Discussion of self-restraint and self-control in Vedic and Upanishadic texts of Hinduism laid the foundation of ascetic lifestyle in yoga. There is no surprise that an ascetic extreme caloric deficit may lead to an extreme loss in bodyweight.
Such a lifestyle is hardly feasible for most people it is not recommended due to its health hazards.
But is yoga effective for weight loss? Should we practice yoga when our goal is to effectively burn calories?
Let’s find out!
Yoga and calories burned 🧘🏻♂️
Let’s start with the nuts and bolts of energy expenditure and look at how effective yoga is as a pure calorie-burning method. Many of us surely do sweat a lot during yoga practice, especially when trying a challenging pose, but how does a yoga sequence compare with a sequence of burpees?
The intensity of physical activity is usually measured in METs or Metabolic Equivalents:
- 1 MET equals sitting and not doing anything and is associated with light physical activity.
- Moderate physical activity starts and 3 METs and ranges from walking at a brisk pace to playing badminton recreationally at 6 METS.
- Vigorous physical activity is everything above 6 METS, for example soccer or riding a bicycle at racing speed .
So where does yoga fall in this coordinate system?
The answer is “it depends”. On average yoga is classified as a light to moderate physical activity with METs from 1 to 3  . The catch is that most studies that evaluate the energy expenditure of yoga look at Hatha yoga, which is probably one of the less intense forms of yoga practice. Once the researchers look at Vinyasa of Ashtanga, MET levels go up to 6.7  and even 7.4 ! So a yoga practice can indeed be more physically demanding than a game of tennis doubles or even a rowing session.
What is even more interesting is that one of the most physically demanding yoga sequences is, in fact, Surya Namaskar, or Sun Salutation. There are many ways to make Sun Salutation more challenging by adding push-ups, jump-backs and planks. So if your goal to start the day on a high note, you can make your Sun Salutation as intense as notoriously taxing burpees (7.4 METs for Sun Salutation vs 8 METs for burpees . Now imagine 10 minutes of difficult Sun Salutations and 10 minutes of burpees, which sounds more fun?
Trying out a more dynamic styles, such as Vinyasa is not the only way to burn more calories during your yoga practice. Apparently, as you become more experienced in yoga, your body starts to burn more calories during the practice. It may seem somewhat counterintuitive at first - usually things get easier as we get better at them. But being better at yoga translates to better understanding of the practice nuances and better ability to challenge yourself to become even better at yoga!
A study has shown that experienced yoga practitioners work 27% harder than beginners !
Hot Yoga 🔥
So if Ashtanga burns more calories than Hatha and experience translates to burning more calories per minute, what about the surrounding environment? Hot yoga’s meteoritic rise in popularity shows that many people seem to getting more value out of their practice if they add a few degrees to the ambient room temperature. It seems that all the extra sweat we get during hot Yoga does not make more intense of an exercise. A recent study  has shown that while hot yoga practitioners do feel that they work out more and their maximum heart rate is higher, their oxygen consumption remains at the same level as during regular yoga class. So if you do prefer to practice in a cool room, by all means keep doing that and don’t think that you have to do your Surya Namaskar in a sauna to make it more intense. Just keep practicing and adding variations and the calories will keep burning.
Long term effects of yoga on body weight ⚖️
As we saw yoga can go from nearly sitting-at-your-computer level of intensity to racing-up-the-steep-bridge level of intensity, what about the long term effects of yoga practice on our body? In this post we will not go beyond BMI and BMR, saving the more nuanced aspects of yoga and body composition for the future articles.
So in case you do not know, BMI is a very generalized way of describing whether the person is underweight, normal weight and underweight . There are plenty of calculators online that allow you to calculate your BMI. BMR  or basal metabolic rate is the rate at which your body expends energy while resting. Low BMR means that you need to eat less calories to lose and maintain weight. Higher BMR may mean that you need to consume more calories to maintain or gain weight. There are calculators for BMR as well in case you are interested. 
The research into long-term effects of yoga paints a very bright picture for all yoga practitioners. A study has shown that a 12-week yoga program allowed a group of school students reduce their BMI by up to 7% . The calming effects of yoga translate to reduction in BMR. After observing yoga practitioners for 6 months, researchers have found that their BMR was 13% lower than that of non-yoga practitioners. It may seem somewhat surprising as physical activity is supposed to actually increase our BMR. The authors of the study hypothesize that the reason for BMR reduction is the combination of inhibitory and stimulatory practices that are included in the yoga practice.
While all these metrics may be interesting to try to analyze the long-term effects of yoga, it is important to remember that the ultimate goal is to actually improve our well-being and not a number in a real or imaginary calculator. Apparently is just the tool for the job of making us happier.
A study, that spanned over 15 years (!) has shown that yoga practitioners consistently show higher body satisfaction with their body. And, as evident from another research - even when there is no difference in BMI, yoga practitioners are still happier with their body and feel less dissatisfied with their weight . An added bonus - practicing yoga means that you are also statistically less likely to smoke and more likely to follow a healthy diet.
Calorie-burning yoga routine 🌞
As we have just learned, one of the best yoga routines to burn calories is actually Sun Salutation! In particular it’s Vinyasa or Ashtanga variation, that adds more dynamic transitions. In case you are feeling like it may be a right moment to burn some calories at MET-7.4 level (basically jumping jacks but actually fun) -
- Hatha Yoga Practices: Energy Expenditure, Respiratory Changes and Intensity of Exercise
- A Systematic Review of the Energy Cost and Metabolic Intensity of Yoga
- The Metabolic Requirements of Yoga
- Objective and subjective measures of exercise intensity during thermo-neutral and hot yoga
- Effect of yogic asana on body mass index
- Yoga and body image: Findings from a large population-based study of young adults
- Associations between yoga/meditation use, body satisfaction and weight management methods: Results of a national cross-sectional survey of 8009 Australian Women