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Rebellion Brewing Over Weight-Loss Focus in Yoga

The Gospel of Thin in American Yoga

by STEWART J. LAWRENCE

Few issues get more yoga women tied up in knots faster than the question of whether their beloved mind-body practice can actually help them lose weight, while toning and reshaping their body. Are there clear and unequivocal weight-loss benefits to yoga?  Suppose there are.  Should politically correct feminists – and spiritually correct yogis — be visibly promoting them, possibly diluting yoga’s “larger” message?

Yes, says one camp.  There’s an obesity epidemic in America after all.  And what’s wrong with helping women become fitter and healthier – and boosting their self-esteem, in the process?  Isn’t weight loss potentially empowering?

That depends, say opponents.  Yoga is, or should be, about self-acceptance, not judgment and self-blame.  There are many reasons people are overweight, and healthy and attractive bodies come in all shapes and sizes.  Why buy into the prevailing “beauty myth” heaping more shame and psychological/emotional abuse on women?

Kathryn Budig, a former dancer and model and currently, a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, is no stranger to this controversy.  In fact, she may be the closest thing the yoga industry has to a “super-model,” thanks largely to the racy nude photos of her that appeared in the industry trade magazine Yoga Journal in 2010.  Those ads, for the boutique apparel company Toe Sox, featured the 26-year old wearing nothing but white booties as she twisted and turned her body into advanced poses like “Firefly,” her steely gaze suggesting an icy but determined – and erotic — athleticism.

Apparently, Budig’s ads created just the buzz that she and Toe Sox wanted.  When I wrote about the mini-scandal for the British Guardian that year, the story made it to the front-page of the international edition and stayed there for over a week.  The lesson that “sex sells” – and within yoga, the whispered promise of “amped up” carnal adventures — makes the practice seem more alluring and life-enhancing than ever, especially when a svelte, preternaturally slender “Barbie” in the form of Budig poses naked as its figurehead.

Now Budig’s back with a mea culpa of sorts.  The Women’s Health Big Book of Yoga, published late last year by Rodale Press, is clearly meant to reposition the onetime yoga “bad girl” as a New Age faith healer and health advocate.   Yoga, she claims, offers a tidy and inexpensive antidote to nearly every affliction known to modern woman.   Depressed and taking female hormone drugs?  Let yoga rev up your libido, she says.  Feeling trapped in a lifeless marriage? Let yoga enhance intimacy with your partner.  The Big Book features Budig and her merry band of trendy-bendy yoga models (wearing not only stretch pants and Lycra tops but sporting jewelry no less) demonstrating a dozen or so yoga poses that they claim will all but “cure” PMS, hangovers, wrinkles, a difficult pregnancy — indeed, anything that might stand in the way of women leading a more comfortable care-free life.

But it’s the weight loss argument that frames the entire book. In fact, Budig seems intent on recycling some of the most time-worn and discredited fitness arguments for yoga.  She suggests, for example, that women might lose an average of 400 calories from a 90 minute “power” yoga class, even while acknowledging that most yoga styles are far too mild to allow for even these modest benefits.   In the one scientific study she actually cites, test subjects lost just 15 pounds — admirable perhaps, but far less than your average dieting program offers.   She also makes the case that yoga, by inducing “mindfulness,” could reduce a person’s level of cortisol, the hormone that feeds stress and anxiety.  Without that internal discomfort, women would be less likely to seek out fat-producing comfort and finger foods, she suggests.  Over-eating and obesity would naturally fade away.

In fact, the science on stress-eating is sparse and the link to yoga – as plausible as it sounds — remains completely unproven.  But there’s a second problem:  the kind of yoga most likely to allow practitioners to de-stress won’t increase their metabolic rate;  in fact, it will slow it, meaning that unless consumers eat less or more nutritiously, they will actually gain weight not lose it, thanks to “mindful” yoga alone.  The problem is compounded when yoga practitioners decide to give up their cardio practice thinking that their yoga alone will be enough.  In other words, yoga’s stress reduction and cardio benefits – if they exist at all – work almost completely at cross purposes.

Budig’s book does include a throwaway line early on suggesting that women practice as much self-acceptance as they can.  But that comforting line is completely overshadowed by her overriding weight-loss message.  In the end, it’s probably not science or yoga ideology that’s pushing her in this direction; it’s Budig’s – and Rodale’s — narrow perception of the market.  Most American women, including many practicing yoga, are supremely conscious of their weight, and are looking for supportive answers.  If yoga doesn’t provide them, or at least enter their frenzied self-dialogue, it’s unlikely to grow its own distinctive niche, they fear.  Budig knows that she’s up against the likes of Tracey MacDonald, a fitness celebrity and weight-loss maven with a popular television show that reaches millions.  The latest yoga marketing surveys bear this out, too.  Fitness and overall physical well-being are what most yoga women say they want.  It’s not that spiritual peace is completely irrelevant; it’s that so many women’s basic peace of mind seems to depend so heavily on their body image.

But not all yoga women buy into the “beauty myth” and a growing number are calling on yoga to return to more fundamental principles.  They include women like Anna Guest-Jelley, the proud owner of “Curvy Yoga” in Nashville, TN and a more recent upstart, Anna Ipox, who founded “Fat Yoga” in Portland, OR last year.   Demand for their classes from “plus-sized” women – and a few men — who feel shut out of the mainstream yoga world is growing rapidly, it turns out.  Jelley has even incorporated her niche practice as a business and now oversees a nationwide teacher-training program.  She’s also become a well-recognized blogger on alternative web sites like Elephant Journal.  Ipox says she welcomes women of all shapes and into her classes, but she wants women who can’t wear a size 8 dress – let alone a size 4 – to have a safe haven to practice and celebrate their bodies.  When some women insist on preening in front of other students or discussing weight-loss regimens, she quietly asks them to leave.

For now, it’s the Budigs and their protégés that rule the yoga roost, but there are faint glimmers of change on the horizon.  ABC News recently aired a highly-publicized feature on a yoga teacher who deliberately gained 40 pounds just to see how her students and other yogis would react to her new appearance; it opened her eyes to the pain and suffering women who can’t live up to the absurd rigors of the “beauty myth” must endure.  And just last week, Lululemon announced the ouster of its chairman and founder Chip Wilson after Wilson told television interviewers that some women who were “too heavy in the thighs” probably “didn’t belong” in his trademark stretch-pants.  The response to Wilson’s remarks, even from Lulu’s loyal customers, was shock and outrage, especially since Lulu stores – apparently unbeknownst to Wilson himself — quietly sell “plus-sized” stretch pants precisely to draw in a wider range of consumers.

If Wilson’s ouster is a sign of more change to come, it’s long overdue.  Some mainstream beauty brands like Dove already feature decidedly plump, over-40 models in their product advertising, even displaying these women wearing the same skimpy underwear typically found on skinnier models.  And the ads have been a huge hit.  But the yoga industry has remained a die-hard keeper of the flame – not just of yoga’s esoteric Hindu-inflected spirituality, but of its cult of the perfect, iconic body.  Guest-Jelley and Ipox, unlike Budig and others, may not become millionaires by targeting yet another niche yoga market.  But in encouraging all women to practice perfect body self-acceptance, they may well be the new avatars of yogic enlightenment; they have the audacity to claim that “fitness” – like spiritual beauty — is a strictly inside job, and that physical beauty is only skin-deep.

Isn’t that what our mothers told us all along?

Stewart J. Lawrence can be reached at stewartlawrence81147@gmail.com