Whatâ€™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 â€śburns fat,â€ť thereâ€™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 waistlinesâ€”but soon move on to discover that it offers much more that they care about than that.
These points essentially sum up Sadie Nardiniâ€™s argument in her recent post, â€śYoga for Weight Loss. Why Not?â€ť And while I admire Sadie as an incisive writer whoâ€™s never afraid to jump into the fray, I must disagree with her on this one.
Iâ€™ve been following this online discussion ever since my friend and colleague, Roseanne Harvey, posted a blog criticizing the â€śuse-yoga-to-get-a-bikini-body!â€ť Udemy promo that Sadie mentioned in the beginning of her post. I appreciated Sadieâ€™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
Sadieâ€™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 weâ€™re living â€śin a country whose obesity and diet-related illnesses are skyrocketing,â€ť 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, sheâ€™s confident that if she can convince someone to try yoga for weight loss, thatâ€™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, thatâ€™s all to the good.
But the discussion of the issues involved in promoting â€śyoga for weight lossâ€ť shouldnâ€™t stop there. We should also consider other potential outcomes that we may not be so happy about.
â€śWeight lossâ€ť is big business.
According to Marketdataâ€™s â€śU.S. Weight Loss & Diet Control Marketâ€ť study, itâ€™s a $60.9 billion annual â€śindustry,â€ť to be exact.
The â€śyoga industryâ€ť 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 â€śyoga for weight lossâ€ť crumble, will more and more enterprising yogis jump on the bandwagonâ€”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 â€śweight loss and diet controlâ€ť market in American society?
I think that the answer is obvious: body image problemsâ€”and all the pathologies that come with that.
- Twenty years ago, models weighed eight percent less than the average woman. Today, they weigh 23 percent less than the average woman.
- The average American woman is 5â€™4â€ť and weighs 140 pounds. The average American model is 5â€™11â€ť and weighs 117 pounds.
- If Barbie (whoâ€™s now available as a yoga teacher!) were a real woman, sheâ€™d have to walk on all fours due to her proportions.
- If GI Joe were human, heâ€™d have larger biceps than any bodybuilder in history.
- About seven percent of 12th grade males have used steroids in order to become more muscular.
- One out of every four college aged women has an eating disorder.
- An estimated 40-50 percent of American women are trying to lose weight at any given time.
- In 2007, there were about 11.7 million cosmetic procedures performed in the U.S. Ninety-one percent of these were performed on women.
- 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.
- 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 â€śbody beautifulâ€ť mindset that is having such a negative effect on so many peopleâ€™s lives. And I think that itâ€™s logical to assume that the more that yoga is promoted for â€śweight loss,â€ť the more itâ€™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 problemsâ€”and help us lose weight in the process. In some cases, thatâ€™s probably going to prove true.
But in the bigger picture, Iâ€™m skeptical. Yoga is not some magic ritual that automatically makes you immune to the pathologies of your culture. Itâ€™s simply a tool for working with our own bodies and minds.
Iâ€™m concerned that the more yoga becomes associated with our cultureâ€™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 â€śyoga for weight loss,â€ť Iâ€™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 â€śhealth and beautyâ€ť paradigm that the lucrative â€śweight loss and diet controlâ€ť industry connects to so powerfully.
Of course, itâ€™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 isnâ€™t a dicey proposition at best isnâ€™t thinking deeply enough about the issues at hand.
Editor: Brianna Bemel