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Yoga for Eating Disorders: Helpful or Harmful?

3 Heart it! Ashley Rydeen 709
October 26, 2018
Ashley Rydeen
3 Heart it! 709

Yoga and Eating Disorders:  Helpful or Harmful?

There are a slew of treatment options, paths, and plans for overcoming eating disorders and while one method may be the perfect fit for some, that same treatment could potentially send another deeper into despair. This paradigm is true of yoga as well. With its many modalities, studio styles, and teaching approaches, yoga is not a one-size-fits-all practice. Whether it be finding the right treatment or finding the right style of yoga, the search becomes deeply personal and individualized. This complex inner relationship makes it difficult to find a definitive answer to the question: Is practicing yoga while living with an eating disorder helpful or harmful?

As I began to research the utilization of yoga as a therapeutic activity for those struggling with this disease, I was surprised to see several articles suggesting these individuals may be better off staying away from the practice. Many psychologists and counselors warned of yoga’s potential to heighten body shaming and idolization leading to harmful eating  restrictions. They wrote of worsened obsessive mind-states and compulsive tendencies around eating and exercise. As I believe their findings are valid, my own experience has given me a different perspective.

Now, before I get too deep into this, let me explain that I am not trained in mental health nor do I work with this population of people daily. What I am is a 24-year-old female, a dedicated yoga student, a Certified Yoga Teacher and, as uncomfortable as it feels to type, I am recovering from an eating disorder. I live this every day. Through my journey I have experienced opposing effects, both harm and healing rooted in the practice of yoga. Early on, the practice worsened my inner battle with body image, only to later become the life raft I’ve clung to through recovery.

What I offer to you all is my story, my perspective, and my support.

I have struggled with this all-consuming disorder for six years. In that time, I have experienced self-induced suffering to a debilitating degree. Up until recently, my body and I were never separate. I was my body. I truly believed that the reflection in my mirror was all that I had. If my body was not “perfect,” I was failing. My reality was comprised of compulsive behavior to consume the smallest bits of food necessary to stay upright mixed with an addiction to exercise. The success of my day would be measured by the number of calories burned versus number of calories consumed. Like so many living with this illness, my mind was hyper focused on the shapes and sizes around me, idolizing the ones I saw as “perfect” while I silently condemned my personal shortcomings. The intense physical exertion coupled with lack of sustenance left little energy for me to find my way out.

I was first exposed to yoga by my sister. Strong, slender, and beautiful, she would gracefully flow through her home practice while I watched in awe. I wanted so badly to look like her. At that point I had yet to take a yoga class. My sister knew I would never dare try on my own so during a family vacation we took an excursion to a Bikram Yoga studio. She had never taken this modality but with it being the only studio around, we went for it. I was in the height of my illness, so the promise of an intense and sweaty workout made me giddy.

Inside that mirror lined and carpeted 102-degree room, I was introduced to a physically demanding practice based on ultrahigh expectations and demeaning words for those who could not rise. Upon first seeing the students, I thought, “The bodies in here, they are so strong, so toned, so perfect.” These were the types of bodies I so desperately wanted to live in. The laser focused students moved in ways I had never seen while sweat poured onto their mats below. I was entranced by the whole experience as I hid in the back corner watching and mimicking as best I could. As soon as we left, I whipped out my phone to research how many calories I had just burned… my eyes widened almost as much as the corners of my mouth. I then researched the closest studio to my apartment, made an account, bought a membership, and scheduled my first week of classes all before leaving the parking lot.

For the next year and a half, I followed a strict and dangerous schedule of daily, sometimes twice a day, 75-minute classes and 50-hour work weeks while begrudgingly consuming only enough calories to keep my heart beating through it all. I would begin class by identifying the most “in shape” person in the room. They would become my drishti, or focal point, while I pushed my body past it’s limits. This was dangerous, this was harmful. For someone as consumed by their harsh inner voice as I was, this practice was the last thing I should have been a part of. I continued to fall deeper and deeper into self-condemnation fueled by my new perfection hungry community.

