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Health Talk 

Melanie Fawer, yoga instructor and owner of The Yoga Room, talks about how yoga can be used for successful weight loss and for increasing awareness on both a physical and mental level.

Getting in shape and losing weight don't have to mean physical punishment. In fact, if you communicate with your body, you might discover it has a few things to say about the way you decide to exercise and feed it. One way to open up a dialogue is through the practice of yoga, most versions of which promote an understanding of the body. A 2005 study involving 15,000 people 53-57 years old showed that many regular practitioners of yoga avoid the weight gain that usually takes place between 45 and 55.

Is yoga an effective activity for weight control?
Yes. There are many different styles of yoga. The style of yoga you choose is going to have an impact on how much it controls your weight versus just tones your body. The style and weight loss are correlated and also, of course, how often you do it and (for) how long will have a bearing. I think any hatha style is going to tone you and maintain your weight, but there are many styles out there that will also drop your weight.

What are some of the styles conducive to weight loss?
Ashtanga is one. Any flow-based yoga class where postures are linked and moving from one into another is going to be better for weight loss. There are a lot of people who think you shouldn't start with ashtanga — that it's too hard — but mostly that's from people who haven't experienced it through a good teacher. A good teacher is going to be able to break down any posture to accommodate any level of student.

What about Bikram yoga (where you do numerous poses in 90 minutes in a hot room)?
Bikram yoga is a place some people enjoy getting started in. In my opinion, it's been tailored for the Western mentality, for someone who would like to say they're doing yoga, but what they really want is a workout. I'm not saying Bikram is bad, because a lot of people will get a lot out of it. And it can also lead them to explore more historically based styles and move into other things. Again, you always have to look at the teacher. Bikram heats the room up to 100 degrees, so you're literally walking into a sauna. A lot of people don't like it — some love it. It just depends.

How is the mind-body connection a critical aspect of yoga?
A good yoga class should emphasize breathing. By putting your mind to focus on the breathing, it's asking your mind to stay focused in the present. That increases an awareness between you and your body, and you and your emotions.

So the phrase "No pain; no gain," wouldn't be something you endorse?
I would never say that. It's not a mentality that I would like to encourage.

Can yoga practice be a person's primary workout activity?
Yes. I'm a very good example. Now, I only do ashtanga yoga, but it's not what I started with. I started with a grab bag of hatha stuff, some flow-based and some not. I did that for two to three years. I got very toned, but I didn't come to yoga for a physical agenda; I came for a psychological and spiritual agenda. That was wonderful, and I felt much better in my body and about myself. While I was doing that for those years, I was a typical Westerner. I wanted to eat what I wanted, and I didn't want to get fat. So I would still run or do whatever I thought I needed to do. I always thought there had to be more than what I was getting and ashtanga answered that because of the emphasis on the breath — the movements going into and out of postures with very specific breathing styles. It enriched something about the yoga experience for me on a spiritual level, and I ended up getting into better shape than I'd ever been in. I didn't right away give up all the other [exercise] I was doing — I was too psychologically attached.

Does ashtanga yoga elevate the heart rate enough?
Yes, if you apply yourself. One reason ashtanga is for all levels is that you can work the series of postures to the extent that you're comfortable with. Provided you have a good teacher — it always comes back to the teacher.

Does the awareness you develop through the practice of yoga transfer to other facets of your life such as eating?
Absolutely. Because of the mind-body connection through breath work and through the inner focus of the discipline that is created by that [breath work] it starts to make you more aware of how your body is feeling. So when you're eating, you'll be more aware of if you're full or not. You'll start to crave different things and want to get different things, and it naturally happens. It makes you more sensitive to what you're putting into your body. For some people it's a bummer. Suddenly, they're more sensitive to alcohol; they're more sensitive to all the coffee they drink, and they're more sensitive to the heavy things they eat.

How does someone get started on a yoga program?
I think you should commit to a month of yoga. Don't just drop in on a class and say, "Oh, I've done yoga and I don't like it." Drop ins are good to try some different styles and different teachers, but if you can commit to a month, that's a good way.

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