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A WLY student asks: I’ve found that as I age, my abdomen has gotten larger. It sometimes gets in the way when I do yoga poses. Any ideas on what to do about this, and can yoga help me reduce the size of my belly?
This question has a number of facets.
First, yoga and weight loss.
Studies have shown that yoga does indeed, help with weight loss. But its effects can’t be explained via our Western models of exercise. The actual calories expended during a yoga class are relatively minor compared to, say, exercise biking or jogging. The yoga teachings say that certain poses have a “Langhana” or reducing effect. Twists and forward bends are examples. These would be the kinds of poses we would target for weight loss, not necessarily the ones that burn the most calories. Likely these poses help improve digestion and reduce stagnation of food and other toxins in the body. I believe, however, that yoga’s biggest weight loss impact comes from the mindfulness that it creates. When we are in tune with our bodies and in harmony with our spirits, we tend to eat more appropriately. For many this results in weight loss. For me, it actually resulted in a weight gain to a more healthy weight.
Second, yoga and spot conditioning
Body shape is largely determined by fat storage patterns in the body. This is often genetically determined. Oh if only there were a magic exercise, any magic exercise, that would get rid of what my family calls the “Weber thighs.” But even when I weighed less than 100 pounds, I STILL had them–thighs that were out of proportion to the rest of my body.
Men frequently store fat around the middle. As women age, our fat storage tends to shift from our hips to our bellies, especially after menopause. Fat stores are best decreased via diet and aerobic exercise, but people rarely lose fat in only the target area, hence the crazy popularity of liposuction. Instead, our goals should be to burn it from the entire body via a combination of right eating, aerobic exercise, and strengthening.
However, occasionally bellies seem larger because the internal organs sort of “pooch out.” In that case, strengthening the abdominal muscles may help support internal organs and decrease belly size. Boat pose, yoga crunches, and the toe tapping pose we often do in class are awesome for strengthening the “Girdling” muscles of the body.
Finally, adaptation of yoga for those with a rounder belly (for whatever reason!)
The key here is simply to make room for the breath. Most yoga poses can be adapted to create that extra space you need. Whenever you’re doing a pose that causes compression, such as a standing or kneeling forward bend, consider widening your legs or knees. We often say that the feet should he hips bone distance apart, but really, that is the minimum. They can always be wider if needed for comfort. And when you’re in the pose, imagine that you are breathing into your back. This will help you emphasize expanding the back of the rib cage, which will allow for a deeper breath. Any time you become breathless or feel that the breath is strained, come out of the pose and go back into it when you’re ready.
But remember, it’s not about what you look like, in yoga or in life. The primary goal of yoga, regardless of your body type, is to bring you greater health and balance. The rest is just window dressing!
I hope that helps!