I got your email through the blog . . . Keep up the good work, girl.
I’ve got a question about my health: About eight months ago, I had a fall from the swimming pool knocking my spine against the edge, causing a minor slipped disc (affecting 2 vertebrae) – I’m feeling much better now with less pain. However, I’ve put on weight like mad, too, because of lack of physical activity. How good would it be for me to engage in yoga? Just thought I’d ask your opinion. Thanks!
Thank you so much for reading the blog and seeking my thoughts on recovering from your spinal injury along with staving off weight gain. Yoga can support both these endeavors; however, the answer is less obvious than you might think.
Students often seek my input when trying to lose weight, and I happily oblige if there’s excess weight to lose. My style of teaching is known for being vigorous and, by extension, an effective means of weight management, muscle toning, and more. An admitted fitness addict and lifelong athlete, I’ll be the first to share a killer abdominal sequence around swimsuit season or illustrate how arm balance postures can be a fun substitute for lifting weights. Simply put, the asana practice is a topnotch resource for battling the bulge.
However, yoga is comprised of several other facets beyond asana (the actual yoga poses we practice), and I would argue that many of these endeavors are powerful tools for reshaping both your physical and/or energetic body. They include seven other “limbs” on the yoga path as stated in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras: yamas (one’s attitude toward the world), niyamas (attitude toward self), pranayama (breathwork), prathayara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dyana (meditation), and samadhi (enlightenment). In other words, poses done blithely for the purpose of a slim waist or nice booty deprive us of yoga’s most potent benefits, chief among these, Patanjali claimed, is cultivating the ability to “still the fluctuations of the mind.”
While exercise is paramount to weight loss, and many styles of yoga are great forms of exercise, I believe that the psychological resources yoga provides are even more formidable tools for achieving a healthy weight and positive body image. Consider my personal situation, for example (one that I have not mentioned here before). I have been exceedingly active my entire life, beginning with swim teams as a little tadpole tyke through a stint in Division I athletics in college. I have a tall frame (5′ 9″) and am preternaturally muscular. I was always bigger and weighed more than most of my female peers growing up, so I exercised like a fantatic and was very limiting with my diet for most of my life. Despite this vigilance, I never felt thin. Fit, yes. Thin? No. According to some standards, I was overweight. After college, I started doing more yoga and gradually lost about 20 lbs.- ironically- without realizing it. I don’t attribute this purely to the physical practice of yoga. Yoga became my predominant form of exercise, and, yes, it burns calories, but it wasn’t more vigorous than the level of activity to which I was accustomed.
From the outside, it appeared that going to yoga class more often reshaped my figure. This isn’t altogether false, but it isn’t the whole truth either. Downward dog was not slimming my thighs nor garudasana sculpting my arms in some magical new way. Instead, I was gradually seeing and treating my body with greater compassion (characterized by ahimsa, one of the yamas). Yoga helped me to stop focusing on my weight and start making better, more mindful choices about nutrition (my diet actually became more inclusive rather than restrictive), sleep, and lifestyle. And, at the risk of sounding like a total flake, I was “talking” to my body differently. Instead of looking in the mirror and fixating on how my body didn’t look, Why don’t you fit into these jeans, you big-field-hockey-butt! I started noticing all it could accomplish, Holy crap, I’m strong! I can break up fights [I was a teacher in an inner city school system at the time] or even heave a vending machine off the ground when a snack gets stuck. Non-violence and vending machines: that is to say I was focusing on the important things . . .
While your spine heals, I encourage you to honor your body as it recovers, rather than judge its appearance. Acknowledge how it avoided what could have been a grave injury. Accept that it may have held onto added weight to protect you for a time. And, understand that our bodies are ever-changing. Now that you are better, you’re free to experiment with all kinds of fun and liberating styles of movement, including, yes, yoga.
Truthfully, a vigorous vinyasa style of practice will shed weight quickest; however, I would recommend that you start more gently and let the proverbial scales fall where they may. Focus, instead, on the non-physical “limbs” of the practice mentioned here, such as meditation and pranayama, which teach a deep inward listening and the invaluable skill of being present.
I believe that our bodies know what to do when they need to do it: when to eat, how much, when to exercise, when to rest, when to moderate, and when to indulge. The power of yoga allows us to tap into this instinctual knowledge and reveal our best selves to the world, regardless of the size of our jeans.
Love and “light,”