Yoga's weighty power

Pound-shedding a familiar benefit for regular practitioners

Health

August 12, 2005|By Tom Dunkel | Tom Dunkel,SUN STAFF

Mary Pappas-Sandonas, an instructor at Unity Woods Yoga Center in Bethesda, is blissfully unimpressed by a new study claiming yoga can be an effective tool for weight control.

"We've known that for a long time in the yoga community," says Pappas-Sandonas.

Three years ago Pappas-Sandonas, 46, gained about 20 pounds as a result of taking fertility drugs and her subsequent pregnancy. She had never been overweight, and responded by putting herself on a stepped-up yoga regime.

"Lo and behold," she says, "weight started to come off."

Indeed, the shedding was so effective that Pappas-Sandonas made a DVD, Yoga Complete for Weight Loss, featuring 25 of her favorite slim-down routines.

A research project highlighted in the July/August issue of Alternative Therapies in Health and Medicine takes Pappas-Sandonas' experience to the macro level: Health-history data was collected from 15,500 people between the ages of 53 and 57. When the numbers were crunched, they showed that, on average, study participants who regularly practiced yoga dropped about 5 pounds over a 10-year period. Non-yoga respondents put on 13.5 pounds.

The study has its shortcomings - much of the data was self-reported, and no distinction was made regarding what type of yoga participants practiced - but Mary Bolster, executive editor of Yoga Journal, still considers it important news, especially for the general public.

"I think there is the perception that yoga isn't vigorous enough and people can't lose weight from it," says Bolster.

According to a 2004 Harris Poll commissioned by Yoga Journal, 16.5 million Americans do yoga on a regular basis, a 43 percent increase from 2002. Within that poll, 42 percent of people age 35 to 54 practice yoga, and 19 percent of those over age 55.

Dee Huddles teaches two classes a week at Greater Baltimore Yoga Center in Timonium for people over 50. Clients frequently tell her about their weight loss, and Huddles, 62, hasn't put on a pound in the 20 years she has been teaching yoga.

"What I've found," she says, "is that it isn't the exercise itself. It's the idea that you lead a healthy life. I think yoga promotes a healthy life."

Loretta Reynolds, 62, of Owings Mills, has been taking Huddles' Friday morning class for five years and is one of those lifestyle converts.

"The philosophy in yoga is `all things simple,'" Reynolds says. "I've changed my eating habits, definitely. ... I lean toward fresh fruit and vegetables. I don't snack at all."

Sat Bir Khalsa, an instructor at Harvard Medical School's Brigham and Women's Hospital who has been doing yoga for more than 30 years, says the value of this new study is its large sample size.

"The premise that yoga might be effective with people with obesity is quite tenable," he says. But, he adds, there's need for more scientifically precise research on yoga's effect on weight.

Toward that end, Khalsa says he plans to apply for a National Institutes of Health grant to study 100 regular exercisers divided into two groups: half who walk and half who walk and do yoga.

He believes the funding odds aren't in his favor, however.

"You lose points just by using the word `yoga,' " suggests Khalsa. "It's unfortunate, but that's the way science works."

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