Yoga + Diet Culture: Think Less, Feel More.
First off, I love my yoga practice and I love teaching yoga.
It brings me so much joy and presence to fully be in my body when I practice and teach. The sight of students in savasana at the end of a practice is one of the best things ever - and my own savasana is bliss, most of the time.
Yet, lately, I've struggled with how the physical yoga (asana) practice has become enmeshed with diet culture. It's become the way for many wellness-obsessed people to "cleanse and detox" and engage in disordered behaviors under the guise of health. Yoga on Instagram is all about challenges to do the fanciest arm balances or poses that require extreme flexibility (hypermobility that may lead to injury or pain).
In the last year, I've been to a handful of classes where teachers talk about "burning off calories" or talk to students afterwards about juice cleanses or vegan diets. I've seen challenges in studios that encourage taking as many classes in a month as you can - leading some students to take multiple classes a day (or high-intensity physical practices).
Not only is it inappropriate and unethical for teachers to encourage disordered eating and exercise patterns, I also find students are so vulnerable and see their teachers as leaders in the community that they trust their guidance. Students and teachers can become so extreme in their diet and physical practice. To them, it looks like dedication but it can easily turn into disordered exercise - or an eating disorder.
I find yoga can be such a healing practice in recovering from an eating disorder, improving body image, or connection to self, but when studios and teachers encourage extreme methods to the physical practice, it's confusing and harmful for students. Instead of encouraging being gentle and compassionate with their body, students are being told to push through another chatarunga or find their limits and only given two minutes for stillness in savasana at the end. Stretching and sweating can lead to a sense of calm or an endorphin release, and while that can be beneficial, if that's your only go-to coping tool, it ultimately becomes more harmful than good.
When yoga teachers use language rooted in diet culture, such as pushing or forcing, it encourages disconnection to the body. Instead of connecting mind, body, and heart, which is what yoga (union) is, it's turning people further away from their body's signals while using spiritual language. It turns into an obsession with the physical practice and how the body looks in the pose rather than how it feels.
Many studios use mirrors, which can be helpful at times to help with alignment, but it also can lead to comparison or a hyper-focus on the look of the pose. Many students are intimidated by studio classes because of focus on the body and many teachers' lack of knowledge to teach to all body shapes and size.
One of my favorite cues - from Jason Crandall and the Yoga Land podcast is - any amount of the pose is still the pose. (Heads up: I enjoy that podcast, but there can be talk about sugar/clean eating at times if that is triggering to you). It's never about what the pose looks like because physically, we all have different body shapes and proportions. If you put 10 people in the same pose, everyone will look differently, and some people may never be able to do the pose or the full expression of it. That's totally okay. I may never do lotus pose because when I try, it hurts my knees, and I'm not willing to risk injury for a shape.
Instead, when you can switch perspective to how the pose feels from the INSIDE OUT, it allows you to build connection with your body. You notice the sensations of your muscles working, stretching, or the breath circulating within your body.
This was one of the biggest lessons ever for me. I could focus on the internal sensations of the breath and my body, and with that, it shifted to the emotional and mental state in a pose. In triangle pose, I feel expansive and free. In child's pose, I feel grounded. In a seated forward fold, I can surrender deeper into myself. In backbends, I can open up, be vulnerable, and learn to trust myself. Embodying these shapes helps me feel more comfortable with these feelings in my life.
That's the magic in yoga.
It's never about the physical pose or those Instagram shots of handstands on the beach. Sure, that can be fun and playful, but the magic comes from the inner work.
The healing and power of yoga comes from being able to build that connection with your body. Your body will tell you your limits. In the physical practice, your breath is a great guide. When your breath becomes choppy or you lose it, back off. Skip a vinyasa, rest in child's pose, or take a restorative or yin practice instead.
The physical practice through classes is the way many of us get into yoga. The sweating and moving can feel really good, and it can help get people into their bodies in order to experience the other benefits. Yet, when yoga becomes linked with diet culture, that's where most people stop. They compare themselves to Instagram yogis and focus on perfecting the poses or getting a "yoga body" (not a real thing).
It's through the physical practice that we can prepare ourselves for stillness - in savasana, meditation, or pranayama. In our crazy-busy society, stillness is needed. In the stillness, we can realize we are enough as we are. We don't need to change our bodies or ourselves.
If you're struggling with disordered eating, here are some ways to use yoga in a supportive way:
- Find a variety of classes. Try out a gentle yoga practice or a restorative or yin practice.
- Feel free to take a break from sweaty hot yoga classes with mirrors everywhere.
- If you do practice vinyasa classes, skip a vinyasa or rest in child's pose when you're tired. It's okay to take a break. Remember ahimsa (non-harming) - listen to your body and practice compassion. Injury or pain is never worth it.
- Tune into the internal sensations - your breath, where you feel the muscular work or the stretch.
- Explore different themes on your mat like creativity, stillness, expansion, freedom, grounding, surrender, playfulness. This can be a chance to embody different emotional states.
- Explore other aspects of yoga, like meditation, pranayama (breathwork), or svadhyaya (self-study) or yoga philosophy. One of my favorite books lately is The Radiance Sutras - it's a great one to pick up and read a few pages at a time.
- If you just really don't like yoga and have tried it out before, don't force yourself to go. If it's not your thing, find a different way to connect to your body. Yoga classes may not be your thing, and that's fine too.
I'll leave you with one of the intentions I've been using my classes lately: "Think less. Feel more."