Yoga for Eating Disorder Recovery and Healing
Do you, or someone you love, suffer from an eating disorder (ED)? These disorders are about more than just food and weight. An ED can cause major disruptions in a person’s life, from school or work performance to physical health problems. Yoga is a mind-body practice that is known for its mindfulness and natural healing properties. Yoga can be a useful tool for navigating the recovery process and a sustained yoga practice (in combination with psychological treatment) can be helpful year round.
What makes yoga a good fit for eating disorders?
Yoga is a mindful practice that requires deep concentration, and it’s a great way to focus on your breathing and body as a way to stay in the present moment. Because eating disorders are caused by many factors, including a lack of coping skills and stress, yoga can be a helpful part of treatment, and perpetuate positive changes and healthy habits.
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How yoga helps with eating disorders
There are multiple benefits of yoga, including improved sleep, and positive impact on mental health, well-being and quality of life. When stress, difficult emotions or other triggers arise, one can practice yoga instead of turning to disordered eating behaviors to cope. Disclaimer: This is not a suggestion to use yoga practices as a way to avoid what comes up or shift obsessive behaviors into another location. But it is possible to let urges towards destructive habits become a cue to press the “pause” button and step on your mat.
The practice of yoga can strengthen digestion, relieve constipation and reduce reactivity around the painful process of re-feeding. The emotional effects of yoga helps ground and process strong feelings, needs and longings. Meditative practices help reduce negative thought patterns and long held emotions can be released during or after a class.
Disordered eating often stems from attempts to avoid feeling painful emotions. A hatha yoga practice can be a safe place to ride the waves of your experience by practicing breathing exercises, self-acceptance, relaxation, and watching and allowing your feelings to flow through you. This may sound easier said than done, but consider your mat a lab where you can practice greeting difficult sensations without avoiding them. Practiced consistently, the ability to sit with emotion and sensation during yoga can ultimately translate to your life off the yoga mat.
A review of the emerging research on yoga for eating disorders concluded it is too early to state with certainty whether the practice of yoga is helpful, although no data suggests it is harmful.
Considerations for eating disorder patients interested in yoga
1. Choose your practice wisely
Certain forms of yoga may be more therapeutic than others for those with eating disorders. For example, some may use power yoga as a form of compulsive exercise, which might reinforce symptoms. So instead of a “hot yoga” or power class, try something less vigorous, with a mindful or gentle component. Slower forms of yoga (like yin and restorative yoga) that help you re-inhabit your body with loving awareness are likely to be more therapeutic, even if they seem less ideal initially. Choosing the right class will assist you in cultivating self-compassion, which will counteract the harsh self-talk characteristic of eating disorders.
2. Practice meditation, especially loving-kindness (metta) meditation
Practicing meditation, whether seated or during postures, will help ensure that you don’t turn your asana practice into a continuation of your ED. Consciously inhabiting your experience will support your mental and physical health, and research increasingly suggests that meditation may benefit eating disorder patients. Taking a loving-kindness approach to your practice will support your ability to appreciate each part of your body and what it does for you. If there are parts of your body that you despise, practice sending them thoughts of kindness, or placing your hand on them, allowing yourself to feel the warmth and support. Over time, this self-kindness will extend from the physical body to other parts of you—judgmental cognitions or feelings of shame, for example.
3. Be mindful of media views of yoga
Media portrayals of yoga often replicate the same objectifying tendencies as mainstream media depictions of women that are widely theorized to contribute to eating disorders. Be aware of these messages and, if you can, avoid consuming popular yoga media that emphasizes the thin ideal, weight loss, or even the attainment of complex or gymnastic postures. These messages convey that your worth is still tied intrinsically to your body, rather than honoring that the body is just one facet of the self.
4. Steer clear of diets and cleansing
The yoga lifestyle is often associated with special diets, such as veganism, mono-diets, or stringent cleansing routines. While these are commonly said to align with the yogic lifestyle, those with eating disorders should exercise caution, as adoption of these diets may trigger symptoms. Remember, “health” is subjective, and what may be entirely appropriate for one person is not necessarily healthy for another. As you begin your journey into yoga, consider focusing your attention on meditation, mindfulness and supportive asana rather than restrictive and rule-based dietary suggestions.
Keep these simple guidelines in mind, as well as inspirational stories like that of Chelsea Fox, who as a teenager experienced healing from anorexia through yoga. As noted by Chinese sage Lao Tzu, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
The practice of yoga can be a helpful complement to your eating disorder recovery. A consistent yoga practice and weekly yoga classes is recommended to reap the maximal effects of yoga. Working with a yoga therapist or a registered yoga teacher can further support the recovery process and can fine tune the practice to your individual needs.