Yoga is a process of awakening awareness. The more awareness, the more choice and freedom we have. The more we can explore our choices and freedoms, the more confident we can be in trusting ourselves and creating appropriate boundaries. With that trust, a new or renewed sense of “Self” can awaken.
Time and again, after a guided meditation, a student will look at me with grateful tears in their eyes and a calm, deep understanding in their voice saying: “Thank you, I forgot” or “I feel like I just remembered a part of myself.” I believe what they are describing is the experience of their “Self” being moved. While I have not come across studies on this idea of “Self,” I do believe it is the most powerful gift yoga has to offer – especially for those in eating disorder recovery. I also believe that if we can cultivate our relationships with this part, we are better positioning ourselves to thrive.
What is Yoga?
Most of us associate yoga with the physical postures that we have either seen or practiced. Some know that breath is an important part of practice. What many do not know, is that breath and poses are only two of the 8-limbed path of yoga.
The full 8 limbs include mindfulness practices (the Yamas and Niyamas) that can be observed on the mat and in life – non-harming, truthfulness and surrender are just a few. With the physical and breathing practices, there are a series of steps towards meditation and ultimately enlightenment. These include turning inward, deepening focus and finding effortlessness and bliss.
As important as the actual practices of yoga is the understanding of who we are as humans through the lens of yoga. “Pancha Maya Koshas” refers to the five layers of illusion that are part of being human. The “True Self” in yoga is seen as pure energy and consciousness that we all have the power to connect with at any time (though it may take practice). The five layers include the physical body, the energetic body, the mental body, the witness and the bliss body.
Why Yoga for Eating Disorders?
Teaching those who are in conflict with their physical selves – that there are other aspects of self they can identify with (an energetic body, a witness body and even the pure consciousness of their True Self) – is exceptionally healing. It is often the first step to feeling at home in our physical bodies, and the first step in trusting our feelings and our own unique experiences in the world.
Physically, yoga can be tailored to support digestion, relieve constipation and reduce reactivity around the painful process of refeeding. Emotionally, yoga supports a connection with internal resources so that feelings, needs and longings are grounded. With a design that first “opens” the body through stretching and ends with relaxation, stressful thought patterns that perpetuate eating disorders can often fade (at least temporarily). Sometimes, emotions that have burdened us for years are able to be released during or after a yoga practice.
For some, yoga might feel confrontational. We are asking people to sit in direct experience with their body and breath. For those living with eating disorders, this simple process can feel extremely uncomfortable. For so long, these individuals have experienced turmoil and disconnect between body and mind. For this reason this connection has been altogether avoided. What I encourage to my students during practice, is to push through the discomfort and do their best to stay in this experience. What they will often find a deeper sense of being present (noticing what is happening now as opposed to ruminating thoughts about the past or the future). They may also even find pleasure and acceptance in the body and eventually find the ability to listen to and respect their body’s unique needs or come to feel that their body is whole and capable.
Ultimately, yoga teaches self-compassion and resilience.
What does the research tell us?
Today more and more inpatient and outpatient eating disorder recovery centers are finding qualified yoga teachers to lead specialized classes for their populations. Research has shown the following benefits without negative affect on weight:
• a significant decrease in depression, anxiety and body image disturbance