa, and such, that truly do build enough cardiovascular energy to illicit weight loss.

The real answer, though, lies not in how quickly fat may disappear or in which routines we can do to get there, but in the fulfillment that comes from beginning a loving, albeit sometimes tumultuous, relationship with our body. Christina Sell, author of Yoga from the Inside Out: Making Peace with your Body Through Yoga writes, “We get to tune in to the fine details of how we bend and stretch, which starts the process of self-inquiry. The doorway is often the body and the breath, and then we begin to become aware of what we say to ourselves–to monitor the criticisms and judgments.” To have this happen can help us move away from the myth of the perfect body. There is no perfect body, just as there is no perfect headstand or pigeon pose. There is, though, freedom is realizing that we are more than our bodies, our headstands or our pigeon poses; that we are indeed a whole lot more than how we look in our summer bathing suits. As we practice, we learn to create a home for our self, within our self. Rather than constantly monitoring how others perceive us, and continuing the relationship that fuels self-deprecation and self-destruction, we get to experience, even if it’s just a small glimmer, the feeling of self-love. And this is the feeling of weight loss–if not physical weight, certainly we’ll feel a whole lot lighter emotionally.

Happy Summer All! Enjoy letting your shoulders and knees show for a couple more months!