It's an understatement to say that losing weight is frustrating. You know you have to eat less, and you're always told to exercise, exercise, exercise, and whenever you can fit it in - exercise!

Exercise definitely has its benefits, lowering our risks for heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and osteoporosis, among other conditions and diseases. And yet, it's not the only thing that has to happen for the weight to start falling off. There's also that matter of what you eat. And for that, engaging your mind along with your body can be very helpful.

Consider a recent study that showed that regularly practising yoga can benefit healthy, middle-aged people who want to lose weight or maintain a healthy weight. As researcher Dr. Alan R. Kristal notes, "During a very vigorous yoga practice you can burn enough calories to lose weight, but most people don't practice that kind of yoga." He explains what he believes is going on: "From my experience, I think it has to do with the way that yoga makes you more aware of your body. So when you've eaten enough food, you're sensitive to the feeling of being full, and this makes it much easier to stop eating before you've eaten too much."

This attitude toward food is called mindful eating, and it's defined as "a nonjudgmental awareness of physical and emotional sensations associated with eating." People who practice yoga must be present and "mindful" when trying to stay in a challenging pose. Yoga helps to cultivate a calm, focused mind - even during moments of pain, discomfort, or difficulty. And these benefits can be taken off the mat and brought to the table, helping you notice when you're full and when you're eating for reasons beyond hunger.

Sometimes called "emotional eating," eating for reasons other than hunger can become a big problem for some people. But most of us have emotional connections to eating, and that's where it comes back around to exercise and weight loss. Our emotional attachment to food - as comfort, as reward - is at the heart of the issue. If you've just finished a hard workout, or a long run, or a vigorous rock-climbing session, don't you deserve a doughnut and coffee, or slushy beverage, or pancake breakfast? And how easy it becomes to eat no fewer calories that you just burned... unless you're mindful of what you're doing.

To test his theory about yoga's mindful benefits, Kristal and his colleagues created a 28-question "Mindful Eating Questionnaire." Over 300 people from yoga studios, fitness facilities, and weight-loss programs took the survey. The results showed that a higher overall "mindful eating" score was associated with lower body mass index (BMI). And those who practiced yoga also had a lower BMI.

In other words, it's not the exercise you get in a yoga class that matters so much as the strength it gives you: the way it bulks up your self-awareness, self-control, and willpower.

Amy Toffelmire