The practice of yoga quite literally means to “yoke” or link—in this case, specifically the practice of linking the mind, the body, and the spirit. And while yoga is often reduced to the image of some lithe, superhuman, twenty-something woman performing a series of uber-impressive poses on a mat, in reality, yoga as a discipline is so much more expansive and inclusive than this image has most of us believing.
Sadly, it was this image—and the accompanying beliefs that I had developed (think: “you’re not built for yoga” or “you won’t look like the other women in the room”)—that kept me from experiencing many of the positive and healing benefits of the practice. That is, until my mind, body, and spirit went into crisis mode as a result of my eating disorder—a nearly ten year struggle—and I was desperately in need of a little “yoking” of my own.
The physical practice of yoga is certainly not one-dimensional—with styles ranging from the more vigorous and “sweaty” to those more slow, steady, and restorative in nature. When dealing with the treatment of eating disorders (EDs), finding healthy ways of incorporating gentle movement can be challenging. In fact, many individuals going through ED treatment are placed on some type of movement restriction or modification plan. However, research—and even common knowledge and experience—shows us that we need consistent movement of the body in order to maintain optimum health for our muscle, bone, joint, respiratory, and digestive systems (among many other things).
A gentle and restorative physical yoga practice can provide a wonderful solution to this conundrum. For those at varying degrees of treatment, yoga asana, or poses, can help gently strengthen areas of the body weakened by an eating disorder—and this is not just about muscle strength. One study published in Topics in Geriatric Rehabilitation in 2015 suggested links to the consistent practice of certain postures and an increase in bone density—a concern especially for those struggling with Anorexia Nervosa, or severe food restriction, who may experience resulting osteoporosis. And we all know that building strong, healthy bones requires some degree of weight-bearing movement; yoga can provide this strength-building in a gentle way for those struggling with an eating disorder.
Beyond the gentle strengthening of the physical framework, various pranayama, or breath practices have the potential to lengthen, deepen, and slow the breath—not only to the benefit of respiratory system functioning, but also with the potential to ease digestion, calm anxiety, and change the nervous system response in the body. Through utilizing specific breath exercises that are part of the larger yoga system, individuals can help move themselves out of a sympathetic nervous system response, or “fight or flight” mode, and into a state of equilibrium in the body activated by the parasympathetic nervous system—otherwise known as “rest and digest.” The implications of this for someone struggling with an eating disorder, and thereby also struggling with digestive upset, anxiety, and trauma, are tremendous—empowering those who often feel disempowered by their eating disorder, to invoke their own healing in the body through something as simple as breath regulation.
Physiologically, meditation has been shown to help improve sleep, reduce stress, improve memory and cognitive functioning, and strengthen the immune system. These are all arguably critical functions of the body, and often functions that weaken for those with an eating disorder. But beyond the physical benefits, meditation can be seen as a deeper form of self-care, helping one to connect not only with themselves, but perhaps more deeply with a greater spiritual awareness—whatever that may look like for the individual.
Yoga is truly a never-ending pathway, and diving deep into even one small component of the practice could be a journey that lasts a lifetime. But my hope is that those struggling with the deep sense of disconnection and pain created by their eating disorders—in addition to anyone struggling with any type of disembodiment, stress, or trauma of their own—would find those practices that bring healing and restoration to their lives. And I may be a little biased, but I believe there’s a little something to be found in yoga for everyone.
Dena Zlotziver is the Community Outreach Coordinator for Cielo House. In her work with Cielo, she also leads weekly Yoga & Mindfulness groups as a part of their treatment programs.