~~ This season’s blog is written by Guest Blogger Jacqueline Allman, graduate student in Plymouth University’s Eating Disorders Institute. She wrote this article as part of my “Nutrition Fundamentals and Counseling in Eating Disorders Recovery“ course this past summer. Thank you, Jacquie, for a helpful post about the benefits and pitfalls of incorporating yoga into eating disorders recovery work. ~~
Feet planted wide, I twist, breathe, and open into triangle pose. My body relaxes into the pose, and I feel a calm energy as I connect to the energy of the pose. Tension melts away. I feel strong, alive, and nourished.
Yoga was the first type of exercise that spoke to me. With three young children, I started a morning yoga self-care practice in my early thirties. My yoga practice helped to connect me with my feelings and my body. Yoga grounded me for the day ahead. While I still practice yoga occasionally, I now find joy in many types of movement. I credit yoga with teaching me that movement was something to enjoy.
Yoga is an embodied experience. It has been shown in studies to change the neurophysiology of the brain, increasing the neurotransmitters serotonin, dopamine, and melatonin—which help regulate mood—while decreasing cortisol, our fight-or-flight stress hormone. Studies have shown that yoga can help to decrease depression, anxiety, PTSD, and eating disorder symptoms. Yoga increases introspective awareness, the ability to be aware of your internal bodily state, including hunger and fullness cues, feelings, and pain.
Body dissatisfaction was recently shown to decrease significantly in women ages eighteen to thirty who practiced yoga twice a week for twelve weeks. Body dissatisfaction is linked to poor self-esteem and depression and increases the risk of eating disorders, so yoga may help women develop healthier relationships to their bodies (Ariel-Donges et al, 2019).
Practicing yoga involves attentive focus and awareness of internal body sensations. In a wholesome environment, yoga teaches self-compassion and resilience. Given all the potential benefits, should we all consider practicing yoga? Here is a potential pitfall. Simply because yoga can be beneficial in the treatment of eating disorders does not indicate that it will be helpful for all. Movement, at its best, is something we enjoy, not a prescription or a “should.” The very act of making it a should counteracts the embodied, connective aspect of the practice. As Heidi Schauster suggests in her book Nourish: “Physical activity is truly about being in your body…and being present.” (Schauster, 2018, p 106). She challenges the idea that exercise should be tedious, exhausting, or punishing, asserting instead that movement should be joyful and aligned with your own body’s wisdom about what type and how much activity is enough or right for you. For many, yoga can fill that need. Whatever exercise you choose, mindful, conscious movement will feel good to the soul.
If you think that yoga might fulfill these parameters for you, read on. For not all yoga classes, videos, and instructors help us to accept and celebrate our bodies. Indeed, yoga can contribute to negative body image and destructive behaviors. Chelsea Roff, founder of Eat Breathe Thrive, a non-profit organization dedicated to preventing and helping individuals overcome eating disorders, struggled with anorexia in her youth. A yoga instructor herself, her organization trains yoga instructors to teach mindful eating and body confidence. In her article, “The Truth about Yoga and Eating Disorders,” she addresses potential dangers and concerns. Yoga teachers themselves may suffer from distorted body image or disordered eating. Their language may reinforce body dissatisfaction and unachievable stereotypes rather than self-awareness and acceptance. Similar to other forms of exercise, yoga can become prescriptive or compulsive. Studios may have a judgmental atmosphere or encourage radical cleanses and eating styles. However, in a body-positive, supportive environment, yoga can increase body acceptance and awareness.
Still interested in finding out if yoga is a form of movement that will feed your body and soul? Look for classes that are therapeutic such as relaxing, restorative, or gentle yoga. When taking a class, pay attention to how you feel in the class. Do you feel accepted and comfortable or judged and awkward? Are the participants and instructors of varying shapes and sizes? Is the language positive, emphasizing self-care, self-compassion, and loving awareness? Better yet, look for instructors who have been trained to work with eating disorders and trauma recovery. Yoga can become an important part of recovery. Take the time to listen to yourself and your body and find out if it is right for you.
Ariel-Donges, A., Gordon, E., Bauman, V., & Perri, M. (2019). Does yoga help college-aged women with body-image dissatisfaction feel better about their bodies? Sex Roles : A Journal of Research, 80(1-2), 41-51. doi:10.1007/s11199-018-0917-5
Cook-Cottone, C., Talebkhah, K., Guyker, W., & Keddie, E. (2017). A controlled trial of a yoga- based prevention program targeting eating disorder risk factors among middle school females. Eating Disorders, 25(5), 392-405. doi:10.1080/10640266.2017.1365562
Douglass, L. (2011). Thinking through the body: The conceptualization of yoga as therapy for individuals with eating disorders. Eating Disorders, 19(1), 83-96. doi:10.1080/10640266.2011.533607
Douglass, L. (2009). Yoga as an intervention in the treatment of eating disorders: Does it help? Eating Disorders, 17(2), 126-139.
Hall, A., Ofei-Tenkorang, N., Machan, J., & Gordon, C. (2016). Use of yoga in outpatient eating disorder treatment: A pilot study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 4, 38-38.
Eat Breathe Thrive. (n.d.). Retrieved August 1, 2019, from https://www.eatbreathethrive.org/
Karlsen, K., Vrabel, K., Bratland-Sanda, S., Ulleberg, P., & Benum, K. (2018). Effect of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders: A single-blinded randomized controlled trial with 6-months follow-up. International Journal of Yoga, 11(2), 166-169.
Kreatsoulas, J. (n.d.). Yoga For Eating Disorders. Retrieved August 1, 2019, from https://www.yoga4eatingdisorders.com/
Pacanowski, C., Diers, L., Crosby, R., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2017). Yoga in the treatment of eating disorders within a residential program: A randomized controlled trial. Eating Disorders, 25(1), 37-51.
Roff, C. (2014, September 08). The Truth About Yoga and Eating Disorders. Retrieved from https://www.yogajournal.com/lifestyle/truth-yoga-eating-disorders
Schauster, H. (2018). Nourish: How to heal your relationship with food, body, and self. Somerville, MA: Hummingbird Press.
Stapleton, P., Crighton, G. J., Carter, B., & Pidgeon, A. (2017, February 9). Self-Esteem and Body Image in Females: The mediating Role of Self-Compassion and Appearance Contingent Self-Worth. Retrieved from https://self-compassion.org/wp- content/uploads/2018/05/Stapleton2017.pdf
This season’s blog is written by Guest Blogger Jacqueline Allman, graduate student in Plymouth University’s Eating Disorders Institute.