Spiritually & Physically Hungry: A Dangerous Side of Yoga? (Part One)

I’m not usually controversial on this blog, but I wanted to talk about an issue that has been on my mind for the past few days. For me, yoga is a very healthy practice, but I recognize that some parts of yoga culture can be limiting and even dangerous. One of those potential dangers is falling into the trap of thinking that a good yoga practitioner is a very thin person who looks and eats a certain way.

If you follow the websites Yoga Dork or Elephant Journal, you will have seen the articles surrounding the death of Ian Thorson, after he and his wife Christy McNally were asked to leave Arizona’s Diamond Mountain Retreat. Thorson–whose body was rumored to weigh only 100 lbs.–later died of exposure while the couple camped in the desert surrounding the retreat. There has been a lot of controversy surrounding this story, but what stood out to me was a first-hand account of Thorson’s thinness:

“I remember Ian Thorson from perhaps two hundred classes and lectures across America, Europe, and India between 1998 and 2000. He was thin and wispy, underfed and protein deficient, perhaps anemic, with impeccable lotus posture, and distant, unfocussed, entranced eyes. He’d sit right up at the front of any teaching, his eyes rolled back, clothes unwashed, hair tousled, by turns elated and catatonic in his trance. I ate rice and dal with him at the same table at Sera Mey monastery in Bylakuppe for a month in 1999. We talked philosophy and the esoteric for the short spurts in which he could hold conversational attention.”

The author of the article, Matthew Remski, originally described Thorson as “probably vegan,” but ultimately deleted this phrase “from the description of Thorson, as one commenter found it offensive.” I am not sure, however, if the intertwined yoga issues of spiritual hunger, popular ideals of slenderness, and strict vegetarian or vegan dieting, as embodied by devotees like Thorson, don’t deserve more serious consideration. This is not to slander veganism or vegetarianism; I know many people who are healthy vegans and vegetarians. However, I do wonder if people who take up yoga because they are insecure about their bodies or who are spiritual seekers looking for a life-changing experience are potentially at-risk for falling into dangerously restrictive diets that harm their health. The catch-22 of such diets is that they seem healthy and virtuous.

Today, I was reading a Daily Beast article by Danielle Friedman, “When Veganism is an Eating Disorder,”  and it struck me as significant that one of the interviewees was a yoga teacher:

“When Jill Miller reflects on her long, painful dance with veganism, anorexia, and bulimia, she remembers standing alone in her kitchen, binge-eating a tofu-cream pie. These episodes of stuffing herself with whipped soy—when what she really wanted was a pint of Ben & Jerry’s—stand out in her mind as a sign that her commitment to veganism was a cover for something darker. As do the many times that she turned down food with the seemingly innocent, even noble excuse that no one could argue with: Oh, sorry. I can’t eat that—I’m vegan.

“No prime rib and Yorkshire pudding at New Year’s with Grandpa,” says Miller. “This happened at every family event. I seized on the food theory of veganism to justify my desire to restrict. It was a convenient way to eliminate fat and calories,” she says. The shame, discomfort, and self-loathing represented by her eating habits defined much of her early life. When she was just 13, Miller became a vegetarian, in part for philosophical reasons, but mainly as an excuse to avoid her mom’s New Orleans-style chicken-fried steak and jambalaya. As she forged a career in yoga instruction, she further restricted her diet by going vegan, all the while struggling with an eating disorder that she kept under wraps.”

Marketing continually touts intense yoga, fasting, and detoxing as healthy, despite the dangers of such extreme practices. As the Daily Beast article describes, even a concern for health can become an obsession: “Recently, reports of “orthorexia” have captured headlines. Those who suffer from the controversial new disorder compulsively avoid foods thought to be unhealthy or unnatural, including products with trans fats, artificial colors, or flavors, high-fructose corn syrup, and preservatives. Often, orthorexics opt for a strict vegan diet. Some say orthorexia represents this dangerous slide from health to pathology.”

Here are some self-assessment questions from Dr. Steven Bratman, who devised the term orthorexia, originally from the website SheKnows:

1. Do you spend more than 3 hours a day thinking about healthy food (for four hours, give yourself 2 points)?
2. Are you already planning tomorrow’s healthy menu today?*
3. Do you care more about the virtue of what you eat than the pleasure you receive from eating it?
4. Has the quality of your life decreased since the quality of your diet has increased?
5. Do you keep getting stricter with yourself?
6. Do you feel an increased sense of self-esteem when you are eating “right” and look down on others whose diets are not, in your eyes, healthy?
7. Do you skip foods you enjoy just to eat the “right” foods?**
8. Does your diet make it difficult for you to eat away from home?
9. Are you becoming socially isolated?
10. Do you feel guilty or hate yourself when you stray from your diet?
11. When you eat the “good” foods, do you feel a peaceful sense of total control?

Scoring:
Give yourself one point for each YES answer.
2-3 Points
: You may have a mild case of orthorexia. Be aware of your behavior.
4+ Points: You may have a modest case of orthorexia. You may need to relax your diet standards.
10 Points: You are obsessed with your healthy diet. You may need to seek professional help.”

*This does not mean planning a week’s menus so that you can shop for food once a week. Many people who work full-time must do this to make time for other activities. 
** This means compulsively, whether there is a good reason or not. Obviously someone who is trying to lose 20 pounds of body fat will need to use some self-control.

*

Is this the end result of the pressure to be thin and the popular associations between yoga, thinness, and virtuous eating?

Watch this video clip with BBC presenter Dawn Porter and American host Debbie Matenopoulous for the television special Super Slim Me, which critiques the drive to be a Hollywood-influenced size 0. Porter, a charmingly normal woman, attempts various Hollywood diets and explores many of the issues associated with extreme dieting. Yoga comes up in her trip from England to California.

At about minute 4:58, Debbie describes how she once went on an 18-day cleanse and fast, centered on doing yoga and not eating, before her friends staged an intervention. Putting on a dazed voice &  a meditation posture she mocks her then-attitude:

 “Food is just a distraction from what is really going on.” {Warning: may be triggering}

More thoughts tomorrow, including my concerns about one yoga memoir that I fear promotes dangerous dieting in the guise of healthy lifestyles and spiritual improvement.

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3 thoughts on “Spiritually & Physically Hungry: A Dangerous Side of Yoga? (Part One)

  1. Thank you so much for addressing this! There seems to be a misconception that one needs to be slim to practice advanced asanas. Check out (for example) Kino MacGregor. We can confidently say that she’s pretty advanced, very muscular and far from being a stick.
    In this entire food discussion, I’m also wondering how people translate the concept of ahimsa into their eating habits. Ahimsa, while meaning causing non-injury to others, also means being kind to yourself and giving the body whatever it needs to be healthy. I believe a healthy body (which doesn’t necessarily means super slim) is the basis for a healthy practice…

    • I agree with you, Anna Guest-Jelley’s collection of essays, “Curvy Yoga,” is another great example of diverse body types and ages can find so much in yoga. And there is the whole issue of balance–not becoming obsessed and overwhelmed with anxiety about your appearance or diet.

  2. Pingback: The Yogalosophy Project: Day 22 & 23 New Steps! New Steps! | hopebordeaux

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