Anorexia and Yoga on the Runway. ~ Tias Little

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Isabelle Caro in the “No Anorexia” campaign, by Oliviero Toscani.

Yoga, like anorexia, is driven by an impulse to gain control over physical (and mental) limits.

The sadness that spawns from the passing of Isabelle Caro, a French model who died of anorexia two months ago, weighs heavy on those of us who teach and coach body awareness.

The starkness of her posing naked for the Italian photographer and billboard graphic is unforgettable. Toward the end of her short 28 years, she decided to expose the under-belly of the modeling world, the objectification of women, and the cultural fixation on the body-lite.

Upon reflection, I feel that the visual pre-occupation we have around the body overwhelms the kinesthetic feel of just being in the body. For instance, in the culture of yoga today, the outer glossing of the pose is all too visible—on the cover of Yoga Journal, the back of the Special K cereal box, or on television adverts marketing everything from mattresses to mood altering over-the-counter pharmaceuticals. Yoga, like fashion, gets reduced to simplistic posing, and the outer form stands significant. That is the warp.

Then there is the infatuation with the weightless body. This is not confined to the runways. The act of being light and the steps necessary to get light are part and parcel of yoga practice, and have been for centuries. The impulse to be thin is rampant throughout yoga studios in West Palm Beach, Santa Monica and Scottsdale, Arizona.

Fasting, holding your breath, balancing on your arms, and doing kapalabhati (a breathing technique where the abdomen is pumped while exhaling forcefully) all suggest attempts to defy gravity. Levitation, being completely weightless, is the quintessential yogic device to demonstrate accomplishment (siddhi) in classical Indian lore. Stories of the levitating yogi abounded in the mid 20th century, as described in the popular Autobiography of a Yogi by Paramahansa Yogananda. The third chapter of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras suggests that the yogi who has gained mastery can float “as light as a tuft of cotton.” Today, yoga on sweat-drenched sticky mats, juicing fasts, raw food diets and power yoga work-outs are intended to drive the body into obedience and to make it weightless. Yoga, like anorexia, is driven by an impulse to gain control over physical (and mental) limits.

So when Isabella was told that she was ten kilos over-weight by an agent—she was a mere 100 pounds at the time—the impulse to please, the impulse to be successful and good, drove deep into her soul. Her soul turned out to be great in size, as she demonstrated with the fortitude and deep care for others it took to ‘advertise’ her disease, so that other women may not suffer. The objectification of the female body, from both male and female perspectives, whether in yoga or on the runways, can become all-consuming. Watch the video below for an interview with Isabelle on Jessica Simpson’s The Price of Beauty.

Today, the yogini models. The reams of yoga-esque positions evident in the market place have women posing for the camera, all bendy in tangerine leotard or yogi lingerie. She may be a model posing at yoga or a yogini posing as model, but either way the boundaries are blurred.

Take the three-page spread in last week’s NY Times on Tara Stiles, the NYC model turned yogi. Her shtick is a familiar one by now: a pure yoga free of inner reflection, spiritual or textual reference or self-inquiry. Her book is aptly titled Slim Calm Sexy.

The infatuation with the slimmed-down body leads to a preoccupation with the outer image. The death of petite Isabelle speaks to the profound suffering that can surface when the body is pushed toward the ideal of ‘fit’ and beautiful. Striking a yoga pose lends itself to the snapshot flash. Yet when image drives yoga, it is a strange fit. When the outer look dominates a yogi’s practice, the feeling within the interior gets overlooked and can drive her to fits of obsession. Denying and defying the flesh is tied into acts of self-punishment and abuse. Self-acceptance is critical. And what is necessary is a critical eye for what the industry—yoga or fashion—displays as slim, sexy or perfect. This is what really needs to be defied.

Tias Little began as a college soccer player studying Buddhist psychology at Amherst College and now teaches yoga in Santa Fe. He is currently a student of koan study in the Rinzai school of Zen practice studying with Roshi Joan Sutherland. Read more about him and his studio here.

