“Yoga for Weight Loss: Why Not?” (A Rebuttal to Sadie Nardini)

Via on Jul 18, 2012

What’s wrong with promoting yoga as a way to lose weight?

It’s a reasonable question. After all, millions of Americans are overweight or obese. And despite controversies over whether yoga actually “burns fat,” there’s no doubt that it promotes a healthy lifestyle that can (and for many, does) play an important role in losing weight. Plus, many people start yoga for precisely such single-minded, mundane reasons as shrinking their waistlines—but soon move on to discover that it offers much more that they care about than that.

These points essentially sum up Sadie Nardini’s argument in her recent post, “Yoga for Weight Loss. Why Not?And while I admire Sadie as an incisive writer who’s never afraid to jump into the fray, I must disagree with her on this one.

I’ve been following this online discussion ever since my friend and colleague, Roseanne Harvey, posted a blog criticizing the “use-yoga-to-get-a-bikini-body!” Udemy promo that Sadie mentioned in the beginning of her post. I appreciated Sadie’s willingness to engage in a productive dialog then, and offer the following counterpoint to her latest missive in the same spirit of open exchange.

Reframing the Issue

Sadie’s post on yoga and weight loss is missing one critical element that, if added, would shift the whole framework of discussion: that is, a social context.

Other than noting that we’re living “in a country whose obesity and diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing,” everything in her post is framed as a matter of individual understanding and choice. Sadie explains that she understands that yoga is a holistic practice with many benefits that go far beyond weight loss. So, she’s confident that if she can convince someone to try yoga for weight loss, that’s a good thing, as they will most likely discover that too.

I have no doubt that in some cases, that will prove true. And I agree that in such instances, that’s all to the good.

But the discussion of the issues involved in promoting “yoga for weight loss” shouldn’t stop there. We should also consider other potential outcomes that we may not be so happy about.

“Weight loss” is big business.

According to Marketdata’s “U.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Market” study, it’s a $60.9 billion annual “industry,” to be exact.

The “yoga industry” is small, in comparison: only $27 billion spent annually, according to the latest statistics.

Considering the implications of these numbers should raise some concerns. As the cultural norms that have previously restrained yoga teachers from selling “yoga for weight loss” crumble, will more and more enterprising yogis jump on the bandwagon—as it is, after all, a very practical means of tapping into a potentially huge market?

Next question: What sort of baggage comes along with tapping into that lucrative “weight loss and diet control” market in American society?

I think that the answer is obvious: body image problems—and all the pathologies that come with that.

A few statistics:

  1. Twenty years ago, models weighed eight percent less than the average woman. Today, they weigh 23 percent less than the average woman.
  2. The average American woman is 5’4” and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5’11” and weighs 117 pounds.
  3. If Barbie (who’s now available as a yoga teacher!) were a real woman, she’d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.
  4. If GI Joe were human, he’d have larger biceps than any bodybuilder in history.
  5. About seven percent of 12th grade males have used steroids in order to become more muscular.
  6. One out of every four college aged women has an eating disorder.
  7. An estimated 40-50 percent of American women are trying to lose weight at any given time.
  8. In 2007, there were about 11.7 million cosmetic procedures performed in the U.S. Ninety-one percent of these were performed on women.
  9. A study found that 53 percent of 13-year-old American girls are unhappy with their bodies. This number grows to 78 percent by the time they reach 17.
  10. One-third of American girls have a distorted idea about their weight.

From my perspective, yoga has already become way too bound up with the highly commercialized “body beautiful” mindset that is having such a negative effect on so many people’s lives. And I think that it’s logical to assume that the more that yoga is promoted for “weight loss,” the more it’s going to be absorbed into that pernicious cultural juggernaut.

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Does Yoga Cure All?

I expect there are many who’d argue that yoga is different, that it will counter this barrage of media images (even as more and more yoga models mimic them), heal our body image problems—and help us lose weight in the process. In some cases, that’s probably going to prove true.

But in the bigger picture, I’m skeptical. Yoga is not some magic ritual that automatically makes you immune to the pathologies of your culture. It’s simply a tool for working with our own bodies and minds.

I’m concerned that the more yoga becomes associated with our culture’s obsession with weight loss and body image, the more difficult it will be for many people to understand that it can work to develop a radical alternative to this craziness.

Rather than promoting “yoga for weight loss,” I’d like to see high-profile teachers coming up with creative ways to get people excited about some completely different conceptions of what it means to cultivate a healthy body and mind. For me, this requires rejecting the mainstream “health and beauty” paradigm that the lucrative “weight loss and diet control” industry connects to so powerfully.

Of course, it’s great to lose weight if and when you need to. In my opinion, however, anyone who believes that promoting yoga on the cultural terrain staked out by the weight loss industry isn’t a dicey proposition at best isn’t thinking deeply enough about the issues at hand.

~

Editor: Brianna Bemel

Like elephant Yoga on Facebook.

About Carol Horton

Carol Horton, Ph.D. is the author of Race and the Making of American Liberalism, (Oxford University Press, 2005) and Yoga Ph.D.: Integrating the Life of the Mind and the Wisdom of the Body. With Roseanne Harvey, she is co-editor of 21st Century Yoga: Culture, Politics, and Practice. Carol blogs at Think Body Electric, and enjoys social media via Facebook and Twitter.

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63 Responses to ““Yoga for Weight Loss: Why Not?” (A Rebuttal to Sadie Nardini)”

  1. great points. The only thing I want to add to this discussion is it needs to stop being about women only… Just sayin' ;P

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      Hi ARC: It's funny, I actually had a statement in there about boys and men being increasingly affected by these dynamics but cut it out to make the post simpler – however, the intent is still there (see points 4-5 on the list of statistics above, plus the use of the word "people," rather than "women" in " . . . having such a negative effect on so many people’s lives" was deliberate). But, given that these issues are so much more strongly associated with females (if for good reason), I agree that it would have been better to have been more explicit.

