Yoga for Eating Disorders Promoting Body Positivity
As yoga has become mainstream in the West, its potential health benefits have become more widely recognized. Yoga is clearly more than a trendy diversion—but does it have specific benefits for patients with eating disorders?
○ General Benefits of Yoga
According to the Yoga Alliance, “yoga was developed up to 5,000 years ago in India as a comprehensive system for well-being on all levels: physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual.” Although there are a wide variety of approaches to its practice, all approaches to yoga strive to improve health.
Yoga practice most commonly combines stretching and physical postures with deep breathing, mindfulness, and meditation.
Yoga can help improve fitness, strength, balance, and flexibility. It has been shown to reduce pain and help with adjustment to and symptoms related to medical conditions such as diabetes, asthma, multiple sclerosis, and cancer. It can also improve sleep and help reduce anxiety and depression. In addition, performing yoga in a studio offers the ability to connect with others and creates a feeling of belonging.
Although the mechanisms by which yoga creates these benefits are not fully understood, research shows that yoga increases the levels of the brain neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric (GABA), which can help combat anxiety and depression.
It also appears that mindfulness meditation, a common component of yoga, is associated with changes in the volume of certain regions of the brain believed to be involved in regulating emotional response.
Brain studies have observed these brain changes amongst meditators who meditate for as little as 30 minutes a day for eight weeks.
○ Reasons Why Yoga Might Be Helpful for Eating Disorders
Residential eating disorder treatment centers have been increasingly adding adjunctive treatments such as yoga to their offerings.
Many patients and treatment professionals have noted benefits from yoga, but at the current time there are only a few formal studies:
• In one study, adolescents in outpatient eating disorder treatment who participated in yoga showed greater decreases in eating disorder symptoms.
• Another study showed that yoga combined with mindful eating reduced binge eating amongst adult female outpatients with binge eating disorder.
• A recent pilot study showed that adolescent girls who participated in yoga, in addition to standard multidisciplinary outpatient eating disorder treatment, had decreased anxiety, depression, and body image disturbance.
There are reasons to believe yoga may be valuable as an adjunctive treatment for eating disorders. Patients with eating disorders commonly experience negative and distorted body image. Yoga encourages self-acceptance and peace. It helps practitioners to experience their body in a different way. Rather than focusing on their external appearance, yoga helps practitioners to experience their bodies internally, mindfully, and non-judgmentally.
Indeed, research has shown yoga is associated with a reduction in both body dissatisfaction and the drive for thinness. As such, it may help improve body image.
Yoga incorporates the practices of relaxation, mindfulness, and breathing strategies. These practices are all empirically supported treatments for anxiety, which is a common symptom of eating disorders.
Psychologist Robin Boudette, a proponent of yoga for the treatment of eating disorders, provides this qualitative description of benefits:
"Yoga also enables patients to experience their bodies in a new way. Living in a society that values how you look more than how you feel, eating disorder patients often relate to the body as an ornament; they suffer from a disconnection from the body, feelings, appetites, and inner experience....Many patients become much more aware of the body for how it feels, rather than how it looks—which opens a window into a new experience of the body off the yoga mat."
○ How to Get Started With Yoga
One of the advantages of yoga is that it is widely available and affordable. However, it should be used as an adjunct to other more traditional treatments and not as a stand-alone treatment for an eating disorder.
Please be aware that yoga may not be advisable for all patients with eating disorders. Over-exercise is a common symptom of eating disorders and individuals with eating disorders may approach yoga in an unhealthy, obsessive way. Any exercise undertaken during recovery should only be done in moderation and with permission from your treatment team. For many, but especially for those with restrictive eating disorders, it can be dangerous to exercise at all during early recovery. Lastly, the intensity of hot or Bikram yoga could be dangerous and may not offer the same mindfulness benefits as traditional yoga.
If yoga is appropriate for you, it is important to find a yoga teacher and studio that supports the acceptance of a variety of body shapes and sizes. If you are in recovery from an eating disorder you should avoid teachers and studios that actively encourage the use of cleanses, fasts or restrictive diets. While these are sometimes associated with the yoga lifestyle, they are not traditionally a part of yoga and are incompatible with eating disorder recovery.
Taken gently and with caution, yoga may help facilitate recovery and bring greater self-awareness and self-acceptance. The relaxation and mindfulness that can be learned from yoga practice may also be useful recovery tools.