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anonymous May 2, 2012 2:54am

[…] any anorexic who has a shred of consciousness around his or her behavior, 99% of them will say, “It’s not […]

anonymous Aug 23, 2011 3:06pm

[…] the crass commercialization of yoga—and the discourses that present yoga as yet another way to discipline (white, heterosexual, privileged) female bodies—I still roll out my yoga mat every day, committed […]

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[…] the crass commercialization of yoga—and the discourses that present yoga as yet another way to discipline (white, heterosexual, privileged) female bodies—I still roll out my yoga mat every day, committed […]

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[…] spent some significant time—like most women I know—with a handful of less beautifully packaged eating disorders. For this reason, I wave a red flag when my motivations for cleansing seem to stem from a fear of […]

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anonymous Feb 16, 2011 7:15pm

[…] Little wrote an article called Yoga and Anorexia on the Runway. The article opens, “Yoga, like anorexia, is driven by an impulse to gain control over […]

anonymous Feb 14, 2011 8:24am

[…] Tias Little recently wrote: When the outer look dominates a yogi’s practice, the feeling within the interior gets overlooked […]

anonymous Feb 12, 2011 8:34am

This reminds me of my own trials, some years back, when as an aerobics instructor, I was informed by management, in front of my peers, to "put some lipstick on and lose weight ( I'm 5' 3' and at the time, weighed 105 pounds) because I looked fat". The fashion and fitness industries have always had this disturbing focus on the idea that women have no value unless they were skinny. I'm sad to see this sort of thing filtering into the yoga community and being endorsed by some yoga teachers. The yoga community should be part of the solution, not part of the problem. Thanks for touching on this important topic, Tias.

    anonymous Feb 17, 2011 6:05pm

    I also had that experience (though they didn't tell me to lose weight) when I taught at an aerobics studio where women would take off their street makeup, put on their "workout makeup", take class in their perfectly coordinated outfits (even their shoelaces matched), and then reapply their street makeup.

    I asked my bosses if they required their cute male instructor to put on makeup. I got fired.

    I quit the fitness industry looking for sanity as a yoga teacher and am now quite distressed to see the same crap creeping into the "yoga industry". This time, I refuse to compromise; I encourage my students to pay attention to how they feel in the pose, and I'm happy that most of my teaching locations have no mirrors….

anonymous Feb 11, 2011 8:52pm

Thank you so much for posting this…especially coming from a man, it's powerful for women to read!…we're all so conditioned to think men want tiny women…here in boulder co where the sizes are from 0-4… Here so many hide behind athletic abilities and overtrain…everyone is overtraining. Even local yoga studios allow women to visit 2 times a day for really intense classes…..teachers need to speak up and say, "no, it's enough….even everyday for the Power Yoga clases is just too much"…
thank you for posting this!

anonymous Feb 9, 2011 11:34am

Thank you for posting this article. It is very sad and very confusing that we as a society don't have a natural infatuation to being healthy versus being skinny. But there is hope and articles like this help and instigate us to tap into the importance of challenging our current thought processes and societal pressures. Thank you. Much love, Tanya

anonymous Feb 9, 2011 9:08am

Thank you for bringing attention to this topic! I am also noticing a trend in social networking- namely Facebook- of "thin" yogis posting photos of themselves in their asana practice (I only note "thin" because I have yet to see any regular-larger yogis post pics of themselves in leotards doing poses). I realize the asana practice can be beautiful. We have all seen youtube videos, photos, and in real life; senior practitioners seamlessly float through the poses like dancers or a gymnasts. It can be inspiring and beautiful to observe. But there seems to be this fixation of yogis posting pics of themselves doing asana on social media networks that for me, seems to also feed into what you are saying. Or should I say, be a product of what you are saying?

    anonymous Feb 11, 2011 1:34pm

    It only "feeds into it" if you're eating it up.

    anonymous Aug 18, 2011 9:30pm

    I've seen kick-butt asana of heavy women (friends of friends) in their Facebook avatars, but usually they are certain ethnic groups where certain curvaceous looks are accepted … it sort of follows the kind of women who would look "acceptable" in a knockout outfit …

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 11:08pm

Yoga has become a joke. I say it's time we co-opt a new physical practice from the East–one a little more difficult for the thin-worshipping powers-that-be in the media to suck the fun out of. I'd like to see Tara Stiles hold her own on a Sumo mat.

    anonymous Feb 12, 2011 2:53am

    Ha! That's funny… and very true.

    anonymous Feb 15, 2011 9:47am

    I always thought we could co-opt the Catholic genuflect and create the "genuflecting butt." New class at the Y? sign me up!

