Yoga and Intermittent Fasting

Students of yoga will probably be the type to pay close attention to their health and wellness, with weight management being a major aspect of this. It is, therefore, not surprising to come across plenty of yoga practitioners with interest in dieting and weight loss. Intermittent fasting is a popular option, but many often wonder – is this method really suitable for active yoga students?

Intermittent fasting for weight management is perfectly fine for yoga practitioners when carried out in the proper manner. While pregnancy, eating disorders, or some types of injury might require extra precautions, the two practices will generally be safe for most people.

To figure out how best to merge these two practices for your own maximum benefit and safety, it will be helpful to explore the two disciplines in greater detail. Here, we’ll delve into the aims and effects of yoga in contrast with the aims and effects of intermittent fasting. We’ll be able to see clearly where the two complement one another, where they might be in opposition, and just how to resolve the differences in your own best interest.

Yoga

Yoga refers to the grouping of physical, spiritual, and mental disciplines or practices that originated in India but which has evolved into a form of posture-based physical exercise, relaxation, and stress-relief techniques. There are various types of schools of yoga in common practice in the Western world, with some emphasizing the physical aspects of yoga (hatha) while others dwell more on the mental and spiritual aspects (mantra, laya).

It is a holistic practice in that it aims to benefit the mind, body, and spirit. The poses we most associate with yoga are known as asanas, and these are implemented in conjunction with controlled breathing (ujjayi or pranayama) and meditation to form a proper yoga session.

There are plenty of well-known benefits to be had from the practice of yoga, such as:

  • Weight loss
  • Stress relief
  • Anxiety relief
  • Inflammation reduction
  • Improve heart health
  • Alleviate depression
  • Ease chronic pain
  • Improve balance
  • Increase flexibility
  • Improve breathing
  • Increase cognitive function (mental abilities)
  • Promote healthy eating habits
  • Improve quality of life

Intermittent Fasting

This might be an unfamiliar term for some, so we’ll take a few minutes to see what it’s all about. Fasting, for starters, refers to the practice of willfully refraining from eating for a certain period of time. This is a practice that has been in existence for thousands of years and across multiple cultures, religions, and societies.

Intermittent fasting is a slightly modern twist on this age-old practice, in that rather than fast for, say, a week or more at a time, only certain hours of each day or certain days of the week are considered ‘fast days’ where no food is taken.

16/8 Intermittent Fasting

The most popular variant of intermittent fasting is known as 16/8 intermittent fasting, and this is the type we will be considering in this article henceforth. What it entails is confining the consumption of all caloric food and drink to a window of 8 hours of the day – the remaining 16 hours will be fasting hours.

Flexibility and relative simplicity are the hallmarks of intermittent fasting, which helps account for its recent upsurge in popularity. Its weight loss and fat burning effects can be achieved without the strict rules many diet plans insist on. You can have this become a part of almost any lifestyle you can think of.

Potential Benefits of 16/8 Intermittent Fasting

Weight loss and fat burning aside, there are plenty of benefits associated with intermittent fasting, including enhanced longevity, improved cognitive function, blood sugar regulation, increased longevity, and more. It is considered to be a generally safe, simple, and sustainable lifestyle option.

This paper published in the New England Journal of Medicine does well to cover the many benefits of intermittent fasting in detail, some of which we will cover here.

Deciding what your time window will be is the first step on the intermittent fasting road to weight loss and wellness. Many people choose midday (12 p.m.) to 8 p.m. for their feeding window as this will place their fasting hours in the nighttime, although they will have to skip breakfast.

This is popular with many as they will still have leeway to eat well-balanced meals at lunch and dinner in addition to some snacks in between.

Let’s see where and how these two practices work together well and where, if at all, and they might collide with one another to help us determine just how compatible they really are.

Weight Loss Effectiveness

As weight loss and weight management are the primary motivation for most people interested in intermittent fasting, we’ll give this aspect a thorough inspection before taking a look at what else these two disciplines can help us with.

Yoga can be effectively implemented as a weight loss and weight management exercise regimen that is entirely natural and sustainable. Hatha yoga variants, which emphasize postures (asanas) and controlled breathing (pranayama), work to help us lose weight in numerous ways.

This study comprehensively goes into the physical, behavioral, and psychosocial effects of yoga practice that play a role in promoting weight loss.

Weight Loss Through Physical Exertion

Ashtanga, Iyengar, Bikram (hot), and Kundalini yoga are some of the popular yoga types that incorporate dynamic, flowing movements (vinyasa) and rhythmic breathing through the postures that effectively give us a proper aerobic workout. A good session in some of these classes will burn as many calories as vigorous swimming, jogging, or cycling session.

