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The Problem With Detox Talk: How to Build a Self Caring Yoga Practice During Quarantine
Photo from The Gender Spectrum Collection by Broadly
Let’s be honest: we are all currently stressed. Pandemic-wise, statistics tell us that most of us know at least one person who is immunocompromised, and whose health and wellbeing we are trying to protect. Combined with the systemic oppression-related stress that comes with being queer, trans and/or a person of colour, the stress of an actual pandemic is only the tip of the stress iceberg for many of us – even as our communities are disproportionately affected by the virus. While the ongoing attacks on Black and brown communities (as most recently seen in the US’s struggle against police brutality) are unfortunately nothing new, they exacerbate all pandemic-related stress, which has been a thing for over five months now.
Prolonged stress tends to wreak havoc on our physical and emotional health, which means that many of us have been finding new ways to cope/self-soothe during quarantine, even as we figured out what to do next. One of the most common coping methods that we see is binge-watching (streaming services experienced a 50% increase in consumption throughout the U.S and Canada since March of this year), combined with lots of baking delicious foods, specifically cookies and bread, and sharing recipes and process pics on social media (especially Instagram). Interestingly (if predictably), as soon as quarantines and lockdowns were instated, Instagram was also flooded with workout videos, many of which were some form of at-home yoga. A wide range of yogis, from popular influencers to local yoga teachers, persistently argued for the importance of keeping or creating a yoga practice to handle stress levels during quarantine. Many of these teachers, however, also started to market from a weight loss perspective, and sport slogans like “lose the quarantine 15.” This, combined with the indirect messaging of what a yoga body “should” look like (online yoga accounts often show just one type of body: thin, white, and clad in expensive yoga wear), very quickly turned into a conversation about how yoga could make you into a superhero mermaid with a six-pack.
Don’t get me wrong: I’m all about using your privilege to support the economy and services like yoga, especially when it is a local studio or teacher in your area. And when you weed out everything problematic about indirectly shaming someone for gaining weight during a pandemic, the truth is that yoga can be pretty good for you during quarantine. An integrated, self-paced yoga practice can help support human health in a variety of ways, from joint health to respiratory function. It can also be great for mental and emotional health, as it has been found to help with PTSD and processing grief, among other benefits. This is why, when I looked through the interwebs a few weeks ago, I have to say, I was horrified.
Detox talk. Was. Everywhere.
I mean, everywhere. Juice cleanses, High-Intensity-Interval-Training-yoga fusion routines sporting slogans like “quarantine should not be an excuse…”
So, what is detox talk? It’s a form of body shaming that Nityda Gessel defines as the direct or indirect messaging that your body is toxic, and needs to be cleansed, usually through vigorous yoga practice, until it is brought to an acceptable standard of cleanliness. This kind of messaging has proven incredibly profitable for lifestyle brands since the 90s, so it is no surprise that the yoga industry has gone for a similar marketing approach.
The worst part of seeing detox talk during a pandemic, in my opinion, is the lack of accurate representation and validation of the changes that people’s bodies are undergoing due to prolonged stress. This pandemic has been traumatic for many, and, also for many, it has been re-traumatizing. Meaning that pretty much anyone who grew up feeling trapped, powerless, or helpless has found themselves triggered by the experience of being quarantined. For this reason, people have both gained and lost weight from the emotional stress. However, most of the conversations around “health” during quarantine focus on weight loss, something that those who have lost weight due to anxiety definitely do not need. Let’s call the general conversation surrounding losing the “quarantine 15” what it is: blatantly fat-phobic and unnecessary. What we should be looking at instead is the fact that inactivity has increased since shelter-in-place orders were instated. While experts agree that creating some kind of exercise routine while in quarantine is great for preventing contagion, we don’t seem to culturally have a grasp on why people have been more sedentary while in quarantine. According to trauma specialist Nityda Gessel, there is a reason why people who are having a hard time emotionally often don’t want to exercise: trauma is stored in the body, and movement and breathwork can often be very triggering. To someone who is having trouble getting out of bed in the morning, or simply can’t afford to pay for yoga classes, the message that so many of these virtual yoga classes actually send sounds less like “you can do it” and more like “you are unacceptable the way you are, and will continue to be so until you buck up, cleanse yourself, and become your ‘best version.’”
