Why Are Some Folks Distorting and Dismissing Chelsea Roff’s Article on Anorexia and Yoga?

A few days ago, this post from a yoga blogger whose work I generally like flashed across Faceblot. It body-slammed Chelsea Roff’s recent Yoga Journal piece:

I’m appalled by the shoddy journalism and misleading information presented within this article.

EVEN if I’m to believe results of an uncited study, not knowing how many were sampled, other variables and the correlation/significance etc – the results of this supposed research found yoga students are (get this!): as at risk for an eating disorder as the general public. DUH!

and yet to read, you’d think yoga CAUSES it. Lets be clear: the asana practice does not make anyone immune. In fact, it’s most likely simply a common variable because it is a common practice of ALL people, and mostly women. The article does a horrific job of clarifying this and therefore should be ashamed.

maybe Yoga Journal should be called the UNyoga journal because it truly does more harm than good.

unlike. unsubscribe. done.

She followed this trumpet with a Bronx cheer in the comments: “omg though … I just called it journalism! hahaha!!!” This further magnetized the thread for the likes and comments of many who obviously hadn’t read the article. (To the blogger’s, um — credit? — she scrubbed her omg outburst from the thread after I called it out via personal message. That cost me getting blocked. Ouch.)

We all love the firecracker soundbite. We all love to feel righteous about articles we don’t have to actually read, thanks to the efforts of our favourite pundits. We love making assertions about what yoga is and isn’t. And we all love to hate YJ, right? What’s not to like about this impassioned critique?

How about the fact that it’s totally inaccurate? Roff’s piece is not shoddy journalism. There’s zero misleading information. The study she referred to briefly and inconsequentially is not uncited, but merely unlinked-to, which is standard for many popular formats. YJ fact-checked her dozens of interviews thoroughly. And by no means does Roff suggest that yoga causes disordered eating, because that would be stupid. So this FB post is making stuff up about what Chelsea Roff is saying, and then saying she must be stupid and ashamed.

But wait — isn’t Roff the survivor of an eating disorder who did a yoga-strike on a rooftop for I can’t remember how many nights and days straight to raise 51K to pilot her “Yoga for Eating Disorders” non-profit? (Not as in “Do Yoga to GET an Eating Disorder”, but “Do Yoga to Help Heal from Eating Disorders.”) If that’s her, I’m not ashamed to be with stupid.

(That’s Roff in the lead image above. Before and after yoga, actually. Plus a ton of other hard work.)

I understand internet impulsivity and am certainly not immune, and I would rather gnaw my arm off than moonlight as a thread-cop. I don’t even think the internet should be the exclusive home of well-reasoned and thoughtful responses. How repressed would that be? So I don’t blame this blogger for the initial sentiment. Many shared her view, in fact, as we can see from the comments trailing out under the original YJ posting of the article.

But when the facts were made clear, there was neither retraction nor apology. When Chelsea herself had the spunk to show up on a thread on which she’d been laughed at to offer further clarification (repeated here in a YJ talkback page), there was some tepid deference. But no retraction, no apology. No hint of “Oh — maybe this article is saying something subtler than I imagined an article could actually say.” Or “Oh — I wonder what was so triggering about this article, that it sent my reading skills and impulse control AWOL?” Meanwhile, the misreading continued to propagate.

Here’s the nut graf of Chelsea’s work, which took a whole year to produce, and such a tiny number of keystrokes to dismiss:

As a healing practice, yoga has helped countless people recover from physical and emotional ailments as varied as migraines, sciatica, and PTSD. But for people with disordered eating habits, or those with poor body image—which includes some 80 percent of American women, according to research—counting on yoga’s promise of emotional and spiritual healing can be perilous. Drawn to yoga as a means of self-care, they instead may find reinforcement for dangerous weight-control behaviors in a studio culture that increasingly celebrates thinness, flexibility, and perfection of form.

So how many backbends does it take to make a yogi confused about what this says?

