Yoga therapy for eating disorders

by Evelyn Zak

Yoga therapy is being recognized as a beneficial adjunct in many comprehensive eating disorder recovery programs. Treatment centers realize yoga’s multiple benefits and offer regular group or individual sessions as part of their protocol. Yoga can be safely practiced by everyone provided it is taught by a seasoned instructor – it is always a practice

What Is Yoga?

It is a physical, mental, and spiritual discipline developed in India that is not a religion. Therapeutic instruction considers each individual’s abilities, their trauma-sensitivity, and may be offered in an individual session. Comprehensive instruction will also include breathing exercises (pranayama), meditation, and deliberate relaxation (yoga nidra).

A therapeutic application of yoga (yoga therapy) is defined by the International Association of Yoga Therapists as, “ … the process of empowering individuals to progress toward improved health and well-being through the application of the teachings and practices of Yoga.”1

Benefits of yoga

When woven into treatment, yoga may become a point of entry into a relationship with an often abused body, mind, and spirit. Yoga brings the body directly into treatment process. Interoceptive awareness is often a key feature in eating disorders and yoga practices help people to focus on what is happening internally without expectations. Yoga can be safely practiced by everyone provided it is taught by a seasoned instructor – it is always a practice.

  • Yoga postures help increase physical flexibility and strength. It is
    important, in the context of eating disorders, that posture instruction be given in such a way as to encourage internal self-regulation and not as something imposed from outside. Everyone is not going to look the same.
  • Classes are taught in calm environments with minimal distraction so the emphasis is on what is happening in the moment.
  • Regular practice may help manage anxiety/depression.2
  • Certain practices (yoga nidra relaxation is one) have been studied for their positive effects on PTSD and guided relaxation also provides an opportunity to deliberately rest if sleep is disturbed. 3
  • Breathing exercises can be performed even if there is limited physical capacity
  • Meditation helps calm an overactive mind and improve self-awareness.
  • Yoga’s ethical and moral codes, the yamas and niyamas, address areas most often disturbed when an eating disorder is present.

Yoga is usually offered in a class setting, and this intentional community can provide additional support. A professionally led class should offer an environment free from judgment and encourage self-exploration.

Physiological changes known as “the relaxation response” are triggered by the meditative quality of yoga practice which helps lower heart rate, blood pressure, cortisol (the stress hormone) and adrenaline levels.4

Additionally, the aforementioned yamas and niyamas can provide organization and structure on how to live life in recovery from disordered eating.

Brief definitions follow:

  • Yamas – Ahimsa (non-harming), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Aparigraha (non-possessiveness), Brahmacharya (maintaining vitality)
  • Niyamas – Tapas (purification using discipline), Santosha (contentment),
  • Saucha (purity), Svadhyaya (self-study), Ishvara Pranidhana (reliance on something greater than self)

Research into the benefits of yoga for eating disorders is ongoing. In 2006, The International Association of Yoga Therapists published a 17-page document citing studies of this nature. (This information is available only to its members.)

Harvard University School of Medicine, Stanford University’s School of Medicine, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, and Duke University’s Integrative Healthcare program are just a few of the notable institutions that currently incorporate yoga and study the positive effects of yoga on health.

How yoga works

Yoga classes are geared toward a wide variety of participants. Classes offered inside a treatment center may be structured somewhat differently than what you’ll find offered to the general public. The movement will be slower, the focus on breath greater.

In order to participate, it helps to come with an open mind. Be willing to ask questions and let your instructor know of any concerns you may have. Wearing comfortable clothing is important; you do not need special clothes (contrary to what marketers tell you). Wear loose/stretchy layers so that you will be comfortable at all stages of practice. You may want to obtain your own mat if you feel this might be something you do on a regular basis.

Yoga Postures

Some basic postures and a few of their effects are noted below. Postures are listed by common name followed by Sanskrit name. Sanskrit is the language of yoga.

  • Mountain (Tadasana) – foundation for all standing poses, improves posture, creates strength, gives a sense of groundedness
  • Warrior I (Virabhadrasana) – a posture of strength and stability
  • Child’s pose (Balasana) – releases tension and encourages feelings of safety
  • Seated forward bend (Paschimottanasana) – stretches entire back of body, fosters calmness
  • Seated twist (Ardha Matsyendrasana)- energizes spine, stimulates liver and kidneys
  • Bridge (Setu Bandhasana) – increases spinal flexibility, opens heart and lungs
  • Simple cross legged sitting (Sukhasana) – calming
  • Savasana (corpse pose) – relieves stress, can lower blood pressure, reduces fatigue

Depending upon who you ask, there are said to be over 1,000 yoga postures! All postures, even the simple looking ones, may have contraindications. An easy sitting pose may not be right for someone with damaged knees. While lying on your back sounds great, it isn’t recommended for someone with low back issues. Questions are encouraged and all postures can be modified.

Use of Yoga Therapy in Eating Disorder Recovery Programs

In formal treatment, yoga may be offered as part of a larger movement or wellness component. Individualized sessions may be indicated and available.

Yoga can be a component of care in residential, partial hospitalization, or intensive outpatient settings. Participants have the right to ask about the credentials of an instructor, where they teacher were certified, and what their experience is.

Early recovery is a time for developing boundaries and a renewed sense of self worth. It may feel uncomfortable for newcomers to ask questions; this ability is not just important in a yoga class but in the recovery process.

Recommended reading:
Yoga and Eating Disorders: Ancient Healing for Modern Illness, Carolyn Costin and Joe Kelly, Routledge, 2016

_______________________________

1Yoga can be safely practiced by everyone provided it is taught by a seasoned instructor – it is always a practice.

2 Harvard Health Publications, Harvard Medical School. Website citation:
3 https://www.amazon.com/Yoga-Nidra-Evelyn-Zak/dp/B004P7SQRI
4 Benson, Herbert, MD, and Klipper, Miriam Z., (1975). The Relaxation Response. New York: Harper Collins.

Subscribe to this blog

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.