Is Cleansing the New Bulimia? ~ Carmel Hagen


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We’re a few days in, and we’re starting to get comfortable. 500 tandem chaturangas have made allies of us all, hazing our shoulders to a point of appreciative oneness and priming our puckers to speak openly about anything. At least, this is my best guess for why so many Wanderlusters are talking about poop.

I’m sitting in a room of thirty or so women, facing the Dr. Paul Gannon, The Standard hotels resident Naturopathic physician (and Miami Beach’s major cleansing crush). The title of the lecture is Your Abdomen: The Gateway to Health, a headline that’s seemingly been interpreted as a free-for-all discussion on crapping yourself to the perfect body. Soothing supplement concerns and smoothing food allergy feathers, Dr. Paul is answering questions rapid fire.  Will water make me poop? Will charcoal soak up toxins? Is eating sushi really like eating a Snickers Bar?


Charcoal—in India.


The entire room blindly grasps for the ever present bottle of Smartwater and starts chugging.

For brief periods, Paul is allowed to return to the lecture’s stated purpose, and his well-respected area of expertise. He speaks to the true purpose of the cleanse, to detoxify the liver. He also speaks about it very sanely, preaching purity in process over purging. But as thirty something women obsessively steer the conversation back to the pure process of elimination, I have to wonder: Is cleansing the new Bulimia?

Before I break this down, let it be known that when it comes to cleansing, I’m a believer. Green tea, Master Cleanse, Bikram, whatever—if it promises to make my insides a shinier example of what I’m aiming for on the outside (full transparency: a radiant streak of light in a hot pink flight suit with superpowers to spare), I’ve done it. But I’ve also 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 food instead of respect for my insides.

Photo: daniellehelm

That’s the flag I’m raising now.

As I look into this pool of knitted brows and ‘sensitive’ stomachs, I start to spot wisps of my old demons. It’s in the way we’re phrasing the questions (anti-food); it’s in our readiness to remove (deprivation); it’s in the unbalanced urgency with which we seek an immediate answer (impulsiveness, purging).

We’re not here because we think of our tummies as “The Gateway to Health.” We’re here because we’re still afraid of food.

If eating is yoga—and one of the best daily reminders to be grateful we’ve got—then the point of a cleanse should be to better understand and appreciate the role of food in our bodies and in our lives; it’s not to find a better way to get rid of it.

Yes, poop is important. And if you cleanse, you will poop. But ladies (and gents), if your gratitude radiates only from your perch on a toilet, you’re doing it all wrong.

For deeper insight into what makes a cleanse worth the cleansing, The Yoga of Eating is a heavily recommended place to start. For those seeking a more two-way discussion, check in with Dr. Paul. Above all else, don’t let this lifestyle-perfect eating disorder sabotage your practice.


Carmel Hagen does things with words, the internet, and words for the internet. After six years of online journalism, advertising and internet startup experience, she came to yoga seeking to extend the benefits of mindfulness, limitlessness and balance to the innately joyful—though sometimes all-consuming—process of creativity. So far, it’s working. Find her online or on twitter.

Bonus: relephant update:

This year introduced a new, risible entry to the cultural lexicon: “The Coachella Diet.”

“There’s more competition style-wise now,” 22-year-old Kyla Rae, who will be headed to the fest for her seventh time, told the health blog Well + Good. “The number of Coachella virgins increases every year, and, if anything, they’re really into the image aspect.”

Indeed, in order to squeeze into the midriff-baring, boho-chic outfits (bikini top, denim/khaki booty shorts, floral headdress optional) favored by female Coachella attendees, many young, image-conscious women have taken to juicing, crash-dieting, or drastically increasing their workout regimens in the days leading up to the party in the desert. The Coachella Diet even has its ownTwitter handle, and just this year, Kirsten Potenza and Cristina Peerenboom, creators of the Pound Rockout Workout, introduced “Cut By Coachella,” a 30-day workout calendar for people headed to the fest with prizes for participants.


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20 Responses to “Is Cleansing the New Bulimia? ~ Carmel Hagen”

  1. Fascinating perspective, Carmel. Should be a good discussion on this one.

    Posting to Elephant Yoga on Facebook and Twitter.

    Bob W.
    Yoga Editor

  2. Just posted to "Featured Today" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  3. From Facebook:

    Energy of Mind: A Sauhu Therapy From the perspective of "tantrik" ayurveda, and a combined "psychology" practice, I am also very concerned about the unhealthy aspects of the craze for "cleanliness." Like Carmel says, a lot of this stuff is stemming from a place of intense emotional insecurity and feelings of shame and guilt that inspire one to "purge." Frankly, I am even very weary of the few cleanses she advocates – the Master cleanse in particular is very aggressive and can really reek too much havoc and elemental imbalance.

