July 19, 2012

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

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.

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

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