By: Kim Gillie Krier, LISW-S, C-IAYT, RYT-500

Chances are over the past few years, you have heard the benefits of yoga touted to help a range of health conditions – everything from back pain to headaches to stress reduction. Western medicine has discovered and is now routinely implementing this ancient eastern practice. Some of the best news of these benefits is that yoga has also been clinically proven to support eating disorder recovery.

Eating disorder recovery includes many necessary facets, and much of that recovery work is cognitive, through psychotherapy. While one’s body often precipitates or becomes a primary negative target in the course of an eating disorder, building a new relationship with the body is essential for a balanced recovery.

Through yoga, the awareness of one’s body comes from the inside and how it feels, rather than from the outside and how it looks. We know that ED recovery is an inside job, and yoga (and other mind-body practices) can help develop important elements of body appreciation, self-compassion, and bodily acceptance.

Yoga offers practice in qualities that extend and are transferable beyond the mat. Strengthened mind-body connections become additional skills in the recovery toolbox that can complement and support all other areas of therapy.

For example, recovering clients may be curious about the tools of breath, grounding, and mindfulness, or want to know more when asked , “Where do you feel that in your body?” Yoga is a way to explore and practice these skills and build familiarity and comfort. Being able to breathe through a difficult moment, ‘ground down’ to better cope with anxiety, and draw on mindfulness to focus on breaking a thought cycle are all proven to benefit ED recovery.

Other recovery-related elements encountered on the mat include balance, trust, perfectionism, self-compassion, and flexibility. While these can be thought of as words applied to the body, when articulated through a yoga setting, they are transferable to life, while clinically shown to affect positive outlook and mindset. After all, balancing gentle movement with breath, securely falling in and out of a balancing shape, or building acceptance in meeting your body where it is,  can all aid your recovery from the ‘bottom up’, and thereby support your cognitive (and psychotherapeutic) work, ‘from the top down’.

Exercise can be an enmeshed element with eating disorders, frequently used maladaptively. This can make the relationship with movement that was once enjoyable and familiar, confusing and unhelpful. Yoga can be useful in helping to reintroduce movement in a purposeful, adaptable way.

Perhaps one of yoga’s greatest gifts is its gradual quality of calming the chatter of the mind. Yoga was created some 5,000 years ago to assist the connection between mind and body, and derives from the Sanskrit ‘yug’ which means ‘to yoke’. Meditation is an important element of this practice, and the sages created the movements and shapes of yoga to help open, move, and ultimately settle the body and mind for meditation.

Building your practice in yoga can help guide your mind into greater stillness and ease — and aid in reducing ED Noise and chatter. Specifically, yoga both increases the brain chemical gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is associated with better mood and decreased anxiety, as well as stimulating the vagus nerve, which calms your anxiety and engages the parasympathetic nervous system, (while simultaneously allowing the stressful sympathetic recede).

All of this invites a state of rest.

With the addition of reminders from a trained yoga teacher, yoga therapist, or your self-inquiry, you can:

  • Listen to your body,
  • Notice what is there, &
  • Allow the connection

The result is that, moment-by-moment, embodiment can take root. And, naturally, the more you practice, the more you benefit.

Practice can be even a few minutes a day; it can be a planned break; and, it can be added to a morning or evening routine. We are too often conditioned to believe that yoga is exercise, and is to be completed in a certain timeframe, in certain clothing, in certain settings, and expected to look a certain way. This is simply a fallacy that creates barriers for many in exploring yoga for their recovery. Yoga is for all of us.

 

How to get involved:

If you’ve never tried yoga, a beginner’s series can be helpful in teaching the basics so you can move forward with comfort and safety. To that end, consider looking for types of yoga offerings that will be most likely supportive for recovery, such as:

  • Yin
  • Restorative
  • Gentle Hatha
  • Chair
  • Stretch

Things to keep in mind as you enter or create any yoga space:

  • You belong there.
  • Your mat is your space. This is a great place to practice not comparing, but rather allowing your attention to be on your experience.
  • Take up space. Stretch and reach and take a chance on this idea.
  • Think of the yoga therapist/teacher as someone offering suggestions. You decide if that suggestion is right for you, or if your body prefers something different.
  • Slowing down in a yoga setting may be uncomfortable for your eating disorder, especially if exercise has been utilized by the ED as a behavior. Chatter may be loud initially. It may be helpful to allow the yoga therapist’s/teacher’s voice to be a healthy distraction, or to create a mantra (saying or affirmation) to repeat to yourself — even linking it up with inhalations and exhalations. (An index card next to your mat can be a helpful note to remember the mantra you have chosen).
  • Mirrors are not helpful and contraindicated for yoga. Your reflection pulls your attention and naturally leads you to assess from the outside, rather than to experience from the inside (It’s appropriate to ask if a studio has mirrors ahead of visiting!),
  • As a gentle reminder: We are all swimming in this stigmatized culture together, and unless your teacher has had extra training, she/he/they are likely reference some dumb diet culture, ageist, sexist sh*t at some time or another. This is great practice to use your breath to calm your brain and your heart, and patience in wishing her/him/them well and to do better next time. If you’re feeling like the time is right, and you have the bandwidth within your recovery, you might offer them some education about how their phrasing, allusion, or word choice affected you (and most likely others.)

And most importantly: You are the keeper of your body. You are the only person who lives in your body, and you are the decider of what is right for your body.

 

Further reading

If you’d like to learn more about these topics, below are some of our favorite resources:

Yoga and Eating Disorders, Costin and Kelly

Yoga and Body Image, Klein and Guest-Jelly

Befriending Your Body, Biasetti

The Body Keeps the Score, Van der Kolk