Recent studies have found that yoga helps middle-aged people lose weight and alleviates some back problems. Yoga poses have even helped researchers at the University of California at Berkeley unravel the mysteries of Alzheimer's. All these benefits from a form of exercise that dates back thousands of years, originating in the Indus Valley of South Asia before history was even recorded.
Many people have the misconception that yoga is not really a workout. There are more gentle forms of yoga, but as either the foundation or an addition to a workout routine, it can be a key weapon in the battle against the bulge. The forms -- which are almost infinite in number -- differ in intensity but almost all the teachers interviewed about their respective practices said the same thing: Yoga helps you understand your body, which helps you manage your weight.
Here is an overview of some of the major types.
Hatha is the physical form of yoga as opposed to the spiritual. The word literally means "balance" in Sanskrit: "ha" means sun and "tha" means moon. The goal of its practice is to achieve "pratayahara," or sense withdrawal. Hatha is the most popular form of yoga and is also the form with the most variations. Under its umbrella falls kripalu yoga, which is known for its gentle postures, and bikram, or "hot" yoga.
Hatha provides a variety of basic yoga poses but is not generally thought of as a good way to lose weight. A recent study by the American Council on Exercise said that hatha yoga burns only about 144 calories during a 50-minute session, similar to the amount burned during a slow walk.
There are weight-loss benefits, said yoga instructor Elizabeth Andes-Bell, but most of the evidence is anecdotal. "The benefit of yoga is that it balances out the metabolism," she said.
Andes-Bell, who owns the Life in Motion and Namaste yoga studios in Manhattan, said that hatha yoga should help people learn about their bodies and understand how much food they truly need. It acquaints the mind with the body.
(Note: Many people go to studios and practice yoga called hatha or vinyasa. The teachers interviewed pointed out that vinyasa is really just moving with breath, and many different forms of yoga can be done in the vinyasa style. Hatha, they said, is a very large branch of the practice. Almost every kind of yoga done in the West is some variation of hatha.)
Bikram, which takes place in a room that is heated to a minimum of 100 degrees, was developed by longtime yogi Bikram Choudhury. Bikram's form is based on a series of 26 asanas, or poses, consisting mainly of forward bends and spinal twists. Choudhury had his practice copyrighted, so in each studio throughout the world the student has the exact same experience.
Joel Pier, a certified teacher of bikram who lived in India for eight years, owns Bikram Yoga College of India in Philadelphia. Although most students leave the studio drenched in sweat, he said bikram is one of the more attainable forms.
"It is specifically designed for beginners and people with chronic conditions," he said. "It's done the same way every time, so you are able to practice at it and get better at it. You know exactly where you're at and what you're doing. All these postures are natural to the body, and if we have trouble with them it's because of our unnatural lifestyle."
The heat (which is actually quite a controversial aspect of the form because other yogis say the heat should be generated internally with movement and posture) helps the circulation and aids flexibility, Pier said. He said it also helps eliminate toxins through the skin.
Pier said that bikram yoga also has an advanced series that most Americans do not practice.
Ashtanga yoga is also known as power yoga. Like hatha, the goal is to find clarity and remove obstacles, but it is far more physical. Movement is constant and the practice is quite fast-paced, although the order of the poses never changes. This workout is much more cardio based but is still not the same experience as running or using a Stairmaster machine. It does, however, help improve strength and flexibility.
"Rather than generate the heat externally [like bikram], you start with a place that is comfortable," said Tim Miller, owner of Ashtanga Yoga Center in Encinitas, Calif. "Through the combination of movement and breath -- it's a fairly vigorous practice -- you generate heat internally."
Miller, who has practiced ashtanga for nearly 30 years, said that the practice helps people tap into a "unified sense of being," while detoxifying the system.
"You have a sequence of standing poses and the bulk of the series is forward-bending poses, so what you get is an internal massage in the abdomen area," he said. "Get the digestive system in good working order again."
Those who practice three to five times a week will restore the natural range of motion to their joints and muscles. Do it enough, and your body will spring back to the shape it was in when you were a child, Miller said.
This type of yoga is more about lifestyle and is based on the ancient form. Founded by Swami Vishnu-devananda, who died in 1993, it is based on proper exercise, proper breathing, proper relaxation, proper diet (strict vegetarianism), positive thinking and mediation. (Swami is the Hindu title for a teacher who is enlightened).
"First, it's very classical -- the ancient form," said Swami Padma Padmapadananda, one of the teachers at Sivananda Yoga San Francisco. "We have a lot of relaxation between asanas. Breathing plays a large part in it, concentration, meditative ... there's no fatigue, the body actually gets recharged as you go along."
Regarding weight loss, Padmapadananda said he has seen it help some people, but those who embrace the entire philosophy and pair their practice with a balanced diet will have healthy bodies and healthy lives.
"Whatever you do to the body affects the mind," he said.
This form of yoga is named for its creator, B.K.S. Iyengar, who has taught hatha yoga since the age of 19; he's now 87. Unlike ashtanga, which moves from posture to posture, Iyengar concentrates on holding postures for a long period of time. The practice uses props, which are frowned upon by some other forms, to help the body with alignment.
Liz Owen, who runs Liz Owen Yoga out of Arlington, Mass., said iyengar is "a form that combines alignment, strength and flexibility" that also aims to engage the mind. When that happens, Owens said the body can "gain strength and lose inches. But you also start feeling much better about yourself and [that] gives you some motivation to eat a better diet."
Whereas other practices might be a bit more cardiovascular, iyengar builds more endurance, she said.
For the yogis seeking spiritual fulfillment, this is the most appropriate form. The stretches are gentler than some of the other forms and breathing is central. The name, kundalini, refers to the energy force, or chakra, at the base of the spine. The practice also features a great deal of chanting.
Shakta Kaur, a board member of the nonprofit Yoga Alliance and owner of Kundalini Yoga in the Loop in Chicago, practices one of the forms that is not considered part of hatha. The primary difference is the practice of meditation, she said. At the end of most hatha practices, the students engage in deep relaxation. In kundalini, they go one step further and meditate.
"It's a good yoga for any one body type [or] body age," she said. "Some of the exercises are quite gentle seemingly, but they have a profound effect on you."
Those who want a challenge can modify and hold the pose longer. If they practice enough, people will find that they are thinking and feeling differently.
"Work the body to change brain chemistry," Kaur said. "Your physical body is carrying a little bit of infinity in it -- you got to take care of your vehicle."