Yoga interventions improve obesity-related outcomes including body mass index (BMI), body weight, body fat, and waist circumference, yet it is unclear whether these improvements are due to increased physical activity, increased lean muscle mass, and/or changes in eating behaviors. The purpose of this study is to expand our understanding of the experience of losing weight through yoga. Methods. Semistructured interviews were qualitatively analyzed using a descriptive phenomenological approach. Results. Two distinct groups who had lost weight through yoga responded: those who were overweight and had repeatedly struggled in their attempts to lose weight (55%, n = 11) and those who were of normal weight and had lost weight unintentionally (45%, n = 9). Five themes emerged that differed slightly by group: shift toward healthy eating, impact of the yoga community/yoga culture, physical changes, psychological changes, and the belief that the yoga weight loss experience was different than past weight loss experiences. Conclusions. These findings imply that yoga could offer diverse behavioral, physical, and psychosocial effects that may make it a useful tool for weight loss. Role modeling and social support provided by the yoga community may contribute to weight loss, particularly for individuals struggling to lose weight. Visit for better results.

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1. Introduction

Obesity, defined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as a body mass index (BMI) of 30 or greater [1], is epidemic in the USA and plays a pivotal role in many chronic health conditions [2, 3]. Greater than 30% of the US population (an estimated 72.5 million) is obese, at an annual cost of $147 billion dollars in medical costs [4]. A number of elements contribute to the obesity epidemic, but the Surgeon General has cited three main factors that play an important role: decreased physical activity; increased consumption of high caloric, high fat and nutrient-poor foods; and stress [5]. Strong evidence shows that a dose-response relationship exists between stress and abdominal adiposity and obesity [6]. Stress also affects food-seeking behaviors including increased consumption of foods high in fat and sugar [7, 8].

No single solution for reducing obesity exists. Over 300,000 bariatric surgeries were performed worldwide to treat obesity in 2011 and while potentially effective in reducing body weight and prolonging survival, these surgeries pose significant risk for complications [9]. Traditional weight loss programs focusing on diet and exercise to produce an energy deficit frequently result in weight loss, but long-term weight maintenance remains elusive [10]. Few of these treatments address the complex psychological and behavioral issues that initially led to weight gain.

Yoga, an ancient discipline involving physical poses, breath work, and mindfulness techniques, is the most commonly used nondietary or supplement complementary and alternative therapy for weight loss [11]. In clinical trials, yoga has improved a number of obesity-related outcomes including BMI, body weight, body fat, and waist circumference [12]. Individuals who practice yoga report that yoga helps to improve diet and body weight [13], and studies involving long-term yoga practitioners have found an inverse relationship between frequency of yoga practice and levels of obesity [14]. In the population-based, longitudinal vitamin and lifestyle (VITAL) study of 15,550 adults, individuals who practiced yoga for at least four years were two to four times less likely to gain weight as they aged than individuals who did not practice yoga [15]. In a review of 55 research studies examining yoga for weight-related outcomes, Rioux and Ritenbaugh (2013) found yoga interventions to be effective for achieving weight loss and improving body composition [12]; the most effective programs were residential and longer in duration, required more frequent and home practice, included a yogic diet, and incorporated a variety of yoga practices as opposed to exclusively focusing on a single practice such as the physical poses or breath work.

The mechanism underlying yoga’s effectiveness at improving weight-related outcomes remains unclear, although a number of pathways have been proposed including increased energy expenditure, reduced pain, enhanced mindfulness and body awareness, and reduced stress [16]. Yoga appears to downregulate the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenal (HPA) axis and the Sympathetic-Adrenal-Medullary (SAM) response to stress [17]. Additionally, yoga interventions have been shown to reduce binge eating and preoccupation with food [18, 19]. Adipose tissue acts as an endocrine organ, secreting adipokines that impact energy intake, fat storage, and metabolism such as adiponectin, which is anti-inflammatory, enhances insulin sensitivity, and is inversely associated with obesity, as well as leptin, which is highly correlated with obesity, insulin resistance, and type 2 diabetes [20]. In a cross-sectional comparison study involving 25 novice female yoga practitioners and 25 expert practitioners matched for age, fitness level, and abdominal adiposity, levels of leptin were 36% higher, and levels of adiponectin were 28% lower, in the novice group than in the expert group [21], suggesting that long-term yoga practice may affect metabolism. While yoga interventions may promote weight loss and improve body composition, nearly all of the research has been quantitative in nature, primarily examining whether a given yoga intervention results in weight loss. Of these, many utilize small sample sizes and weak methodology [16]. In those studies that have resulted in weight loss, it is unclear whether weight loss is due to increased physical activity, increased muscle mass, psychosocial factors, and/or changes in eating behaviors. The primary aim of this study is to expand our understanding of the experience of losing weight through the practice of yoga. The primary research question is as follows: “what is the experience of individuals who have lost weight and believe that yoga practice contributed to this weight loss?”

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