Yoga, with its tenets of peacefulness, self-compassion, mindfulness, and self- empathy, both empowers and enhances recovery from eating disorders and body image despair. Yoga promotes harmony within and strengthens the relationship with the body through physical poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), non-harmful self-care (ahimsa), and meditation,
The boom in popularity of yoga classes has resulted in an increase in research and peer review articles on yoga and its benefits for a variety of conditions, including eating disorders. A 2016 study found that yoga combined with outpatient eating disorder treatment decreased anxiety, depression, and body image concerns, suggesting yoga is a valuable adjunct treatment strategy. More robust studies are needed, but the early research is promising and reiterates anecdotal evidence that yoga can be beneficial for those recovering. Indeed, many ED treatment centers are offering yoga classes, both residential and outpatient programs.
It is important to recognize, however, that not all yoga classes support a recovery mindset. Like many health campaigns today, yoga has been swept along with social media, promoting the stereotype of a particular body type. The yoga selfie craze can breed body comparison, and the hyper-focus on yoga as fitness can inadvertently prompt competition, overexertion and perfectionism.
Some of today’s yoga marketing and fitness-oriented class styles, or certain aspects of them, can be triggering or unhelpful for those in recovery. We wish to shine a light on the fact that the intentions of what is being offered may not align with the intentions and needs for vulnerable students in their own recovery. Recent studies report that upwards of 15-20% of students in general yoga classes are struggling with disordered eating, body image disturbance (aka body image despair), and are at high risk for onset or relapse of an eating disorder. Students are easily influenced by suggestions made by teachers who are unaware their instructions are triggering.
We offer those in the eating disorder community guidelines for selecting yoga classes and environments that are most supportive.
Whether you’ve been practicing yoga for some time or are considering try it, here are a few tips for what to look for when choosing a class.
- Choose classes that are gentle, for beginners, or restorative in nature, as these practices are focused on bringing balance to all the systems of the body and calming the mind. Yin yoga (slow, holding poses longer) can also be a nice option. Flowing (vinyasa) classes can also be a good match, however, avoid classes that are described as vigorous or fitness focused. It’s best to not practice in heated rooms, as these classes tend to be more physically demanding and can be unsafe for those who struggle to properly hydrate or nourish themselves. Vigorous styles are more appropriate for those in well-established recovery with stable physical activity. It is crucial to obtain medical clearance before beginning your yoga practice.
- Research teachers who are trained in trauma sensitive yoga. These teachers are educated in trauma and have a deep awareness of how to shape classes that support individuals with a trauma history. Simply review the bios of teachers on the yoga studio’s website and look for phrases like “trauma sensitive” and trauma aware” yoga. Many yoga teachers’ bios may also describe their own recovery from eating disorders, body image struggles, and addiction.
- Look for yoga studios that do not have mirrors. They may be hard to find, as many studios have mirrors to assist students with alignment of the physical poses. Mirrors can have an adverse effect, creating distraction and distorting body image concerns. No mirrors automatically remove this potential, encouraging a more internal experience. This is a vital aspect of eating disorder recovery—getting to know oneself from the inside out. Learning to trust one’s body will serve your life, rather than living your life shackled by body distress.
- Choose studios with empowering offerings. Be selective: find yoga-related workshops that are NOT focused on food restriction or changing your body. Look for themes of acceptance, resilience, compassion, presence, and yoga philosophy concepts that are body positive and healing.
- Focus on noticing what your body is telling you and not pushing beyond that point. Take great care not to force poses, strain to match others in the room, or ignore injuries or limitations. Do not hesitate to use supportive props: blocks, bolsters, straps, chairs, all serve to help you find your own pose with correct alignment. Listen carefully and rest when fatigued.
- Ask if the studio or teacher offers a non-verbal way to signal if you do not wish for the teacher to touch you. Physical adjustments may be uncomfortable, and a non-verbal cue allows for safety and assurance your preferences will be understood. While many teachers ask if you have injuries, it may be more complicated to explain your eating disorder and/or trauma recovery.
- Before, During and After classes seek to: “Meet yourself where you are” with acceptance. Practice body confidence/acceptance language and self-talk. It is common to practice yoga seeking to “accomplish” more challenging poses. Try not to drive yourself towards achieving more. Instead, let every time you get on your yoga mat be a time of curiosity and learning.
Your body will guide you as you learn to listen with care, attention, and intention. Yoga means to find the “yoke” of mind and body, connection to a deep life-long learning.
Whether you are a new practitioner or have been taking yoga classes for some time, we encourage you to give our suggestions a try. It takes tremendous courage to pursue eating disorder recovery, as does showing up for a yoga class and exploring your relationship with your body and yourself. Choosing classes that support this exploration in sensitive and caring ways is a powerful expression of self-care and commitment to yourself and recovery.
Karen Samuels, PhD, is a clinical psychologist practicing in Ormond Beach, Florida. She is the Founder/Director of COPE: Community Outreach to Prevent Eating Disorders, a non-profit providing services since 2001. COPE is an active member of the NEDA Network. Dr. Samuels is also the resident psychologist and eating disorders consultant to oneoeight.com, an international online yoga/wellness platform. Utilizing RCT: Relational Cultural Theory in community outreach and clinical practice, she developed and delivered middle school outreach media literacy programs, trains physicians in interprofessional treatment teams, and conducts eating disorder group therapy with midlife/aging women. She has contributed scholarly articles and a textbook chapter highlighting the need for attention to disordered eating and related health concerns in the aging population. She lectures nationally about eating disorders and body image disturbance. Dr. Samuels received the 2014 NEDA Westin Family Award for Activism and Advocacy. Learn more about Dr. Samuels at www.yogipsychologist.com.
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. She is an inspirational speaker and author of Body Mindful Yoga: Create a Powerful and Affirming Relationship With Your Body (Llewellyn Worldwide, 2018). Jennifer provides yoga therapy via online and in person at YogaLife Institute in Wayne, PA, and leads yoga therapy groups at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia. She teaches workshops, retreats, and specialized trainings for clinicians, professionals, and yoga teachers. Jennifer is a partner with the Yoga & Body Image Coalition and writes for Yoga Journal and other influential blogs. She has appeared on Fox29 news and has been featured in the Huffington Post, Real WomanMagazine, Medill Reports Chicago, Philly.com, and the ED Matters Podcast. Connect with Jennifer: www.Yoga4EatingDisorders.com.