What to Do When Your Yoga Teacher Talks About Weight

Is it just me, or does it seem like talk about calories, “being bad,” “falling off the wagon,” and starting a diet immediately seem to ratchet up wildly this time of year?

‘Tis the season, right?

I think this time of year is only outdone by the new year. But when I think about it, I see how perfectly the diet industry has set that up. They encourage us with nods and winks about indulging through Dec. 31, with knowing looks that we’re being “bad” but that it’s okay because it’s the holidays. But come Jan. 1 — whoo buddy

Yoga + Mainstream Culture

Yoga teachers and classes are, of course, not immune from mainstream culture. It’s not unusual to hear talk of “burning off” holiday indulgences in yoga class, even if it comes with a little nudge and a smile.

I believe this happens for two primary reasons: (1) Yoga teachers often try their best to meet their students where they are, and sometimes this looks like perpetuating diet culture and (2) Yoga teachers are so immersed (like the rest of us) in mainstream culture that they don’t even think about what they’re saying — much less the effects.

What’s that they say about how fish don’t know they’re in water? 

While there are certainly yoga classes dedicated to weight loss, where calorie talk is the norm, many classes are not like that. And in those latter classes, I believe that most of the time yoga teachers just haven’t taken the time to think about the implications of what they’re saying because yoga culture hasn’t forced them to — yet.

How-To

If you’re blissed out in a reclined twist and your yoga teacher starts talking about detox, or if you’re flowing through some sun salutations and your yoga teacher gives a mini-lesson on how many calories you’re burning and that makes you feel uncomfortable, here’s what I recommend:

1. Check In

Before anything else happens, you have to figure out how you feel. The best way to do this is to check in with your body. Notice what happened when the conversation came up — did your breath catch, did you just pass over it without really noticing, did you feel a tightening in the pit of your stomach, did you feel a contraction in your body followed by a quick release? Knowing how these comments are affecting you and your practice is key.

2. Keep Going

Unless you’ve been dramatically offended or triggered, keep going with your practice. Breathe. Move your body. These things will allow you to stay connected to your body and not move solely into your head and internal narrative, like many of us are wont to do.

3. Consider Your Next Step

When you hear something like this come up in class, you have several choices (at least), including: (1) Talk to the teacher now, (2) Talk to the teacher after class, (3) Email the teacher later, (4) Don’t go back, (5) Drop it. Begin allowing yourself to breathe and consider each of these options. Again it’s great to check in with your body and notice how they feel in your body. See if you can differentiate between the nerves many of us feel when confronting someone, no matter how constructively, and your gut telling you that an option is not right for you.

4. Talk to the Teacher Now

Depending on the pace and structure of the class, you might be able to say something in the moment. If it was me, I might try a little joke to offer a different viewpoint in a loving way. For example, if the teacher said something like “Okay, let’s burn off some of those holiday cookies!” I might quickly throw out something like “I liked those cookies! I’m just ready to stretch + feel good!”

5. Talk to the Teacher After Class

When offered constructively, I believe that it’s great for yoga teachers to receive feedback from their students. After all, we can’t know what’s really working (or not) unless we hear from you. If a yoga teacher offered some calorie or weight discussion that you didn’t find helpful, let him/her know. Yes, this might feel scary. But if you keep the focus on you, hopefully your yoga teacher will be able to hear you. For example, rather than saying “I really don’t think you should talk about weight in class,” you might say something like “Thanks for class! You know, I wanted to talk to you about something. When you talked about calories in class, it took me out of my practice because I’ve been focusing on body acceptance, and I wanted to let you know.” By focusing on your own experience rather than a lecture, you give the teacher a concrete example to go on and hopefully leave them feeling less scolded and defensive (and therefore more open to change).

6. Email the Teacher Later

Sometimes it’s nice to be able to collect your thoughts before offering your feedback on a class. If you have the teacher’s email address (which is usually fairly easy to find — most teachers these days either have their own website or are listed on the site of where they teach), you can take your time to email them. Although there’s no hard and fast rule about how much time to take, I recommend emailing them within the week just so the class will be fresh on their mind. Many yoga teachers teach multiple classes/week, so the longer you wait to talk with them, the harder it will be for them to recall exactly what transpired in the class.

