Yoga and Eating Disorder Recovery

Written by MEDA undergraduate intern, Patty Atkinson 

FullSizeRenderMany people, including myself, have turned to yoga for help and guidance in the recovery process. The skills practiced in yoga are highly valuable to eating disorder recovery. In fact, the implementation of yoga in treatment programs has been shown to decrease eating disorder symptoms (Carei et al., 2010; Mitchell et al., 2007).

Feeling separate from your body is a major obstacle in the recovery process. Yoga works to reconnect the mind and body by focusing on redefining the relationship with your body in a safe, empowering, and judgement free space. Grounding positions such as warrior one, two and three help to explore moments of feeling comfortable in your body, as well as moments of discomfort and how to accept uncomfortable feelings when they arise. The mindful practice of discomfort in yoga is extremely beneficial to recovery (Strock, 2016). Yoga challenges you to experience awkwardness, distress, and unease through holding the extra painful second in difficult poses and allowing yourself to try new and intimidating poses free of self judgement.

The practice of discomfort is useful in rewiring the brain to be more resilient and less impulsive during recovery when negative thoughts, urges, or cravings arise (Strock, 2016). The mindfulness of yogic breath helps to control behavioral thoughts by allowing yourself to acknowledge the thoughts that come to mind and instead of acting on them, refocus your energy on the present moment and learn to tolerate and breathe through the discomfort.

Yoga teachers are taught to emphasize going at your own pace in a noncompetitive setting. Yoga highlights self-awareness and listening to one’s body. Self-awareness in practice may mean going slower or faster than those around you, modifying your practice for your own body’s needs, restoring the comfortable and grounding position of child’s pose or just merely sitting and listening to your breath and allowing yourself to be present in the moment.

I first sought out yoga as a fun alternative to running. However, as my stress and anxiety increased, my mom suggested I become more involved in my practice. Yoga has taught me how to control my anxiety and notice the effect of anxious thoughts on my body and breathing. Through the practice of mindfulness and meditation I now have a better understanding of how to change my breathing patterns in order to manage stress and impulsive thinking. I am now currently training to become a certified yoga instructor to expand my knowledge of the practice and eventually help others find the same healing benefits.

Even with what feels like must be the tightest hamstrings and calves in the world, it’s not the forward bends in my practice that are the most discomforting, it’s the moments of sitting in silence with my eyes closed on my mat. Throughout my eating disorder the voices of ED and my anxious and racing thoughts made it difficult to discern between what my mind and body needed and what ED and my anxiety wanted. Yoga has taught me how to acknowledge the thoughts that arise during meditation and instead of continuing to think, let thoughts go, feel instead of think, and regain attention towards the breath.

Yoga brings both psychological and physiological changes to the body through conscious breath and practice of mindfulness. Mindful, slow and deep breathing induces relaxation by altering the functioning of the cardiovascular and nervous system and the brain. Yogic breath creates the self-love and awareness that is lost with eating disorders by learning to listen what your body needs. Yoga brings control and consciousness to the breath, allowing one to recognize when emotions may be affecting one’s breathing patterns and how to control for that.

Yoga is open and accepting to all skill levels, sizes, ages, genders, and races. Practicing yoga allows the awareness of body and mind and creating an authentic self through challenging yourself to tolerate discomfort and acknowledging comfort in your body within a judgement free practice. Yoga teaches how to be patient and gentle with yourself and how to deal with challenging situations off the mat. Having struggled with anxiety and an eating disorder, yoga has allowed me to find balance and mindfulness in my life on and off the mat.

Although yoga may be helpful in supporting recovery, there is no substitute for a medical or mental health professional. If you are in anyway struggling with your mental health, please seek out the help of a professional.

Below are some resources for those looking for more information on yoga, yogic breathing and the benefits the practice can have on recovery: 

Yoga Basics: Explains postures and breathing techniques that support eating disorder recovery through positivity, mindfulness and grounding exercises. http://www.yogabasics.com/learn/eating-disorders/

Yoga and Body Image Coalition: Focuses on promoting and supporting yoga that develops and encourages body positivity, accessibility and diversity. http://ybicoalition.com/

Chime: Yoga-Inspired Healing for Eating Disorders: Promotes recovery and healthy body image through focusing on yogic breath and the idea of staying present. http://www.chimeyogatherapy.com/

Evolution Yoga: Yoga for Eating Disorder Recovery: Describes the healing benefits of yoga for eating disorder recovery.  http://www.evolationyoga.com/yoga-eating-disorder-recovery/

Resources: 

Mitchell, K. S., Mazzeo, S. E., Rausch, S. M., & Cooke, K. L. (2007). Innovative interventions for disordered eating: Evaluating dissonance‐based and yoga interventions. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 40(2), 120-128.

Carei, T. R., Fyfe-Johnson, A. L., Breuner, C. C., & Brown, M. A. (2010). Randomized controlled clinical trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders. Journal of Adolescent Health, 46(4), 346-351.

Strock, J. (August 10, 2016). Mindfulness, Yoga and Eating Disorder Recovery. Yoga and Body Image Coalition. Retrieved from http://ybicoalition.com/mindfulness-yoga-eating-disorder-recovery/