Yoga Burns Samskaras… and Calories

A blog post that appeared on my yoga small business website.

Last night, after teaching my hot vinyasa yoga class, a new student asked me the average in terms of calories burned during a class.

I assumed by the tone of her question that she wanted to hear that yoga was a ‘good workout’ in terms of calories. I responded that I hated to burst the rhetorical bubble out there about hot yoga but the caloric output was low compared to say sprinting, from what I had read. And these reports abound, as yoga becomes more and more scrutinized medically.

Of course, such medical interest is motivated by a preoccupation (dare I say obsession) expressed all around us, even on the cover of my fitness magazine this month, which gave readers tips on how to ‘burn more fat’ in their yoga classes.

Yet, as usual, the research and knowledge we are exposed to is limited drastically by how expensive it is to do longitudinal studies on mindfulness and psychology, so we rarely hear how yoga impacts people on the deeper levels.

And this doesn’t even scratch the fact that our research methods are culturally biased. We still are limited in our understanding of the body and the mind in the West. Driven by market forces and the FDA, no matter how we try to escape, our caloric-driven paradigm is extremely strong.

It seems a threat to believe that perhaps transformation happens outside of traditional empirical evidence and that health is far more holistic than we have ever grasped. As I am a driven, goal-oriented, uptight person who used to approach everything looking for ‘results,’ I am the perfect person to discuss this. Admittedly, I still have this mentality, but much less because of my yoga practice.

Years before I dedicated myself to yoga, I lifted weights and ran.  I also carried about 15 extra pounds. ‘Extra’ is up for debate of course, but let’s just say that through my first year of dedicated yoga practice (at least an hour a day, 5 days a week), the sluggish weight came off and my BMI has remained stable at around 21 for three years.

Yet beyond weight, my mind is calmer, my breath is deeper and I am blessed with nearly perfect health–I get sick maybe twice a year (knock on wood).

So how many calories does yoga burn? I told my lovely student this: despite all reports that yoga is not a sufficient workout, what I know to be true from my own experience is:

1. Yoga is a profound mind-body practice

2. Optimal changes result from dedicated frequent practice

3. My peak physical fitness was achieved through a transformation of my consciousness, which continues to this day.

Beyond the radical way in which yoga exposed physical weaknesses I had never been aware of in my years of weight training and sprinting, yoga asked me to look at my whole self honestly and through doing so, strip away at the extraneous and damaging while nurturing the transcendent.

In my experience, yoga helped me became more radiant, self-sustaining, and mindful; toxic foods and relationships become more apparent and day by day, I was able to let them fall away. Let’s just say that my seemingly insurmountable lifelong habit of eating a bag of pretzels in a sitting slowly but surely lifted completely.

And although I maintained my jogging and weightlifting during my yoga practice, there was suddenly less aggression and force in my exercise–I wasn’t running to burn off all the flour I ate; I was running to feel good. I was lighter on so many levels.

Through a purification of my attention and focus, a shift became apparent on many dimensions, from the physical to the psychological. Simply put, through diligent practice of asanas and meditation, I become more unified and began to burn away my samskaras, or habitual ways of being…in addition to burning away calories.

This journey is very difficult to encapsulate in advertising. It is also hard to measure in studies, but hopefully, we are getting closer to looking at the full picture of our problematic approach to health in the U.S., as new research is uncovering the compartmentalized nature of our approach to exercise. We are starting to see it’s not about just burning a certain number of calories in a fitness class and then lying on the couch for the rest of the day. It’s about serving our entire scale of wellness, and yoga does just that.