The Case for Avoiding Weight-loss Language in Yoga Class This Holiday
It’s getting to be that time of year—a time for holiday feasts, decadent treats, and festive celebrations galore. As a human who loves eating and cooking and celebrating, I’m pretty stoked. But while I know exactly what kind of cookies I’ll bake for dessert this Thanksgiving (white chocolate macadamia nut, in case you were wondering), I often struggle as a yoga teacher with what sort of classes to teach during the holidays.
Traditionally, I’ve found that Thanksgiving yoga can be served with a hefty side of guilt—with this idea (either overtly stated or heavily implied) that in going to a pre-turkey/tofurkey day asana class, we’re doing something “good” (i.e., exercise) that will negate the “bad” we’ll do later (eating a scrumptious meal and making merry with fellow humans—the horror!).
Yoga is a place of refuge—a place where we go for a reprieve from the societal message that we’re not good enough.
Now, to be fair, this isn’t unique to yoga. I’ve observed similar attitudes (in marketing materials, problematic comments from well-intentioned teachers, and post-class locker room chitchat) in dance and fitness environments as well. But I guess it’s especially frustrating when it comes to yoga, because for so many of us, yoga is a place of refuge—a place where we go for a reprieve from the societal message that we’re not good enough—and that we have to do more, buy more, and weigh less in order to be happy, healthy, or desirable.
As my friend, Yoga for All founder, YI teacher, and body image advocate, Dianne Bondy, implores, “Can our yoga practice become a ceasefire zone for feeling bad about our bodies? Can we seek the power of ahimsa (non-harming)?” “Our responsibility as yoga teachers,” she reminds, “is to always practice ahimsa.”
I love yoga, and I love mashed potatoes and homemade pie. On Thanksgiving morning, I will be practicing yoga (which is so much more than just exercise!) because it helps me feel calm and centered and good about myself. Because as an introvert, it helps to ground me in the midst of all the festive turbulence. Because it reminds me to think before I respond to Uncle Larry’s political arguments at the dinner table. And because I’ve found that certain yoga practices can be really helpful for digestion—which is useful any day of the year, but particularly so when holiday stress starts to rear its head.
I'll practice throughout the holidays to help me keep my cool when my to-do list becomes overwhelming—when I need to take a breather to rest and “digest” the hustle and bustle of the season before heading back out for a second helping of festivities. I won't be practicing to ”twist out” toxins (which, from what I understand, is not really the way human physiology works), nor to burn a ton of calories (which most yoga practices won't really do anyway). Most of the yoga I’ll do on Thanksgiving won't even register as “exercise” on my FitBit. And that’s okay.
I don't mean to suggest that there's anything wrong with practicing yoga as a form of exercise. In fact, power yoga and vinyasa are actually my favorite ways to practice on most days. But for me, yoga’s benefits go far beyond stretching, strengthening, and elevating my heart rate in sun salutes. Yoga has taught me about self-acceptance. It’s been a sanctuary in times of struggle. It’s helped me to feel connected to myself and others when I’ve otherwise felt isolated. Yoga has been such an incredible gift in my life, and I want others to experience its benefits too—and to discover the refuge it can be for them.
And call me selfish, but I want my yoga to remain a place of refuge for me as well. But when we hear language in yoga class that tells us that our bodies are “toxic” or that we need to whittle away our abdomens, shrink our thighs, banish our cellulite, or keep the weight-gain boogeyman at bay, all of a sudden yoga might not feel so accepting—especially for those of us who have suffered with eating disorders (and there are more of us than you might think). I know that hearing those things can have me tugging at my yoga tights to make sure my belly isn’t sticking out—and then scolding myself for caring whether it is. I don’t think I’m alone in this.
Avoiding weight-loss language in yoga class isn’t about being “uber-PC” or “glorifying obesity”—it’s about being kind, and not alienating anyone from the practice. Whatever types of practice we do, my intention (for myself) and my wish (for the yoga community in general), is that when we practice and teach this coming holiday (and always), we aim to make our practice spaces welcoming, inclusive, and positive. Where everyone is invited to practice just as they are, and where none are viewed as projects needing fixing—or wayward pie-eating souls who need saving.
Avoiding weight-loss language in yoga class isn’t about being “uber-PC” or “glorifying obesity”—it’s about being kind.
As Bondy reminds, “Diet culture has permeated everything. These messages can be subtle, insidious, and pervasive. Our duty as stewards of this practice comes from the intention of Yoga Sutra 2.35: When in the presence (of one) abiding in non-violence there is the abandonment of hostility. In this case, hostility toward the body. Let's practice ahimsa this holiday season and let's start with the body.”
Here are some simple things we can do to make our yoga spaces more welcoming and inclusive this holiday season and beyond.
• Keep in mind that people come to yoga class for a multitude of reasons. The impetus for some people may be fitness-related, while for others it may not. Don’t assume everyone is there for the same reason (and don’t assume that “fitness” always equals “weight loss” either). That doesn’t mean that we teachers shouldn’t talk about the physical benefits of asanas—but let’s discuss them in terms of function (“This is a great hip-flexor stretch!” or “This will strengthen your hamstrings in a way that will support your backbends”), instead of aesthetics (“This pose will melt away your love handles!”).
• Be aware and conscious that many people in this world are living with eating disorders (at least 30 million people of all ages and genders in the United States alone, according to The National Association of Anorexia Nervosa and Associated Disorders), and that you cannot know just by looking at them whether or not someone has an eating disorder.
• Remember that words are powerful. Those of us who teach yoga have both the privilege and the responsibility of choosing words that uplift, support, and inspire our students—avoiding words that may embarrass or shame them.
• Remember that no one is perfect (yoga teachers included). If we learn that something we said or did in the past was harmful, it doesn’t mean we’re bad teachers or bad people. It does mean that we have a wonderful opportunity to learn from that situation and to choose differently in the future.
• Keep things in perspective: Yoga really doesn’t burn that many calories anyway. And there are tons of way cooler benefits to be gleaned from the practice. Why not focus on those?
My intention this holiday season will be to practice because I love my body (or more accurately, because I’m trying to love my body). I will practice as an act of gratitude for all of the wonderful experiences having a body has enabled me to experience—not to do preemptive penance for my pumpkin pie.
Kat Heagberg is the editor of Yoga International and has been teaching yoga since 2005. She loves to write about ways to make challenging poses more accessible, the power of language in yoga culture, and to offer encouragement and advice to new yoga teachers. Though she initially trained in alignment-based styles of yoga (which continue to inform her practice and teaching), Kat likes teaching vinyasa flow best of all. Read her work and take her classes here on Yoga International!