  2. Waterlilly12 says:

    Sorry, siding with Sadie on this one. I’m 51, a radical feminist, an RYT, and have raised three daughters who have remarkably healthy bodies and body images. So I am thoroughly familiar with your thoughtful and well-researched arguments. Much as we would all like to live in a world where these issues did not have their stranglehold on our culture, the fact is we have to deal with the way things are, not the way we wish them to be. Yoga for weight loss is going to appeal to a certain population, a population that very much needs yoga. If that’s the hook that gets them in the door so be it. Yoga for a healthy mind and body will appeal to others, and yoga as a spiritual practice will appeal to still others. So be it. I dont imagine the whole yoga “market” falling down the weight loss rabbit hole. But for many it will be the only way their interest in yoga will be kindled. Unfortunate? Maybe. But reality nonetheless

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      I believe that words, ideas, and culture play a central role in shaping our individual beliefs, perceptions and identities. While it's true that yoga (and other similar practices) can be an effective way of getting past that cultural conditioning, that's the work of a lifetime and rarely achieved in a holistic way.

      Thus, even if you are right that there are some individuals who will only try yoga if lured in with the promise of losing weight, I'd contend that the potential damage done through culturally eroding the understanding of yoga as an alternative paradigm and reinforcing the power of the dominant weight loss one isn't worth it. Of course, this is particularly true when you're taking the argument to the level of high-level mass marketing – if a yoga teacher had an individual conversation with someone about their weight loss concerns, that would be an entirely different situation.

  3. Bill says:

    Yeah, you have a point. However, I think you're taking this from the perspective of perhaps a yoga-elitist point-of-view. Yoga is for anyone. It's not restricted. It is not a practice for just one set.

    To me, it's almost as if you're saying "Don't do yoga if you're only goal is weight loss or trying to fit into a certain set". What does it matter if a person starts off with that intention?

    After all, what happens to folks who begin a yoga practice in earnest is something wonderful. Something to celebrate; not to be chastised. Just sayin'.

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      Bill: The point here is definitely not to chastise some ordinary individual for being motivated to practice yoga for weight loss. The point is rather to question whether having a high-profile teacher pushing hard to promote "yoga for weight loss" as a mass market strategy – and subsuming associated benefits into that same paradigm (losing the weight of stress, or whatever) – is a good idea. When the bigger picture is considered, my answer is "no." Culturally, I think that it's moving yoga in precisely the opposite direction that I'd like to see it go. We need alternatives to the dominant body image paradigm – but to have them, they must be actively developed. That's not happening here.

  4. I appreciate both sides of this debate. But why not resolve it by insisting that yoga for weight loss be of the healthy weight loss variety, instead of avoiding associating weight loss with yoga altogether. Insist that the weight loss be part of a comprehensive program that includes a healthy body image.

    The obesity epidemic in the West (and spreading to China and the rest of the world) is at least as crushing as the body image problems you describe, which I agree are also very serious. Why not use yoga to help solve both of these serious problems simultaneously, rather than pit them against each other?

    How does one solve the obesity epidemic without proposing healthy weight control habits, including yoga in the mix, making it clear that the goal is be healthy in mind and body, not look like a model?

    Bob

    • cathy says:

      you are so right
      we need comments liek thi sextemnded into longer aticle sfor public schools to remember their need for physical education gracias

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      Good question. Personally, I think that working in the already established "holistic health" framework is far superior in this regard to promoting "yoga for weight loss." There are probably more creative and effective ways to further that agenda, too – but we need to develop them. Celebrating the pros of "yoga for weight loss" without considering the cons is definitely not going to do it.

    • aheartpractice says:

      The best way to solve it would be to actually do research on the media's perpetuation of an obesity epidemic. If you did that, you'd probably find lots of great information (see Health at Every Size, The Obesity Myth, Rethinking Thin, etc…) that talks about how weight =/= the end of the world and that maintaining fitness (even at a drastically higher weight) is a better indicator of long-term health. Perhaps if people would be mindful about others, they would realize that you cannot police other people's bodies. Or that someone like me, who has a BMI of 30, but does yoga multiple times per week, eats fruits and veggies from the local CSA box, meditates for peace of mind, is connected to family, is running after preschoolers with autism all day… Way healthier than someone who is a BMI of 23 but eats fast food all day OR works their butt off for 3 hours at the gym unhappily instead of connecting with friends. Health is not just weight, and it makes me sad to come on here and see anyone promoting that. Promoting weight loss is promoting weight loss and body shame in your marketing, not body acceptance, and to do so feeds directly into the billion-dollar diet industry, even if you don't want someone to look like a "model."

      • Vision_Quest2 says:

        Very well said. What more could I add, except … proponents of "weight loss yoga" should own up to their aesthetic snobbery … call it Yoga for Visually Pleasing corporeal/aesthetic standards (for which there is no upper limit …… SUCKERRRZ!!!). Call it what it is.

    • yogasamurai says:

      Bob, you are far too sensible! I suppose the counter-argument is that if you set up yoga to help with weight loss at all, it sets up yoga to "fail" – or the student to think he or she has?

      But, in fact, that's only because women are truly hysterical on this issue – rather than sensible. Just see what happens every time it comes up.

      Carol's view of the social context is far too narrow. The beauty myth goes way beyond weight. There's an entire cult around enhancing physical appearance, being sexier, more youthful, but also calmer, cooler, hipper, and more spiritual.

      It's all become giant sales job at this point. We live in an era when "enlightenment" itself is a commodity. It's inevitable when you commercialize to this absurd carnival-like degree.