It has to be said, however, that the effectiveness of yoga as a weight-loss measure in itself is somewhat dependent on the practitioner’s current physical condition and level of proficiency.

An out of shape beginner to yoga might not have the stamina and know-how to really reap the full rewards of a good session in terms of weight loss even though they will definitely benefit in other ways.

Weight Loss Through Increased Mindfulness

While some swear by the effectiveness of physically intensive yoga for weight loss, others hold that the most significant way yoga assists us on our weight loss journeys is through the principle of mindfulness that it instills in us.

Mindfulness is the conscious ability to observe what goes on in our bodies in an objective, non-reactive way. This is the mind-body connection at the heart of yoga practice, and it is this that allows us to observe and change our relationship to food and eating.

Practitioners of yoga will have a relatively easier time adjusting to the changes in routine and habits that an intermittent fasting regimen will call for. Destructive eating patterns and cravings can more easily be suppressed when you have a greater awareness of your body and how it works.

Ideal Yoga Practice Times While Intermittent Fasting

There are plenty of questions regarding the best time to practice yoga while intermittent fasting. It is a very valid concern since we do not want to risk inadvertently damaging our health while trying to better ourselves.

So, to answer the question, it is advisable to practice your yoga just before you begin your fasting hours or just after they have ended. In the hours before fasting, your body will have plenty of energy reserves stored up that will see you through your yoga session, no matter how intense it might be.

Following your fasting hours, you might be operating on an empty stomach, but you will be free to take a post-workout snack or meal to get your energy levels back up. As a matter of fact, there are plenty who hold the opinion that doing your yoga or working out on an empty stomach results in greater weight loss benefits since the body will be forced to burn fat for its energy needs. This phenomenon is known as metabolic switching.

Metabolic Switching

Here’s exactly what happens in our bodies here: Under normal circumstances, the food we eat gets stored in the liver in the form of glycogen (sugar) in our livers. Once the liver is filled with glycogen, the rest of the food energy gets deposited in the body’s reserves as fat.

We gain weight when we consume more food energy than we use on a day-to-day basis as this leads to our body’s fat stores gradually and continuously growing.

Normal exercising is an effective way to make use of the food energy we consume. When we burn off calories with activities such as yoga, we can easily strike a balance and keep from gaining weight in the long run.

Now, when we fast, we reduce the amount of readily available glycogen in our systems, which then forces the body to burn fat for its energy requirements instead. Our muscles prefer to burn glycogen for energy since it is a more ready source, but sustained intermittent fasting and yoga can retrain them to more efficiently burn fat.

This is the science behind the effectiveness of yoga and intermittent fasting as a weight-loss regimen. Our bodies are remarkably adaptable in this regard, making this combination a highly effective and sustainable one since there is no need for additional external inputs.

Note: Keep in mind that in some instances, intermittent fasting might cause certain side-effects in beginners whose bodies need time to readjust to the new routine and habits. These may include fatigue, weakness, and hunger. Yoga students are advised not to push themselves too hard in their sessions if they feel any of these symptoms. They eventually will disappear on their own.

Stress Relief Effectiveness

Yoga is a well-known stress-reliever, popular with those who want a solution that doesn’t involve any medication or chemical intervention. While you might assume that the relaxing and meditative yoga types such as yin yoga or Kriya yoga are the ones to consider for stress relief, even the more physically intensive types such as Ashtanga and hot yoga can be effective.

The physical postures and breathing practices entailed in most types of yoga work to relieve not only stress but anxiety and depression. The main pathway through which yoga works in this regard is its ability to reduce the amounts of the stress hormone cortisol being secreted into our systems.

Compatibility of Yoga and Intermittent Fasting for Stress Relief

Intermittent fasting may not be your best bet if lowering stress is your priority. The fact of the matter is that intermittent fasting represents stress on the body in much the same way as regular exercising, which actually leads to an increase in the cortisol levels produced.

By keeping yourself well hydrated throughout the day, you might mitigate this effect by making it easier for your body to flush toxins.

While this might seem like bad news on the surface level, it can be considered a mild inconvenience at worst, especially for those who intend to pair their intermittent fasting with regular yoga. As we’ve seen, yoga helps minimize the cortisol secretion that takes place in our bodies, which means that you may effectively cancel out any negative effects that the non-yoga student might otherwise have to bear with.

In short, intermittent fasting cannot be said to be helpful in relieving stress per se, but when combined with yoga, you should not experience any downsides. Besides, as your body adapts to the new routine and you begin to experience weight loss as a result of your efforts, things will get much easier.

