Across our nation, eating disorder treatment centers are catching onto the therapeutic benefits of yoga. Yoga is a practice rooted in eastern philosophy that involves mindful meditation, breath work and intentional body movement. Over the past several decades, Westerners have grown fond of yoga for its physical and mental benefits. And while we know yoga is #trending right now, there is a reason more and more medical professional are prescribing the ancient practice.
Being in recovery myself, I have found a deep sense of serenity and peace in yogic philosophy. Not only have the principles of yoga helped me remain grounded, the physical practice has built a tremendous amount of body awareness and body acceptance. Yoga strives to connect the mind and body as one. Those struggling with eating disorders bear witness to the ongoing battle between their thoughts and their physiological responses. In other words, mind and body are at war with no sign of surrender in sight. Along with modifications in meal plans, self-reflection, and individual and group therapy, yoga can serve as a vital complement to eating disorder treatment and recovery.
This holistic approach to treatment is still relatively new. However, the limited research that is available is encouraging. One study found that those who practice yoga had more body awareness and responsiveness to body sensations than those who didn’t practice (Daubenmeir, 2005). In other words, yoga allowed practitioners to experience and respond to their body in a different way. A separate study on the effects of yoga on eating disorders reports many of the participants becoming increasingly focused on how their body feels rather than how it looks. That in turn opened a window into a new experience of the body off the yoga mat (Boudette, 2006). Because yoga has documented success in helping with other mental health conditions that are often comorbid with eating disorders – such as PTSD, anxiety, and depression – more research is being conducted to on the positive effect yoga can have on eating disorder recovery.
One of the most important aspects of healing from an eating disorder is the individual’s acceptance of the problem and a genuine desire to change. Oftentimes, eating disorders manipulate the mind to thinking the problem lies in their body. However, the reality is eating disorders are serious mental illnesses that can hijack one’s perception of reality and turn one’s life into a struggle with compulsion, obsession and fear. Yoga’s inherent ability to promote self-awareness and self-acceptance can play a role in realizing the obstacle is not the body, but the mind.
Because eating disorders can have both psychological and physical effects, mental health professionals are moving past a place where we solely rely on talking. In his book The Body Keeps the Score, Bessel van der Kolk discusses this idea when he says, “It’s great to be able to put your feelings into words, and feeling that somebody understands your suffering is enormously comforting. But it doesn’t make your body know that you are safe. The real method is resetting your physiology.” Van der Kolk supports the practice of yoga to promote a sense of peace within the body. “Yoga really attends to the body and the breath, attends to stillness. It allows you to feel everything you feel, to tolerate every sensation, and to live and move with it.” Learning to tolerate our experiences is a life skill. Yoga encourages us to lean in, instead of pulling away–it is the ultimate form of self-care. When we learn to take care of our needs, to truly listen to our bodies and tend to them with care, the real transformation begins.
By Hayley O’Brien, LGPC – IOP Therapist, Washington DC at The Body Image Therapy Center. If you would like to get in touch with Hayley please call 877-674-2843 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.