      We just saw this huge GLBL Yoga in the Park event billed as a major contribution to global consciousness-raising cancelled overnight due to lack of "funding." The organizers promise to try again "next year." Gee, I guess Nirvana can wait after all. Let's get real here.

  5. Bobcat says:

    Thank you for the thoughtful article. I wholeheartedly agree with you. I want to point out that a yoga teacher has a basic responsibility to teach yoga. Yoga is not a tool to solve an image problem or any problem for that matter. That is a marketing strategy. First, you point out a problem (weight gain & obesity). Then, you offer a solution (yoga product).

    It's the same idea with people who want to promote vegetarianism by talking about how bad meat products are. All you hear about is meat and it makes you crave meat even more. Using yoga as a weight loss tool is perpetuating the idea that there is something wrong with you. Automatically, there is a division – you and your better self.

    This is yoga 101. You can't practice yoga from a divisive perspective. If a yoga teacher does not grog this simple concept of yoga she should not be teaching yoga. She is better off making a living as a life coach or an aerobic instructor.

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      Interesting. Picking up on Bill's comment above, however, I'd add that many, if not most students start yoga for instrumental reasons such as weight loss – and that's OK.

      I agree with your point that the role of the teacher, however is different. Rather than encouraging this instrumental mindset, we need to meet people where they are in a way that also provides some guidance to the next step into a deeper experience of what the practice has to offer.

      I remember when I was a beginning student being very struck by statements that teachers made that I didn't understand at all at the time – for example, "Savasana is the most important pose in our practice, the one that everything we've done so far has been leading up to." When I first heard this, I was like, WTF? I'm here to stretch and exercise. But the comment stayed with me – and gradually, I came to understand it.

      What if my teachers had instead been saying – "yes! yoga can help you lose those extra pounds!" I would have bee influenced in a very different way – one that I don't believe would have been helpful to my development as a student.

    • yogasamurai says:

      Teaching yoga to "sell" something called "enlightenment" is also a clever marketing strategy. Setting yourself up as the one who can guide the soulless student "along her path" is also a clever marketing strategy. No less than weight loss. American yoga IS a marketing strategy.

      Imagine thinking that people who are in their 20s who decided to receive 200 hours of training that their mommies probably paid for are the key to your future as a sentient soulful human being. I got a bridge in Brooklyn for you.

      If hawking weight loss is the "slimmed down" version of the age-old "shaman hustle," it may well be preferable to the grandiose con. If it works, and you see results, as so many do, buy it, If it doesn't, try something else.

      Pretty simple. Better than waiting years wondering whether yoga has filled the hole in your soul.

    • ann says:

      sue me – if that's what yoga 101's saying, i must have missed that class. yoga has helped me – physically, spiritually and emotionally – in so many ways. i hurt less…in all of those ways. i move more…in all of those ways. i am, frankly, better for having made yoga part of my life. if this is divisive, so be it. allow others to embrace their practice for what it gives and takes from them, rather than some random set of definitions – bearing in mind the many manifestations hatha has taken over the years. i do not believe – i know – that yoga can potentially be a life saving addition to the lives of people struggling with obesity and/or body image issues. there are a lot of variables, but the potential exists. dunno if i'm "with" nardini or horton on this one – just know that yoga exists in my life as a way of reconnecting with the body, of learning to truly *be* in one's skin. and that's reason enough for it to be offered as a way forward in people's weight loss struggles.

      As a side note, not sure how comprising nearly half of the industry could possibly make yoga "small by comparison" – am i missing some sarcasm there?

  6. paul says:

    Like the author, I have no imagination to offer when it comes to promoting some sort of alternative to "weight loss", not only because people looking to loose weight are not looking for anything but weight loss, but also because it is being done in almost any commercial featuring or for yoga (and by this I mean the "studio" yoga that "yoga" has come to mean), where they almost always show physical fitness and calm as central elements of the practice, even when at their most Bod-Man Bodyspray (like Mr Yoga or the gay-male-nude yoga), and when the calm is dropped in favor of the physical, it is called yogalates or "yoga influenced"; the calm will always be central among yoga's selling points, and why it has become such a billions dollar industry in very saturated exercise markets. Unless they are in the gym/studio/diet-industry (who are much more invested in continuing body dysmorphia than the "yoga industry" is, and to whom the weight loss seeker will go, be it youtube or elsewhere), I don't think readers will disagree with the many good points about body image made in this article, many of which Nardini's article also addressed, without statistics yes, but also without statistics narrowly focused on body image issues, not the larger issue of horrible diets, let alone farming, or even how actual obesity figures into the image-issues (from http://www.usatoday.com/tech/columnist/aprilholla… , "The average American woman's weight has increased 11 pounds (7%) in the 10 years between the gathering of statistics [1988-94 & 2000], while her height has remained about the same (an increase of 0.1 inch or 0.2% taller). Earlier I had reported a weight of 152 pounds (69 kg) and height 5' 3.7" (162 cm) [BMI 26]. Now, it's 163 pounds (74 kg) and 5' 3.8" [BMI of 28, overweight well on its way to obese] Men have have also increased their weight by an average of 10 pounds (6%), from 180 to 190 pounds, while remaining essentially the same height: 5' 9". [BMI 26.5 and 28 respectively]").
    I also find this article difficult to reconcile with the uncritical interview Horton offered to promote fundraising for a book by someone practicing impatience and spirit-dysmorphia (slicing their tongue in a power grab), a book promising to offer from-the-source "real" yoga (becuase Indian writers are too biased), when "yoga is just a tool" and "not some magic ritual"- is this tool for the select who can handle ascetic living even while in the world, or for society, something it's not traditionally "for"?

