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Diet Culture has no place in a yoga class

On March 5th 2021, Kuula hosted the first Kuula Circle workshop inviting an external guest speaker, Aisha Nash, to engage with the community. 

Aisha left a career working in Michelin starred restaurants after the stress of the job caught up with both her body and mind. She discovered yoga and wanted to share the practice that helped her be entirely content with exactly the person she is, but found that she didn’t feel like she fit the mould of a yoga teacher that studios were looking for. 

Aisha now teaches classes on Kuula, that are focused on inclusivity, diversity and self love, with what she calls her Anti-Diet Yoga Approach

As Mariel Witmond, Kuula CEO, recalls, the first time she and Aisha ever spoke, the Anti-Diet Yoga teacher fairly pointed out the lack of diversity and BIPOC representation on Kuula’s marketing assets. Despite the efforts that Kuula is putting into building a female-led and inclusive company, we agree and we are aware that there is always space for improvement, hence why Kuula Circle was created. 

Kuula Circle is a welcoming space for yoga teachers, fitness professionals and anyone with a passion for the wellness industry. Through a series of online events, we bring together the most experienced key figures in the business to help teachers and their brands grow individually and as a community. 

Kuula Circle stands for community and inclusivity, and sparks conversations that are long overdue, including racism, diet culture, burnout and anxiety, payment gaps and so much more. 

As part of Kuula’s proactive work, Aisha was invited to discuss Diet Culture in yoga, during the week that shines awareness to eating disorders. 

Aisha has practiced yoga since she was a toddler, when her mother would bring her along to classes. The only time she remembers being a ‘yoga-less’ period was during her job as a chef. The hours were long and exhausting, and the free time was very little, which left her no time for her practice. 

Once she started joining yoga studios and training to become a yoga teacher, she noticed a layer of unhappiness around her, specifically with how people looked and felt in their bodies. “Yoga is a philosophy, a guiding practice for life, not gymnastics or aerobics” Aisha rightfully says. 

Interestingly, so many yoga teachers feel unhappy with their bodies and are obsessed with how they look, yet there’s no scripture in over thousands of years of yoga, that says we should be cleansing with celery juices, detox teas and losing weight. 

None of these trends have anything to do with yoga, however, when yoga teachers work in certain environments that promote these habits, it becomes easy to get sucked into it for fear of losing the job. 

Aisha invited the workshop’s attendees to describe what they’ve always thought of as the stereotype of a yoga teacher, and no surprise there when someone called out Gwyneth Paltrow’s name. There’s a constant reminder of being flexible, lean, effortless, struggle-less and focused on the aesthetics. 

“So why exactly are we being okay with all of this?” Aisha asked the crowd. 

Let’s take a step back, where does Diet Culture come from? 

Aisha shares that it’s a concept that originated far before people had weighing scales in their houses, during the times of slavery. Precisely, she recounts anecdotes of Henry VIII, William the Conqueror and other British royalties, who had one thing in common: they were fat. During that time, being fat was never a problem, because it was a sign of abundance, protection and wealth. Years later, when colonists began to take over the world, a lot of their staff passed away and they realised they needed labour, in the form of enslaved people. During the transatlantic slave trade, people from Africa, who were being enslaved, had different kinds of bodies and by then, being fat was used as an excuse to justify dehumanising and discriminating against slaves. That is the moment when being fat began to be a bad thing. This narrative in history was used to keep European men and women in check. That’s when diets started, when the media began telling white women not to be ‘too black’. 

Shortly after, all the labels associated with Diet Culture were being created: obese, normal wight, under weight and so on. 

In nowadays, the British Government did its own research into health and it determined there are over 100 factors that determine one’s health. Food and movement are just one small part of what make us healthy human beings. Health is so complex and a lot of it is completely out of our control – think of genetics, autoimmune diseases, socio-economic factors, access to quality food, green spaces, healthcare and so on. 

Even the World Health Organisation talks about the different factors that determine one’s health and go figure, no one mentions anything about weight. 

Aisha then asked “so why are we constantly held to the ideal of watching our weight?”. The only answer she could come up with is that it’s easy and quick for the health system and the Fatphobia inherent within the world we live in. Wouldn’t it be so much more expensive and time consuming if doctors asked patients how they felt, rather than putting them on scales and prescribing pills?  

After all the trendy 90’s diets, there’s now a new trend of eating local, organic, all the fruits and vegetables available, etc., which Aisha praises as good for you without doubts, but also adds that it’s unrealistic. The whole idea that if you don’t eat locally sourced produce, you’re failing in life can be really damaging. Not everyone has the possibility to access local foods, both from a financial and a geographical perspective. 

This is the point where diets become turned around into the wellness and fitness industry. According to Aisha, dieting companies haven’t disappeared, they simply rebranded themselves using clever marketing tactics to make it seem more acceptable. Language has been corrupted to cover up the same principles. And this weight obsession does not limit to dieting companies, think about athleisure wear companies who do not make sizes available beyond a certain shape or form. 

Because of Diet Culture, we have been taught since birth to not listen to our bodies. So how does this have to do with yoga? Well, yoga philosophy tells you exactly the opposite. It tells you to trust your body because it knows what it needs and what it’s doing. Yoga doesn’t tell you to change, it tells you to work within the constraints you have. And this obsession with intense physical poses and flashy leggings does not belong to traditional yoga, continues Aisha.
She explains “when colonists colonised India, they didn’t like this philosophy, they felt threatened and so they made it illegal. What they allowed was only the physical side of the practice”.
As yoga teachers, we really need to be aware of what impact colonialism had on what we now know about yoga. Yoga is all about building a better relationship with yourself and with the people around you. Yoga is about ethics. 

Just think about how many times teachers thread the Yamas and Niyamas in their classes or moreover, in their lives.

In western society, most of the time yoga is seen as a gym class, but it doesn’t have to be this way. We need to be aware of what we bring into a class and honour the philosophy of yoga, because it’s 90% of what yoga is. 

Now that you have read this or joined our live conversation, what do you think about your own practice and/or teaching? Is there anything you will change in the way you teach or speak to your students?
We are all for promoting these conversations without the need to shame anyone. Most of us have been taught certain things in certain ways, but always know that it’s okay to question what you have been taught and find the approach that you think fits best with your offering and community.