According to yoga, our present lifestyle is one of the most important factors behind all kinds of mental and physical illness. In obesity, lifestyle is the determining factor. Even though yoga acknowledges other etiological factors, it is believed that the way we live our lives is what really determines our susceptibility to the different causes of disease, whether physical, chemical or infectious agents, immunological reactions, genetic, environmental or nutritional imbalances.
In the case of obesity, it is clear that the main causes are related to lifestyle. The first cause is overeating. The second is decreased physical activity, which means that there is an imbalance in the amount of energy we take in and the amount we expend. To become obese, therefore, we have to consume more calories than we actually need for our requirements and daily activities. (A calorie is a unit of heat. It represents the amount of heat needed to raise the temperature of seven kg of water by one degree Centigrade. This unit of heat is used to study the metabolism of the body. We need an average of 2000 calories per day for our essential functions.)
A person of normal weight takes a diet which is sufficient to sustain daily activities without storing energy in the form of fat tissue. Putting on weight, however, means there has been a change in our lifestyle that is conducive to storing energy (calories) in the form of fat tissue. These changes can include moving from an active lifestyle to a more sedentary one, changes in diet, increased consumption of fats, sugars and other foodstuffs that contain 'empty calories'. Processed foods are termed as empty calories because they are without other nutrients like proteins, vitamins and minerals, although they contain readily available energy that can be digested, absorbed and assimilated with less effort. Other changes may be a disease or an accident that makes us reduce our activity, but we continue eating as if we were as healthy and active as before the incident. This will result in storage of extra energy in the form of fat tissues in our bodies.
All these changes make us gain weight, and we remain with that extra weight, creating a new cycle in life where inactivity, which was probably the cause, turns out to be the effect. Obesity actually leads to further inactivity, and this in turn leads to more obesity. It has also been observed through research on obese patients that the metabolism becomes more efficient at using less calories (energy) to perform the body's normal functions. The daily energy expenditure depends on the energy needed for the basic activities that take place in the body to keep us alive and balanced, such as when we are completely resting, when we are fully active like during exercise, during digestion, absorption, metabolism and storage of food stuff.
This more efficient energy pathway in the obese individual seems to be related to the metabolism of sugars (the main source of energy in the body) where the sugar needed as a source of energy is not easily available due to an insulin resistance in the obese tissues. (Insulin is the hormone produced by the pancreas which is in charge of controlling the blood-sugar level and the assimilation of sugar by the tissues of the body.) This makes the body store more energy and use less.
Another very important aspect to be considered by the obese person is that the accumulation of fat does not take place on the exterior (the subcutaneous deposit of fat) alone but the fatty tissue is also deposited around the internal organs and the intramuscular space. This means that vital organs like the heart, liver and kidneys are also surrounded by fat tissues increasing the effort made and work done by these organs. The extra fat in our muscular tissue makes it more difficult for our bodies to be fully active.
Finally, the obese body provides the perfect soil for diseases such as diabetes, hypertension, heart disease, gall bladder disease, atherosclerosis, and many other imbalances to grow. Furthermore, psychological imbalances and complexes also arise due to obesity which limit the range of expression and make life less enjoyable. So, by controlling the extra weight factor, we can avoid the risk of developing many physical and mental disorders.
In the system of yoga, the physical body is called annamaya kosha or the food sheath. The word annam means that which is eaten, adayte, and that which eats is atti. Therefore, food is the essence of the physical body and for the same reason, food is also medicine for the body. Food can be considered as vitality on the gross level, because life actually comes from food. Life is sustained by food and, in the end, all life again becomes food for further life and the cycle of creation continues.
According to yoga, food is not only what we consume during our meals and digest in our alimentary system; it is also the nourishment that sustains life. For example, food nourishes or feeds our thoughts and speech, feelings and relationships with ourselves and others. In the Mandukya Upanishad, the lord of the waking state is called Vaishvanara. The material objects of creation are enjoyed by him through his nineteen mouths, which are described as the five tanmatras or subtle senses, five gyanendriyas or sense organs, five karmendriyas or organs of action, and four aspects of antahkarana, or the internal organ of mind. These are the nineteen mouths by which we receive nourishment in life.
So, when we speak of obesity in yoga, we refer not only to the physical body, but to all the aspects of our being and the way in which we nourish and mobilize them. For this reason, it is said that in order to maintain normal body weight, it is not enough to treat the body by special diets, changes in lifestyle or becoming a sportsman. It is also necessary to work on the level of consciousness, which is the mental energy, and on the other aspects which are instrumental to this power or energy. The science of yoga is a scientific system for developing our body/mind instrument for the expression of consciousness.
