Obesity is undoubtedly the most common medical problem in many countries of the world. It is important to reduce obesity because it shortens the lifespan, lowers the efficiency of all body organs, and detracts from the ability to participate in normal activities. Moreover, many diseases are associated with obesity: diabetes, osteoarthritis, gout, hernia, varicose veins, bronchitis, skin infections, gall stones, arteriosclerosis, hypertension, angina pectoris, and cardiac failure.
Most people consider the typical example of obesity to be a big, round, jolly fellow continually pushing food down a throat covered with 3 or 4 double chins. This picture, however, is far from the truth. Most really obese people are not at all jolly, and only a few can fill the pants of the really 'big' man. In fact, the majority of obese people don't even consider themselves to be obese. Medically speaking, obesity is the presence of surplus body fat, and it is defined as weight greater than 20 pounds over the average for height and age. Obesity only applies to fat and not to muscle and bone. For example, the extra weight an athlete puts on is called overweight, not obesity.
Obesity is caused mainly through overeating and lack of exercise. These have as their basis, however, many cultural, social and psychological factors. The tendency towards obesity depends to a degree on genetic and racial predisposition. Geographical, climatic, occupational, and rural or urban nature of the environment determine severity and prevalence. Traditions, habits, and access to servants or modern conveniences which eliminate the need for physical work, are all contributing factors. Such physiological causes as damage to the brain centres controlling hunger, and glandular imbalance, are considered to be rare or less important factors.
Perhaps the basic psychological component is a low sense of self esteem coupled with an unconscious problem of personal identity. These lead to feelings of emptiness and insecurity and the need to stuff the body with food in hopes of making it more solid, real and secure. The longing that results from frustration of pleasure, power, or affection, leads people to fill up on food in order to feel more complete. Some people eat because of 'mouth hunger. Though they have no desire to put anything in their stomachs, they require something in their mouth. For others, food becomes a narcotic, a means to escape the boredom and tension of life. Many use food to stop the gnawing pain of anxiety, mistakenly identified as hunger.
The mental tensions that cause obesity have many different origins in the unconscious mind. Try to see what mechanisms cause you and others around you to overeat and get fat. Yoga techniques will help you to explore your inner nature and discover them.
It is thought by some that fatness depends on the number of fat cells in the body. These cells are like bags which store fat. They increase in number only during childhood and adolescence, but not in adulthood. Rats which were overfed during early growth were compared with underfed rats. When both groups were placed on a normal diet, the overfed continued to stay obese.*1 This implies that obese children have less chance of losing excess fat than those people who become obese later in life. It is postulated that this is because when the fat cells deflate, they trigger the hunger centres in the hypothalamus, initiating chronic hunger and therefore we gain weight again. If this theory- proves to be true, it should be remembered that yoga offers the means to effectively remedy this cellular imbalance at both the structural and functional levels. To prevent chronic obesity, however, parents should he careful not to overfeed their children lest they have to suffer the consequences for the rest of their lives.
Other studies show that obese people have a characteristic behaviour that differs from normal.*2 Obese people are thought to be unable to differentiate internal cues commonly thought to regulate appetite. For example, fear suppresses appetite in normal people but enhances it in the obese. Environmental cues such as smell, sight or taste of food, the sight of other people eating, and time of day, affected the behaviour of obese people more. Thus a method of re-linking them to their inner reality is required.
Why is it that some people feel more hungry than others? Why is it that some people can eat and eat without getting fat even though they are relatively inactive, while others who are a little more active can put on weight with just a morsel of food? The answer lies somewhere between the body and mind in the flow of energies.
The body functions on the dual tons of input and output. This is metabolism, "the sum of all the physical and chemical processes by which living organized substance is produced and maintained (anabolism) and also the transformation by which energy is made available for the uses of the organism (catabolism)".*3 In normal people energies 'in' balance those 'out' so that stable, healthy weight is maintained. However, the obese person takes more in than he puts out.
Because of mental tensions that cause craving and addiction to food, our neuro-endocrine systems become unbalanced and the metabolism is thrown into disequilibrium. This may result in a greater build up than breakdown of fat. The tendency to overeat may lead to either of two states:
In yoga we say that people in a high energy state are rajasic while those in a low energy state are tamasic. The balanced, healthy state is sattvic. Both tamasic and rajasic people like to eat, and usually in large quantities. The rajasic person who is active and dynamic, and whose desire is channelled into activity through ambition, needs to eat a lot and to eat the things he likes. He does not become obese, however, because he burns up the energy in work and activity. The tamasic person, on the other hand, often eats out of boredom or to forget himself and the world around him. These people like leisure, pleasure and just lying around. For them eating is a better pastime than working, but because they are not active they don't burn up the fuel. They just eat and steep.
The sattvic person derives most of his energy from a higher source and sees food in its correct perspective, as a means to provide fuel and building blocks for the body. Thus he may eat much or little depending on what the body needs. He knows how to work hard with full concentration and how to relax with full awareness. He works with an attitude of karma yoga (selfless service), his heart is full of bhakti (devotion to the higher forces and humanity), and his mind is immersed in gyana (knowledge of the fundamentals of life and existence). The sattvic person is aware, free and open to all aspects of life. He can eat anything he likes because with awareness he learns to like the things that are good for him. This is the outcome of the yogic balancing and reintegrating process.
Yoga tackles obesity from two main directions. The first approach is to rebalance the metabolic process. The second is to release unconscious personality blocks, for example, to show people that they are not as bad as they think they are.
