That's a really complicated question, I've come to discover.
It seems like when I first started yoga, everywhere I turned the message was the same: Do this practice and your body will transform. Any excess pounds will just melt away. You will naturally and effortlessly make major and lasting changes to your diet.
Really? Could this be the solution for which I'd been so desperately searching?
I wish I could tell you the answer to these questions was a straight, black-and-white yes or no. But I can't. The best I can do is share my story with you - as openly and honestly as possible - and allow you to take from it what you can.
To begin, you should know that I've battled my weight my entire life. I can easily pinpoint all of the reasons I eat and most of them are emotional. I recognize this fact and yet still it's been hard for me to make any lasting changes. Over the years, I have tried nearly every diet on the market - Weight Watchers, counting calories, Jenny Craig, Nutrisystem, the grapefruit diet, and various similarly restrictive strategies I found online. Let's just say I'm a sucker for a slim-looking celebrity spokesperson.
Add to my weight issues the fact that I have Hashimoto's Disease plus IBS and what at first seems difficult moves into the realm of near impossibility. Hashimoto's Disease is an autoimmune disorder which causes my body to attack and ultimately destroy my thyroid. My doctor and I monitor the progress with blood work every three months and medication adjustments when needed. Still, this isn't a perfect science and I know that my hypothyroidism spurs my body to hold onto (or even gain) weight at times.
My IBS is the other complication in the matter. Irritable Bowel Syndrome is something I've learned to manage fairly well over the years. By now I know which foods are triggers and that if I don't want to be sick, I'd better stay away from them. Unfortunately, a lot of healthy foods fall into the "trigger" category - whole grains and whole wheat, brown rice, and raw vegetables top the list. Plain, processed, not-good-for-you white bread, white pasta, and white rice are the most soothing to my tummy.
Now allow me to take you back to a few years before yoga came into my life. Back then, I suffered from near-daily headaches. I was popping Excedrin several times per day at least 5 days out of the week. Not good. Around the same time, my husband and I decided to eliminate nearly all foods that contained any kind of chemicals, preservatives, or artificial anything. We cleaned out our pantry and fridge and began shopping exclusively at Whole Foods. My headaches disappeared.
About a year after that, I happened to be watching Oprah one day when Alicia Silverstone and Michael Pollan were guests. I was really moved. I bought Alicia's book "The Kind Diet" and read it cover-to-cover in one weekend. We also rented Michael's powerful documentary entitled "Food Inc." and those two things prompted us to make another change. We immediately cut out all beef, pork, chicken, dairy, and most eggs.
Then, along came yoga. When I began practicing, I was still overweight despite the changes mentioned above. I guess I just sort of hoped that after a few months of yoga practice, everything would fall into place and I'd be a slim, svelte 120-pound yogini. Women doing vinyasas all around me looked that way. Surely the magic of yoga could do that for me, too, couldn't it? Little did I know that my journey would take a different course.
It's been over a year of practicing 6 days per week and I continue to be challenged by my weight. I've lost a little bit in the last year... maybe 5 pounds? But my doctor still wants me to get rid of another 40. I want that, too. (Oh, and did I mention I'm now pre-diabetic?) Weight loss truly is a priority for me, however I REFUSE to subject myself to the cycle of deprivation/binge-eating that my experience has shown goes hand-in-hand with any restrictive diet.
I get frustrated that it's not happening fast enough. Why can't I just do it and put this struggle behind me once and for all? Where is that magic that seems to happen for everyone else yet continues to escape me?
Well, a funny realization has begun to take shape for me lately... Yoga is helping me to change. And there is magic going on. It's just that MY magic doesn't look anything like anyone else's magic. It's unique to me. And that's just as it should be.
When I look back on this yogic journey of mine, I recognize that I do things now that I never did before yoga. For example, I make shakes with fruit, spinach, kale, and protein powder. I stay away from fast food. We cook at home more. I'm trying to eat wheat bread in small quantities (rather than white), as much as my stomach will allow. I try to make healthy vegan deserts from scratch whenever possible rather than buying something from the store. I snack on nuts and dates for energy instead of cookies or french fries. I drink more water. When we do eat out, we are much more conscious of our choices. I've eliminated the bowl of rice I used to get with every sushi meal. We split cupcakes now instead of having one each.
The bottom line is that there have been some real changes. And yes, there remains more work to do. I'm not perfect. I slip up from time to time. I have a sweet tooth and I adore my baked goods. When I'm feeling depressed, I often eat more than I should. These are just a few of the things I'm working on, but there are so many changes that I've already instituted. So. Many. I can't let that progress continue to go unnoticed. Or uncelebrated.
Perhaps most importantly though, I must fully grasp that this diet evolution is a lot like my evolution on the mat: Nothing worth having arrives overnight. Nothing worth having comes without a great deal of effort. Why should weight loss be any different than my quest to stand up from a backbend? Both will happen ONLY after a lot of dedication and hard work and not a moment before the time is right. Tiny, incremental changes day after day add up.
So will yoga help you lose weight? I believe the answer to that question is yes, but the way in which that "yes" manifests itself might happen while you're not looking.