Obesity is not healthy. Neither is being underweight. A law was passed last year in France banning the use of unhealthy thin fashion models in a fight against eating disorders and inaccessible ideals of beauty. Models are now required to present a doctor’s certificate attesting to their overall physical health —and weight in relation to height (Body Mass Index BMI). For some reason that is obviously baffling me, Western popular yoga culture as I see it seems to be glorifying obesity and equating it with the body positivity movement. I hesitate to discuss this because it is so sensitive and socially charged. Much of what follows is more of a self exploration and questioning than a public statement or position, although I have made my position very clear. Obesity is unhealthy. Body positivity should have nothing to do with glorifying obesity and everything to do with loving oneself -and all others- to the point of reverence.
What attracted me to the path of yoga was its inclusive, welcoming community. It took time, and a lot of trial and even more error until I settled on a community I was safely comfortable in to begin the exploration. (It is still often very intimidating for me even after all these years.) Eventually, the journey turns inwards, and where you are no longer matters. I have always believed that the most difficult aspect of yoga is showing up. Once you show up, you realize you are showing up for you. Along the way, you will often look around you. There will be many times when you compare yourself to others, as with everything else you do in life. You catch yourself judging -yourself and others. Until with practice, dedication, and commitment, the layers and masks you wear slowly begin to drop. And you come face to face with you: raw, in all your glory. You gradually learn to meet, accept, embrace, respect, love, and ultimately revere “you” in that order. You recognize the sanctity of you —mind, body, and soul. Every choice you make from then on is governed by the metrics of wholeness and health. It is that simple and basic.
This is the path of yoga as I see it: a life that is so much deeper than a yoga pose, a mantra, or a great outfit; one that is beyond size, gender, or orientation.
How can one choose the path of yoga and maintain an unhealthy state of obesity?
“Obesity is a condition where a person has accumulated so much body fat that it might have a negative effect on their health. If a person’s body is at least 20% higher than it should be, he or she is considered obese.” —Medical News Today
I have struggled with weight all my life; at some point, I was probably obese. I was not particularly active in my pre-teen years, choosing food as my primary source of entertainment. One summer in my early teens, I managed to fast the month of Ramadan and lost some weight. I felt good and realized I could be active without feeling winded. I am sure I had an eating disorder and body image issues. I hope that qualifies me to speak about obesity openly and honestly because deep down I am still that pre-teen girl dealing with the same issues.
Patanjali’s eight limbs of yoga are clear in their emphasis on health in all its manifestations. How else can energy flow freely through the body? The fifth limb of yoga, pratyahara, specifically addresses withdrawal or sensory transcendence.
“It is during this stage that we make the conscious effort to withdraw our awareness away from the external world and outside stimuli… The practice of pratyahara provides us with an opportunity to step back and take a look at ourselves. This withdrawal allows us to objectively observe our cravings: habits that are perhaps detrimental to our health and which likely interfere with our inner growth.” —Mara Carrico, Yoga Journal
In other words, once we reach the fifth limb of yoga, possibly many yoga asana years or lifetimes later, the work becomes internal. When yoga is the path of choice, health becomes an intrinsic aspect of one’s existence. Science has proved that obesity is detrimental to our health. Heart disease and diabetes (type 2) are leading killers today. Heart disease is the number 1 cause of death worldwide, with 17.7 million (31%) of all global deaths attributed to it in 2015 alone.
“Most cardiovascular diseases can be prevented by addressing behavioral risk factors such as smoking and unhealthy diet and obesity.” —World Health Organization (WHO)
We don’t see advertisements glorifying cigarettes anymore.
Half of American adults have diabetes or pre-diabetes. (I am sure had I been tested young, I would have qualified as pre-diabetic.) Every 21 seconds, an individual is diagnosed with diabetes in the United States. Personally, I can name more than 10 close friends diagnosed with insulin-resistance and given medication. I don’t have official data on diabetes in the Middle East but I can say with confidence that I have recently come across alarming numbers of diabetes clinics and health centers in Kuwait and Bahrain. Thanks to a sedentary lifestyle and the invasion of the American diet, one look around a mall in the Arabian Gulf is enough to convince any skeptic that obesity is widespread, explaining the rising numbers of diabetes clinics. Worldwide, the number of people diagnosed with diabetes has risen from 108 million in 1980 to 422 million in 2014. It is estimated that in the next two decades, 1 out of every 3 people will have type 2 diabetes.
“Diabetes crisis and its huge costs provide one of the most compelling incentives for preventing excess body weight through diet and exercise.” —Dr. Margaret Chan, director-general of the WHO
Body positivity for me is indeed celebrating who I am. It is walking into any room tall, confident, and proud of my choice to grow toward health. And health? It is feeling energized, living life to its fullest despite doubt, uncertainty, and often fear, exploring and pushing comfort zones from a place of strength and trust. Ultimately, body positivity comes from the reassuring knowledge that I am a work in progress on a path of growth. Growth is intrinsic to our human experience.
Maybe like in France, there should be a corporate code of ethics for the yoga commercial industry so that new wellness standards are established to promote wholesome practices, including sponsoring body positivity ambassadors who do not glorify skewed standards of health at either ends of the spectrum. Who knows, this could even spill over into setting new standards for wholesome beauty. It is impossible to capture authenticity in an image. But growth is easy to measure. Where there is no growth, authenticity cannot reside.
Yoga came from India. I have yet to see obese Indian yogis posing in seductive lingerie promoting yoga. Yoga is for every one and every body because it is the path that welcomes all with open arms. Once you are truly there, growth is inevitable. And so is health. Eventually.