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      Hi Paul – I agree with you that obesity is a real problem. I think that we're also in agreement that the "weight loss" approach on its own is not the best way to address it. Issues of farming and fast food also need to be highlighted (and, in fact, I think that some of Sadie Nardini's other posts have done a good job with some of that). I would also say that there's issues of identity and alienation that need to be explored – it's a complicated and difficult subject. But it needs to be tackled in thoughtful ways and again, for me, promoting "yoga for weight loss" doesn't cut it.

      Re the "Roots of Yoga" project – while I understand why you may assume that I believe that ascetic practices constitute "real" yoga, that's actually not the case. I think that it's pretty fascinating to learn about the different forms that yoga has taken on in different times and places. And I believe that we can learn much from that diversity of practice. While I can't speak for them, I'm pretty confident that Jim and Mark would agree with me on this – there is no absolutist "real" vs "fake" hierarchy here.

      The question of magic is an interesting one. True, yoga has a strong association with magic in Indian tradition. I wasn't thinking of that when I wrote that sentence . . . rather, I was simply thinking of how many people in this country today make the easy assumption that if it's "yoga," then all problems are automatically solved. Clearly, this is not the case – never has been, never will be.

      • paul says:

        I am left confused and with more questions than answers, and they lead me to read your position as elitist and confused.
        If it is not about real vs fake, why make such effort to protect the "yoga" brand?
        If yoga-as-panacea can never exist, why the interest in a "diversity of practice" that claim amazing cures throughout (and are full of practices to turn white hair black) and present panaceas, be it the dharma cloud or samyama, jiva to siva, kundalini etc.?
        Why, if things should be treated holistically, is the article framed entirely around yoga encrouaging body dysmorphia just because it is advertized as weight loss, ignoring Nardidi's or Brihony Smith's (among many others') use of yoga to heal this, as well as how our own (significantly excessive and unhealthy) weight effects the dysmorphia?
        Is there any evidence that any X-for-weight-loss causes dysmorphia?
        Why, if this "complicated and difficult subject..needs to be tackled in thoughtful ways" does this article fail to address any issues of identity etc., despite taking "culture" as it's field, yet finding space to mention some very abstract financials?
        Why will "yoga" only now be made totally meaningless when the advertizing of yoga for weight loss has been going on for decades? Would "yoga for weight loss- an holistic approach" or "yoga for optimal weight" be ok?
        Are yoga for hypertension, for obesity, for diabetes (all which fall in the weight loss category) also unacceptable?
        I don't really expect answers to these as they are rhetorical on my behalf, and I suspect whatever a person's opinion on this "weight loss" issue was made on reading the article's title, but I do wonder most of all why is it that Nardini and other small bits of the "yoga industry" get such negative attention, while the gaiams and mindbodygreens seem to receive none, despite their voices being thousands times louder.

        • Vision_Quest2 says:

          Not to mention My Yoga Online.

          Where are they in all this?

          Just doing their thing, holistically. Staying out of the reach of the main spotlight. It helps to be a "friendly Canadian" or be into "holistic living" or "up in the mountains somewhere" … which is exactly where I would like to send this "weight loss trope" … unless they call what they teach something else–the way Jazzercise had spun off from actual jazz dance instruction–because they knew they were teaching repetitive movement (possibly geared towards weight loss) and not "the dance", per se ….

  7. Tanya says:

    A simple way to teach yoga is pointing out and guiding people to recognize themselves as wholeness and to recognize the world and everything as a whole. This is not about ignoring problems and being above it all. It is about shifting mental perspective from division to one. Most people have already been well embedded throughout their lives conceptually what is good and bad, what is beautiful and ugly, what is an ideal weight and what is overweight and so on. Connecting to the body in ways that is not conceptual is what yoga can offer.

    Rather than telling people that the body is a thing to be managed and manipulated, a yoga teacher can advocate the body as intelligence. The conceptual mind can get out of the way and allow the body to heal itself. Diet or weightloss strategies do not work as long as people still feel divided and driven conceptually to be more, better or perfect. This is exactly the root cause of imbalances and diseases.

    If people come to yoga with an idea of wanting to lose weight there is not a thing wrong with that. A yoga teacher meets students where they are and guide them to connect to the body intelligence and wholeness. Hopefully soon the idea of losing weight is replaced by the willingness to feel, trust and love the body as it is. Selling yoga as a weightloss tool is just plain unyogic.

  8. Carol,
    You recently wrote a post on your blog, Think the Body Electric about the issues around yoga stars and my unspoken response to that was that yoga is a national pasttime not because of the yoga but because of those charismatic teachers and their videos, buzz, etc.. I suspect this is why a huge segment of the population decided to teach yoga as a job or hobby. Therefore it is the responsibility of those teachers to know what they stand for.

    When the "fitness craze" began in the 70s aerobic studios popped up and then gym memberships became common. Everybody was running or moving to burn calories and to look and feel good.

    Fast food chains popped up everywhere also, Moms began working out of the home more, family life changed, big business found more ways to put cheap and dangerous foods into our mouths, schools allowed vending machines and yoga slowly, then quickly became ubiquitous to every neighborhood. We moved more, ran more, we got more involved sitting at the computer, we became multi-taskers, less conscious, more stressed so we did more yoga.

    We tend toward extremes of what we are already comfortable with so competitive, aerobic yoga became popular.

    Although many people lose weight and look better doing yoga, that is not the point of yoga. If we make it the point we have found another avenue for aerobics, step class, jazzercise, weight training or whatever and yoga is now part of that domaine. If it is not to become that way, the charismatic people who have become the face of yoga have a responsibility to themselves to understand what it is they are doing. After that the buyer will only beware if he or she happens upon an experience of yoga that focuses on something else. Then there is a choice. Considering the way the country seems to be leaning these days, years, it is time for all of us to reach a little farther to figure ourselves out; to understand what it is we are all doing and where it is taking us.

    Your writing here is an important voice and a call to sobriety. Good work.

