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Jean Fain, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W.

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Lady Gaga's Yoga Teacher on America's Addiction to Being Skinny

Posted: 02/21/2012 4:33 pm

Lady Gaga's recent admission -- that ending her high-school battle with bulimia didn't stop her struggle with weight and body image -- was meant as a wake-up call to American dieters. "The dieting has got to stop," she told Brentwood School students at the It's Our Turn conference in Los Angeles earlier this month. "Everyone just knock it off. Because at the end of the day, it's affecting kids your age -- and it's making girls sick."

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The 25-year-old American artiste formerly known as Stefani Joanne Germanotta may still be struggling, but she looks great and she's doing great things, especially giving timely advice to teens. One of the reasons the popular princess of pop is doing so well is the compassionate advice she's been getting from her private yoga teacher Tricia Donegan.

Yup, that's the very same yoga teacher whose praises Gaga sang of last spring on The Ellen DeGeneres Show, and I subsequently interviewed for The Huffington Post. (If you missed "Lady Gaga's Yoga Instructor on Self-Compassion," here's the link to that blog.) Donegan, the owner and director of New York's Bikram Yoga Lower East Side, stepped out of her hot yoga studio once again to answer her "celly," as she calls her cell phone, and a few questions about how to end America's addiction to being skinny.

As she did in our first interview, Donegan talked about some of the same things I talk about with my clients, like losing weight with loving-kindness. What follows are highlights from our most recent long-distance chat.

Q. I imagine you must get clients on all kinds of diets. What are your thoughts on dieting?

A. Not only are a lot of clients on all different kinds of diets, they're on all different kinds of antidepressants and anti-anxiety medicines. I find it goes hand in hand. I have clients doing juice diets, clients who fast, clients who stop eating, clients who are "breatharians." When the clients are able to work harder at being nice to themselves than the actual effort that's going into losing calories, the calories seem to drop. Not only do the calories seem to drop initially and continuously, it seems to last. Because they haven't just changed their mode of dieting, they've actually made an internal change. When people put more effort on being nice to themselves, the weight is easy. Try it other way around, weight is awful. If they get a little bit off, it comes right back. Then they try something different because that didn't work. And they keep going around and around and around, trying something different.

Q. What do you tell clients who are hooked on dieting?

A. I don't use the word "diet" -- it's an awful word. Whole foods are best. Eating slow is best. Most important is self-compassion. If clients can be nice to themselves, they'll slowly make that internal change. So when they get thin, no matter what happens in their life, they can maintain that status quo. One of the goals I have for clients is to understand that their only goal is to be the best they can be that day, that minute, that moment. Then there's no problem being nice to yourself.

Q. How do you work with clients who struggle with serious eating issues?

A. The first step: I try to create a safe place [in my studio]. I have clients sign a safety contract. Basically it says they are willing to work on accepting they have an eating disorder, and they're willing to work on it. In turn, I'm willing to work with them. It says they're going to read your book or join a chat group or [use any of the] many resources that are out there. The next step: We go through and see what kind of healthy eating they can do rather than diet eating. The third step: When we start to practice yoga, we start every session with five minutes of self-compassion practice. It's great to be committed to any kind of practice as long as you can figure out how to do it differently every day, so you don't check out during it.

Q. You look like you the picture of health and fitness, but have you ever struggled with your weight or body image?

A. I am the "American dream." I am a woman. I own a business. I have a family. I have a kid. I run around like crazy to maintain that "American Dream." In America, it's very hard for anyone not to become addicted to being skinny. I am in the business of wellbeing, and I find myself having to spend more time during my day than I'd like to on how I physically look so I can attract America into my studio and then sneak the wellbeing into them. I've watched myself change. I grew up with Madonna and her biceps. She was very inspirational at that point in my life. Now I'm trying to figure out what serves me. When you're older, your priorities change. It's not about dropping calories, it's about strengthening your bones and organs, being able to be there to watch your family grow.

Q. Given that over-exercising can be a form of bulimia, I imagine you see some number of clients who use Bikram to purge themselves of unwanted calories. How do you help clients who are over-exercising?

A. Overexercising is an addiction. What we try to do as yoga teachers and practitioners is learn how to respond and not to react. Over-exercising, in my opinion, is usually a reaction to what just happened. It's like, "I'm going to be able to eat all this because, later on, my reaction is going to counteract that." When you're aware of your addictions, you're able to change them. Even though Bikram is an awesome calorie burner, it's also yoga, and we still build awareness in how to respond rather than react. If you do that, you won't be able to over-exercise. Yoga and self-compassion practice both build awareness, so you're only doing things that serve your body and your brain.

Q. Anything we didn't get to that you'd like to add?

A. Right now, the most exciting thing happening is our future Lower Eastside Girls Club. They've got the land, they've got the money, and they're building a 30,000-square foot place just for girls. There's going to be a wellness center, a yoga center, a body-image center, a bakery, a social-media center, a planetarium... The money [including $20,000 raised by Bikram Lower East Side's monthly Nite Sweats fundraiser] is donated by like-minded people who understand what changes the world, and how to do it. These girls are getting everything they need.

Photo by Mike Pozarik

For more by Jean Fain, L.I.C.S.W., M.S.W., click here.

For more on mental health, click here.

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet." For more information, see www.jeanfain.com. Got comments on any of the above? Share your two cents in the Comments section.