Yoga for weight loss—why it works, when to practice and the three moves you need to know about

Want to stretch and slim? Then it's time to try yoga for weight loss...

Woman practising yoga for weight loss in a studio with brick wall
(Image credit: Getty Images)

Yoga for weight loss may not seem like the perfect combination when compared to the calorie-burning potential of running or strength training, but it can be just as effective as high-intensity exercise when it comes to getting in shape. 

Whether you want a workout with minimal strain on your joints or you want to add another exciting element to your training plan, yoga may be just the activity you need. A practice that's been carried out for thousands of years, it focuses on combining strength with flexibility and breathing for a workout that targets your body and your mind.  

And all you need to get started is one of the best yoga mats to help you get comfortable and a good pair of workout leggings, along with advice from some of the top trainers around. 

Does yoga for weight loss work?

Yes, doing yoga can help you lose weight. Research from The National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health (opens in new tab) found that restorative hatha and vinyasa yoga were particularly beneficial to those who were overweight or obese in helping them to lose weight. While all participants saw changes on the scales, those who lost the most were those who did the most yoga. 

However, yoga will only help substantially if you maintain a calorie deficit. Without this, you won't be able to lose any weight for a longer period of time. 

"If your goal is to lose fat, then you need to be in a calorie deficit," explains Steven Virtue, fitness development manager at Total Fitness (opens in new tab). "This is when you consume slightly fewer calories than you are burning which in turn makes your body tap into the stored body fat for extra energy." 

While there are plenty of ways to get into your deficit, from utilizing a plan like the Cambridge Diet plan to basic calorie counting, research from the University of Vienna (opens in new tab) confirms that it's the only way to lose fat mass. 

While not always 100 percent accurate, having one of the best fitness trackers on hand is always a good idea to find out roughly how many calories you burn every day. 

What are the benefits of yoga?

Couple practising yoga for weight loss via video in living room

(Image credit: Getty Images)

The benefits of yoga for both the body and the mind are endless. As well as helping with weight loss, there are plenty of physical changes you'll likely see. These include: 

  • Increased flexibility
  • Muscle growth 
  • Increased muscle strength
  • Improved respiratory system
  • Increased energy levels
  • Improved cardiovascular and circulatory health
  • Reduced risk of injury

So, if you prefer going slow, you're in luck. "High-intensity exercise, as we know, has big benefits, especially towards fat loss," says Nick Hewitt, personal trainer for The Training Room. "However, high-intensity exercise often includes a good level of strength and fitness to perform safely without the risk of causing injury. Low-intensity exercise reduces the likelihood of injury.”

Yoga also helps to build muscle mass, a study by the University of Mississippi explains, as participants tend to hold poses for a longer period of time and repeat movements several times during a workout. Not dissimilar to strength training in this way, it can help to prevent conditions such as arthritis, osteoporosis and back pain.

It also helps learn how to deal with stress, one of the biggest contributors to weight gain. When we're feeling under pressure, our bodies produce cortisol⁠—a stress hormone that's been known to lead to an increase in appetite, insulin resistance and high blood pressure. All of which, according to University College London, are contributors to weight gain.

Just remember, if you’re working out at a lower intensity, you will need to up the duration to reap the same benefits.

Best yoga practices for weight loss 

Here's the good and bad news. Yoga for beginners is fun and accessible, while yoga for back pain is often slow and gentle. But, for the practice to make an impact on your weight loss, you need to go for a more dynamic style.

As leading yoga teacher Sarah Highfield (opens in new tab)says, yoga can help some people to lose weight but they have to try a more intense practice, like a Vinyasa or power yoga. “While most styles of yoga are not strenuous enough to be considered exercise, it will definitely help you to strengthen your body and reduce stress,” she says. 

What are the best yoga moves to help you lose weight?

woman doing hip opener yoga pose

(Image credit: Future)

1. Hip opener 

First, get into a downward dog position. In downward dog, lift your left leg towards the ceiling, foot flexed, and hips level. Bend your left knee and let your heel move towards your hip. Hold for 15 to 30 seconds and repeat with the other leg. Return to downward dog before walking your hands to your feet and slowly curl up to a standing position. Repeat on the other side. 

Woman doing easy lunge twist

(Image credit: Future)

2. Easy lunge twist

In downward dog, exhale and bring your left foot forward and place it between your hands. Bend your left knee to 90°. Then place your right hand next to your left foot, so it’s directly under your shoulder. Inhale and lift your left arm up towards the ceiling by rotating the upper body to the left. Rotate your gaze up to the ceiling and lengthen through your spine. Hold for 30 to 60 seconds and then repeat on the other side.

woman doing a yoga squat

(Image credit: Future)

3. Malasana yoga squat

Stand feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, toes pointing outwards. Squat as deep as you can and bring your elbows to the inside of the knees and bring your palms together. Use your elbows to push your knees apart and hold the pose for 30 to 60 seconds.

How to get the best weight loss results from yoga

“For best results, practice as often or as little as makes you happy," says Sarah. "Yoga should never be an activity that you don’t look forward to." 

Try to find a balance that works for you. For some people that might be a 30-minute session every day. But, for others, it’s three 45-minute sessions per week or it could even be one 60-minute session per fortnight. 

“My recommendation is do what you can, and you will find that if you enjoy it, you will end up doing more and if it’s not for you, then don’t worry,” says Sarah. “I personally try to fit in three 45-minute sessions per week and that helps to keep me feeling healthy and balanced.”

Three women doing tai chi

(Image credit: Getty)

Other low-intensity exercise to help you lose weight

Not sure yoga is right for you? These other low-intensity exercises could also help you lose weight.

  • Tai Chi
    “Tai Chi is great for your mental health as well as physical wellbeing, as it can help reduce stress whilst improving your posture and strengthening your legs,” says Nick. “It can also improve your balance and general mobility, which, if you are an older adult, will help reduce the risk of falls.” Practitioners recommend that you attend two to three classes a week and diligently practice 10 to 20 minutes a day for beginners. If you want to practice at home, search ‘tai chi for beginners’ on YouTube for a wealth of videos.
  • Walking
    Walking briskly is a great form of low-intensity exercise, as it can be done anywhere. All you need is a pair of the best walking shoes and you are good to go. “If you are not very active, start with a stroll and gradually increase the pace and distance,” says Nick. “Walking can help you build stamina, improve your muscular endurance and body composition, burning any of those excess calories.”
  • Swimming
    Swimming is a great full-body workout and can help you tone up and lose weight. Swimming a few lengths works all of the muscle groups, and you'll get a good aerobic workout if you increase the pace. How much will you lose? This depends on your weight. As a rough guide, someone weighing around 9st can burn up to 590 calories in an hour when swimming fast and 413 an hour when swimming slower. To lose weight, aim for two to five hours every week. Want to burn more? Try outdoor water swimming. The cold water will make your body work harder to keep you warm, meaning you’ll burn more calories. Do make sure to acclimatize first, always swim with others and speak to your doctor if you are unaccustomed to cold water swimming.

Rose Goodman is a junior health writer and she writes across print titles and websites including woman&home.

Prior to pursuing her career as a writer, Rose obtained a degree in psychology and went on to work in adult mental health for five years, specifically working with people diagnosed with eating disorders, anxiety, depression and OCD. Mental health and wellbeing is something Rose feels incredibly passionate about and believes normalising the conversation around mental illness is something we should all actively strive to do. 

With contributions from