I was riding the bus in San Francisco when a woman made the mistake of asking me about yoga. “I like your yoga pants,” she said. “Do you do yoga?”
“I do indeed,” I answered.
“Man, I should start doing yoga,” she said. “I hear it’s a really good way to lose weight,” she said. “Is it a good way of losing weight?”
I laughed. “I mean, it can be? But probably not for the reasons you’d think.”
“Oh really? Why’s that?”
“Well,” I began, “it makes you listen to your body and more aware of when you’re actually hungry. And in my experience, it makes you want to treat your body better and feed it healthy things.”
“But you sweat a lot, right? I hear that sweating a lot makes you lose weight.”
“It certainly can, but that’s water-weight,” I started again.
“All I know is my girlfriend started doing yoga, started doing those hot yoga classes, and she lost 30 pounds.” She got up. “Well this is my stop,” she announced. “Thanks – I gotta stop eating these Oreos,” gesturing to her shopping bag, “and try yoga!” And with that, she was gone.
A month later, I got a new watch. It was to replace my old GPS watch that I had lost, and this time, it was extra fancy. Not only does this watch track distance and pace, it tracked heart rate, steps, stairs, calories, and (apparently) one’s level of stress. It also receives texts and Instagram notifications – you know, in case you’re phone isn’t within an arm’s length. Perhaps its most obnoxious feature is that, whenever I sit still for more than 15 minutes, it vibrates and flashes a message: “Move!” This is especially absurd when I’m seated in meditation.
When I ordered the watch, I knew we would have a complicated relationship. I did not want to become obsessed with its metrics, or reliant on it to tell me things I already knew, lest I stop actually listening to my body. I do not care how many calories I burn in a day, nor do I care how many steps I take or staircases I climb. I’m intrigued by heart rate, but mainly when I’m running (to see how high it goes) or doing yoga (to see how low it goes). But I figured, once I measured my heart rate once or twice during such activities, I’d stop caring; having a general idea would be good enough. And even though I knew all this – that I didn’t care or even want to care about virtually everything it measured – I started to feel myself getting sucked in.
I wore the watch while running, biking, kettlebelling, and during a few yoga classes (as well as when I was not doing any of those things), just to see what my heart rate was and to see how many calories I burned. It confirmed what I already knew: deep breathing = lowered heart rate = fewer calories burned. Hard work and heavy breathing = higher heart rate = more calories burned. Unlike physical activities meant to encourage a body to work hard and burn calories, yoga is about using one’s body more efficiently. When we use our bodies efficiently, we expend less energy and therefore burn fewer calories – fewer than if we did the same task with greater effort. By this logic, yoga is one of the worst ways to lose weight – that is, as long as we think that burning calories is the secret to weight loss.
But why, oh why are we so obsessed with weight loss anyway?! Are humans innately happier when they are skinny than when they are fat? Do fewer pounds mean fewer health problems? Does slenderness yield higher self-esteem or self-compassion? As a person who has always been, by all accounts “thin,” I can safely say: absolutely fucking not.
Here’s the problem: When we see a slender person, we assume they must be doing something right: they must eat healthfully, exercise, and generally treat their body well. When we see a heavier person, we assume the opposite: they must be doing something wrong; they’ve “struggled with their weight” and lost. These assumptions are predicated on the belief that fat = unhealthy and skinny = healthy; this belief is simply not true.
Health is not merely physical – this is so painfully obvious that I feel ridiculous even typing it. Health includes the things we do with our physical bodies and what we feed them, of course, but it also includes our emotional well-being, and how we relate to ourselves and others. And yet somehow we forget these things when we see people as physical beings. Perhaps that’s the curse of a visually-oriented culture: we see first, listen later.
The problem with “smart watches,” like the one I recently bought, is that they distill us down to our vital signs. Instead of learning to pay attention to how and what we feel, we learn to pay attention to the metrics: our number of steps, our measurable pulse, our calories expended. Instead of making decisions based on our observations of ourselves, we begin to make them based on what we are told from a removed, robotic source, and are rewarded with messages like “Goal met!” when we run faster or take more steps. There is no similar reward for sitting still, observing, and feeling.
To anyone who is wondering: Will yoga help me lose weight? I offer the annoying answer: Stop it. Get rid of that question altogether and ask yourself: What am I actually trying to do? If your answer is “to feel more at home in my body,” then my answer is “YES!” If your answer is “to feel healthier and overall more well,” then my answer is “a thousand times YES!!” If your answer is “to look better in a bikini,” my answer is “Who the fuck cares!! Just try it already!!”
And to anyone who wears one of those watches (yes, I’m talking to myself): Remember that you are not your vitals. Your watch is a robot; it does not have sensory awareness or spiritual enlightenment or wisdom or anything else that a human has the capacity to have (except maybe a really good memory). Trust that your ability to listen is greater than your watch’s.