Take Tara Stiles’ Yoga Advice; Skip Her Exercise and Weight Loss Tips
We like Tara Stiles around here–if you're not familiar, she's a successful yoga instructor who dispenses advice to the masses through her books, DVDs, and Women's Health column, and even acts as personal instructor to celebrities like Deepak Chopra. But she's been spreading a little rumor about exercise: That it won't help you lose weight. Stiles makes some good points about the overall state of health and well-being required for sustainable weight loss, but contrary to the title of her recent post on MindBodyGreen, exercise and burning calories will help you lose weight. And it doesn't have to do so at the detriment to your mental health.
The title is no doubt sensational, and her first paragraph was no doubt written to spark controversy:
Working out, sweating your body weight, pushing yourself, and burning calories, whether it's at the gym or yoga studio, DOES NOT lead to weight loss. Pushing, burning, and sweating often actually leads to WEIGHT GAIN.
No doubt this has gotten the article a good deal of attention (good and bad), and it's why I'm writing about it now. But as a respected authority on health and fitness, by way of yoga, Stiles' statements seem borderline irresponsible, and could use some clarification.
On the plus side, she makes good points about weight loss and well-being: That you can't out-exercise a bad diet. That if you don't enjoy the kind of movement or exercise that you practice, then it won't help you lose weight. And most importantly, that if your workout routine (or diet plan, for that matter) is stressing you out and making you miserable, it's probably not going to make you happy with your body. But her points about stress, fatigue, and mental health aside were muddled with assumptions and oversights that irked several readers…and myself.
First, Stiles seems to level her criticism at exercise mostly because she thinks we all have an adverse relationship to working out, and that we only do it because we hate our bodies or want to punish ourselves:
Let's be honest, does this internal dialogue sound familiar: “Man, this is tough, gritting my teeth, ugh, I hate my body, I hate where I am right now, I hate what I did last night, if only I could do this pose or spin faster or run faster, I could make up for it and achieve all my goals!” That type of dialogue causes stress. You start holding your breath, and a whole lot of not-so-nice stuff happens in the physiology of your body. Don't worry. No judgments here. It's internal dialogue, so no one can actually hear your self-deprecating thoughts. But you know they are there!
I'd venture to say that this is far from what many women experience. And several studies have shown that exercise is empowering for women, and can form a cornerstone of success, not just in health but in their careers and personal lives, too. Pushing yourself physically can be driven by motivations that really have nothing to do with hating your body—even if you're working out to manage your weight. The end result for me—and many women—is that I feel great.
But Stiles also seems to feel that pushing yourself physically will necessarily translate to stress, which will necessarily translate to over-eating:
We get good at what we practice. If we practice responding to stress with aggression – whether it's in the gym, on the track, or in the yoga studio – we get good at aggression. We'll relate aggressively, work aggressively, eat aggressively, generally without noticing – because we've practiced it so much! We might burn some calories along the way, but no way it will ever match up to what we can eat and drink, long before we begin to notice how our bodies feel and what we need to be healthy.
She goes on to point out that if our eating is out of control, no amount of exercise can make up for it—which is a fair point, but not all exercise will launch us into a binge-fest.
Stiles meanders through this logic for awhile, explaining how exercise . She even points out that her beloved yoga practice can cause tension for students who do it out of a sense of obligation, to make up for a crappy diet or because they believe it will transform your body.
Ultimately, she comes to a conclusion that makes a lot of sense:
Are you doing ____ (insert yoga, spinning, running, dancing, etc) to burn calories, or are you doing it to feel great in your body, improve your mood, and feel vibrant? Are you doing it to correct a bunch of mis-steps, or because you love it? When you find a routine that makes you feel vibrant, and offers up a stream of new challenges to explore and enjoy, simmer in that. It will have a very positive impact on your overall health, and your waist line.
But why slam exercise to get there?
Plenty of people are able to balance weight-loss goals with an enjoyment of exercise. And while it's true that stress can contribute to weight gain (thanks, hormones!), it's not true that all exercise leads to stress. In fact, a lot of the time it releases stress, improves sleep, and can actually improve peoples' ability to make controlled decisions about their diet.
Learning to enjoy exercise–be it yoga, spin class, boot camp, running, lifting weights, or another activity–is like unlocking the key to a happy, healthy life.