Yoga Therapy for Eating Disorders

In the United States, anorexia nervosa and bulimia affect nearly 10 million women and one million men, primarily teens and young adults, according to conservative estimates. Often thought only as a mental disease, new research is finding that eating disorders have a physical component as well. Eating disorders are complex and potentially life-threatening conditions that arise from a combination of behavioral, emotional, psychological, interpersonal, biological, and social factors. People with eating disorders often use food and the control of food in an attempt to numb or avoid feelings and emotions that are over-whelming.

Yoga can be an effective tool to restore the imbalances in both the body and the mind that occur with eating disorders. Yoga has a profound ability to balance the emotions and has been shown to help relieve depression, anger and anxiety and to promote equanimity: a calm, clear focused mind. Yoga can also promote self-esteem and a positive body image, which play primary roles in eating disorders, through the cultivation of non-judgment, confidence, self-acceptance, openness and inner strength. Physically, a regular yoga practice can help rebuild the strength, energy and bone density that is damaged and lost with Anorexia.

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Eating disorders are viewed as a dysfunction of the first chakra in the yogic energetic system. To balance this chakra, use poses that target the area of the base of the spine, such as: staff posture, bound angle, crab, full wind relieving pose, pigeon and locust. Use grounding postures such as Warrior 1 and 2, mountain, goddess, standing squat, child, and prayer squat to connect with the body, to become rooted to the earth and to build strength and courage. If depression is a strong contributing factor, backbending poses will be beneficial for their energizing, tonifying and heart opening qualities. If anxiety is a primary contributing factor, forward bends can be utilized for their calming and nurturing aspects.

When practicing yoga postures, the use of Pratyahara (inner focus) should be applied. The exterior alignment should be de-emphasized and the focus should be drawn deeply inwards to experience and explore the feeling and sensations that arise in the poses. By withdrawing attention from the external environment and by focusing inwards on the breath and sensations, the mind can be stilled and the awareness of the body increases. With this awareness and focus it is possible to move deeper into the practice of yoga and increases the ability for one to move through any limitations, fears and expectations.

Pranayama (yogic breathing exercises) are also helpful to calm the body and mind and to balance the energy in the body during the recovery stage of the disease. Nadi Sodhana Pranayama (alternate nostril breathing) is balancing, calming and reduces anxiety. Dirga Pranayama (three part breath) is calming, grounding and nurturing.

As eating disorders have a large mental component to them, the practice of meditation is very beneficial to cultivate a sense of control over life’s events and to reduce obsessive thoughts. A general meditation practice will be beneficial, but using an active and targeted meditation would be more effective. Practice any or all of the following based upon what calls you to be invoked within yourself: Inner Peace Meditation, Third Eye Meditation, Root Chakra Meditation or Prana Healing Meditation. If it becomes uncomfortable to practice with the eyes closed, have them slightly open with a soft downward gaze.

The most important aspect of healing from an eating disorder is the individual’s awareness and acceptance that there is a problem and the genuine desire for change. Unfortunately, the denial that there is a problem often does not change until the late stages of the disease when serious complications arise. Yoga’s inherent ability to promote self-awareness and self-acceptance can play a role in realizing the problem is within, although yoga is usually more readily embraced in the recovery stages of the disease.

Yoga is not a substitute for conventional medical treatment; please consult your medical professional before starting a yoga practice.

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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