Sleep Assisting Effectiveness

Practicing yoga regularly can work wonders for improving your quality of sleep. You will even find that yoga is recommended to those suffering from insomnia as a therapeutic measure. They will be able to fall asleep easier, sleep for longer, and will have it easier falling asleep again should they wake up in the night.

Better sleep through yoga is attained as a result of its ability to reduce stress and anxiety while activating your body’s parasympathetic nervous system (responsible for resting and digestion).

Our bodies will also produce more melatonin, which is a hormone responsible for the regulation of wakefulness and sleep. The philosophic or spiritual side of yoga also helps us handle uncertainty and develop sound routines for daily life.

Intermittent Fasting and Sleep Assistance

Intermittent fasting is not particularly well-known for its benefits with regard to sleep quality, but there is an indirect positive effect to be had here. The fact that our internal body systems and organs go into a detoxifying state during the fasting hours will often induce our bodies to release adrenaline and cortisol, which are stress hormones that directly reduce sleep quality.

This inevitably happens as the body is scrambling to get rid of the unusually high toxin presence in the bloodstream. What you need to do to counter the effects of this natural reaction is to ensure you are well hydrated all throughout the day.

Proper hydration will stave off hunger cravings, improve your mood, help you focus better, and keep you energized during your fasting hours, aside from helping you achieve quality sleep during night time. Moreover, the cortisol-reducing effects of practicing yoga can be counted on to help in this regard as well.

Finally, losing weight, which is the most common reason to take up intermittent fasting, is an effective method of dealing with certain disorders such as sleep apnea and the snoring that often accompanies it.

We can then say that as far as achieving quality sleep each night, yoga and intermittent fasting go well together. Just be sure to keep your body hydrated.

Brain Health Improvement Effectiveness

We can’t have a healthy body, while our brains are not functioning optimally. It’s a good thing that when we work to improve our bodies, our brains will also benefit in terms of cognition, memory, awareness, focus, mood regulation, and general brain functionality.

Yoga works to stimulate blood flow to the brain, and this fresh, oxygen-rich blood is just what the brain needs to work at its best. Studies have shown that regular yoga practitioners will experience tangible growth in the size and efficiency (complexity) of certain areas of their brains and enjoy the increased capacities and abilities that come with it.

For instance, a larger amygdala will increase your emotional regulation; a larger prefrontal cortex translates to better decision-making, planning, and multi-tasking; larger hippocampus volume translates to increased memory processing efficiency; and so on.

Students of yoga report a lesser frequency of headaches and headache intensity as well as a reduction in migraine intensity, which is believed to be the result of yoga’s ability to stimulate the vagus nerve.

Intermittent Fasting’s Role in Promoting Brain Health

Intermittent fasting will also present significant benefits with regard to brain health. Generally speaking, the positive effects that this practice has on various metabolic features will have a knock-on effect on the brain’s condition.

These effects include the reduction of oxidative stress levels, lowered blood sugar levels, reduced inflammation, and more.

More specifically related to the brain, however, is the substantive probability that intermittent fasting may stimulate the growth of new nerve cells that directly increase brain capacity and function. An increase in the production of the brain hormone BDNF (brain-derived neurotrophic factor), which is believed to help prevent depression and various other maladies of the brain, is also noted.

Alzheimer’s disease ranks as the most prevalent neurodegenerative condition in the world, with its severity compounded by the fact that it has no known cure. What this means is that preventing it in the first place should be everyone’s priority.

Intermittent fasting has been shown to be one method by which Alzheimer’s disease may be prevented, delayed, or its severity significantly minimized. There is also a positive indication that other neurodegenerative diseases such as Huntington’s and Parkinson’s disease may also be protected against through this practice.

Moreover, research indicates that intermittent fasting will also help our brains to withstand the potential damages that strokes bring about in those who suffer from them.

These studies, conducted on laboratory mice, give a clear indication that intermittent fasting will contribute significantly to one’s mental cognition and brain health in general.

As there is no indication that these positive effects counter those of yoga in any way, we can say that yoga in combination with intermittent yoga will offer us significant benefits when it comes to the health and function of our brains.

Longevity and Quality of Life Increase

Quality of life is defined as the degree to which a person can enjoy their regular, day-to-day life in a healthy, comfortable way. Yoga can drastically improve your quality of life in a number of ways. When we are more flexible, stronger, less stressed, less anxious, generally fitter, and more, we will have an easier time doing the things we want and need to do.

