Here's the video, but if you prefer to read, just scroll down.
Ahimsa: a different interpretation
Ahimsa is the practice of abstaining from being “violent” or hurtful in one’s thoughts, words, feelings, or actions. It is the foundation of the other yamas because it’s the stance of “right relationships”. In practising ahimsa, we learn to have compassion for ourselves and for others.
The concept of non-harming is well known and recited in yoga circles, usually to substantiate the reasoning behind practising vegetarianism or veganism.
However, folks with disordered eating may hide behind the ethical aspects of vegetarianism to justify and protect their eating behaviours. I see this in SO many of my clients. I personally did this, for years.
What started as a genuine concern for animal welfare quickly became hijacked by a growing eating disorder and was used to disguise and excuse my unhealthy relationship with food.
In no way am I saying that everyone who is v*gan has an ED. As teachers, health professionals, and concerned allies we need to respect people’s current food choices, while also inviting them to listen to and honour their body’s needs. And we need to know how to spot the red flags, which I’m about to describe to you.
In the yoga and wellness worlds, ahimsa is often reduced to not hurting other people and mitigating violence against animals, but sometimes there is little to no regard for the level of violence being turned inwards.
Veg*ism without regard for the wellbeing of the self is ONE of the many ways disordered eating show up in yoga. Harm is compounded when vegetarian or vegan folks insensitively, or even aggressively espouse their dietary doctrine onto others.
10 examples of disordered eating in yoga
But these ideas and behaviours can rapidly take on a life of their own, becoming excessive, obsessive, and leading to more serious restrictive eating behaviours... or even full blown eating disorders.
Here are 10 of the most common ways I've seen disordered eating sneakily show up in the yoga and wellness worlds:
- Fasting, with juice cleanses, celery juice protocols, or water fasts. With many of us already concerned with purity and discipline, yogis are easily lead to believe that we need to “detox”. It doesn’t help when a yoga studio sells copies of “The Medical Medium” espousing that the secret to healing all ills is celery juice. Or that 1, 3 and 5-day home-delivered juice cleanses are promoted by senior yoga teachers and advertised in the yoga studio foyer and marketing.
- Avoiding whole food groups or macronutrients, for example carbs. On that subject, it is not uncommon for live-in yoga teacher trainings to provide meals that are nutritionally inadequate. Despite huge days of physical training, the food offered to trainee teachers is often too low in calories, carbohydrates, and/or protein, depending on the dietary doctrine of the people in charge of running the training.
- Chronically under eating or skipping meals in a misguided belief that we need to “rest” the digestive system or err on the side of yogic or Buddhist asceticism. You may also know this as intermittent fasting.
- Adopting Ayurveda's most extreme panchakarma routines regardless of our constitution, medical history or current health status, and without proper medical supervision. I discuss this in detail with Narayana Commerford in episode 1 of my podcast Non-Diet Yogi.
- Clean eating obsession, and eating foods we hate as a result. Diet culture tells us to stress about what foods are “good” or “bad”, “allowed” or “not allowed”, “clean” or “toxic”. As a result we may replace commonly vilified foods with “cleaner” versions. For example, eating zucchini noodles instead of actual pasta. Or drinking a green smoothie or celery juice when we really want or need a proper meal. Additionally we may consume foods for their purported health benefits even though they taste revolting, e.g. drinking apple cider vinegar (ACV) every morning. We deprive ourselves of foods we truly love and instead consume things we despise, all in the name of “health”: a phenomenon known as The Wellness Diet.
- Continuing to practice strict vegetarianism, veganism or raw food-ism even when our health is visibly suffering due to nutrient deficiencies inherent in some of these dietary approaches.
- Spending lots of money on superfoods, fancy juicers, supplements (possibly to supplement a deficient and restrictive diet) when we don’t actually have that kind of money to spend, or it would be better spent getting help for disordered eating.
- Ingesting essential oils, often because a yoga teacher is a distributor for an essential oil MLM and wants to add students to their downline a la Elena Brower. Simply put, ingesting essential oils on a regular basis without medical supervision is dangerous. This practice ties into supplement taking, and yes - there are MLM essential oil blends marketed for fat loss and appetite suppression, a concept which is both disordered and dangerous for all the reasons I describe here.
- Taking IgG food intolerance test results to heart and cutting out a bunch of foods we don’t actually need to eliminate. I go into depths with this topic in my elimination diet email series.
- Combining multiple wellness diets. This all gets especially confusing when people try to combine Ayurveda with raw foodism, paleo, keto etc. as many of these philosophies completely conflict with each other and people end up eating hardly any foods at all.
These are practices that on the surface may seem benign, and folks undertaking these fasts, elimination diets and so on might even be applauded for how well they are taking care of their health.
But these are all examples of disordered eating disguised as "wellness". And disordered eating is the biggest predictor of developing an eating disorder, the deadliest of all mental illnesses.
Self-compassion is key
It took me years of hard work to recover from the damage done to my body by wellness-diet culture. I now help people heal from these issues in my role as a holistic dietitian / nutritionist, frequently spending time unravelling the damage done by these harmful wellness and dietary practices.
In short, we can’t practice non-violence towards others without first demonstrating real compassion for ourselves. To truly practice ahimsa we first need to extend non-violence inwards to support our own life functions.
Does this resonate for you? To begin the deep dive into this work, you can get my FREE e-book, A Modern Yogi's BS-free Guide to Wellbeing by clicking on the ebook below.