7. Don’t Go Back

As I mentioned earlier, I think that many, if not most, yoga teachers really want to create a loving and supportive environment for their students. But just as many of them haven’t had the opportunity to consider how what they say affects students’ body image because that’s just not a common yoga teacher training conversation (yet — give me time!). So my hope is that they will be responsive to your feedback if you offer it. But if that doesn’t feel safe, or if the teacher was hurtful, you don’t have to go back to their class. There’s no reason to put yourself in a triggering situation — that’s the benefit of how many yoga teachers there are these days. So try someone else’s class (or many people’s — sometimes it takes a bit to find a good fit!).

8. Drop It

Of course, offering your teacher feedback is not a must-do. It’s a can-do. If this was a rare comment in a sea of otherwise body-friendly classes, you might choose to let it go and see if/when it comes up again. This all depends on how you felt in the moment, how safe/comfortable you feel offering feedback and if you’d like to keep attending this teacher’s classes in the future.

Keep coming back to #1 above, checking in, as often as you need to. You deserve a yoga class where you feel safe and encouraged, and you’re the only one who gets to decide what that looks like for you.

Got any other tips? Share ‘em in the comments below!

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  • AnnaAnastasia

    Wow! That’s really great advice. For me, I tend to stay in my head, and I tend to see feedback as a must-do. It’s nice to be reminded that I have options about how to respond, and it’s a great idea to recognize what these situations do to my body, not just my brain. Thanks so much for this column!

    • Anna Guest-Jelley

      My pleasure — so glad you found it helpful!

  • http://eatingasapathtoyoga.wordpress.com Eating as a Path to Yoga

    I have blogged about this also awhile back. I have been very triggered by teacher comments about the yoga of fat-burning/calorie burning, etc.

    What I came to realize is that her comments are simply her projecting her own personal demons/bad body thoughts on to us.

    Now I have a little more compassion for her and for myself.
    I have not discussed it with the teacher, but maybe I will someday.

    • Anna Guest-Jelley

      Wonderful! I really think this is the most important part — awareness about how you’re feeling and what’s the best choice for you. Thanks for sharing!

  • Madeleine

    This is wonderful = and thank you for pointing out that this is a can-do, not a must-do. I’m sure any marginalized group can agree, it can get really exhausting to feel like you have to be a full time educator. ;)

    I’ve recently become a Zumba addict, and I do it because it gives me a total mood-boost, but as you can imagine, it’s a total “calorie-burn” culture in there. And I just let it go, over and over, because, quite frankly, I’m a visitor in that land, and that’s why a whole lot of people go. So I just keep smiling and dancing.

  • http://www.wellnessfrominside.typepad.com Shanna

    Teachers talk about stuff all the time that may or may not have anything to do with you. Every sutra they use, every inspirational quote they incorporate, every alignment and asana tip they give does not always apply to every student. I just let it go through one ear and out the other. This is no different.

    Certain types of yoga can be used to facilitate changes in weight. It is a benefit & yoga teachers talk about benefits. Maybe someone else in the class does want to use this as a weight loss tool and the teachers words actually inspire them.

    Everything that happens in a yoga class is not about me. If I feel myself getting upset over something my yoga teacher said, I question myself first. I ask myself, “why did this strike a cord with me?” I look at myself.

    • Anna Guest-Jelley

      Yep, I’m totally with you on that check-in process. It’s so important and helps us know how we’re feeling and responding. Without that info, it’s hard to know what (if anything) to do next.

    • Pingback: Mara Glatzel » Body Loving Blogosphere 12.09.12

  • Anne O

    I’m bringing big plate of brownies to my last class before the holidays. Thanks for the post Anna.

    • http://karracrow.blogspot.com Crowgirl

      Great post! But may I ask you to talk a little more about why you included detox in the ‘calorie talk’ general category? It kind of brought me up short because I think of detox practices — along with giving me a great opportunity to practice some of the twists that I love! — as giving me a chance to let go of the ‘bad body’ chat in my head or that I’m hearing around me, including the ‘calorie talk’ or ‘Oh, those holiday cookies’ or whatever.

