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Yogis, Diet and Eating Disorders

When one searches on the internet for “yoga” and “eating disorders”, unlimited pages are returned about the benefits of yoga as a remedy to these obsessive-compulsive diseases, yet there seems to be a denial that many yogis and teachers themselves suffer from an abnormal fixation on diet, self-image and being slim.

In the yoga world lightness is celebrated; it implies litheness, self restraint, supernatural powers (levitation) and ethical vegetarianism (“right” diet). The abundance of yoga classes focusing on quick paced movements in ‘hot rooms’ aimed at creating heat in the body is rivalled only by the fasting, cleansing and detoxifying treatments on offer; all highlighting the cultural desire to lose physical bulk. While rajasic-based practice and cleansing rituals are not bad in themselves in moderation, their design is to facilitate the yogi’s journey from physical to the spiritual realm, not to be misused to further attach to the visible body. Yoga and eating disorders both lend themselves to control and pushing physical and mental boundaries; yet a healthy yogi practices discipline with the intention to travel inward and to know the Self, while one driven by an eating disorder is motivated by self-destructive behaviour and a distorted self-image.

The visual obsession western culture has with the outer body is at odds with the essence of the yoga practice. Yoga suggests presence, truth and authenticity, being both in the body and at the same time embodying the practice and postures. However, glossy yoga magazines with carbon-copy covers of svelt, smiling yogis clad in the latest fashionable attire reduce the practice to mere “posturing”. It’s images like these that invert the intention of the practice from one that is about self-exploration and inquiry, to one that focuses simply on the toning of the flesh body.

Part of the yogic path is in disciplining the mind to detach from judgements about self and other, however, it is a path, and on it there can be many steps. Much of our reality is made up from the sensory experiences put out there by media, culture and society, so it’s time for a culture-societal shift in perception. Jules Febre has said, “You come to yoga class because you want a better body? Then what? It’s what you choose to do with that body that matters.” As yogis, we have the knowledge of inter-being, the understanding that we are all connected, and what we do in this world has a profound affect on every other being. Having physical agility and mental grounding empowers us to take responsibility for the world around us and the happiness of all beings, but if we are unable to nurture ourselves and create an environment of health within, how can we be of service to others and create an environment of sustainability in the world?

There is no doubt that yoga has benefitted countless people suffering from distorted of body image, obsessive-compulsive and addictive behavioural disorders. It would be a step in the right direction if the media and society celebrated this aspect of the practice rather than the ‘sexy, slim’, ‘how I got fit for my wedding’ approach that is more often read about in the dailies. At the same time, the more those of us who have struggled with eating disorders can open up discussion about the life-threatening underbelly of eating disease, the more young people may have a chance to change the direction of their health, and their lives.

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