by Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, CYT
As an athlete in early recovery from an eating disorder, I first started practicing yoga as a physical activity that wouldn’t tempt me to overexercise or become obsessed with burning calories.
Initially, my yoga practice was purely physical. I focused on learning the asanas or poses. I remember the thrill of observing how, with consistent practice, I could twist and fold a little deeper or balance on one foot a little longer.
But unlike other forms of exercise that had been triggering for me, I found that yoga is much deeper than the physical body, and deepening my yoga practice was healing, not exacerbating my eating disorder behaviors.
It was exciting to be a member of a community and make new friends who were also experiencing a greater appreciation for what their bodies were capable of. Little by little, my relationship with my body changed. I learned to reframe my strength and to release my grip on numbers—how much I should weigh, how much I was allowed to eat, and what size jeans I had to wear.
Today I’m a yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. I have found that integrating yoga concepts into eating disorder recovery can have a significant impact on how someone feels about – and within – their body.
Most of us in the West think of yoga as a physical exercise, but what many people don’t realize is that the physical exercises are in pursuit of mental health and relaxation. Using breath control, simple meditation and specific bodily postures, we learn to truly live within our bodies rather than observe them from the outside and judge them based on appearance. By integrating our whole selves – body, mind, and soul – those of us in recovery find a deep level of healing from our eating disorders.
In my work, I help others develop yoga practices and tools based to incorporate into their recovery. These tools and practices provide a sense of empowerment and space for healing. They also cultivate self-reliance, a motivation for recovery, and a renewed and/or improving the relationship with one’s body. For these reasons and more, Yoga can be beneficial of individuals recovering from an eating disorder.
Here is a list of some of the general benefits of Yoga based on my own life, what clients have shared, and current research.
- Improve overall sense of self
- Quiet the eating disorder voice
- Redefine the relationship with your body
- Cultivate compassion and curiosity about your body
- Explore moments of feeling comfortable in your body
- Strengthen your self-expression
- Reframe how and why we feed our bodies
- Expand your world to be so much more than food, symptoms, and body image
- Help manage depression and anxiety
- Cultivate self-reliance
- Increase self-worth
- Enhance physical strength and health
- Improve organ function
- Calm the central nervous system
- Establish new beliefs grounded in health versus disordered eating
- Complement traditional forms of treatment and therapy
These benefits are truly transformative and can make a significant impact on your child’s ability to fully heal from an eating disorder. If you are a parent of a child who has an eating disorder, I encourage you to support your loved one’s interest in adding yoga to their recovery. As a supportive therapy, yoga can cultivate resilience and infuse your child’s recovery with new energy, concepts, and motivation. They will also learn new ways to relate to and experience their bodies.
It is important to understand, however, that some of today’s yoga marketing and studios, or certain aspects of them, can actually obscure the deeper meaning of yoga, make it challenging to feel at ease. Therefore, parents should carefully evaluate the yoga studio environment before enrolling their child who is in recovery from an eating disorder.
Like all fitness endeavors today, yoga has fallen prey to the social media imagery promoting a particular body type. The yoga selfie craze can breed body comparison, and the hyper-focus on yoga as fitness can encourage competition with oneself and others.
Also, when marketed as fitness, there’s a risk that the essence of Yoga—the aspects that guide healing and self-empowerment—can get lost in translation. As a result, old workout patterns and motivations may resurface, causing more damage than good in the short-term.
It is not uncommon to find people who are on the spectrum for disordered eating teaching yoga classes. Depending on where they fall on the spectrum, some yoga instructors may inadvertently make comments about nutrition, including recommending juice cleanses, vegetarian or veganism, or other eating behaviors that can be dangerous for someone who is in recovery. If attending an in-person class, you may want to discuss this with the studio to determine which teachers are likely to be least triggering to your child.
In early eating disorder treatment, it’s best to avoid heated studios, as your child may not be physically restored enough for this environment. Also, classes in heated studios tend to be more physically demanding. If your child has a history of trauma, I also recommend you seek out yoga teachers trained in trauma sensitivity. You might also consider your child works with a yoga therapist with a background in eating disorders to help guide his or her experience in a supportive way.
Luckily, for the long-term, there are many, many yoga options available, including a plethora of studios offering a variety of styles, books, and DVDs, YouTube videos, and other apps for home practice. The Internet makes yoga philosophy easily accessible and readable, as well as information about other practices like mantra, meditation, breathing exercises, and grounding techniques.
Yoga is not a quick fix; rather it’s a lifelong practice that complements and supports our ongoing healing. It reminds us that we are so much more than an eating disorder and the disarray this disease brings to our lives. To quote the famous yogi B. K. S. Iyengar: “Yoga allows you to rediscover a sense of wholeness in your life, where you do not feel like you are constantly trying to fit broken pieces together.”
Jennifer recently released a 3-part video series that is a wonderful option for someone in recovery. If your child is building a new relationship with his or her body and would benefit from a thoughtful yoga practice, consider this video series as an excellent (and affordable!) tool.
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, CYT, is the founder of Chime Yoga Therapy and specializes in eating disorders and body image. In addition to her private yoga therapy practice, Jennifer leads yoga therapy groups at the Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia, is cofounder of the Body Kindness Project, and a partner with both the Yoga and Body Image Coalition and the Transformation Yoga Project. She is the creator of the home video series Yoga to Strengthen Body Image and Support Eating Disorder Recovery. Her writing on the topics of yoga, body image, motherhood, and eating disorder recovery can be found on her blog as well as a variety of publications, including YogaLiving Magazine, Recovery Warriors, Women For One, The Mighty, The National Eating Disorder Association blog, and several other influential online publications. Jennifer has been featured in the Huffington Post, Women You Should Know, Medill Reports Chicago, Philly.com, and the DailyDot. Connect with Jennifer: www.ChimeYogaTherapy.com.