5 Ways Yoga Helped me Fight a Severe Eating Disorder
When you hear people talk about yoga, it’s often part of a larger conversation about mindfulness. Mindfulness is the practice of becoming aware of your thoughts, feelings, and physical sensations, without judgement. Greater mindfulness is one of the key goals and benefits of a consistent yoga practice. Through meditation, the physical asanas, and a focus on breathwork, yoga gives you the tangible skills to develop a more mindful lifestyle.
Mindfulness helps you to develop healthier relationships, gain greater self awareness, and better understand your body, so it’s no surprise that therapists and doctors are recommending yoga and meditation for practically everyone. But for those struggling with disordered eating, the blend of physical, spiritual, and emotional mindfulness that yoga helps to cultivate can have unique benefits.
One of the most important aspects of yoga is that it inspires compassion in everyone. When you’re struggling psychologically or grappling with your recovery, it’s easy to get annoyed with the people around you, especially those who care the most. In general, yoga helps to develop the compassion to better understand each other, leading to healthier relationships.
Maybe more importantly, yoga helps to develop compassion for ourselves. Your eating disorder, or Ed, as some people have named it, likes to put you down and tell you bad things about yourself. Once you become mindful of this voice in your head, you’ll start to realize the destruction that it has wreaked on your life. Luckily, becoming aware of this voice is the first step towards neutralizing it.
The only antidote to this negative self talk is mindfulness of the voice combined with a heavy dosage of self love. Self love is a practice that you have to work at all the time. Most yogis spend their whole lives striving towards it, so there are plenty of exercises you can do to help cultivate self-love:
A mantra is a series of words or sounds you repeat over and over. Yogis believe that the vibrations of different sounds can actually permeate deep within your mind and body, leading to changes in your unconscious. While traditionally yogis would use ancient Sanskrit mantras, some people would rather make their own. Repeat a positive phrase you would like to be true over and over during your practice or when you’re feeling anxiety. Try something like “I love myself completely,” or “I choose healing.”
It’s easy to get caught up in negative self talk. If you’re committed to addressing this destructive behavior, try a negativity detox. Choose an amount of time when you won’t indulge negative thoughts. When you start talking down to yourself, replace the negative thoughts with one of your self-love mantras. This might sound pretty daunting, so start with short periods of time, like 30 minute intervals, and work your way up.
Use yoga as your panic button when you’re feeling overwhelmed. You might not always have time to drop everything and go to a yoga class, that’s why cultivating a home practice can be such a powerful tool. Moving your body helps you to get out of your own head by focusing your awareness on your breath and body. Just 15 minutes of yoga can turn your whole day around.
Use yogic mantras, positivity, and movement to take baby steps towards a deeper sense of compassion for yourself and others.
2. Change of Perspective
Through struggling with your eating disorder, you’ve probably become obsessed with your body, appearance, and image. When you see others, you judge them immediately and compare them to yourself. A yoga class can help liberate you from this mentality. Most people actually are insecure about their bodies, so in a good yoga class you’ll constantly hear the teacher reminding people not to worry about their appearance or judge anybody else. Some yoga studios don’t even have mirrors for this reason.
On a deeper level, the greater awareness of your thoughts that you develop through an introspective yoga practice helps you to better control obsessive thoughts. A 2012 study found that 2/3rds of patients suffering from OCD who participated in mindfulness based therapy saw a decrease in obsessive thoughts as well as a greater ability to live in the moment and process negative emotions.
From a spiritual perspective, yoga also helps you to realize that you are not your body, rather you are a spiritual being experiencing the human form. Through this mentality, practicing yoga helps to deemphasize the importance of the physical body, a huge step towards freeing yourself from the limitations of your eating disorder.
3. Food as Medicine
In the depths of disordered eating, you can start to view food as the enemy and possibly as an addiction as well. Yoga and ayurvedic medicine, ancient Hindu medicinal wisdom, help you to see food as a powerful tool for your health. Ayurvedic medicine asserts that the three aspects of your health, physical, spiritual, and mental, are interdependent; one cannot thrive while another is in distress. Never is this more clear than when you are struggling with an eating disorder.
Ayurvedic cooking teaches about the power of food and what it can do for all aspects of your health. Get an ayurvedic cookbook and try to have fun experimenting with the recipes. Cooking these recipes will help you to become more mindful of how certain foods make your feel, emotionally, physically, and spiritually. Many people struggling with an eating disorder forget what it feels like to be full after a meal. Mindfulness can help you re-learn what different hunger sensations mean. Cultivating mindfulness around eating can even help you identify what foods might be psychological triggers. Once you become more mindful of the physical needs of your body, you can start inventing delicious recipes specifically for your body.
Hopefully, you’ll start to see your dinner as a big plate full of nutrients and healing. Stop counting calories and start paying attention to sustainability, vitamins, and nutrients. To really get in touch with your food, you could even start cultivating a small kitchen garden. If you are curious about how an integrative approach to medicine can help you along your eating disorder journey, you should reach out to an ayurvedic practitioner.
4. Pain Management
Many people don’t know that struggling with an eating disorder is physically painful. When you eat those first few full meals, your stomach may feel like it’s going to explode. A shrunken stomach can keep you eating less than you need for a long time. Ed also wreaks havoc on your joints, kidneys, and throat, while causing dizziness, heartburn, and menstrual irregularities. Eating disorders are often accompanied by physical and mental exhaustion. All of these aches and pains can be a huge distraction from focusing on your recovery. Luckily, yoga teaches breathing exercises that help you to deal with pain. A study published by Oxford Journals even found that yogis have higher pain tolerances.
The ultimate goal of any yoga practice is surrender, whether it be surrender to the present moment, to the Universe, or to any higher power that you might believe in.
When you’re in the depths of an eating disorder, your fears and insecurities often take center stage. This makes recovering nearly impossible, because your fears keep you from fully committing to your recovery. Use yogic meditation and breathing tools to help you face your fears and completely surrender to the recovery process. This might mean that you learn to start trusting your therapist or accept the fact that recovery might also mean healthy weight gain (or loss in some cases).
Take the Plunge
If you’re struggling with an eating disorder, going to a yoga class can sound scary, but becoming mindful of the thought patterns, physical triggers, and feelings that have enabled your eating disorder is the first step towards overcoming it.
To avoid falling back into an unhealthy relationship with exercise, don’t start your yoga journey with an intense workout like hot yoga. Begin by doing short breathing and stretching exercises at home. When you eventually want to go to a class, attend classes that focus on meditation and stretching, rather than burning calories. You can even find yoga videos for eating disorders online or a class targeted towards disordered eating near you.
Be sure you talk to your therapist or psychiatrist about adding yoga into your routine. They can help you spot signs of falling back into exercise addiction. When you’re struggling with addictive behaviors, even too much of a good thing can become a negative.
Extreme dieting has become so common, many people are struggling with eating disorders without really knowing it. If your “diet” or exercise plan has become an obsession, you may be in need of help. If you have started to view food as an enemy, frequently binge eat and/or purge, or have lost what other people tell you is an unhealthy amount of weight, it’s time for you to reach out for help.
Starting a yoga practice to manage your disordered eating? Stay focused, be patient, breathe, and most importantly, have fun.
By Isabella Beham