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

Via Carol Horton
on Jul 18, 2012
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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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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.


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

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

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

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  8. 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! 🙂

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