I was scrolling through YouTube the other day, looking for ideas.
I was looking at videos by one of the most popular yoga teachers on YouTube. I figured that if she had millions of subscribers who watch her yoga videos daily, it might be worthwhile to do some research on her channel to see what people liked the best.
Hip Openers, Yoga for Beginners – the usual suspects.
And then I saw it. YOGA FOR WEIGHT LOSS.
My stomach turned.
She doesn’t just offer one of these classes on her YouTube channel. She has 11.
I was suspicious of her at first and now those suspicions were confirmed.
Out of curiosity I did a broader search and found hundreds of yoga videos on YouTube that promise to trim belly fat, burn calories, and make that muffin top disappear.
I could feel the rage building.
Let me explain:
When I first found yoga, I was trying to escape the tentacles of an eating disorder that I’d allowed to ravage my body and my mind for years.
It was in those early yoga classes when I finally realized that my life was worth fighting for.
I learned that my body was the only home I had and I needed to treat her with more love and kindness and care. And also with more respect.
I wasn’t out of the woods immediately after those early classes, though.
It’s not like my first yoga classes were taught by a magical yoga unicorn tossing glittery confetti around me in downdog to transform me from a girl with low self-esteem and self-destructive tendencies to a happy, healthy, well-adjusted, body confident girl.
It took years for me to finally act on what I’d learned and treat myself better and finally feel healthy.
I learned that healthy is not about how my body looks but how I feel in my body. It’s a lesson I continue to learn every single time I step onto my mat.
Doing yoga has never been about losing weight, but about finding myself.
In fact, the whole reason I decided to teach yoga was to help others fall in love with their own bodies and to help them realize that they are capable of great things: handstands and healing alike.
I don’t want my students to think that there is a certain type of person who does yoga or a certain body type that is preferable for yoga.
Whether or not it’s intended this way, Yoga for Weight Loss has always felt equal parts body shaming and diet culture messaging.
I’m tired of “culture” and societal standards compliments of our good friend, the patriarchy, dictating what a healthy body looks like.
And I’m tired of trying to conform to their ideals.
I spent a good chunk of my life doing battles with those demons and I’d be lying if I said they didn’t still influence me today.
Healthy isn’t a size.
Healthy is how you feel.
Listen, I get the arguments for Yoga for Weight Loss classes.
They get people in the door and on the mat, which is a really important and good first step.
Once they’re in, they’ll slowly start to realize that it’s not about losing weight but about feeling good in their bodies, right?
Well, it depends on how patient they are.
I’m all for more people doing yoga, whether they make their way to the mat through yoga in the park or instagram yoga challenges or a free week of bikram yoga classes or through a workshop called “yoga for gardeners.”
What I’m more interested in is whether or not they stick around to really learn the practice and discover how yoga could change their life, on and off the mat.
Part of the reason that yoga is used in weight-loss programs is because of the mind-body-soul connection.
If you’re not taking good care of yourself (ie “not healthy), no matter what size you are, you’re likely not thinking much about what you put into your body or how you use it.
Yoga not only invites you to pay attention, but yoga requires it. Yoga asks you to listen to yourself and to deepen your understanding of your needs, your desires, and your connection to the world around you. When you start listening closely, you might hear things that don’t feel so good. Some of the choices you make start to feel off, so you make small shifts. This is where it starts. And this is where yoga can influence the changing of your shape, whether you lose weight, maintain it, gain it, lengthen your hamstrings, tone your core muscles, soften your neck muscles, or strengthen your upper body.
And while there is some science, as well as anecdotal evidence, indicating that yoga can be part of maintaining a weight or a size that feels healthy, yoga alone isn’t what gets you there.
My biggest issue with these Yoga for Weight Loss classes on YouTube is that 95% of them (rough estimate as I didn’t watch every single one) don’t really give you an idea of what healthy is or how to use yoga to feel healthier off your mat. There’s an occasional mention of counting calories (ugh) and sometimes the need for rest.
Most of the comments on these classes are, “whoa, what a sweatfest” or “who knew that yoga could pack such a punch!” or “you’re killing me here…but in a good way.”
Then there’s the argument that the whole point of yoga is to create personal transformation. As my husband put it, “I go to yoga to be better. I want to improve myself. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t keep going to class or getting on my mat.”
I understand this line of thinking. I even agree with it.
I also think there is a chasm of difference between wanting to improve your flexibility so that you feel less stiff in the morning or improve your leg strength so your low back doesn’t hurt anymore. Or even the desire to finally balance in crow pose for more than 2 seconds.
Self-improvement is a powerful motivator.
I want to improve myself, too. I just no longer want to “improve myself,” by holding myself to the physical standards set by the fashion industry.
I want to grow my consciousness. I want to make a difference in the world. I want to someday float up into a handstand. I want to teach my kids the power of this practice by sharing it with them.
I want to stay healthy and strong in my body as long as possible. I know my yoga practice will help with that.
As a yoga teacher, as a woman, and as a mother, I want people to feel good in their bodies, to trust their bodies, and to feel empowered in their bodies.
I don’t want people to fear their bodies or to hate their bodies.
I think yoga for weight loss plays into the “fear and hate” more than the “feel good, trust, and empower.”
More than anything else, “Yoga for Weight Loss” is a marketing tool. Yes it gets people in the door, but does it get them to stay? And at what cost?
I know a few really well intentioned yogis who teach “Yoga for Weight-Loss” and not only do I believe their heart is in the right place, but their approach is also more holistic, compassionate, and smart. They go beyond the “hardcore” yoga full of “yoga crunches” and other fitness/yoga mashups, offering good support, advice, and more focus on the mental aspect of healing the relationship between mind and body.
My bigger issue is in the language. Why do we market to women primarily using words based in fear, shame, and dissatisfaction?
As Roxane Gay wrote in her powerful book Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, “What does it say about our culture that the desire for weight loss is considered a default feature of womanhood?”
There’s got to be a better way to communicate that yoga can support maintaining a weight or a size that feels good and that it could be a part of losing weight, if that’s what someone wants or needs.
As one fellow yoga teacher said, “I wonder if there is a way we could say “no way, screw you” to the marketing people who use body-shaming and diet culture tactics to sell yoga and still say, “welcome, I’m so happy you’re here” to the student who comes to yoga to take better care of herself which might include a desire to lose weight.”
A lot needs to change.
How we think of our bodies needs to change.
How we think of other people’s bodies needs to change.
Our definition of “healthy,” needs to change.
Our willingness to rewrite the dialogue we use for health, wellness, fitness, and yoga needs to change.
We need to stop buying into the marketing that sells us shame and capitalizes on our self-loathing.
We need to start using marketing AND supporting marketing that offers empowerment from a place of compassion and self-love.
You’ll never see me teach a class called “Yoga for Weight-Loss” for these reasons.
And I will happily teach yoga classes called “Yoga to Rock Your Awesome Body,” “Yoga to Feel Strong and Powerful,” and “Yoga to Support Vibrant Health.”
These are words I can stand behind.
And while they might not attract as many client as quickly as “Yoga for Weight-Loss” I am willing to take that risk in order to support a change that I believe desperately needs to happen.