Letter to the New Yoga Studio (Guest Post)

I was dismayed this week to discover that a yoga studio moving to my neighbourhood was claiming to help people with weight loss. For me and many people yoga provides a sanctuary from the body negativity and dieting pressure that pervades our culture. Yoga builds strength and flexibility and encourages pleasure in what one’s own body can do — which is completely different for everyone.

Increasingly, it seems to me, the value of yoga for both physical and mental fitness is perverted by the weight loss industry. A friend living in rural Alberta has no access to any other yoga, and misses the body positivity yoga properly provides. Are others of you finding this?

So, I thought I needed to write the owner a letter — if only to exorcise my frustration, and with some encouragement from a friend I did. It helped that the studio’s values concern community health and well-being, to which I appealed, along with a few links and facts — many gleaned from posts on this blog. Here’s what I wrote, some particulars omitted.

We have never met formally but your yoga classes were a favourite for me and my colleagues years ago at DTY.  I’ve practiced yoga on and off for decades and several times a week for a few years now. So I was excited to hear that your studio was moving very close to my home.  I know a number of people who live and work in this neighbourhood are excited about your studio move.

So, I started to check out your schedule on-line, but as I navigated there I was shocked and disappointed to see a weight loss message.  I haven’t looked far, but the very mention of weight loss as a goal for yoga is highly problematic, it jumps out from the screen, and the effect is fat shaming.  There is a body of research showing this effect of weight loss messages and the ineffectiveness of fat shaming in producing weight loss, though I expect you never intended that effect. 

I assume the reason you associate yoga with weight loss is because of its profound benefits for fitness, both physical and mental. Associating weight loss with fitness is a common error — see here, perpetuated by the massive weight loss industry.  I hardly know where to start discussing this: you are a fitness professional, but you are mistaken to associate yoga or fitness with weight loss, and I can only guess how you’ve been misled. It’s intuitive that encouraging weight loss would help people who want to lose weight, but the evidence indicates the opposite. First, losing weight is unhealthy for many people. More generally, while the science of weight loss is complex and often contradictory, one of the clearest results is that permanent weight loss is rare, and most weight loss programs just make people gain weight in the long run (see here and here, just to start). 

Perhaps you think you can help “the obesity crisis” and there is some reason to be concerned about that, but little reason to think individual weight loss programs will help. Those who lose weight and keep it off more than a year are known as “weight loss unicorns” and even then the evidence shows diet more effective than exercise. Nevertheless there are many reasons to desire the fitness and health — at any size — that yoga can provide

Part of the Yoga Loft mission stated on your web site is “to positively influence friends and family, ultimately influencing the community for better health, quality of life and happiness.” I share your hope for a healthier and happier community and believe the move of the arrival of your studio could aid that. However, the fat shaming and false hope extended by the mention of weight loss stands in the way.  It may be especially harmful for women who are pressured in so many ways to pursue weight loss, but that message poisons fitness for all kinds of people, including those like me who enjoy in yoga the very opposite of fat shaming and instead a robust body positivity.  

Please don’t spoil the potential of your studio to have a positive influence on our community by perpetuating the misinformation and fat shaming that comes across when you suggest you can help with weight loss. A healthier sense of our bodies would help us all thrive. If you are interested in a more positive view of fitness, this blog is a rich resource and it inspired a book that will be out in the next year — it has a feminist focus, but as the saying goes “feminism is for everybody.” (I have a few pieces there myself.) By resisting fat shaming, you may actually do more to help people who are struggling with obesity, as this recent article in The Globe and Mail indicates.  

If you’d like to chat about this over coffee, tea, or lunch, I’d be happy to.  

Very quickly I received a positive response! They removed the weight loss language, and apologized for the oversight. Wow!  That’s the best response I’ve ever received to a complaint, and renews my faith in yoga as a social as well as physical and mental practice.

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