Could Yoga Be Used as a Prescription for Eating Disorders? ~ Anna Coventry

Via Anna Coventryon Sep 18, 2013

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Controversial? Maybe.

I’ll throw this out there though and see what comes back because as both a yoga teacher and ex eating disordee, this is a subject that I feel deserves a little more airtime.

Even now, in 2013, the eating disorder statistics are off the charts. In addition to those people suffering from chronic forms such as anorexia, bulimia, addiction to diet pills or the new-fangled orthorexia, there are a shocking number of people—both male and female—who have an extremely unhealthy relationship with food.

An unhealthy relationship doesn’t just mean throwing up after every meal. Heavily restricted diets are perhaps more socially acceptable but they too, paint a picture of a poor self-image and a need to control.

The really difficult part of suffering from any kind of eating/food disorder is that it stares you in the face 2 or 3 times a day.  It’s not like having a fear of spiders, where you can largely (unless you live in Australia) avoid having to deal with them. We have to eat to survive so it becomes this crazy mental battle that affects every part of your life.

The worst part is how covert sufferers are, making it really difficult for people to help them until things get really bad.

I’ll leave the reasons why so many people suffer this way for another time (so I won’t mention the fact that most mainstream media companies are still using unrealistic models to advertise products and services, creating a subliminal desire to look like someone we can never be) but I will highlight that eating disorders don’t just affect one aspect of us. They usually begin in the mind and then start to affect the emotions, energy, spirit and of course the body. Surely then, it makes sense to treat with a holistic health system that focuses on the whole person?

Enter yoga.

My (short) story.

My relationship with eating disorders lasted for about 10 years and covered the full spectrum. I’d move from one type to the other, always keeping quiet about my inner struggles and always trying to justify to myself that I was doing what I needed to in order to stay at my perceived physical best (which for some reason resembled Barbie, but because of genetics, without the big boobs).

I’d become so restricted with what I ate that I didn’t get a period for 4.5 years. It wasn’t until I tried yoga at age 27 that I began to heal. On every level.

How yoga helped me.

I noticed a change in how I viewed my body straight after my first yoga class. Of course I didn’t completely revamp my self-image within 24 hours, but I did begin to see myself in a different light. After a couple of weeks of practicing, I started to view my body with a foreign thing called respect and after a couple of months of regular practice, I began to listen to what my body was asking for and changed my diet accordingly.

This was an entirely new phenomena, given I usually ate only what my mind decided upon, and as a result I went from being underweight and miserable, to healthy and light.

So how exactly does yoga help?

Where do I start?

The physical postures in yoga help to bring everything back to a place of equilibrium. This is particularly relevant with the endocrine system, a group of glands that control many of the important bodily functions. By the squeeze and release effect the postures have on these glands yoga can help regulate metabolism, appetite and menstrual cycles, all of which are affected by eating disorders.

The awareness that a person develops through a yoga practice can help their relationship with their body. It leads them to realize exactly what their body is doing for them every day, and more poignantly, what it is capable of. This increases the desire to respect and honor the body and this alone can be transformational.

In addition to all the physical benefits, yoga facilitates improvements on an energetic level. Eating disorders can often create blockages within the energetic system resulting in a dull, lethargic quality. The postures actually unblock and shift that energy, resulting in a much lighter feeling overall.

On a mind level, yoga increases awareness. We become more aware of how we breathe, how we move and eventually, how we think. We can only change something if we are aware of it so yoga creates opportunities to challenge negative mental patterns around body image and begin to change them.

Meditation is not always incorporated in to yoga classes and while I think it should be, at the very least you always get the opportunity to relax at the end of class. Relaxation is a profoundly important aspect of healing—of any kind—and is not ordinarily something we go around doing.

Yoga is an art form. Yoga is a life science. Yoga is an ancient health system that should be used more widely as a modern day healing modality, particularly for issues of a mental and emotional kind.

So, do you agree? Could yoga really be a prescription for eating/food disorders?

I obviously think so.

 

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Asst. Ed.: Linda Jockers/Ed: Bryonie Wise

About Anna Coventry

Anna Coventry is a 500hr RYT and writer who grew up in New Zealand and is now an international yoga gypsy. She has a deep love for all things yoga and is an advocate for the transformative powers of the practice. She loves sharing yoga with the world, whether it’s teaching a class or writing about it and her aim is to inspire as many people as possible to get on to the mat, and to stay there! Anna enjoys sharing her thoughts, ideas and experiences in a light-hearted and honest way on her website Bubbles and Backbends. You can also find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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9 Responses to “Could Yoga Be Used as a Prescription for Eating Disorders? ~ Anna Coventry”

  1. Anna says:

    Thank you for this.

  2. Jennifer says:

    Boy, I think you're right on the mark with this one.

    I grew up watching my mother struggle with eating disorders for which there were no names. She was afraid of being allergic to every food that she ate, despite the fact that she never tested positive for any kind of allergies at all. She limited her diet so severely that when she passed away from multiple organ failure in 2008, she was subsisting on a diet of three things: stew meat (beef), one particular brand of organic carrot baby food, and frozen broccoli.

    Then, two years ago, I came down with strange and violent digestive symptoms, and after multiple medical tests turned up nothing out of the ordinary, I was sent on my merry way to go home and struggle with 35 years of repressed anxiety and depression. Last year, the anxiety got so bad that I couldn't leave the house without becoming nauseous or getting the dry heaves. I couldn't make it to the grocery store without having an anxiety attack about getting sick. I started to limit my diet to "safe" foods that wouldn't upset my stomach, but even then, facing a meal, any meal, even one cooked at home entirely with "safe" foods sent me off into a string of anxiety attacks that would end in excruciating stomach pain and dry heaves – kind of like a self-fulfilling prophecy. I worried constantly that I was actually suffering from cancer and that the doctors had just missed the signs – which was exactly one of the behaviors exhibited by my mother.

