by Melody Moore, Ph.D., RYT
When people struggle with an Eating Disorder, they are suffering from a disconnection of mind and body. Because of trauma, biology, underlying concomitant mental illnesses, environmental stressors, or any combination of these, those who suffer from Eating Disorders use their relationship with their body through food to act out their emotional needs and wants. Often, their thoughts, feelings, and actions are in direct conflict with one another, causing a sense of being out of integrity. Those with Eating Disorders often lose perspective of the reality about how they look, how to listen and respond to their body’s hunger and satiety signals, and often have a very difficult time expressing emotion and setting appropriate boundaries for themselves. In addition, those with Eating Disorders often struggle to tolerate the discomfort of negative emotion, such as anxiety, sadness, shame, rage, or fear.
Enter Yoga. Yoga means to yoke, or to connect. At its core, then, yoga offers an opportunity to reconnect the mind to the body through the breath. Although there are eight limbs of yoga, the asana practice (or the physical practice of yoga), is the one that is commonly considered as being a therapeutic tool for those who suffer from Eating Disorders. While the physical practice certainly leads to both healing and maintenance of recovery, it is important to note that the other seven limbs of yoga are also quite useful as therapeutic tools. These include ethical principles, meditation, breathing exercises, and more.
For example, Yoga’s first Yama, or internal ethical principle,is ahimsa, which means to not cause harm. When someone is struggling with an Eating Disorder, he or she is taking action and choosing behaviors that are causing harm to their bodies, and to their psyches, and often, unintentionally or unconsciously, to those around them as well. The practice of yoga is a practice of kindness, of peace, and of doing no harm. So when individuals embark on a yogic path, they are connecting to the value of ahimsa. This means, doing no harm to one’s body. Restricting food when one is hungry, eating when one is full (such as in a binge), purging, using laxatives, exercising to excess, and other symptomatic ED behaviors are all harmful to the body, and to the psyche of the sufferer. If the entire philosophy of yoga is offered as a therapeutic tool, principles such as ahimsa can be embraced and held as values for those in recovery.
The other yamas and niyamas and their impact on one with an Eating Disorder are discussed elsewhere, but for the purposes of this article, I will move on to describe how a yoga asana practice, or the physical practice of yoga, helps to heal.
Yoga helps those with disordered eating find the ability to be grounded in the present moment. A yoga practice, unlike any other physical exercise, is one that links the movement to the breath. If an individual is able to practice linking the pace of their movement to the pace of their breathing, it is possible that he or she can become more mindful and more attuned to the present moment. In addition, the yoga practice comes with myriad instructions of the particular placement of bones and muscular action, causing the mind to be forced to focus on the micro-movements and alignment of the body. Because someone who suffers from an ED is often checked out, dissociated, or not entirely present to what he or she is feeling or how much he or she might be eating, this capacity to tune into the present moment, also known as mindfulness, is a key factor in recovery.
The yoga practice is one that teaches acceptance of one’s body in a particular approximation of a pose in a particular moment. Teachers often cue the class that it is “yoga practice, not yoga perfect.” This encourages students to remember that their capacity in a pose is not what matters, but rather, their ability to be present to their breath while in a pose. So often, those who struggle with an ED have a very difficult time finding self-acceptance. Beliefs such as “thinner is better” or “more food is better” for someone in the midst of a binge are common mantras for those who suffer. As people learn how to become accepting of their flexibility, their strength, and the shape of each pose, regardless of whether or not it is even near “perfect,” they also learn how to take the principal of acceptance from the mat and into recovery.
Yoga reconnects the thoughts in the mind with the feelings in the body through a link made up of the breath. Movements in yoga are synchronized by breath. Meaning, the beginning of an inhale dictates the beginning of a movement, and that movement is completed at the exact moment of the end of that inhale. For example, one might be instructed to inhale as they reach their hands from the floor to above their heads, and to exhale as the reach their arms back down to the floor. Advances in poses or modifications of poses are taken based on one’s ability to breathe deeply and slowly and in unison with the movements of the body. This capacity to become conscious of the parts of the body, moving as a whole, allows for a reconnection of the severed cords of the body and mind. Those with EDs often find it difficult to recognize when their body is hungry or honor when their body is full. Therefore, the capacity to reconnect thoughts to sensation in the body is imperative.
Holding physical poses for any length of time, whether a yin (relaxed) posture or a yang (actionable) posture, allows for tension to release from the body. Tension in the body is caused by genetics, injury, or unprocessed emotion. For this reason, when tension is released, sensation occurs, and these sensations are clues for what emotions might be bubbling up to the surface. Those with EDs often have substituted their symptomatic behavior, such as restricting, binging, purging and obsessing, for processing their emotions. Often this is due to a belief that feeling and experiencing emotion is too frightening and too uncomfortable. When one allows oneself the experience of tolerating sensation on the yoga mat without running or screaming, but instead, continuing to breathe deeply into the pose, it becomes possible for one to translate the tolerance of emotion off the mat as well. This is a key factor in recovery for someone with an ED, because the expression of emotion to get one’s needs met is imperative for coping in life without the use of symptoms to speak for the feelings.
Those with Eating Disorders often refer to their symptoms as helping them find a sense of control and, therefore, calm. The yoga practice teaches students to let go of the attachment to controlling what is external, and instead surrender to each moment as it arrives. At first, this can be difficult for patients in recovery, as the illusion of control has been a motivator for developing ED symptoms. However, as an individual practices yoga for longer amounts of time, one is able to find that when he or she gives up the attempt to force their body into a pose, the individual is then able to find the “flow” of where the pose is for him or her. Yoga teaches surrendering the effort, the determination, by allowing for the breath to dictate how far one is able to extend or stretch. For those who are oriented to particular weight loss goals or who find it very difficult to allow for emotions to arise without suppressing them through eating, this practice of surrender is a key component of recovery.
In yoga asana practice, there are many opportunities for frustration, for falling, for what could be perceived as failing. Because yoga is a 5,000-year-old tradition, one can practice for a lifetime and continue to be challenged by the possibilities of poses. For this reason, yoga becomes a practice of resilience. Of literally falling and getting back up again. Of being present to one’s reactions to the failure or to the fall, and of learning to be unattached to the outcome, but instead of being attuned and mindful of the process. Resiliency is a necessary component of ED recovery and maintenance. The road to recovery is never a direct, linear path where everything goes well. For those doing the courageous work of healing, it is necessary to develop a capacity to cope with setbacks, failures, and loss.
One of the key instructions of any form of asana (pose) is the correct alignment of the pose. As one advances in practice, one finds that it is actually much easier to hold poses for longer periods of time, which has the benefit of releasing tension, if one’s bones are in the right alignment. Students are instructed to stack their knee above their ankle, or their shoulders above their hips, or to keep their spine straight as they make a twist. Just as students strive for physical alignment on the mat, they are taught to find psychological alignment, or integrity, off the mat. In this way, those struggling with EDs can learn to align what they think, how they feel, what they say, and what they do, creating integrity, trustworthiness, and undoubtedly, recovery.
There are endless ways that yoga serves as both a tool for recovery and an avenue for maintaining a healthy and loving self-perception and relationship to food. The above are a limited sampling of how, when a student becomes committed to the path and the practice of yoga, their body and mind can be unified through breath, and can connect in a way that is reparative to the damage caused by an Eating Disorder. For more information about how yoga helps or how you can become more involved in educating your clients or yourself, go to www.embodylovemovement.org.