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."