    Gentle, dosha-appropriate cleanses may be periodically important – especially at seasonal shifts. But, really, to be digestible and healthy they likely have to be a lot more chill than a lot of what's popular these days in this field. As always in ayurveda, the law is "for whom and when"… learning about a cleanse in an ad, or from someone who has a view of life that is not compatible with yours, or at a workshop is fine… but, applying what you have learned is not a good idea without the guidance of a qualified doctor. One person's medicine is another person's poison, so please be very skeptical of anyone who says that anything so extreme as a cleanse is a good idea for one and all.

    best wishes,

    19 minutes ago · Like

    Carmel Hagen Just to be clear – the master cleanse is something I've done (albeit ignorantly, which I should have done a much better job of pointing out) and I agree with you about its intensity and full embrace of the purging obsessions that are so supportive of a disordered mindset. Dr. Gannon is also a vocal anti-advocate of that cleanse. Thanks so much for the thoughts!
    11 minutes ago · Like

  4. Just posted to "Popular Lately" on the new Elephant Yoga homepage.

  5. elephantjournal says:

    Stephen B: Because we eat food products instead of whole foods, are exposed to so many toxic substances in our food and water, and deal with toxic emotions, which all prevent our bodies from detoxing naturally. Please read 'Clean', by Dr Alejandro Junger, and the 'Updated and Revised PH Miracle', by Dr. Robert Young.

  6. yogiclarebear says:

    Extremely. Important. Topic.

    Thank you for this post. As someone who has suffered and continues to recover, both physically and emotionally, from a diagnosed eating and overexercise disorder, and as a yogi, this is so important. Most studios now are constantly offering this detox or that cleanse, and I get frustrated having to tell yogi-friends why I don't participate in this kind of stuff. Why it is dangerous for me, and why I fear it could be dangerous for others. I try not to make judgments, but I am very colored by the issue. I guess I don't have much to add other than, yah, I so hear you!!

  7. […] contentment happens when we have decided not to fall into our old patterns of discontent, allowing them to make us moody, sullen, or angry. Intentional contentment happens in […]

  8. Abby says:

    Thank you.
    I second Clare above, as I couldn't have said it better (or related more to it) myself.
    Thank you.

  9. Heather says:

    I do see some patients who are addicted to cleanses. If it's done correctly, they're really good for you. I was able to get rid of mercury from dental work with a cleanse. Funny, that there was plastic bottled water at this event you mention. Plastic leaches in to the water on top of hurting the environment.

  10. Jen says:

    Great article! As someone in recovery from an eating disorder, I relate to this. Yoga helps me to accept my body and my life experiences, but all of the talk about diet that went on in yoga class really was triggering for me. I was already vegetarian, then became vegan, then cut out all sugar and processed foods, then I began mostly drinking fresh juice, and before I knew it, I was back to purging. All of this fasting can lead to eating disorders, and I don't think anyone who has had an eating disorder should EVER fast. I am still vegan, and I still eat healthy foods, but now I know it is FINE and normal to have a cookie if I want one, or to eat soup out of a can if I don't have the time to cook. I really appreciate this article!

  11. Madison says:

    I think this is one of the most important and relevant topics facing our culture right now… as we truly seem to live in a binge and purge society… from our eating habits, to our spending habits, to our relationships.

    Great job at so gracefully and articulately portraying this. Now we need to start brainstorming solutions…

  12. snowyogi says:

    The mental image of a roomful of gaunt women anxiously listening to hear what they can deprive themselves of in the name of yoga, while drinking out of plastic water bottles, is too funny!

  13. […] go two to four weeks for a deeper cleanse. It is a very personal thing, of course. As you break the cleanse, it is important to go easy at first. Eating a small apple very slowly is usually the best way to […]

  14. […] Here’s a pose I offer specifically to mess with your mind, and ask you to get your priorities straight. This is a pretty advanced move, at least at the end, and some of you won’t be able to do it all, but that’s the point. Train yourself to meet the crazy, then maintain your own needs within it. […]

  15. […] falsely believe that cleansing or detoxing means they have to fast. Since your body needs increased nutrition when cleansing, fasting can actually starve your body of […]

  16. […] I was able to finally see more clearly and begin my attempt to solve the problem. The solution: I would cleanse and detoxify. I knew I would have to start from […]

  17. […] Strickland ©Miss cicicola.Z Editor’s note: cleanses should not be used to lose weight. They should be employed carefully, as a tool for self-love, or maitri—not deprivation. ~ […]

  18. […] These binging sessions in alleyways and parking lots made me feel like I was getting away with something very scandalous. Even with grease dripping off my chin, I felt sexy and adult and badass. I was breaking my parents’ rules and they couldn’t do a thing about it. They could ban high fructose corn syrup but they couldn’t ban the outside world. They couldn’t burn down Hardee’s or kidnap Capt’n Crunch. I finally had all the power. […]

  19. Rhona says:

    Your topic is very relevant and has given me a lot to think about. I just wish that you would have gone deeper in this article. This is one of the disappointments I have frequently with Elephant Journal: the lack of depth to topics that really need more substance!

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