Fun fact: detox talk is inherently incompatible with authentic yoga when we look at its history. The earliest and oldest cousins of yoga can actually be traced back long before the Indus River Valley civilization, to the Dravidian people of Ethiopia, and the practice had a highly spiritual undertone, even within its physical component. After migrating from Ethiopia and helping to co-found the Indus River Valley civilization, the Dravidians brought with them their knowledge of Kemetic yoga (a form of yogic philosophy and practice from Kemet, or ancient Egypt), which did not really exclude any gender or body type, and which was often a part of religious ceremony. This tradition was intermixed with some of the other cultures and spiritual philosophies in the Indus River Valley Civilization, and, following the Aryan (Central Asian) invasion, eventually evolved into a more classist version of itself within the Indian caste system. What followed is a long and complicated history, especially when we fast forward to the British invasion of India, which gave way to a lot of the cultural appropriation that we see today in the yoga industry. Once yoga was brought to the West by Tirumalai Krishnamacharya, teachers from all over the world saw its fitness potential and quickly began to capitalize off of its physical benefits without necessarily understanding the history or potential depth of the practice.
Because of this, a lot of the yoga that we do in the West is not actually yoga. It is a colonial-based, culturally appropriative version of a complex philosophy that was already dealing with the societal effects of classism, power, and privilege. For this reason, we have to be extra careful when we choose a yoga teacher, especially if we are trying to use yoga as a tool for mental health.
One of the most quoted yogic texts (ironically, often quoted in support of detox talk) defines yoga as the stilling or breaking free of the patterns of the mind. And when you look at the collective mind, this looks like breaking free from cultural belief patterns (like body shaming) that harm us and our fellow humans. So how can we build a self-caring yoga practice that can truly help us during quarantine? Here are some tips:
1. Create a “my needs” list: Many of us struggle with feeling like we deserve what we need. Yoga is actually a great way to start questioning some of the thoughts and feelings that go on in the mind and body, and to potentially invite new perspectives in. It is super important to do this without getting into denial or suppression-mode. So write out what you actually want and need out of a yoga practice! Some examples can include: an anti-racist teacher, an accessible price range, body-positive/inclusive language, an ability-inclusive class… Get to know what you need, then start looking.
2. Acquaint yourself with your body and hormonal cycle: One of the things that detox talk does is oversimplify bodily functions to make it sound as easy as clean vs. dirty. For this reason, one of the best things you can do when choosing a class is to research how your body and its amazingly diverse set of ecosystems actually work, especially on a hormonal level. Get several perspectives on hormonal and menstrual health, digestive function, what micronutrients you need (it’s not just about the macros!) and your body’s microbiome. Research this specifically for your biology and hormonal needs (cis women have different micronutrient needs than cis men, as do trans women and men, and many studies are done evaluating only cis gender men). See how the science out there resonates with the way your body fluctuates. The more you do this, the easier it will be to build a practice that is actually good for you.
3. Create your safe space: This ranges from what you wear to do yoga, to what you want your space to smell like. You don’t need fancy yoga wear or even a yoga mat to do yoga. Put on clothes that you feel comfortable in, play some music, spray a towel or rug with a body spray you like, or light some incense. Get comfortable in your mind as well. Set an intention and remind yourself that it may shift as you practice. Create the circumstances around you that make you feel excited, supported, and safe.
4. Research the emotional aspect of yoga: I highly recommend looking up the Trauma Conscious Yoga Institute. Usually teachers who care about yoga for social justice and healing tend to also value an intersectional approach to asana practice that is gender inclusive, and body positive. Find studios and Instagram pages that feature yoga teachers with a wide range of bodies. Some of my favourites are @mynameisjessamyn, @ajareeser and @buddha_body_yoga. Practice writing to yoga studios and asking questions about inclusivity and emotional safety in their classes – you might inspire a studio to make a much needed change.
5. Practice listening: While a lot of yoga schools like to talk about how important silencing the mind can be, it is also important that you don’t build a practice that you eventually equate to silencing yourself. This means: pay attention to your thoughts and how you feel about them. Then decide what you want to do with your thoughts. You want to build a practice that works with you, not against you.
6. Create community: Last but not least, explore the potential that yoga can have for building community! This can mean doing a virtual yoga sesh with friends and/or family, or looking up teachers that you resonate with and recommending their content to people you know. Explore your leadership potential and share your findings with the world. It’s waiting for you!
About the Author: Victoria Sagardía Calderón (she/her/hers) is a writer, yoga instructor and trauma specialist from Puerto Rico. Her work focuses on decolonizing self care and conversations about bodies, community, and mental health. She is also a professional dancer and cat mom.