Yoga and Eating Disorders
by: Laura Mifflin, Dance Instructor and Choreographer
I believe that practicing yoga can be a form of positive treatment for individuals suffering from eating disorders.
This paper takes a look at the problem of eating disorders, and makes an investigation into whether or not yoga can be used as a suitable treatment to add some positive outcome or added benefits to those suffering from eating disorders. With millions of individuals suffering from such disorders, there are several practices and treatments being explored currently which can potentially help them. One new outlook on treatment is through the practicing of yoga. Specifically, the practice of asanas, integration of the body and mind, elevated spirit, relaxation, lessened focus on body image or appearance, and more. The findings reveal that yoga practices do have beneficial impacts on suffering individuals, however, it cannot be stated that yoga is a complete cure-all. The complexity of eating disorders in general, even when combined with yoga practices, will not provide us with a complete solution to this unfortunate condition.
When I look at myself in the mirror, I see a healthy eighteen-year-old girl who is in shape, and who has confidence in herself. I am happy with my body image and I can proudly say that I am comfortable in my own skin. I believe in myself and I rarely find myself struggling with self-esteem issues. Personally, I do things in life that please me; I dance, because it enables me to lose myself, and find myself at the same time; I wear over-sized, baggy, cozy clothing because it is comfortable; I run because it is where I can find bliss; I don’t put effort into my hair and makeup because I am not phased by how I look; I eat food because it is a necessity, and because it is tasty; I care for others, because whenever I can help someone, it cheers me up. As well, yoga is an activity I have involved myself with at times, for the added benefits of relaxation and flexibility. To me, yoga is just a healthy practice that I do for enjoyment and it is a learning opportunity to get involved in.
As I go on living my life in this way, I am almost blindsided by the fact that there are individuals out there who are struggling from eating disorders. What about those people who look at themselves in the mirror and don’t approve of how they look? What happens to them? Sadly, in most cases, these individuals end up suffering from an eating disorder, such as anorexia, impulsive eating, or bulimia nervosa. These disorders are serious issues, and cannot be overlooked. If you do not personally know an individual suffering from an eating disorder, don’t think that there aren’t individuals suffering from the over-evaluation of their physical form, because there are. In fact, more than five million Americans; the majority being female, are currently suffering from mental disturbances like eating disorders and body image. This type of behavior not only has negative physical effects, but also adverse emotional and mental effects on an individual.
In most cases, when an individual is suffering from an eating disorder, especially if they are suffering from a disorder such as anorexia or bulimia nervosa, side effects can include weight loss, pale skin, low energy, fragile nails, thin hair, and several other characteristics which are visibly noticeable. However, the nature of eating disorders are such that their side effects are not always fully visible. There are things which we can not always see on the exterior, and there are many more issues which are not visible to the naked eye. A study done by Laura Douglas even stated, “Virtually every bodily function and organ is afflicted by the disorder”. This statement proves just how serious and lethal these types of disorders can be. The effects of abnormal eating that occur on those with disordered eating are negative. There are so many aspects of the individual that are affected in such a destructive manner.
Which trait really defines someone suffering from an eating disorder? The answer is sadness. Sadness is the most dominant trait associated with a suffering individual, but it can also manifest itself in such manners as depression, self-mutilation, and even suicide. Preventative programs, techniques, and therapies are all ideas that are being implemented and studied in relation to these serious issues. As a matter of fact, there are studies being performed currently which explore how yoga and spirituality relate to factors that influence those who have eating disorders and body dissatisfaction. Is it possible that simply engaging individuals in an activity such as yoga can help to improve the mindset of those with eating disorders?
I believe that the use of yoga practices can a form of positive treatment for individuals suffering from eating disorders. If you are a struggling with these kinds of disorders, you are an individual who is suffering with issues between the body and the mind. What can be the most difficult issue with these disorders is that one may not actually comprehend or believe that they are a victim to a disorder. One may constantly be under the impression that they are not at a healthy weight, or they are striving for an ideal image, which is truly unattainable. However, whether an individual is aware and accepting of their disorder or not, there is still a main concept behind how they all feel. The commonality that I find with eating disorders is the dissatisfaction that an individual faces with him or herself. It can be said that the body of an eating disorder sufferer is viewed like an ornament. This ornament involves the suffering from a disconnection from the body, appetites, feelings, and inner experiences. This is where I find yoga can come into play. The outcome of yoga was designed to achieve a link between the well being and inner peace of a person, with their overall physical and mental health. Health and wellness is quite a broad topic is not a simple thing to fully understand or control, and it must be a difficult task to positively change your ways, if they are already quite negative. However, we cannot give up on the idea that there are philosophies and perspectives that we can take and try to influence positive changes.
There is a perspective offered by a yogic philosophy that joins the dualistic split between mind and body or a spiritual crisis, and it provides methodology for the unification of the body, spirit, and mind. I find that if there is balance between these three aspects of an individual, there is a sense of well being and balance. It is once one of these aspects is thrown off, that issues tend to arise, such as an eating disorder or other troublesome issues. To ensure that all aspects of self are always working properly with one another, there are asanas that can be used in this yoga practice. These asanas include physical postures, where inward focus done by the individual enables him or herself to experience their true self or soul. Through finding your true self or soul, an individual would be going through a self-discovery process. This process would involve a lot of attention being given to self-observation. The hopes of this self-observation and looking inwardly in such a peaceful way is that an individual would be able to really view what it is that gives them the dissatisfaction they hold for themselves and let go of that negativity. The factors that can be found in a healthy yoga regimen include positive body awareness, body responsiveness, intuitive eating, and overall body satisfaction.