    I was receiving acupuncture treatment for my digestive problems, but not for my anxiety. To compound my eating disorder, my acupuncturist was one of those "paleo diet" people who kept insisting that I needed to eat meat to heal myself. She told me all about "leaky gut" syndrome and made me believe that I was slowly poisoning myself by eating things like legumes and grains. (I've been a vegetarian for over 10 years now. I was a vegetarian all through my pregnancy and gave birth to a healthy 11 lb 2 oz baby boy in 2008.) I was starting to have more anxiety attacks over my diet – eating meat didn't feel right to me, but here was this person whom I trusted, telling me that if I didn't start eating meat, I was never going to get better.

    Finally, I did something to my back last fall and decided that maybe I should take up yoga again as a daily practice to strengthen my muscles and prevent future back problems. What I discovered in those yoga classes was nothing short of a miracle.

    First, I had/have an incredible teacher who teaches self-care and self-compassion as a huge part of the practice of yoga. She is gentle and encouraging and brilliant, and I am blessed every day to have stumbled into her studio.

    Second, doing yoga again showed me that there really wasn't anything wrong with my body. Doing yoga showed me that my body was stronger than I thought.

    Around this time, it was suggested to me by a psychiatrist that I start taking prescription drugs for my anxiety. I had a couple of problems with this: the side effects from the drugs were worse than the physical symptoms of the anxiety. And the drugs wouldn't really be a good long-term solution – they wouldn't do anything to fix my problem. It was like putting a band-aid on a gunshot wound.

    I have to admit, I had a couple of wizz-bang anxiety attacks those first few weeks in yoga class. Once, I even had to leave in the middle of a class and drive home because I was so terrified that I was going to throw up right there in class.

    I started finding emotional release in yoga class, too. Every time I pushed back into downward dog during a sun salutation, I would start to cry. The first couple of times I got into pigeon pose, my shoulders heaved and shook with years of repressed sadness suddenly flowing out of me.

    Most of all, yoga taught me to how to quiet my mind enough that I could recognize what was happening during an anxiety attack. I am actually now able to recognize when an attack is imminent because I can discern what is regular thought and what is anxiety "chatter" going on in my head. Imagine my surprise the first time that the old "you're going to get sick from this food" thoughts popped up but I was able to set them aside, hearing my yoga teacher's voice in the back of my head saying, "No, not now. Acknowledge these thoughts and release them."

    Practicing yoga daily has taught me so much about myself, my body, and how to practice self-care and self-compassion, something that every sufferer of an eating disorder needs to know. I'm happy to report that while I still occasionally have an anxiety attack, I feel as though I have reclaimed my life. I feel like I am better in tune with my body, and I am no longer afraid.

  3. Thanks so much for writing this Anna. It's an important point and I agree with everything. But I would like to point out that there is also a dark side. Many people use yoga as a way to sidestep or even facilitate their eating disorders. Intense practice is a great way to avoid feeling and processing the trauma that has often precipitated the ED. Additionally the cultural perpetuation of vata deranged body types is strong in the yoga world. I once was looking at the cover of Yoga Journal – nothing terribly interesting, just a woman doing a pose, but then I opened the magazine and on the inside was a picture of her next to the crew that did the photo shoot – the comparison was shocking. She was completely anorexic but I couldn't tell that until I saw the contrast. You can't examine EDs without a cultural critique. The commodification of women (mostly) has certainly infected western yoga culture and helped to spread the disorder. Yes, yoga can help EDs, but it can also perpetuate them.

    • Liz says:

      I would like to say that I agree with you entirely Kristine, and it's great to see someone highlighting this alternative side to yoga. When practiced with care, yoga can be incredibly powerful in supporting someone to become more at peace with their body. But the mind of someone suffering from an ED searches for opportunities to control weight, and sadly I feel that if yoga is introduced too soon it can do more harm than good. I have been to too many yoga classes where weight loss is still the ultimate aim, and this is a dangerous environment (in my opinion) for someone who is still so vulnerable to this influence. This is a brilliant topic, and I'm certainly enjoying reading about different people's perspectives. Thank you Anna.

  4. Anna says:

    Wow Jennifer, I’m so glad you have found yoga and that your practice (and your teacher by the sounds) is guiding you in such a positive direction :) Anna

  5. Maxime says:

    Thank you for this!! I've been thinking about this and talking to some other people about it lately and it's great to see that other people see this too. I totally agree with you, yoga is the thing that helped me (and is still helping me) with my ED. I'm currently doing both a yoga teacher training and a psychology degree and I would very much like to find a method to help people with EDs with both.

  6. CINDY says:

    Show me a 'non pencil thin' / once EDisordered yoga student who is 'healed' and I will call the perscription effective. Till then , I see another form of obsession that hides an ED ( eating disorder)

  7. Justyn says:

    This is so true, as yoga launched the deeper aspects of recovery from my own battle with anorexia. Without the key piece of yoga I would not be where I am today

  8. jodie says:

    I believe it can help. It has helped me tremendously. I respect my body. I feel my emotions. I, with medical intervention, healed my body first, which I think was key. I then stepped onto my mat and began hard work. Many days it wasn't and still isn't easy. Other days, I crave my mat.

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