Yoga

How Yoga Can Help Heal Eating Disorders

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Sometimes I hear from yoga teachers that they are hesitant to volunteer to work with people with eating disorders or PTSD because they feel like they don’t have adequate training. I respect that, and Sprout Yoga is working on training programs to address that, so that more yoga teachers can provide more yoga to more people. However, at the same time, a part of me thinks, it's a lot more simple than that.

I get a manicure when I am feeling like poop about myself or my body. Why? Because ages ago, maybe even lifetimes ago, I read an article about the simple things you can do to improve your body image. One of them was to find one spot on your body that you liked a lot, and treat it really well. Say, for example, you have pretty feet. Get a pedicure, buy some fancy-pants lotion for your feet and really love on that part of your body. Then, see if, week by week, you can expand that part that you like by an inch or more. Sticking with your feet, try moving up to your ankles, then your calves, pretty soon you have your entire lower body, and why not throw your hips in too? While you are at it, the belly is right there near the hips, and it's pretty good… you get the idea. So a manicure is a way for me to see that I like my hands, and that I’ve done something to appreciate my self. Body image is incredibly complicated and healing from disordered eating and body hate is complex. But there are some things that can be simple and can add up.

I think yoga is one of those things that can be simple; maybe not for everyone recovering from an eating disorder/body hate, but for many people. No one person can do all yoga poses (asanas) perfectly: it's an incredible anatomical anomaly to be able to do that. And, each day that you approach a yoga class or session, you never know what parts of you will be tighter than the day before, so on some days, a pose will be easy and you can do it with grace; on others, well, not so much. Practicing yoga requires that you remember these things each time you do it. In fact, the poses themselves will remind you of the changes in your body on a regular basis. In that way, you discover and connect with your body each time you do yoga. Just yoga. Not even yoga for special needs, or a yoga class targeted to people with ED or body hate. Just a plain old vanilla yoga class will remind you that your body is uniquely your own, and some poses will be easier for you than your neighbor on the mat next to you, just as your legs are longer or shorter than that neighbor next to you.

There are many things yoga teachers should be aware of when teaching people with ED, including body posturing, language and even specific asanas that should be avoided (for example, strenuous twists might not be advisable for people in recovery from bulimia). But the prevalence of eating disorders in the population means that at any given time in any yoga class there may be people in recovery attending the class. In other words, yoga teachers are already teaching people with or in recovery from ED.

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Studies have also shown that yoga can reduce anxiety, and separate studies have shown that the ED population has a significantly higher rate of anxiety disorders than the general population. That’s another reason that yoga can be beneficial for those in recovery. However, people with more type A personality traits should avoid yoga that is only based on stillness meditation, as studies have also shown that type A personalities have increased heart rates when told to sit quietly. So what type of yoga should they do? A flowing vinyasa class might feel delicious. A vigorous class of harder balancing poses might focus the mind off of a constant stream of negative anxiety producing thoughts and allow for a brief respite from the anxiety. Trust me, its really hard to have anxious thoughts and balance in a headstand at the same time.

So if yoga is helpful for people with ED/in recovery from ED, why don’t more people do it? Well, cost is definitely a factor. That’s why Sprout Yoga exists – to bring yoga to people who can benefit from it, for free. That’s why Sprout Yoga needs yoga teachers and yoga studios as partners and volunteers. Visit the Sprout Yoga web to sign up  – www.sproutyoga.org or to find a volunteer teacher in your area.

I know a lot of other people who don’t do yoga because they feel so self conscious in their bodies that they don’t want to go to a yoga class where they will do poses that might make them feel or look fat. This I can sympathesize with. I held back from training to be certified to teach yoga because I thought I didn’t “look like a yoga teacher.” You know what I mean, long lean lines of a body. Instead, I look like me: one part amazon, one part fertility goddess. But in my certification program I found a yoga teacher who embodied the strength and grace I’d wanted to have in my own yoga practice, but not in that traditional look (she teaches here: http://asktheyogateacher.com/about/ and is at the bottom of the page). Strong, loving, dynamic and able to move with grace and ease into a scorpion (pinchasana) she taught a killer class that had everyone no matter what size sweating and beaming. Yoga is for everyone. Yoga can be done by everyone. Some classes in some studios even accomodate women with larger bodies. http://community.nytimes.com/article/comments/2009/05/14/health/nutrition/14fitness.html

So how can yoga be of benefit to women who struggle with feeling as though they will be exposed in a yoga class? One on one teaching is an option – I teach individuals in recovery from ED alone or in classes. Then it's just me with my long monkey arms who reminds you that we all look differently and can do different things. But even just attending a yoga class can help with the feeling of exposure. When you see people you think who look ideal but who for example can’t touch their toes, yet you easily do this, you are instantly presented with an opportunity to receive information about your body. That is, you know that the ideal you are seeking is a myth – there is no perfect body that can do everything. And that won’t heal an eating disorder, but it is one more simple thing that can add up.