In fact, there was a group study performed in 2006 that set out to see if there were any correlations between body mass index, drive for thinness, and body dissatisfaction as well as taking into consideration media influences. After examination, tests, and constant practice of yoga, the findings were noted that there is a positive correlation between body mass index and drive for thinness and body dissatisfaction, and the results also stated that the yoga preventative program was overall quite efficacious. I believe that the success of this program is due to the fact that yoga is not a program focusing on how one looks, but rather on how one feels. It is a treatment of the spirit, as well as the body. When practicing yoga, you will notice that your body is able to feel sensations never once thought of as possible, and you will discover that you are able to put yourself in a place and in positions that may once have been impossible for you. Relaxing and breathing into poses and postures personally allows me to enjoy the placement and test my limits. Pushing the body to a safe but challenging position gives us some satisfaction. I believe that eating disorder sufferers who involve themselves in yoga, beginning at a moderate pace, would be able to let go of the dissatisfaction they also tie to their bodies, and actually allow for more self-approval. If satisfaction can be given to an individual, they may also be able to lose that drive for unnecessary thinness, and focus on accepting their body.
As we keep discovering different aspects of yoga as it relates to eating disorders, we see how the idea of improving the wellness of those suffering from an eating disorder is not simple, and the improvement process is no easy task. Yoga is not a practice that is set in stone, since it is always changing, and there are multiple views on techniques and philosophies that should be used. As mentioned earlier, there is a yogic practice involving asanas that may be used, and another idea that can be used it that yoga has the potential to provide an individual with relaxation.
According to the study done by Boudette in 2006, yoga contributes to the recovery process of individuals suffering from eating disorders because yoga is able to introduce relaxation to their consciousness, which is often a newly found sensation in this circumstance. Boudette reports that, “the combination of yoga postures (asanas), followed by relaxation (savasana) creates a deep sense of peace and freedom they have never before experienced. The hope of this relaxing feeling is that it will be a new sensation that the body will be involved with, and hopefully enjoy. The relaxation will try to let the body of the eating disorder sufferer reach a new level of enjoyment with respect to how it feels. With the focus being on the feeling of the body, attention has now been redirected away from how the body looks, which tends to be the primarily and perhaps the only focus of the eating disorder sufferer. Once that focus is shifted away from how one thinks about their physical appearance, the individual suffering from the eating disorder will have some relief. The pressure to look a certain way, which has been impressed upon them from our culture’s media, or where ever it came from, and the stress of modeling him or herself into this body type will hopefully then be reduced. I feel that this relief would show the overworked mind of the sufferer some much needed peace. With the mind at rest, and the body under less stress, the two should be able to find a better connection and become more stable, if a positive routine is established and reinforced.
One concern that should be mentioned in regards to using yoga as a suitable treatment for eating disorders is that some consider yoga to be a form of exercise. The issue here with yoga being a form of exercise is that individuals suffering from eating disorders have risks associated with combining exercise and abnormal eating. It is reported that: “Vigorous exercise can be a means of weight loss or one of several tactics used by the individual to counteract the ingestion of excess calories or deal with body image concerns. […] terror of being fat can cause some individuals to fall into the trap of excessively exercising while still falling short of the “perfect body”. Falling into the trap of too much exercise is risky. If yoga practice were to become the treatment for the patient, I would suggest an easy, controlled yoga class, with constant supervision by the yoga instructor. This way, it can be ensured that an individual does not take this treatment too far, or cause bodily harm.”
The danger of disordered eating is so dominant to some individuals that any treatment needs to be used with caution. Disordered eating is a habit which some develop, which cannot be easily escaped from. Individuals suffering from disordered eating are constantly under a struggle and they are constantly running away from themselves and their happiness and satisfaction. Once personally affected either directly or indirectly by eating disorders, you should understand that there is one source of recovery out there for this serious condition; that being yoga . Sufferers of eating disorders have been known to say, “I felt like I was falling from the sky. […] After a period of being healthy, I felt sick again”, “Always talking about being sick, sick, sick”, are words that should not need to be expressed by anyone. Disordered eating is a sickness, and we are in search of the cure, using various methods which we can only hope will be effective, and so we must continue to study these methods if we are to help those who are suffering. We can try, and believe, and practice yoga and preach its many benefits, and see how it positively benefits those individuals who are struggling from eating disorders. As yoga as a practice continues to develop and be a source of inspiration and assistance to more people, we must make sure that it can also help the people who could really use its benefits the most. If we can give body satisfaction and self-contentment to everyone, why wouldn’t we? Let us all practice: living, laughing, loving ourselves, breathing, exercising, and healthy eating.
Boudette, R. (2006). Question & answer: yoga in the treatment of disordered eating and body image disturbance. How can the practice of yoga be helpful in recovery from eating disorders? Eating disorders: the journal of treatment & prevention. 14. 167-170.
Dittmann, K., Freedman, M. (2009). Body awareness, eating attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of women practicing yoga. Eating disorders: the journal of treatment & prevention. 17. 273-292.
Douglass, L. (2009). Yoga as an intervention in the treatment of eating disorders: does it help? Eating disorders: the journal of treatment & prevention. 17. 126-139.
Giordano, S. (2010). Exercise and eating disorder: an ethical and legal analysis. Milton Park, Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge.
Ronon, T., Ayelet. (2001). In and out of anorexia: the story of the client, the therapist, and the process of recovery. United Kingdom: Jessica Kingsley Publishers Ltd.
Scime, M., Cook-Cottone, C., Kane, L., Watson, T. (2006). Group prevention of eating disorders with fifth-grade females: impact on body dissatisfaction, drive for thinness, and media influence. Eating disorders: the journal of treatment & prevention. 14. 143-155.