Do you or someone you love have an eating disorder (ED)? These disorders are about more than just food and weight. ED can cause significant disruptions in a person’s life, from school or job performance to physical health problems. Yoga is a mind-body practice known for its mindfulness and natural healing powers. Yoga can be a useful tool to guide the recovery process, and sustainable yoga practice (when combined with psychological treatment) can be helpful year-round.
What Makes Yoga Good For Eating Disorders?
Yoga is a mindful exercise that requires deep focus, and it is a great way to focus on your breath and body to stay in the present moment. Because eating disorders are caused by many factors, including coping skills and stress, Yoga can be a helpful part of treatment, maintaining positive change and healthy habits.
How yoga helps with eating disorders
Yoga offers several benefits, including improved sleep and positive effects on mental health, wellbeing, and quality of life. When stress, difficult emotions, or other triggers arise, one can practice yoga instead of turning to disordered eating habits to deal with it. Disclaimer: This is not a suggestion to use yoga practices to avoid what comes up or to relocate obsessive behaviors elsewhere. However, it is possible to guide the urge to have destructive habits by pressing the pause button and stepping on your mat.
Practicing yoga can strengthen digestion, relieve constipation, and decrease reactivity related to the painful re-feeding process. The emotional effects of yoga help to ground and process strong feelings, needs and longings. Meditative practices help reduce negative thought patterns, and long-lasting emotions can be released during or after class.
Eating disorders are often due to attempts to avoid painful feelings. A hatha yoga practice can be a safe place to ride the waves of your experience by practicing and observing breathing exercises, self-acceptance, relaxation and letting your feelings flow through you. This may sound easier said than done, but think of your mat as a laboratory where you can practice greeting difficult sensations without avoiding them. If practiced consistently, the ability to sit with emotions and sensations while practicing yoga can ultimately affect your life outside of the yoga mat.
A review of emerging research on yoga for eating disorders found that it is too early to determine with certainty whether the practice of yoga will help, even though there is no data to suggest that it is harmful.
Considerations for Patients with Eating Disorders Interested in Yoga
1. Choose your practice wisely
Certain forms of yoga can be more therapeutic than others for people with eating disorders. For example, some may use power yoga as a form of compulsive exercise that can exacerbate symptoms. So instead of a “hot yoga” or strength class, try something less vigorous with a mindful or gentle component. Slower forms of yoga (like yin and restorative yoga) that will help you re-inhabit your body with loving awareness are likely to be more therapeutic, although they may seem less ideal at first. Choosing the right class will help you develop self-compassion, which counteracts the harsh self-talk that is characteristic of eating disorders.
2. Practice meditation, especially meditation of loving-kindness (metta)
Practicing meditation, whether seated or in postures, will help ensure that you are not turning your asana practice into a continuation of your ED. Consciously inhabiting your experience will aid your mental and physical health Research suggests that meditation can benefit patients with eating disorders. A loving approach to your practice supports your ability to appreciate every part of your body and what it does for you. If there are parts of your body that you despise, practice sending them kind thoughts or placing your hand on them so you can feel the warmth and support. Over time, this self-goodness will extend from the physical body to other parts of you – for example, judgmental insights or feelings of shame.
3. Pay attention to the media views of Yoga
Media portraits of yoga often repeat the same objectifying tendencies as mainstream media portraits of women who are widely believed to contribute to eating disorders. Be aware of this news and, if you can, Avoid consuming popular yoga media that emphasize the thin ideal, Weight loss, or even achieving complex or gymnastic postures. These messages convey that your worth is still intimately tied to your body rather than honoring that the body is just one facet of yourself.
4. Avoid dieting and cleansing
The yoga lifestyle is often associated with special diets like veganism, mono diets, or strict cleansing routines. While these are generally said to be in line with the yogic lifestyle, those with eating disorders should exercise caution, such as Adopting these diets can trigger symptoms. Remember that “health” is subjective and that what may be perfectly appropriate for one person may not necessarily be healthy for another. As you begin your journey into yoga, focus 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 Chelsea Fox’s, who experienced healing from anorexia through yoga as a teenager. As the Chinese sage Lao Tzu noted, “A journey of a thousand miles must begin with a single step.”
Practicing yoga can be a helpful addition to recovering from your eating disorder. Consistent yoga practice and weekly yoga classes are recommended to get the maximum effect of yoga. Working with a yoga therapist or a registered yoga teacher can further support the recovery process and tailor the practice to your individual needs.
On our Membership Page: For A Complete List Of Yoga Poses For Eating Disorders And A Guide To Yoga Therapy Resources For Eating Disorders.