The Power of Yoga in Eating Disorder Treatment

Explore the many benefits of yoga in eating disorder treatment.

There I was, sitting across from my patient in our third session of the week, and it was not going well. She was struggling after a particularly challenging meal, and I was having my own struggles redirecting her. Eventually, I gently interrupted her and asked her if she was willing to try something different.

We found our way onto two yoga mats in my office and I cued her into child’s pose, asking her to just breathe. After several minutes of silence, tears began to flow from her eyes. We spent the remaining half hour of session like that — in stillness, her forehead connected to the earth, her yoga mat collecting a puddle of tears. No words were necessary — she was experiencing sensation, surrender and emotional release.

Healing eating disorders with yoga

When I first started working with people with eating disorders five years ago, one of the most interesting patterns that I noticed was the lack of connection my patients had with the very same bodies their minds obsessed over.

I found it intriguing that my patients could be so fixated on their physical bodies, yet experience such a sheer disconnection from their bodies at the same time. Numbness and disconnection from both the physical self as well as the emotional self are hallmarks of the eating disorder struggle.

Having had a yoga practice myself for several years before becoming a registered yoga teacher, I quickly became interested in helping my patients access the healing powers of yoga to “thaw out” from the physical, emotional and spiritual freeze that an eating disorder casts.

For individuals in eating disorder treatment or recovery, yoga is a practice of getting out of the mind (which, from my experience, can be quite the dangerous and unhelpful place to be) and into the very body and soul that they struggle against.

Yoga can help these individuals learn many tools essential to eating disorder recovery, including:

  • Being present
  • Practicing balance and flexibility
  • Slowing the chatter of the mind
  • Incorporating intentional breath work to calm the nervous system
  • Tolerating unpleasant emotions and sensation

Why I use yoga in eating disorder treatment

So often, talk therapy is one of the bedrocks of eating disorder treatment (and rightfully so). That said, eating disorders are also a symptom of spiritual disharmony, a disease of the body and the soul. To not explore a patient’s physical and emotional experience of their body, their spirit, is to miss a key component of the healing process.

In my experience, one of the more powerful ways to incorporate yoga into eating disorder treatment and recovery involves the theme of “taking up space.” Many individuals suffering from eating disorders struggle with this concept, both literally and figuratively. Their minds narrate unhelpful stories around being too big, too loud, and have instilled a false belief about them needing to “play small.”

By incorporating powerful, expansive breath work and practicing movement in a safe, nonjudgmental environment, individuals can become more comfortable and familiar with allowing their bodies and souls to take up space — both on and off the mat.

This experience, learning to listen to and honor your body and soul, gives you permission to take up space, be vibrant, and be alive. This is what recovery is all about.

A note for those with a history of excessive exercise:

If you struggle with excessive exercise or have an unhealthy relationship with exercise, a yoga practice can help you experience body movement in a more nurturing, playful and compassionate nature. However, we encourage you to always check in with your treatment providers before starting a yoga practice or any other movement program.

Lisa Mareb, LCSW

Eating Recovery Center is accredited through the Joint Commission. This organization seeks to enhance the lives of the persons served in healthcare settings through a consultative accreditation process emphasizing quality, value and optimal outcomes of services.

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