Yoga Therapy for Eating Disorders

Millions of us struggle with our relationships to food and our bodies. These struggles may include food phobias (“If I eat that, I will balloon into x-number of pounds”), ideas about good and bad foods (“If I eat that ‘bad’ food, then I’m bad”), rigid food rules (“If I eat only this many calories, I will be safe”), binge-purge strategies (large amounts of food eaten in a frenzy over a relatively short period of time, ending in regret or disgust and prompting a purge strategy, such as vomiting, laxatives, compulsive exercise, or increased food rigidity), and/or yo-yo dieting (serial dieting to relieve body-centered feelings of not-good-enough, or the promise of finally losing those last 10 pounds forever). Every day, I’m asked, “What can I do to stop this?” My first aim is to alleviate suffering: A primary cause of suffering is the internalized voices of shame that both underlie and keep in motion disordered eating and self-harm cycles. Helping people discover their innate vitality and wisdom lessens their suffering. These attributes may be hidden under painful behaviors and thoughts, yet they still exist.

Yoga teaches that life longs to live itself through each of us vibrantly, uniquely, and beautifully. This expression is more likely to flourish when we aren’t under siege from our shame voices, and when we aren’t interrupting, suppressing, or trying to coerce our vitality. Herein lies one of the great gems of yoga as a therapeutic tool.

>> Alleviating Suffering, Promoting Vitality

Throughout my 16+ years of working with clients as a yoga therapist, I’ve found that most share a painful belief that there is something intrinsically and irredeemably wrong with them. Shame convinces us that we’re broken, flawed, worth punishing, deserving of pain, and in need of fixing. Yoga illuminates a more abiding truth about each of us: We were born as love, innocence, and radiance. Yoga provides a body-centered recognition of this as breath and movement dissipate the physical and mental residues of shame and bring to life this underlying truth. With consistent yoga practice, we develop a healthier inner dialogue, nourish our brain and body chemistry toward vitality, and foster our ability to remember the deeper truth of who we are most abidingly.

To lessen the “shame about shame,” let’s understand how shame occurs. We’re born vulnerable to the capacity of those around us to see, revel in, and nourish us. If our early experiences are mis-attuned, painful, chaotic, frightening, or occur during family or historical events that depress or make anxious our parents or care providers, we’re vulnerable to internalizing this milieu as messages about our own lovability, worth, and safety in the world. We may develop patterns of fear, anxiety, frustration, loneliness, or resignation. Both our limbic (emotional) and reptilian (base-metabolic function) brains absorb these impressions and develop biochemical, neurological, physiological—and then mental and emotional—baselines wired for fear rather than love, belonging, and awe. Being wired for fear suppresses our innate vitality, as our brain and body systems navigate for fight-flight-freeze-submit patterns in preparation for threatening events—even if today’s threat is just the brownie in the kitchen or the scale in the bathroom. This negatively affects our digestive, endocrine, and immune systems, which would otherwise promote radiance, ease, and personal buoyancy.

Fortunately, by directly affecting the areas of the brain that would otherwise keep us anxious and food-or-diet driven, yoga has the capacity to release these layers of pain and directly nudge our internal eco-systems back to health and vitality, to return to love, belonging, and awe.

The three foundational teachings of using yoga therapy to bring about recovery from food struggles include: ensuring your current behaviors make sense, noticing that your innate vitality is worth nourishing, and developing new life skills. These are essential to abate symptoms and recover the intrinsic joy and love that were meant to be expressed through you.

>> 1. Your Behaviors Make Sense

All behaviors arise to meet our valid needs. Via experimentation, mimicking, or tutorship from care providers, along the way we discover what will work to ease the pain we’re in. We seek to settle our anxiety, build our confidence, boost our boredom, or soothe our loneliness. If food or other behaviors work once, and twice, and then again, we’re likely to adopt these strategies for navigating our needs. But since food can’t actually satiate our needs, we experience the coupling of shame about our behaviors with an underlying angst-filled hunger that we can’t quite identify as our food cycles distract us.

Though your long-standing behaviors make sense and arose to meet valid needs, your behaviors were meant to keep evolving with, and on behalf of, your life. Ideally, each of us continually cultivates behaviors that nourish our capacity, help us vibrantly express our life values, and create relationships. Yoga promotes both the courage and capacity to develop these new life skills.

>> 2. Your Innate Vitality is Worth Nourishing

The innate vitality in humans, much like in nature and life at large, is imbued with intelligence wanting to care for us. In yoga therapy, we call this “underlying body intelligence.” Much of this intelligence operates without us having to coordinate it. For example, your fingernails are growing themselves right now.

Aspects of your body intelligence invite you to partner wisely with their mechanisms so that you can flourish. For example, your body and brain will both work better when you breathe properly. To breathe properly is an act of self-respect and self-nourishment. Committing to diaphragmatic (rather than anxious) breathing will initially require constancy of attention and self-respect. As a result, this practice will also build your mental muscles, those required to develop additional self-nurturing skills. This is self-nurturing discipline, the discipline required to nurture, not to punish or “get control over,” yourself.

To nourish your innate vitality, use the Seven Body Dashboard Essentials:

  1. Hydration (enough water throughout the day)
  2. Deep rest (good sleep as well as brain-restoring yoga practices)
  3. Nourishment (maintaining balanced blood sugar)
  4. Heart rate up (cardiovascular exercise)
  5. Connecting with nature (through all five senses)
  6. Right-brain activities (mindful movement, creativity, imagination)
  7. Elimination (the obvious, plus laughing and crying)

Beginning with any one of these reveals and develops your relationship to self-nurturance and to your vitality. Blessedly, committing to this self-nurturance improves not only your ability to navigate food and body choices, but also your brain chemistry—while teaching you the essential life skills of recovery.

>> 3. Essential Life Skills

Food might have become a diversion, preventing you from further developing your life skills, but just as yoga heals the body, it also teaches you the life skills you need for recovery and for life.

Getting in the Gap: This mindfulness-based skill trains the mind to get Grounded in the here and now, to wield Attention, and to gradually become Present. Whether you are mindfully breathing or stretching a muscle, develop non-judgmental curiosity and kindness toward your thoughts, feelings, and sensations. This process fundamentally calms your brain and soothes fear.

Getting Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable: Life, recovery, and personal growth will all require you to navigate discomfort. If you’ve narrowed your bandwidth for tolerating discomfort, you’ll be more anxious, which is echoed in your breathing. Yoga teaches you about getting comfortable feeling uncomfortable with varieties of body-centered sensations, such as muscles stretching, as well as the sensations of and any discomfort associated with ease, contentment, elation, poignancy, or joy.

Moving from Love, not Shame: As you breathe, move, and respect your body and brain, you also transform your internal conversation from one of shame to one of love. This expands your kindness with yourself as well as toward others. You’ll develop networks of companions also recovering from shame. We all become more kind, compassionate, and wise.

Personal Buoyancy: Yoga teaches you to care for and increase your resilience. Through the Body Dashboard activities, you restore your physiological buoyancy. Developing your self-respect, kindness toward yourself and others, and companionship in recovery also boosts your personal, relational, and spiritual buoyancy.

Developing these yogic tools will give you the freedom to create a new life. One that truly satisfies your mind, body, and full self—one free from disordered eating and the shame that arises from it.

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