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      Thanks, Hilary.

    • Annie Ory says:

      I disagree with the premise that a huge part of the reason yoga has become so popular in America is because of charismatic gurus, if that is what you meant. I think yoga has become popular in America in spite of all it's ugly public problems and less well known ones also. I think it has become popular because in spite of the athleticism of American yoga, or even lack of it in some cases, people want that secret joyful something that yoga gives us all. It is worth every dollar, every minute, every drop of sweat and every bit of "guru" nonsense to get that feeling of peace and awareness that standing in the body and the breath mindfully can bring. I have opened to the world in ways I never imagined since I began practicing yoga, and I, like many, came for exercise. I was broken and my hatha yoga teacher sent me to Bikram class to get fixed. It worked. I was healthy again, but I got so much more out of it once I embraced yoga. I practice and teach Baptiste style yoga now, because I love the flow, though I also still love a good Bikram class once in a while. I think in the world we are living in right now, there is more and more pulling us toward self annihilation, people are drawn to something that makes them feel whole, here, and now.

      • Annie, Baron Baptiste and Bikram Choudry are an example of charismatic gurus. You began yoga because of them. They became popular, did teacher trainings, created teachers, (one is you), and those teachers taught you. Their philosophies are part of their teaching and the teachers will teach in that vein. So you may not have become a teacher or done yoga to be like a charismatic yoga leader but because of their reach, you are doing yoga. This is what I meant.

  9. Sheryl says:

    Great article, Carol. Offering "yoga for weight loss" is a marketing tool, pure and simple–and yes, if it gets people in the door that's all that matters, right? But what about all the individuals who show up to my yoga-for-weight-loss class who don't actually NEED to lose weight, they just WANT to lose weight because they've unconsciously internalized our culture's unreasonable beauty standards? Well, then, I send those people home, of course. It would be unethical to reinforce their negative body images. I send the fit people home and wait for the obese people to show up because truly overweight people are flocking to yoga studios everywhere because it's such a welcoming environment for the non-skinny. (Raise your hand if your YTT taught you how to modify asana for the obese.)

    • Sheryl says:

      OK, sorry for the snark. I truly believe that our hearts are in the right places–we're yogis and we want to help people and we want desperately to be inclusive of all bodies, genders, etc. But advertising yoga as the latest weight-loss fad appeals to the negative images we already hold about ourselves and does nothing to bring in the students who need us most–those for whom losing a few pounds is just the tip of the iceberg. We need to teach Yoga for Everyone and mean it.

      • carolhortonbooks says:

        Sheryl, you are funny, coming back and correcting yourself for your snark. I have to admit that I myself enjoy snark greatly – but also, like you, recognize that it's not a good road to go down unchecked (particularly in a public forum) :)

  10. Sadie Nardini says:

    Hi Carol,

    I wanted to thank you for a thoughtful article, and a respectful discussion about what was sparked in you after reading my article. To see how much I agree with your overall perspective, you might want to check out my own discussion of the range of healthy bodies, and how yoga helps us to embrace them, instead of striving for ever-thinner and unhealthy BMIs:
    http://www.elephantjournal.com/2011/02/yoga-journ

    Nowhere in my original piece about weight loss did I EVER advocate weight loss as it's own goal, just to see how thin one can get, or weight loss as the only reason to do yoga. In fact, I repeatedly said exactly the opposite.

    I firmly believe, as Bob Weisenberg astutely posted here, that in a country where, yes, many people do need to lose excess weight in order to avoid obesity-related diseases, disempowerment and even early death, that yoga-as-fitness proponents have a responsibility to point out one of it's applicable benefits.

    That said, both you and I are writing about different polarities. I am calling to those who need to lose weight–either on a physical, emotional or mental plane. In this way, I promoted yoga as something that helps practitioners lighten up by losing toxins, old stories, dysfunctional relationships with ourselves and others, fear, tension, or unhealthy fat levels. And when we do this, we gain so much of the powerful, positive opposite.

    You are cautioning people not to only see weight loss–without healthy limits–as something to strive for.

    In this, I applaud you, and wholeheartedly agree. I read your article not so much as a rebuttal to mine,
    but as a compliment to it.

    Namaste,
    Sadie

    • carolhortonbooks says:

      Hi Sadie –

      Thanks for your comment. I agree with your points insofar as they go – but must point out that they're incomplete.

      My point in this post is not really that individuals should not see weight loss as a goal in and of itself, particularly in the context of yoga. Clearly, that's easy for everyone to agree on. My point is rather that I'm concerned about the potentially negative impacts of promoting "yoga for weight loss," given that there's a pre-existing – and very culturally powerful – "weight loss" paradigm already in play that carries a ton of pathological body-image baggage with it.

      So, I think that we do in fact disagree on how to assess the potential positive versus negative impacts of promoting "yoga for weight loss."

      That said, I truly admire your willingness to discuss such important issues in a public forum. It models a type of personal and intellectual engagement that I think is really valuable for yoga teachers to cultivate – but doesn't happen very often at all. I know that cynics will say that it's all simply self-promotion on your part – but I've read your posts and don't agree. Sure, there's some self-promotion, but that's perfectly legitimate. The important point is that there's a lot of substance there too. Plus a willingness to mix it up with those who disagree with you without getting angry and defensive. That's doing the work of a teacher in an incredibly valuable way, in my opinion. Thank you for that. Carol

    • subtleyoga says:

      i suppose there are compliments in complements ;->

    • yogasamurai says:

      You're far too polite, Sadie. I understand why you might be, as you have a business to build. I have to say though: I have watched two of the self-appointed yoga high priestesses — first Jennilyn Carlson at Yoga Dork, and now Carol Horton — try to go after you on this issue – and it's just absurd, and absurdly hypocritical. This is not a church, it is the marketplace. The only real issue is whether you are providing a legitimate service and providing an "out" for consumers that might not be getting that service, There are a lot of people who swear by the weight loss benefits of yoga, for a number of different reasons. I have no reason to doubt their testimonies, even if there may be both more or less to it than they claim.