Roff is obviously not saying that yoga causes eating disorders. She’s saying here and throughout the piece that for all its marketing of therapeutic benefit, yoga culture has more work to do to distinguish itself from the toxicity of the dominant body-shaming paradigm. That in fact, its very pretences to therapy and spiritual renewal often cover up the psychopathologies of its practitioners.

The article says that asana/yoga culture can amplify the meticulous and control-oriented food behaviours that express distrust of the body and border on disordered eating. It says: we claim to be mindful. We claim to be body-positive. We claim to be nurturing. We profess emancipation from neoliberal consumerism and its demands. But where are we using these claims to cover up the illnesses we are too ashamed to face? Where are we using the promise of yoga as a bypass?

So the important question is: why has Roff’s piece been misread? Is it another critical-skills-fail in Yogaland? Probably. Is it “I-can’t-believe-anything-good-could-come-out-of-Yoga-Journal” syndrome? That’s reasonable. Is it the cognitive dissonance of Chelsea’s piece appearing on a page that’s also selling clingy pants and diet regimes? For sure: we’d all love a magazine with a print circulation of millions to turn down the clingy pant cash and give over free ad space to local organic farmers. Call us dreamers, for dreamers we are.

Was it triggering to read about Kelly Parisi, found dead in her apartment in Reclined Hero pose, after months of practicing up to three hours a day and being socially rewarded for her “dedication” at her home studio? Absolutely. Would this one image alone force devotees and teachers and studio owners to check their messaging a little more closely? Maybe to see their juice cleanses and purification retreats and the financial benefits of obsessively practicing students in a more complex light? I’m sure it would.

But I think there’s something more important going on. For the first time ever, the flagship publication of modern postural yoga culture — whatever one thinks of it — has displayed a shocking level of self-inquiry by drawing back the curtain on the core ambivalence of its central meme: the yoga body. YJ has kicked up some yoga shit in the past, as in this amazing 1990 investigative takedown of Swami Rama. But compared to challenging the cha-ching of the yoga body, Rama is chump change.

Here is a magazine banked on the full-colour premise that the yoga body is a klieg light of physio-moral virtue radiating feminist empowerment. And here it is, publishing an article that says: that body throws a dark shadow. They publish an article that says that yoga can be a place in which our core self-hatreds are as much performed as they are resolved. It’s the end of the “It’s All Good” era on the yoga newstand. That’s big.

I can actually report that it was even bigger behind the scenes. I now fully disclose that I had the honour of reviewing and commenting on one of Chelsea’s early drafts. Her original title was “Yoga: The Double-Edged Sword.” Imagine that on the front cover, beside Kathryn Budig’s jocular glow. It’s her bija-thesis, after all. 

If Chelsea’s message really sinks in, readers might feel the ground beginning to shift beneath them. They might realize the jig is up. That not even Yoga Journal can continue to gloss over the fact that the drives of self-improvement and self-destruction are constantly intertwined. Not even Yoga Journal can avoid the issue of how much wisdom it takes to distinguish tapas from self-hatred, sauca from self-loathing.

This means that if you haven’t done the hard work to see that every sun salute can have a touch of self-mortification, and every yogic affirmation can hide a hint of terror, now you’ll have to. And if YJ can do it — balancing caution and enthusiasm under the weight of its advertising — there’s really no excuse for everyone to not come clean. I understand how misreading the article and dismissing the whole issue as “sensationalist” might be an easier solution.

I also understand — to drop my cynicism for a moment — that Roff’s article might be very hard to take for a person whose experience of healing through yoga has given them a religious devotion to practice. They might read it as an attack on the one thing they are sure has helped them and could help everyone else, a roadblock to their evangelical enthusiasm. I’ve been there, and it’s tough.

But please. Good writing is so bloody hard to do. Chelsea spent a year on that thing. A year. I don’t think anybody really wants to put a chill on an effort like that.

Maybe a little yoga — what with all the deep breathing and non-reactivity stuff — might help people with their reading, in the same way it has clearly helped Roff’s writing.


Notes: “Faceblot” is a term that comes gràce a my old friend Stephen Pender, who probably hates yoga. Carol Horton, who loves yoga, gives a balanced review of the entire issue Roff’s piece appears in.