Eating disorders create a disconnect from one’s physical self, one’s emotional self and one’s spiritual self. Although food, through binging, starving or purging, is the mechanism, it is this disconnect that is often the most distressing facet of eating disorders. The journey of recovery is an individual one, that involves getting back to a natural state of balance and harmony. One path to this is yoga.
The term yoga has many meanings, and is derived from the Sanskrit root yuj, meaning “to unite.” Although many people think of yoga as a type of exercise, yoga is actually a philosophy that teaches that a healthy person is a harmoniously integrated unit of body, mind and spirit. Yoga is best known for its physical practices that include gentle stretches (Asanas), breathing (Pranayama), and relaxation. These physical practices ready the body and mind for a meditative perspective on life, which has great utility for those struggling with eating disorders. Additionally, yoga, a form of mindfulness, stresses self-acceptance and self-compassion.
A recent study conducted in Australia, found that yoga can help women who binge eat. Study participants attended a 12-week yoga program that included postures, breathing, relaxation, and meditation and emphasized non-judgmental awareness of thoughts, sensations, and emotions. By the end of the program, the women reported less binge-eating, higher self-esteem, and a more positive body image.
Maggie Juliano is the director of Sprout Yoga in Media, Pa., would not be surprised by this outcome. Sprout Yoga’s mission is to provide free yoga classes to people with eating disorders. On her website, Juilano cites research that shows that yoga results in decreased eating disorder symptoms, and decreased food preoccupation. She also says that people who practice yoga have greater body awareness, are more satisfied with their bodies and have increased ability to self-soothe.
Juliano, who was recently interviewed by Psychology Today, teaches her students how to connect to their bodies when they’re feeling as if they need to use symptoms such as binging or purging. “It can be as simple as bringing your palms together and pressing your hands together as you exhale. Or standing in mountain pose, rooting your feet into the ground, and feeling your breath.” The physical sensations become an anchor for the mind, and this can disrupt urges. Juliano also teaches students to accept their bodies. Yoga’s goal is not the outcome of doing a certain number of repetitions or performing in a certain way, but in the process of being in the moment with the body.
In looking for a yoga class, be aware of the factors discussed in this article. They should choose a style of yoga that is right for them, such as Iyengar, Hatha or Kundalini, which emphasize gentle movement, breath, and meditative practices. It is also important to be comfortable with the teacher, who sets the tone for the class. Teachers generally welcome questions and get to know their students. If you feel comfortable, let him or her know that one of your goals is help with the eating disorder.