Stand-Up Paddle Board (SUP) Yoga for Eating Disorders Treatment

Contributed Article by Kathleen L. Someah of New Dawn Eating Disorder Treatment Program

In the effort to treat eating disorders, many health professionals utilize Cognitive Behavioral Therapy as well as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy. Yet as treatment programs face increasing competition, clinicians are emphasizing the potential benefits of supplementing such evidence-based therapeutic mechanisms with more alternative approaches to therapy. Such approaches include various forms of expression therapy, whether based in art or physical movement. While many treatment programs offer alternative forms of therapy such as equine therapy and dance therapy, additional therapeutic outlets are continually explored for possible recovery benefits. A recent study concerning the effect of yoga on psychological functioning in women with a history of disordered eating reported that modalities, such as yoga, offer potential benefits for improving mood and other psychological states (Dale, Mattison, Greening, Galen, Neace, & Matacin, 2009). Although yoga has recently become an integral part of many treatment programs, most programs offer yoga practices that are performed within a studio setting. However, outdoor recreation is often preferred by clients and provides an opportunity for clients to explore the recovery process beyond the confines of program walls.

Stand Up Paddle Board Yoga is gradually becoming an attractive addition for eating disorder treatment programs because it combines the meditative aspects of yoga with the pleasure of engaging in an outdoor activity. Referred to as “SUP Yoga,” this form of movement therapy strengthens participants inside and out. Through a series of hatha yoga poses that emphasize mindful breathing as well as posture and concentration, participants gently explore their bodies, testing their physical limits while balancing on a board in the salty bay. However, between the unpredictable ebb and flow of the tide, complimented by the challenges associated with balancing on a paddleboard, clients quickly learn to tune into their bodies, unless they feel like taking a dip in the cold water of Richardson Bay.

“I still wanted to challenge myself and have that competitive spark,” said a recent graduate of the New Dawn Eating Disorder Treatment Program. “But it’s all individual, as is recovery, so pushing yourself with the water right there made it more interesting, especially when people did fall in the water.”

The majority of individuals suffering from eating disorders are highly sensitive to how other people perceive them, and therefore engaging in this public, outdoor experience provides clients with a challenge that would otherwise likely be avoided. Engaging in this eclectic yoga practice encourages clients to achieve freedom from the ways in which they are habitually accustomed to interpret their role in life. It invites individuals to transition from a state of thinking about states of mind to actually embodying newfound ways of thinking and perceptions of the world around them. As noted by SUP Yoga instructor Carrie Brandes, unlike an indoor yoga studio, yoga on the bay limits some of the ways clients often assess their performance and critically compare themselves to those around them.

“What is different is that there are no mirrors so you can’t look at what everyone else is doing and compare it to yourself,” said Brandes. “Otherwise you will fall in the water.  You must focus on yourself and be in tune with your body movements.”

Although this method of yoga practice provides opportunities for individuals to morally restructure their thoughts and perceptions, recent evidence suggests additional medical benefits to engaging in yoga. Neurobiologists assert that the regular practice of yoga has consistently been shown to reduce cortisol levels (Carlson, Speca, Patel, & Goodey, 2004; Granath, Ingvarsson, von Thiele, & Lundberg, 2006; West, Otte, Geher, Johnson, & Mohr, 2004). This is particularly important for individuals suffering from eating disorders because sustained, elevated levels of cortisol may be correlated with adverse physiological and mental conditions, including lowered immunity, decreased muscle tissue, decreased bone density, and poor cognitive functioning. While it may be difficult to assess such physiological improvements over the course of simply a few months, additional indicators reveal how SUP Yoga can positively enhance other facets of an individual’s life.

“I absolutely have noticed improvements both physically and with self esteem not only week to week but within the one hour class segments,” said Leigh Claxton, founder, owner and principle instructor of OnboardSUP Yoga. “It is really great to see the timid, hesitant faces come back as big glowing smiles at the end of the hour. Week to week it is great to see the girls who have been here before foster the new girls and become leaders.”

Claxton, who has more than twenty-years of experience training recreational and professional athletes of various levels, asserts that providing the New Dawn clientele with weekly SUP Yoga sessions, serves as a great alternative therapeutic approach for the treatment of eating disorders for several reasons. “SUP Yoga is a focused distraction from anxiety that is centering for both the body and the mind,” said Claxton. “It is also good for muscle strengthening and structural support of weakened skeletal systems. Improved stability and coordination happen quickly and are easy to see, therefore building trust and confidence and most importantly self esteem.”

The implementation of Stand Up Paddleboard Yoga as part of New Dawn Treatment Center’s outpatient eating disorder program allows clients to apply recovery tools learned within the program to work beyond the confines of program walls. “Spending an hour on a floating board allows them to be in tune with their body, balance and movements,” said Brandes. “They can’t control what the water does, but they can control how they react. The sense of accomplishment is visible.” As a former eating disorder client reported, “I loved SUP Yoga. I am so happy that I got to do it in program since I don’t think I would have tried it on my own. It always felt great to be on the water and become balanced in a whole new way.”

Articles on Eating Disorder Treatment Therapies


Carlson, L. E., Speca, M., Patel, K. D., & Goodey, E. (2004). Mindfulness-based stress reduction in relation to quality of life, mood, symptoms of stress and levels of cortisol, dehydroepiandrosterone sulfate (DHEAS) and melatonin in    breast and prostate cancer outpatients. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 29, 448–474.

Dale, L. P., Mattison, A., Greening, K., Galen, G., Neace, W. P., & Matacin, M. L.(2009). Yoga Workshop Impacts Psychological Functioning and Mood of Women With Self-Reported History of Eating Disorders. Eating Disorders, 17(5), 422-434. doi:10.1080/10640260903210222

Granath, J., Ingvarsson, S., von Thiele, U., & Lundberg, U. (2006). Stress management: a randomized study of cognitive behavioral therapy and yoga. Cognitive Behavior Therapy, 35, 3–10.

West, J., Otte, C., Geher, K., Johnson, J., & Mohr, D. C. (2004). Effects of Hatha yoga and African dance on perceived stress, affect, and salivary cortisol. Annals of Behavioral Medicine, 28, 114–118.


Published Date: October 11, 2012
Last reviewed: By Jacquelyn Ekern, MS, LPC on April 1, 2013
Page last updated: April 1, 2013
Published on, Eating Disorder Information