Practicing Yoga with an Eating Disorder

Pashchima Namaskarasana (Reverse Prayer Pose)
Photo by Eric Ward

Do you, or someone you love, suffer from an eating disorder (ED)? If so, changes in routine and food-centric gatherings can be especially difficult during the holidays. The good news is that yoga can be a useful tool for navigating this time of year, and a sustained yoga practice (in combination with psychological treatment) can be helpful year round.

One of yoga’s awesome “side effects” is its mood regulating properties. 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 as 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.

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Disordered eating often stems from attempts to avoid feeling painful emotions. A yoga or asana practice can be a safe place to ride the waves of your experience by breathing, relaxing, 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 mat.

A recent review of the emerging research on yoga for eating disorders concluded it is too early to state with certainty whether yoga is helpful, although no data suggests it is harmful. Several considerations to bear in mind for eating disorder patients interested in yoga:

1. Choose your yoga 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 that help you reinhabit 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-kindness, 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.

As the holidays approach, 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.”

On our Membership Site: A complete list of yoga poses for Eating Disorders and a yoga therapy resource guide for Eating Disorders.

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