Therefore, in yoga therapy, we do not exercise the body for the sake of burning extra calories, but to develop body awareness, to understand the language of our body, the way it works, and what suits it best. From this understanding, we can modify or adjust our diet and lifestyle to suit the needs of our body and mind. Even though the aim of yoga is not just reduction of weight, this is bound to happen as an outcome of our increased self-awareness. However, we must be sincere and honest with ourselves and allow our awareness to develop in a positive and constructive manner. As long as we are motivated by selfish and negative intentions, this method will not work. This means that we should not use yoga to feel guilty about ourselves, or to punish our bodies or to suppress our minds. Yoga should be used as a form of self-expression, helping our body/mind complex flow freely.
In yoga therapy the body is the instrument, not the end; it is the means, not the aim. So, it is not just the techniques that are important, but also the attitude with which we undertake them, how disciplined and regular we are in the practice.
The best asanas for obesity are the Pawanamuktasana series for the digestive system which help to remove extra fat from the abdomen, hips and thighs, and activate the energy in the lower pranic centers. These include: utthanpadasana (raised leg position), chakrapadasana (leg rotation) pada sanchalana (cycling) and naukasana (boat pose). These practices are very good for strengthening the abdominal muscles which are usually very flaccid in the obese patient. It also helps burn the extra fat tissue of the omentum which is a fold of peritoneum, in the abdomen, very rich in fat tissue.
The practices from the Shakti Bandha series are also effective in reducing obesity. Asanas like gatyatmak meru vakrasana (dynamic spinal twist), chakki chalana (churning the mill), and nauka sanchalana (rowing the boat), massage the abdominal organs and help mobilize the extra fat tissue stored around them. These practices also help to eliminate energy blockages in the abdominal/pelvic area and to release the power of the manipura chakra, the source of willpower and self-assertiveness, (which is often weak in the obese patient) and that governs all our metabolic processes.
From the vajrasana series, we can also choose some helpful asanas such as vajrasana (thunderbolt pose) itself, marjariasana (cat-stretch pose), vyaghrasana (tiger pose), shashankasana (pose of the moon), shashank-bhujangasana (striking cobra pose) and ushtrasana (camel pose), all of which are very powerful for toning the sexual organs and balancing the sexual energy which is often depleted in the obese individual. They also help to strengthen the digestive and endocrine system.
The dynamic series known as surya namaskara (salutation to the sun) is most important for the treatment of obesity. Surya namskara is a complete practice in itself because it includes asana, pranayama, mantra and meditation. This practice has a unique influence on the endocrine and nervous system, helping to correct metabolic imbalances that cause and perpetuate obesity. Being a dynamic practice, it is also an excellent exercise equated to cycling, jogging or swimming.
The pranayama practices recommended for obesity are also the more dynamic forms which stimulate the metabolism. These include: bhastrika, kapalbhati and suryabheda, which are performed along with balancing practices like nadi shodhan and ujjayi. Sheetali and sheetkari are relaxing, cooling practices which influence different hypothalamic centres which give control over thirst and the feeling of satisfaction with healthy quantities and qualities of food.
The other hatha yoga practices which are most helpful in obesity are the shatkarmas, or internal cleansing techniques. These include: shankhaprakshalana (cleansing of the entire alimentary canal, laghu (short) shankhaprakshalana, kunjal (cleaning practice for the stomach), and neti (cleansing of the nasal passages). These practices clean our body internally and keep it free from pollutants which are absorbed from the air, food and water. If done regularly, they also balance our bodily rhythms at a subtle level. The shatkarmas also help to balance our emotions and produce a feeling of lightness and satisfaction with our body. After performing the practice, we feel as if the body/mind system is rid of extra weight, physically as well as mentally.
One of the most important meditation practices for obesity is antar mouna or inner silence. This is a technique of pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses) that helps to clean the mind of extra weight in the form of toxic thoughts and underlying mental patterns, that tend to be vicious and self-perpetuating. These thoughts manifest physically in the form of passivity or lack of activity and food habits that sustain obesity, and create an imbalance in the energy-saving and accumulating system.
In yoga, the real therapy begins with self-awareness. Then only can we make the necessary changes in our internal environment, without external intervention. This is the only way we can modify our lifestyle and give it a new direction. The true motivation for change arises within when we realize for ourself what our body/mind system requires in order to rebalance itself. This self-motivation gives us confidence in our own ability to heal and to bring the process to completion. Whereas, treatments imposed from outside, are only effective as long as the therapist or therapy is there to intervene.
When we are unaware of our own healing potential, then we are ready to try every new diet that comes onto the market as the ultimate panacea, only to experience a new frustration. This doesn't mean that diets don't work or that our doctor is not good enough, but that our mental attitude becomes a blockage for any good effect to take place. However, as we work on ourself through the process of yoga therapy, we develop our own understanding of what diet is best for our condition or which exercises we should perform. The changes which we make in our behaviour, habits and lifestyle, can never be maintained unless they are supported by the realization of what our real needs, strengths and weaknesses are. This will help us to develop greater self-confidence, and the changes thus implemented will last lifelong.
Note: For the proper understanding and performance of the practices here recommended you need the guidance of experienced yoga teacher. Please do not attempt any without this guidance.