Practicing yoga can elicit a variety of emotions for someone struggling with an eating disorder.
There might be a desire to engage in yoga as a form of compensatory exercise. Being in vulnerable positions might be triggering to survivors of trauma. For others, there might be an inability to be still and connect with their minds and bodies due to overwhelming anxiety relating to their eating disorder.
Dismissing any preconceived notions you might have about yoga as you go into the new year can empower you to uncover how it can be instrumental in your own recovery.
Yoga in Recovery
Many components of mainstream yoga today involve social and environmental triggers. Wearing trendy yoga pants to a high-priced studio with mirrors on every flat service can understandably lead to disordered thoughts about food, exercise, and body image.
This is not what we mean when we talk about yoga therapy. Yoga therapy in the context of eating disorder recovery is in line with more holistic yoga movements, focusing on the mind-body connection.
Some people might be concerned that yoga or other forms of physical activity are not appropriate for anyone with a low body mass index (BMI) or other physical side effects of their eating disorder.
It is true that clients in an inpatient setting should likely not engage in yoga therapy, and it is up to each individual’s treatment team to determine whether they are physically able to practice.
Individuals will quickly find that yoga therapy is not the stereotypical yoga class that you see on television, in which the focus is getting into the twistiest pretzel position you can without falling over.
Instead, yoga therapy typically incorporates different postures, breathing exercises, meditation styles, and life skills to leave individuals better connected to their own minds and bodies.
Importance of the Mind-Body Connection
As Carolyn Costin, M.A., M.ED., MFT, explains in Yoga & Eating Disorders: Ancient Healing for Modern Illness, developing or restoring the mind-body connection is a vital part of eating disorder recovery.
Individuals with eating disorders have often cut themselves off from their bodies. This might be due to trauma and a desire to disassociate, or it might be a direct result of their disordered thoughts and food behaviors, often relating to co-occurring mental health issues.
Yoga can restore the mind-body connection by almost forcing these pieces to work together and gain a sense of awareness. This includes awareness of the movements, needs, and flexibility of both the body and mind.
This can be especially challenging for individuals struggling with anxiety, depression, or other co-occurring disorders.
Yoga therapy is a process. Many times, the first step is just being able to lie still on your mat. Before jumping into poses, begin by gaining an awareness of your breath and set an intention for your yoga practice that day.
Being present in your body after months or years of disordered eating is a true milestone in recovery and will likely take time.
Effectiveness of Yoga Therapy
Yoga therapy has proven highly effective in the treatment of eating disorders when practiced in conjunction with more traditional modalities.
A 2010 study  found that teen eating disorder patients who practiced yoga therapy experienced a greater decrease in symptoms over time than those who did not.
Food preoccupation decreased in most participants immediately following each yoga therapy session, and the practice did not negatively impact their BMI.
Yoga incorporates many principles of more traditional modalities, such as the mindfulness of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) or breathing techniques often implemented to reduce anxiety.
By rolling all of these benefits into a holistic yoga therapy practice, treatment professionals can empower clients to restore their mind-body connection while developing a coping tool that can last a lifetime.
When Yoga is Triggering
While the potential benefits of yoga are irrefutable, it is also true that yoga is not for everyone.
Before you give up on the idea of yoga therapy to support your recovery, identify whether you simply do not like yoga or it is actually triggering for you.
About the Author: Courtney Howard graduated summa cum laude with a B.A. from San Diego State University, holds a paralegal certificate in Family Law, and is a Certified Domestic Violence Advocate. After obtaining her certification as a life coach, Courtney launched Lionheart Eating Disorder Recovery Coaching in 2015 and continues to be a passionate advocate for awareness and recovery.
References:: Carei, T.R., et al. (2010). “Randomized controlled clinical trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders.” J Adolesc Health. 2010 Apr;46(4):346-51. doi: 10.1016/j.jadohealth.2009.08.007. Epub 2009 Nov 3.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Last Updated & Reviewed By: Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on January 8, 2019
Published on EatingDisorderHope.com