Uncovering Yoga's Hidden Eating Disorder Epidemic

Get the story behind the story in this interview with the writer of our October 2014 feature.
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Get the story behind the story in this interview with the writer of our October 2014 feature.
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Writer Chelsea Roff uncovered a hidden epidemic in the yoga community in her article The Truth About Eating Disorders, published in the October 2014 issue of Yoga Journal. Here, she tells us the story behind the story.

Yoga Journal: What initially inspired you to write this article?
Chelsea Roff: I pitched the article almost two years ago, long before hearing Kelly Parisi’s story. I wanted to shed light on the self-destructive, obsessive behaviors that I was seeing show up in my yoga students (and that, at one time, I’d struggled with myself). I was concerned that the yoga community’s increasing focus on elaborate poses, yoga butts, and “clean eating” were fueling body-image issues. Even more, I was concerned that people struggling with very real, life-threatening eating disorders were using yoga as a convenient way to disguise dieting and overexercise as just a “really dedicated” practice.

Time passed. In September 2013, I received an email from Yoga Journal asking if I was still interested in writing the article. I immediately thought of Kelly Parisi. I had learned of her death, when her mother Barbara reached out to me on Facebook hoping to support my nonprofit, Eat Breathe Thrive, in her daughter’s memory. I wondered if Kelly might have struggled with this “double-edged sword” aspect of yoga, if that might have been a factor in her death. I very cautiously reached back out to Barbara (not sure if she would be willing to talk publicly at all) and was shocked when we got on the phone and she told me the whole story. I had a hunch, but had no idea that yoga was such a significant factor in Kelly’s death.

YJ: What was the hardest part about reporting this story?
CR: Oh god, what wasn’t hard about it? This was by far the most challenging article I’ve ever written—as a journalist, as a survivor, and as a human being. Emotionally, it was exhausting. I did nearly 20 hours of interviews with Kelly’s mom, spoke with eating disorder survivors about the most difficult and heartbreaking moments of their life, and read through Kelly’s journals and medical records to uncover what happened in the final days and weeks of her life. As an eating disorder survivor myself, nearly the same age as Kelly, with a similar backstory, the sense of kinship with her would just knock the wind out of me.

Kelly had a profound impact on my life and my work. I will never again look the other way if a student appears to be underweight or a friend is putting herself at risk with overexercise or purging. I’ll have a conversation with them. (Read How to Have the Hard Talk.)

But as difficult as writing this story was, it was also heartening, even inspiring. I spoke with researchers and experts who are doing groundbreaking work in the field of yoga and eating disorders, most notably Dianne-Neumark Sztainer, Carolyn Costin and Laura Douglass. I got to know two women who have used yoga to recover and who are now giving the gifts they got from yoga by serving others. I finished the article with a sense of hope, not despair.

YJ: There’s been some online debate about the story, with some teachers suggesting you imply that yoga “causes” eating disorders—was that your intent?
CR: Not at all. Nowhere do I suggest that yoga causes eating disorders (in fact, I run a non-profit that offers yoga-based programs to help people recover from eating disorders...I certainly hope it's not causing them!). As a whole, I think the article paints a very hopeful picture of yoga's potential to help people with these issues.

I do, however, think it's irresponsible for yoga teachers and practitioners to continue turning a blind eye to the fact that there are many dynamics propagated in the culture of modern yoga that attract and potentially exacerbate individuals struggling with disordered eating and body dissatisfaction. While the practice of yoga may provide a missing ingredient key in the treatment of eating disorders (helping to rebuild interoceptive awareness, provide sufferers with skills for emotional regulation, and help them to develop self-compassion), there are several alarming dynamics in the yoga community (detoxes, misinterpreted body-shaming philosophies, marketing of the "yoga body") that can exacerbate these issues...with potentially dangerous and tragic consequences. This was the main slant of my article.

YJ: What do you hope will come of this story?
CR: I hope it sparks a conversation the yoga community needs to have—what should instructors leading vigorous classes do if someone walks into their class who is clearly underweight? How can we make yoga studios a shelter, rather than a breeding ground, for people with food and body-image issues? Ultimately, I’d like to see every yoga studio in America have a public policy for supporting students struggling with eating disorders.

Chelsea Roff is the founder of Eat Breathe Thrive, a nonprofit supported by the Give Back Yoga Foundationthat helps people fully recover from disordered eating and negative body image through yoga and community support programs. After recovering from anorexia in her late teens, Roff has worked as an author, speaker, and advocate to offer yoga in the treatment of mental-health issues. Learn more about her work at eatbreathethrive.org.

Image: Sarit Z Rogers Photography