      Personally I am far more afraid – and yoga should be far more afraid – of the enlightenment gurus who are selling the most intangible of products for the most immodest of reasons. These are the really scary people I have met and experienced in my 12+ years around yoga. These are the people who are potentially damaging others on a very large scale, as we have already seen in the case of Dahn Yoga, Anusara Yoga, Michael Roach — and there are plenty of other cult movements and chieftains lurking in our midst who have yet to be unmasked.

      I say, rock on. but keep it simple and keep it modest. In the marketplace, the consumer rules. Make sure people get their money's worth. If the market will bear your service, and it sells, and there's no coercion, then no industry watchdog can tell you not to sell it. If there's a money-back guarantee on the weight loss – which I don't think can be guaranteed – so much the better. That's all anyone in business is really accountable for. The rest is largely high-minded hooey – with a personal power and status agenda attached.

      Good luck! Stewart Lawrence

      P.S. Elephant Journal has covered this issue previously, as recently as 2-3 weeks ago. I don't remember the author. She's not an industry "star" so her piece attracted less attention. Less web traffic to be generated for prospective participants I suppose (lol).

      P.S.S. Why don't you, Jenny and Carol get together in a room and figure out how to divide up the spoils of your expanding mini-empires. Personally I prefer it to your recurring cat fights and mud-wrestles? Though if you want to wear T-shirts and provide water guns, who knows….Whoops I left out Little Cusano…her, too?

      • Vision_Quest2 says:

        "She's not an industry "star" so her piece attracted less attention. Less web traffic to be generated for prospective participants I suppose (lol)."

        It was that young Army woman, Rachel Arabian, no doubt. Hot-Yoga maven and connoisseur of caveat emptor …
        Hearted that you remembered. You seem to have an affinity/interest in many things US-military …

        • yogasamurai says:

          Aha, military high school, and once informally embedded with US Army Special Forces in Central America.

          And maybe you know a bit of Scripture? It is the Roman centurion that Jesus encounters who says:

          "Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word, and I shall be healed."

          It is only though God’s grace that we can possibly be worthy of receiving something so valuable — God himself, and with this gift, comes the responsibility to not just keep this joy and love to ourselves, but to spread it on to those we meet.

          That's about as much as anyone on this website will be able to handle! Sacrifice, sublimation, self-less service, humility, the need for a radical internal transformation beyond your conscious will – these are not popular yogic concepts or practices?

  11. Mat Witts says:

    The most obvious problem is: "Where do we draw the line?" . Lets be clear – we have to draw a line otherwise this leads to absurd consequences where for example – one could make a case for teaching violence and slavery just so we might attract sociopaths and masochists to trying out some other form of yoga at some point in the future.

    If we tolerate the "Yoga for Weight Loss" programs on the basis that it will always lead to "better" approaches to yoga at some future date and time is an example of "Sorites Paradox" – if we go down the Weight Loss route (or any other equally narrow route) how will we ever get to the point where we suddenly find ourselves open to the vast and beautiful horizon of timeless Dharma – or some other hypothetically ideal from of yoga that might take ours or our teachers fancy? It seems to me that these programs are just like walking into fog – it is actually very hard to pinpoint when we have become "wet" – it creeps up on you gradually – you become conditioned into manipulating outcomes – and when you are faced with more challenging life situations – it is then too late to do anything about it – yoga fails you – and resentment sets in.

    Also there is a "zero sum game" pragmatism that is often overlooked by designers and fans of these programs – so rather than falling hook, line and sinker for the advertising rhetoric that yoga programs like this are making yoga accessible in dynamic new markets, it could be that people are being diverted away from more authentic programs elsewhere – after all – yoga has never been , and probably never will be "for everybody" – no matter how loud the enthusiasts might cry that it is – there will always be people that fall outside the yoga set – no matter what you put into it. More on that here if you like http://matwitts.com/blog/model-theory-of-yoga/

  12. Annie Ory says:

    I would never advertise a class or program as a way to lose weight.
    That doesn't mean I can never mention it. Students ask me all the time if and how yoga will help them lose weight and I answer them in a mindful way. I tell that they are ready for yoga now and not to wait till they drop weight to start. I also tell them that yoga will make them stronger, and that will help them lose weight; that yoga will make them calmer and that will help them lose weight; that yoga will balance their body chemistry and that will help them lose weight; I tell them that they will learn to love their body and that will help them be at peace with whatever weight they are at on any given day. I tell them these things, and I trust them to hear me. The greatest gift yoga has given me is that I love my body now, every day, all the time, and know it is just right no matter what size I'm at that day. I haven't owned a scale in more than 10 years and I feel free from it, because of yoga.
    No other exercise program ever did that for me, even when I did triathlon and was 15 – 20 pounds lighter, rail thin, I didn't think I was thin "enough" – with yoga I know I am "enough" in all ways.

  13. Vision_Quest2 says:

    @Mat, I'm a sucker for a great Boolean analysis. I'm very numerical (both with numbers and the manipulation of English syntax) but a little weak on the logic, so I could learn something from this link. The worst yoga shala I ever went to (in terms of attitude, not necessarily teaching skill) was more towards The Classic Yogini model, but looked enviously on to The Classic Nardini model you posit (possibly to increase market share if they could).

    Although, you may have left off (of the Classic Yogini Model), that "Your being (empty/is a null set) your body".

    Then, it would be complete.

    In any event, they were so fat-phobic over there (except for a naturally skinny one or two) that it had taken some deprogramming and shifts due to this bad economy over here in the Northeast U.S. to perhaps cure the near-anorexia of some of them (at other venues).