Here is where my experience matches the research I’ve read outlining the potential which yoga holds to worsen a patient’s beliefs about their body.  A practice focused on perfection yet void of support and encouragement can breed a new strain of self-critical thought. Harsh and cruel words were shouted at me daily as I absorbed them into my soul. I’d carry my teacher’s criticisms home to stew over for hours on my lackluster being.

Regardless of how poorly I was treated or how many light headed, shaky moments I had during class, I did go back.  Again and again, and for a reason. Underneath the severe dialogue and grueling physical practice was strength. Little sparks of inner power would ignite, burning a bit longer and brighter each class. After spending years disassociating with my body, I began to feel it once again. I was pleased in discovering new ways to control and restrict it but over time that connection led me to see it as capable. Even so, I was disintegrating more and more with each day. Until finally, I broke.

A foot injury took me out for 3 months. I was angry and terrified. I resented my body for being so weak. Instead of caring for it, I deprived it even more fearing that without physical exertion I would begin to widen. When I was finally granted the “go ahead” to return to my practice, I had moved to a new state and was on the hunt for a Bikram Studio. During my first practice back, I could feel something had changed. I felt so disconnected, almost bored with the dialogue, inside and out. What I thought I missed terribly, I felt I could now go without. So I decided it to search for a “new yoga” and found one that shifted everything.

Baptiste Power Yoga. A studio built on Baptiste methodology by a Certified Baptiste teacher who personally trained her 30+ teachers to uphold and share the values of this practice. They were kind, welcoming, supportive. They shared stories and tidbits of wisdom while igniting their classes with the motivation needed to rise and fulfill their potential. They suggested modifications and applauded students who took Child’s Pose during class. They asked questions about me and often stayed after to answer questions I had for them. They called my practice beautiful, graceful, strong. They introduced me to other students who later became dear friends. I was taken aback by these strangers who believed in my potential, who offered endless support and kindness. A kindness that was genuine and pure. A kindness which made me question everything I believed about myself.

Each teacher began class with a theme that seemed to be directed straight at my heart. They spoke about being a stand for myself, about letting go of the stories that are holding me back. They shared raw and honest moments of hardships turned lessons which formed a surprisingly real connection. Humor and laughs infused class at a rate matching foundational cues. Class by class and day by day, I began to feel more whole. I was feeling the power and potential of my body while I learned it’s, and my, worth. Small glimmers of light, self-love, would shine through and burst my heart wide open sending tears streaming down my face. I remember a time I flowed through the entire first portion of class shamelessly bawling after my teacher urged her students to not allow our past to define us because we are not done yet.

Yoga became my therapy. Yoga was healing me from the inside out. The body which I spent years berating with abuse became my vessel for growth. A practice that once meant nothing more than 700 calories burned was now a lifeline begging me for nourishment. Through the first 6 months or so, I was still practicing compulsively (I mean hey, breaking habits takes some time) but each practice brought me closer to myself and closer to a plate of food at dinner time. I knew there was more for me and I knew I wouldn’t be able to find it if I kept up the unsustainable pace of my past.

After months vigorously digging myself out of the muck I decided to enroll in my studio’s teacher training. I was eager to extend my lifeline to others. I’m honored to say that I now get to do just that through my own classes at the very studio who helped pull me out of the dark. I’m not sure I’ll ever be able to find the words to truly sum up this journey and the impact yoga has had on my recovery. However, what I will say is that yes, yoga has the potential to positively impact those battling the inner demons of an eating disorder. But also, yes, yoga can potentially exacerbate them.

I believe a huge determining factor between harm or healing stems from what exactly a student is exposed to. It is imperative to find intuitive teachers who deeply care about the well-being and wholeness of their students. Teachers who can guide students down a path of learning self-connection, self-respect and untimely self-love. I urge those of us struggling to find our way out of this vicious cycle to keep searching for the light. And to those of us who teach and lead our communities, I ask that we notice. To become or remain keenly aware of the physical and emotional states of our students. To offer a helping hand through our efforts to build true connections with them. We all need someone to cheer us on while challenging us to grow beyond the binds which hold us down. So, notice, take action, and be of support as we all journey into our power. 

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3 Heart it! Ashley Rydeen 709
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