      • http://www.curvyyoga.com Anna

        Thanks for sharing your experience! I think you just perfectly illustrated my point about “if it makes you feel uncomfortable.” The impetus for this post was a few people who’d written in for advice, and detox was among the things that came up that made them feel uncomfortable, but I know that’s not true for everyone.

        There’s quite a bit of subjectivity in all of this. We each have different experiences that inform how we feel when we hear different things. I think if a yoga teacher explains the subtle body detox benefits of twists, that’s great. But I think that other times, in the yoga community in particular, detoxes or cleanses are the “new” way to say diet — even if they’re not always couched that way (which, again, will or will not bother different people to varying degrees).

        My main intention with this piece was to encourage students and teachers to think about what they’re saying and hearing so they can keep having safe and positive yoga experiences. So much of what we say and hear goes unprocessed, and I’m a big believer in looking at and deconstructing that to have a more positive response.

        For example, if as a student I don’t know how I feel when calorie talk comes up in class, I may find myself hating the class for an unknown reason, or suddenly feeling really bad about my body and not knowing why, vowing not to go back (to take it to an extreme). If, however, I know that’s a tricky subject for me, when it comes up in class, I can take a deep breath, check in and decide what to do next. For me, that’s usually just some self-acknowledgement and moving on. I find that empowering because it means that I just meet the moment and keep practicing, and I don’t have to dwell on it.

        • http://karracrow.blogspot.com Crowgirl

          I absolutely agree with you about detox being the new code word for diet which I think is a missed opportunity. Detox practices (like any yoga practice, ideally) can allow you so much space to get rid of whatever you want to let go that tying it down to being yet another — or what can really feel like yet another — diet fad seems a waste.

          I really appreciate your focus on individual experience and the checking-in process here. I actually kept this column very much in mind this weekend when my wife and I were visiting my parents. This is always a tricky emotional and physical space for me since my mother has been trying to control her weight via mine for most of my life. Simply *noticing* when she does this and realising how it makes me feel and then deciding what to do about that is one of the most powerful ways of combatting her body negativity that I have found.

          Thank you – as always — for your thoughtful work.

          • http://www.curvyyoga.com Anna

            Love this and totally agree! I, too, love that feeling of being in a twist and letting go of whatever needs to be let go of in the moment — for me, that’s usually worry and a tight jaw. :)

            I loved hearing about your check-in process over the weekend. I don’t think there’s a blanket response to any of this that will work for everyone, and you made that point beautifully. It’s incredible what comes from awareness!

            Thanks!!

    • http://www.curvyyoga.com Anna

      :)

  • L

    Thank you so much for this post. I love Bikram yoga; the structure and predictability of it really appeals to me. I am in recovery from a long and terrible eating disorder and found Bikram to be a wonderful way for me to reward my body and mind, and a healthy way to reincorporate exercise into my life without going near a gym. I found a studio near my house that I loved– the teachers were phenomenal, and the atmosphere was so friendly and inviting. A new teacher started at the studio, and he sort of rubbed me the wrong way, but I couldn’t really decide why at first. I felt like started subtly picking on me after a few classes. He would make comments like “Your backbend is so deep, not as deep as mine, but pretty good.” and “You’re almost as flexible as I am!”, like he was in competition with me or something. This was in front of a class of at least 15 people! It made me feel very self-conscious, as that is certainly not why I go to yoga. One day, he said something to me about how he could tell from my body that I had recently lost a lot of weight and I should complement my practice with weight training to tone up. I just lost it, and have never been back since. It absolutely ruined the studio, a place I loved, for me. I have never had the courage to email the owner and tell her why I stopped going to class so abruptly.

  • MinusSized

    Thank you for this post! I’m not by any means curvy – I’m ultra-thin, actually, but I’ve struggled with body acceptance issues and how to respond when people tell me to “eat a damn cheeseburger.” Yoga class is one of my “safe” spaces where I trust that I can do my thing and not worry about people commenting on my body, or anyone else’s for that matter. If I EVER heard a yoga teacher bring up dieting or calories, that would be the last time I’d take that class.