    I walk in my tight U.S. size 12 away from these types. With pride, and a very hungry mind. Wish being a stat wonk came naturally to me …

  14. HJCOTTON says:

    In my opinion what yoga does other than the asanas practice is learning how to eat mindfully and follow a satvic diet. Shedding some extra pounds and preventing weight gain can be an unintended consequence of practicing yoga. Following a satvic diet without processed food is totally different from following extreme detoxes and fasts. My yoga practice enabled me to maintain a constant weight throughout the years without reverting to exreme dieting that can be harmful on the long run.

  15. dog patch says:

    Taking regular yoga classes probably results in weight loss, not because of the calories burned, but because….you don't eat for an hour or two before class, getting to the studio and the class itself accrue another 2 hours of not eating. Three hours out of the day when you don't/can't graze on junk has to have an effect on the typical Western citizen.

  16. Linda-Sama says:

    ‘Nuff said. think about it.

    “We live in a society of addiction. Fake desires are created
    and pushed on us in the guise of spiritual or self-improvement
    ideals, and we do not learn to recognize or act on our real desires. Trying to be something you are not is the cause of human suffering. This is addiction. From the ultimate pop star to a homeless person, we are trying to get somewhere as if we are not already the unadorned marvel of life. The solutions to our plight are usually more of the same: one stronger pill after the other, one exaggeration after the next, as despair increases.” — Mark Whitwell

  17. Tanya says:

    I like Sadie's teaching and hers is a perfect personality to reach a large audience. Unfortunately, from following her work I come to see that she is entangled in a web of self-empowerment within the dual paradigm most of us are operated from. I don't expect my yoga teacher to be an enlightened buddha. But I do want her to at least see beyond the illusion of duality and sincerely practice yoga from the inside out. Reading Sadie's comment above I find her to be intelligent, down to earth and well meaning. But she totally ignore what Carol is pointing out here which is the MARKETING of the theme "yoga for weighloss". Through Sadie's marketing eye she sees this piece as another promotional tool for herself. That is some twisted perception.

  18. subtleyoga says:

    More astute writing, Carol. Thanks for pointing to the Ganesh in the room that everyone wants to ignore, the social context. Until people wake up to the reality that the locus of control is not entirely an individual matter (a study from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation found up to 70% of health outcomes dependent on external factors), Americans are going to revert back to the tired old myth that health outcomes are entirely individually based. We can't solve the pressing public health issues that plague our culture with simplistic approaches – even if they are yoga based.

  19. [...] piece about the dangers of mixing yoga and the weight loss industry is interesting (hat tip Mel Klein). [...]

  20. [...] “Yoga for Weight Loss: Why Not?” (A Rebuttal to Sadie Nardini) [...]

  21. Dominic S says:

    I've lost over 30lbs over the course of a few months with just yoga and slight modifications to my diet. I've tried a few styles, but Power Yoga seemed to be the best for me. Building muscle helps to burn more fat and power yoga does this. Consistency is the key in my opinion and I found that on days where I couldn't attend a class, I ended up just practicing at home.

    There's a couple out there, but for those looking to get into it power yoga, I recommend Mark Gonzales' videos. I'm sure there are other, but his seemed like the best.

    I think overall the key is to make sure you move everyday and clean up your diet. Worked for me!

  22. kconnorsd says:

    Something I'd like to point out to those against the idea of advocating yoga for weight loss, is that it really can work well for those that are quite overweight and immobile. Speaking as someone who was 200lbs (at 5'1"), had severe asthma (hospitalized for over a week on 2 different occasions), and had terrible joint pain, yoga was one of the only physical activities which I found at my heaviest weight that had a positive effect on my body without stressing out my weak points. Water related activities worked well for cardiovascular purposes, but nothing helped me learn to feel into my body (and changed it physically) more than yoga did. Once I had lost enough weight due largely in part to a consistent 4-5 day a week yoga practice, I was able to introduce other activities into my life because they had finally become appropriate for my body.

    If there are people out there who are stuck, don't want to exercise not necessarily because they're lazy but because at a heavier weight most "fat shifting" exercises are quite uncomfortable to do, why is it so wrong for someone to go out there and encourage them by saying "Hey! Here's this thing that could really work for you in more ways than one, when paired with proper nutrition. Plus, you might get a little something extra out of it – less stress and more inner peace, anyone?"

    It really surprises me when members of the yoga community are so quick to pigeon hole what yoga is and why people should be doing it. At the end of the day, if you yourself were "practicing yoga properly", would you not feel excited by the prospect that more people are being drawn to something that will in the end positively affect not only them, but the world? Would you not be a little more open and a little less judgmental of someone encouraging people to try her method of doing yoga to positively affect their physical health (knowing it will ultimately affect their mental, emotional and spiritual healths)? And REALLY, what is this whole "commercializing yoga wah wah wah, it'll get too big blah blah blah….." What are we, hipsters? Is yoga less meaningful to you if more people are doing it? It darn well shouldn't be! Be happy for people finding their way onto the mat for the first time, and stop worrying so much about what brought them there. Their practice doesn't affect you, and it never will.

  23. Yvonne W says:

    50yrs old, 170 lbs, wide fame that will NEVER change, but flexible as hell. My forward folds are past my knees and a upward dog feels great !!!. If I loose weight fine, if not, also fine. I just LOVE Yoga and ALL that come with it. Oh and I am a beginner CYT giving lessons to my colleagues at work. What more would I want…

  24. jenifermparker says:

    For me, this sort of on-going promotion of yoga-for-weight loss makes yoga more exclusive than it already is.

    In our studio, all are welcome and accepted "as is." Our real goals — which we promote to our students — are your overall well being, self-acceptance, and developing autonomy in your yoga practice."

