Yoga Cleanses: Healthy or Harmful?

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In just my two years of practicing yoga, I’ve become hyper-aware of the discussion around “detoxification” and “cleansing.” These two words are almost always used in such positive contexts by instructors and students alike, but for me, they just remind me of a dangerous calorie-counting/exercise obsession for a summer in college that led to a waif-like frame and perilous lack of energy.

From my experience, these words are used in two very distinct senses. One sense is in relation to spiritual detoxification and cleansing and/or the actual release of toxins from the body that comes from specific poses, like twists, etc. Another sense is in relation to removing impurities from the body by consuming raw fruits and vegetables (“juicing”), or other various rules to keep your body clean.

Before I continue, I want to clarify that I am all for eating a healthy diet and feeding our bodies with the nutrients it needs to live long and healthy. I also want to clarify that I’ve never participated in a regimented detox/cleanse of any sort (the type that provides you a guide of what you can and can’t eat). So, if these cleanses DO result in a greater amount of energy, increased self esteem, sustained weight loss, or any other potential benefits it can offer, I want to know! After all, the Hindu diet promotes this natural, simple living as the path to spiritual and physical purity.

I’m going to be blunt: I think yoga studios’ support of diet-related detoxes/cleanses has taken one step too many in the direction of extreme dieting. These juice diets comprising 3-4 jars of fruits and vegetables a day is hardly enough sustenance to go to work and be of use to anyone — let alone continue to work out regularly. I might be able to do it if I had the leisure of sleeping off hunger pangs all day, waking up for juice time and hitting the sack again.

I wonder if yoga studios’ support of these diets and cleanses is even a fit for U.S. culture. In a country where obesity is an epidemic, these cleanses can easily be taken out of context as a get slim quick scheme rather than as a prescribed lifestyle for greater spiritual and physical purity.

It also seems odd that the average yogi is already slim to begin with — is this really the target audience for these types of diets?

What are your thoughts on studios’ support of these cleanses? And have you tried one before?

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7 responses »

  1. Cool post, Chelsea.
    I’ve done two cleanses before under the supervision of my naturopath, Dr. Cory, when I lived in San Francisco and L.A. (Ha, ha, what a cliche SF thing to say.) Her cleanse encourages yoga for the reasons you mention: twists, sweating out toxins etc, but during her 2 week cleanse, only 3 of those days are comprised of juices, broths and shakes. She is adamant about people not going past their energy levels. The point of a cleanse is to better tune into your body and listen to yourself, right? Hopefully.

    Also, cleanses trigger a lot of regimented control issues. “Eat this at this hour. Drink lots of water. Take these capsules at this time.” It can be a lot for people predisposed to control issues around food who might already be highly aware of their body. I think like with 99% of life, one size (or cleanse) doesn’t fit all. Research needs to be done before people purchase their lemons and cayenne pepper. Trust has to be established with who’s marketing the cleanse or guiding you through the process. I trust my yoga studio, but I would still take it with a grain of salt if they promoted a cleanse.

    • Thanks, Caity! This is great insight. I can definitely see the benefit of tuning into your body. I think I’ve just had scary experiences seeing other people take this to extremes — pushing their body beyond its threshold.

      That’s a great point about having someone there to guide you through a cleanse, too. This could help with the dangerous factor v. allowing just anyone to order their juice online and decide for themselves when they’ve had enough.

  2. I’ve never signed up for a cleanse at studio, partially because the price tag is usually outrageous, and partly because so much of the “science” behind these cleanses is dubious, or just plain non-existent.

    I do think you are right about how these cleanses might be tapping into the larger cultural phenomenon of fad dieting and weight loss. At some yoga studios there can be an almost scary competition among yogis to see who can be the skinniest. The worst story I’ve ever heard along these lines came out of a studio in L.A. where I used to practice. Apparently, one of the lead teachers there would constantly make rude asides to other female teachers about their bodies and weight, causing all kinds of paranoia and unhealthy behavior. This obsession among the teachers to be as skinny as possible inevitably trickled down to the students. And it wasn’t just the women who were susceptible to this peer pressure. At one point in my own yoga career, I got caught up in this madness and lost a lot of weight, going from skinny to emaciated in just a few months. This dramatic weight loss was not the result of a cleanse, but it certainly had something to do with the ethos of the yoga community around me.

    Of course, there are far more positive ways that yoga can help you cleanse and maintain a healthy body weight. The most important, in my view, is that yoga helps you to be more mindful and aware. This way of being inevitably has an impact on your food and lifestyle choices.

    • Wow, that’s such a scary story! Luckily, I have not witnessed such a toxic practicing environment yet. I think you’re right — there’s a time and a place for a cleanse, and it definitely has to be done responsibly with the “science behind it,” as you say. Thanks for weighing in!

  3. I did a three day juice cleanse and I absolutely loved it! I’m rather slim to begin with, and I wasn’t doing it for weight loss. I simply wanted to detoxify. At any rate, I drank juices and water for three days. I also allowed myself to have a bowl of whole grains (like brown rice or quinoa) with avocado. Yes, I had to slow down, but I found that if I had juice readily available I wouldn’t get too hungry. After the cleanse, I felt revitalized!

    • Thank you for sharing your experience here! I definitely get the aspect of resetting your body with a detoxifying cleanse — maybe I need to give one a try to test it out.

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