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 7:54pm

This is an incredible article and I was frankly really surprised to read it. I find that most attention to this topic is given by people who comment on the Yoga Journal models.

To be a normal body weight is actually a real service, especially as a women. So many practices focus on lightness. It's a lot easier to do primary series when you have fasted (and maybe for days on end). Then combine this with some veganism, vegetarianism or better yet raw food diet and you have all you need for an eating disorder.

For years, I taught at a studio where I was holding down the heavy side of the spectrum (I have always had a little belly). The other teachers were either very skinny (like skeleton skinny) or just skinny. Regular size bodies were not found among the teachers. While I was self-conscious about my weight, I also realized how necessary it was to show that to be a yoga teacher you did not have ot have a certain kind of body type.

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 3:13pm

Thank you, Tias. Very important issue, and one that I've read about over and over in letters to the editors of various yoga magazines—and yet cover after cover continue to celebrate the exact same body type. As a teacher, I try to celebrate the beauty, grace and elegance of the human body in it's practice. Becoming aware of the inner critic and learning to give our attention to reality, the truth of who we are, is some of the most delicate and meaningful work we can do on a mat. Sometimes the critic attacks our "performance" of an asana—and stories about being "bad" at yoga come up. And sometimes the story is one of body image. I think yoga teachers can go a long way towards healing this level of deep cultural conditioning if we simply point out the beauty that is inherent in the practice itself, at all levels. Beauty, to me, is present everywhere, in all things, in all moments, everywhere you turn, if you simply notice it.

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 10:50am

My cousin likely died of anorexia in the 1960s. She was 5'5" and weighed 57 pounds when she died. At the time, no doctor could figure out what was wrong with her. She just wasted away until she died. About 10 years later as anorexia became better known, her family realized that she was probably anorexic. Isabella Caro is to be commended for continuing to raise awareness about the horrific nature of anorexia.

Tias' point about lightness and invisibility in the yoga tradition gives a historical perspective on cultural preoccupation with thinness. The fact that there is such a thing as "size 0" and that having a "size 0" body is admirable suggests self-negation as a goal. Thanks to Tias for providing a context for the "skinny yogi" malaise that seems to be so prevalent in the public face of yoga.

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 9:09am

Excellent post. And I agree with Matthew. There's as much desire for spirit over flesh as skinny flesh over spirit. What happened to a happy existence as a person in a human body enjoying life on a beautiful planet. What are we running from?

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 8:44am

There's nothing wrong with a little self-awareness and knowing how to keep yourself healthy. However, as with Isabelle above, the danger comes when balance is lost, when someone else's ideal of you takes over and you can never quite get there….the yoga world needs to take stock of where we are as a community and how we can foster balance and self-love in both teachers and practitioners!

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 8:01am

The classical ballet dancer ethos invaded yoga in a big way, fairly recently. Many yoga teachers, including Tara Stiles, are former dancers. Old school yoga teachers, in my experience, had and have been a little fat-phobic, but never like this. Yet another reason I prefer home practice and will think twice about renewing my subscription to YJ.

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 7:10am


as a community i feel that we have to look very carefully at all of the vestigial ascetic world-view stuff that contributes here. this is a very good planet, and it is tragic when someone wants to disappear. we should think carefully about who we canonize: Milarepa eating nothing but nettles for years while meditating, etc. often it is metaphysics that starves. and the body will comply with metaphysics to the point of death.

anonymous Feb 8, 2011 5:15am

[…] not really a fan of Elephant Journal, but I really REALLY love this article: Anorexia and Yoga on the Runway, by Tias Little. THANK GOODNESS for Tias! If only all men and women could be accepting of our […]

anonymous Feb 7, 2011 11:13pm

This was really well done. As heartbreaking as it is to read–it is necessary. Thank you.

anonymous Feb 7, 2011 9:17pm

Thank you for this very important article on a troubling subject (also, …. throat-clear …. "Amherst College" )

    anonymous Feb 8, 2011 11:02pm

    What's wrong with Amherst College? (Other than I don't think they have a "Buddhist psychology" program….)

anonymous Feb 7, 2011 8:49pm

[…] This post was mentioned on Twitter by Carol Horton, said: Why we should stop calling yoga sexy: #elej […]