    That's our focus. And because it's out focus — we have people of all ages, all sizes, all levels of ability (and some with obvious "disabilities").

    When a studio/individual gets involved in the "weight loss meme" they are involving themselves in the cultural shaming of people who do not fit certain social norms, the self-shaming, body-hating aspects that many people have (regardless of their actual weight/size, etc), and are capitalizing on these emotional weaknesses. And typically, the product offered doesn't *actually* create the outcome that these individuals may desire.

    Yes, it may attract them to the deeper aspects of yoga. But it also may be another failed diet/lifestyle change attempt that they abandon and shame themselves for (when it doesn't work).

    And with this, it really is ok for people to be fat. I have many "fat" students. I tell them not to focus on weight-loss, focus on "feel good." And then they do, they may or may not loose weight, but it's not an adequate measure of whether or not yoga is "working."

  25. [...] recently read this article in Elephant Journal about the downfalls of promoting yoga as a weight loss tool and I have to say, [...]

  26. nothingtoseehere says:

    Nice strawman argument….
    Nobody is advocating for yoga to be the next diet-pill for those that don't need to lose weight. To imply otherwise is disingenuous.

  27. [...] “Yoga for Weight Loss: Why Not?” (A Rebuttal to Sadie Nardini) [...]

  28. Vanita says:

    As a student and teacher of yoga, my biggest question about all of these so called yoga controversies (yoga for weight loss, guru mentality, skinny girls vs. heavy girls, would Jesus do yoga?, the list goes on and on) why does anyone care what someone else's yoga looks like? My yoga is MINE. It is a deeply personal thing to ME.

    Why would anyone care what brings me to the mat? I come. I breathe. I feel. I am.

    I am a better person for it and the people who know and love me understand it is the Yoga that is making me better. My example brings them to the mat. Was it the promise of weight loss on a strip mall yoga studio window flyer that brought me or was it the book I bumped into in a used bookstore – Yoga of Discipline? Both of these things came to me within days of each other (and they are polar opposites in the weight loss/guru continuum), I don't think I even know the answer to the question. It doesn't matter. I came.

    Asana is a part of my practice, but is not the core of my practice. It keeps me limber and flexible for longer meditation. For the record, I did lose 25 lbs. Once I started practicing yoga I stopped obsessing over every bite of food and every diet book on the market and just started to live in my body.

  29. Diana Ross says:

    All I can say is thank God for yoga. I started my yoga practice 18 years ago because I had anger issues, and thought I could tame my uncomfortability with yoga. I needed help and I didn't want to go on "pills." Well guess what ? Yoga worked. As a matter of fact it changed my life. When all is said and done about yoga the judgement should lay on the practitioner and not the practice. I have witnessed miracles of attitudes being turned around and good health emerging.

    I so agree with so many of you on this blog. Judgement is something I really try hard not to engage in. Service is more of what I feel yoga is about. If we can bring more folks into the circle of yoga the more service will follow. As a side note I do teach yoga (E-RYT500) and I have a group that found their way into class for either weight lost, breast cancer, MS, knee or hip replacement, depression and so on but if you could hear them now they would tell you that it is so much more. They see themselves as loving and beautiful people from the inside out. I love yoga.

  30. [...] Carol Horton wrote her rebuttal, we “wrote” ours, and here we are again, reliving Game of Thrones-lite. Marital [...]

  31. Sophia says:

    I'm so sick of hearing about how the media distorts body image, etc. Guess what?! Most Americans DO need to lose weight. Most Americans ARE fat, overweight, or obese. If Yoga can help people lose weight, then great!
    If models weigh 23% less – well that's probably because we're getting fatter every year, (while yes they get skinnier I agree). But at the same time Sports Illustrated recently featured Kate Upton on the cover of Sports Illustrated and she is not stick skinny, but a healthy beautiful woman with curves. I also don't like how lately so many articles in magazines refer to "real" women. As if models are not real women. Ex: Dove's recent campaign. This is degrading to models. Yes, most models are naturally blessed, but most of them also work very hard to maintain their bodies, including a healthy diet, and a variety of exercise. To insinuate that a woman is not a "real" woman simply because she is tall, skinny, and beautiful with long flowing locks is BS. Yeah, yeah.. I know…love yourself no matter what your size and shape…of course, but while your at it lower your risk of diabetes, heart disease, high blood pressure, etc. that often comes with being overweight. We have an epidemic in our country. People want to be all nicey nice about our bodies, image and weight loss, but the harsh reality is that some people who have body image problems really DO need to lose weight and being all "accept yourself" only perpetuates the issue. Get on the mat, shut the f*ck up and do Yoga…or buy a pair of running shoes, or lift some weights…whatever it takes!

  32. Laurie says:

    Saying yoga is good for weight loss or yoga should not be promoted for weight loss is overly simplifying the big picture. Yoga can be a tool for helping you meet your personal goals. If losing weight is your goal, you can absolutely choose yoga classes that are exercise based. If your goal is something else, you can choose a class to reduce stress, build strength, develop flexibility, promote focus and balance, etc. If you leave yoga feeling better than when you came in, whether body, mind, spirit, or all three, it counts as yoga.

  33. [...] are the best with small details like a facility is located at the tension bad posture and headaches dizziness or nausea occur either return to normal breathing rate is the more likely you are tools used in the [...]

  34. susanmeade says:

    Hello there! Excellent article here! Thanks for the sharing! To lose a few pounds, I also tried some yoga and kickboxing bootcamp classes not long time ago. The results were fantastic! With these two methods, I lost 30 pounds in a very short time. Following these classes was the best decision I ever made! :)

  35. [...] can be athletic, we can be yogis, we can be marathon runners without also being svelte. We are also becoming more vocal about our [...]

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