It follows that an increase in the quality of your life makes it more likely that you will live longer. Eliminating or mitigating certain factors that lead to shorter life spans, such as stress and obesity, has a direct positive correlation with extended life.

Intermittent Fasting’s Role in Improving One’s Quality of Life

Intermittent fasting will also have a positive impact on various health markers that influence the quality of life and longevity. Intermittent fasting and continuous calorie restriction studies conducted on mice showed a decisive gain in lifespan.

We may then say that yoga and intermittent fasting can work together well to help increase our quality of life and, by extension, our longevity.

Note: You should keep in mind that the effects we’ve listed above are by no means a comprehensive list of the benefits to be had with either yoga or intermittent fasting. Yoga offers us additional benefits that include inflammation reduction, improved heart health, depression prevention, chronic pain management, and improved breathing.

Intermittent fasting also offers positive results that we have not mentioned above, such as:

  • Cancer prevention
  • Induce cellular repair processes
  • Improved cardiovascular health
  • Reduced oxidative stress
  • Reduced insulin resistance (helps prevent Type 2 diabetes)
  • Increased human growth hormone levels

We see that the positive impacts of yoga in terms of improving our quality of life will complement those offered to us by the practice of intermittent fasting. The two work very well together in this regard.

What to Eat While Intermittent Fasting

While intermittent fasting is exceptionally relaxed when it comes to what you’re allowed to eat during your consumption window, it’s a good idea to pay attention to your diet. This is particularly important if you intend to pair your fasting with a yoga regimen.

Calorie-free drinks such as unsweetened coffee, tea, or water are perfectly acceptable during your fasting hours. They will play an important role in keeping your hydration levels up as well as keeping your appetite in check. Note that filling up on junk food or simply eating to excess may actually negate whatever benefits you were supposed to get from your intermittent fasting regimen.

You can retain a wide variety in your diet, but you should try and make it a balanced one composed of nutritionally-rich whole foods. These may include:

  • Vegetables: Leafy greens, cauliflower, broccoli, cucumbers, tomatoes, etc.
  • Fruits: Bananas, apples, oranges, berries, etc.
  • Healthy fats: Avocados, coconut oil, olive oil, etc.
  • Protein: Fish, poultry, meat, legumes, seeds, nuts, etc.
  • Whole grains: Oats, rice, barley, buckwheat, quinoa, etc.

Points of Caution Regarding Intermittent Fasting

While intermittent fasting might stand to deliver plenty of benefits to us, certain factors may make it risky for some people.

Injured or Recovering

If your yoga practice is geared towards helping you recover from or deal with illness or injury, your physician should be consulted before embarking on an intermittent fasting regimen. As a matter of fact, anyone with an underlying condition, such as low blood pressure, hypertension, diabetes, and the like or who is on any medication is advised to do the same.

People With Eating Disorders

Those with a history of eating disorders such as bulimia, anorexia, and the like might be at risk of triggering their conditions and so should consult with their healthcare provider first. Even those with no such history might find themselves overeating to compensate for the fasting hours, which may evolve into unhealthy eating habits, digestive disturbances, and eventual weight gain.

Pregnant or Breastfeeding

While yoga may be practiced by virtually anyone, the sometimes jarring effect that intermittent fasting, especially for beginners, may have on the body and internal systems means it is not recommended for those who are trying to conceive, are currently pregnant, or who might be breastfeeding.

The most prudent course of action for those who might have any doubts or questions regarding intermittent fasting and its suitability should bring it up with their doctor. The same advice stands for all those who experience any negative side effects while intermittent fasting, especially if these go beyond the common beginners’ humps.

Final Thoughts

Don’t be intimidated by the prospect of embarking on an intermittent fasting program – the truth is that you’ve probably been doing it already. After the evening meal, most people do not eat again until the next morning, when they ‘break the fast,’ which is why we unimaginatively call it just ‘breakfast.’

Intermittent fasting extends this habit and gives it structure. Making this part of your lifestyle, in addition to yoga, should present no problems for the average healthy adult. By maintaining adequate hydration, eating balanced and healthy meals whenever possible, and paying attention to what their body tells them, positive and long-lasting effects can be expected.

You can significantly enhance your progress on the road to better health, fitness, and wellness by combining your yoga with intermittent fasting, and the beauty of it all is that these disciplines can be carried on indefinitely as part of your lifestyle.

Sources

Sita

Mother of three and Yogi of 20+ years and 200 Hour Certified Yoga Teacher. I am also a Certified Thai massage therapist and I have taught Gymnastics for more than 10 years. In the last couple of years, I've been a big promotor of intermittent fasting.

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