It is possible through yoga to completely restructure the subtle pranic body so as to affect the metabolic turnover of energy. While doing this, efforts are also made to directly alter the reactivity of the hunger and satiety centres in the hypothalamus. Over-excitement of the hunger centre and insensitivity of the satiety centre must be rebalanced and pulled in opposite directions. This tightening has an effect on the whole body, making it more compact and slim. Thus even though we may have more fat cells than normal, by attacking the problem centrally in the brain rather than peripherally in the fat cells, we can readjust the body's tone and thereby effectively reduce the pull of the fat cells on the brain to feed them.
Internal sensitivity results from refining the nervous system and the pranic components of the body. By relaxing the mind, we calm the nerves and make them both less reactive to outside stimuli and more reactive to inner cues. We must be careful when we attempt such a reintegrative process because it is necessary to know which way to turn the control, up or down. For example, bhastrika pranayama increases our appetite and burns up food through the increased fire of metabolism, while meditation decreases appetite and craving and also lowers the metabolic rate. A balanced approach is required so that the metabolic fire in the obese person is enhanced but the emotional tension is not increased. Only an experienced guide can help you with this.
Note: Many people with a sluggish metabolism may appear to be a little overweight without necessarily suffering from obesity. Often people think they are too fat, when they really are not. Therefore, before you start to treat yourself for a weight problem, he sure that it really exists.
When trying to reduce excess fat, it is important not to attempt too much or to expect results too quickly. It takes time to put on weight and so it also takes time to take it off, especially if we wish to keep it off. Sometimes weight loss is rapid in the first few weeks as water is being eliminated. Then the initial progress slows and excitement gives way to impatience, disappointment and discouragement. Severe depression may set in if the person is not adequately informed about these facts. A steady weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week should be attempted.
Drugs and fad diets are not useful in the long term. Fad diets may quickly reduce the weight, but because the body and brain do not have time to adjust, chronic hunger results and weight quickly comes back. Also they do not resolve the emotional factor and they may also be nutritionally deficient.
It is far better to eat 2 or 3 meals per day of regular amounts and at regular times so as to break external cues. At the same time eliminate all snacks and processed Foods which increase calories and decrease vitality. As a rule food should not be taken while watching television, reading or talking, as these activities deprive you of the full satisfaction of eating and thus tend to induce continued eating.
Total abstinence, the classical treatment for some addiction, is not feasible in the case of food. Also, do not feel guilty about occasional over-indulgences. These do not hurt us really, but the guilt can lead to a period of fasting, followed up with increased hunger, craving and then more over-indulgence. The constant see-saw of body weight due to alternate dieting and indulgence disturbs the body's metabolism and the neuroendocrine balance.
Until your body and mind have adjusted to new dietary habits, it is best to eat what you like, even 'forbidden' foods such as chocolate, pastries, chips, etc., but only eat a little. At the same time, make a diet of whole foods for yourself that you can five with for your life, and have this as the basis for all food intake.
Be sure to get plenty of physical exercise. Give more time to housework, gardening, sports and yoga. A 30 minute walk each day will also help, especially after meals.
The simplest and also the best cure for obesity is to experience the joy of living. Many people live life from an armchair - they prefer to watch and observe rather than participate actively. They fill themselves with all the nutrients necessary for active healthy living, but they never burn them up. Thus the mind and body become clogged and constipated, the metabolism sluggish, and fat deposits itself. When people become fat, they naturally feel self- conscious and project their complex onto their favourite subject food. As a remit, even though they want to lose weight, thoughts are always with food. Constantly thinking about eating or not eating is called a food neurosis. While food is so much a part of one's mind and life it is not possible to lose weight. The only way is to busy the mind in other pursuits.
You can redirect your thoughts by making a sankalpa or resolve such as 'I will become slim and active'. See yourself each morning as you wake up, happy, alert and thin. Move into each day with a positive and dynamic attitude. Immerse yourself in Karma yoga, and work with a relaxed and free mind. Become busy with life, participate, engage yourself, do not be afraid to utilize your resources. Be creative, everyone has inherent talents and abilities, although they may need to be brought out and developed. Live life to the fullest and the satisfaction you will gain will more than satisfy your hunger and your need for excess food.
The following program helps to reduce obesity by stabilizing the metabolism and removing the underlying emotional problems. It should ideally follow a full course of shankaprakashalana which helps the process by eliminating toxins and speeding up metabolism.
Yoga improves concentration, willpower and helps us to realize our potentials. Through meditation we reduce our craving for any outside means of satisfying our inner insecurity, and we begin to free ourselves from their grasp on us. At the same time we begin to see and hear inside and therefore can discriminate where our hunger is coining from, whether from the mind, the stomach, the tongue or the genitals. Then we can eat what we need and when we need it, at the same time satisfying our other urges appropriately.
*1. J. L. Knittle & J. Hirsh, 'Effect of Early Nutrition in the Development of Rat Epididymal Fat Pads: Cellularity and Metabolism', J. Clin. Invest, 47: 2091, 1968.
*2. S. Schachter, 'Obesity and Eating: Internal and External Cues Differentially Affect the Eating Behaviour of Obese and Normal Subjects', Science, 161 :. 751, 1968.
*3. Dorland's Illustrated Medical Dictionary, 25th ed., W.BI. Saunders, Philadelphia-London-Toronto, 1974.