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June 24, 2024

Yoga and Eating Disorders: How Mindfulness Helps Us Heal

Yoga and Eating Disorders: How Mindfulness Helps Us Heal

Healing from an eating disorder doesn’t end with your discharge from treatment. That’s why it’s so important that eating disorder care helps clients develop effective coping strategies, self-care practices, and emotion regulation skills to use long after formal treatment ends. Transitioning from specialized eating disorder care into the “real world” can be jarring.

Equipping clients with the tools and confidence to navigate life’s inevitable challenges ensures their recovery begins with a solid foundation.

Both yoga and mindfulness are tools that support the reconnection to mind and body essential in eating disorder treatment. They also protect a continuing recovery, offering clients accessible grounding techniques to confront urges and stressful moments. At The Emily Program, we integrate yoga and mindfulness as holistic, skill-based therapies within our evidence-based treatment model.

Given the mainstream popularity of yoga and mindfulness, it’s critical to differentiate eating disorder-informed practices from the more insidious variations of yoga and mindfulness that have been commodified by wellness culture.

What Is Yoga?

What comes to mind when you think about yoga? You likely envision the physical aspects of the practice: the postures, the stretching, and the forms. However, traditional yoga goes far beyond its physical manifestations.

The word “yoga” comes from the Sanskrit word “yuj,” which means to unite or to join. Dating back more than 5,000 years in India, traditional yoga is an indigenous holistic practice. The guiding philosophy of yoga centers on the aim of bringing harmony to the inner and outer self, with the goal of “samadhi,” or enlightenment.

The Yoga Sutras are considered a foundational aspect of Indian yogic tradition. Written during India’s medieval age by a sage named Patanjali, the sutras define the Eight Limbs of Yoga, which teach us how to embody yoga—or unity—in the mind, body, and spirit. The core principles are meant to help expand your understanding of yoga and yourself.

Below is a brief summary of the 8 Limbs of Yoga, as outlined by Patanjali:

  • Yama: restraints, moral disciplines, or moral vows
  • Niyama: duties reflected at ourselves or others
  • Asana: body postures
  • Pranayama: breath practices
  • Pratyahara: sense withdrawal to shift awareness inward
  • Dharana: focused concentration, cultivation of inner or outward awareness
  • Dhyana: meditation, as a state of being vs. a state of doing
  • Samadhi: bliss, joy, or interconnectedness to ourselves, others, and the world

Despite popular culture’s emphasis on yoga as a means for achieving fitness and the appearance of “health,” yoga is not just a physical practice. In fact, only one of the eight limbs, asana, involves posture or movement—and not in a way that judges your ability to perform a headstand. According to Patanjali, key aspects of asana (which literally translates to “a seat”) include:

  • Inclusiveness for all bodies
  • A focus on a sense of steadiness or ease
  • Postures selected or adjusted to support the individual and the group
  • Postures selected to support balance and equanimity between the mind and body
  • Empowerment to honor your needs and inner wisdom

The idea of asana is to be able to sit in comfort so you’re not strained by aches and pains of the body, or restlessness due to an uncomfortable position. An internal awareness of the experience is essential to asana. Rather than placing the sole focus on what a posture looks like, asana calls us to reflect on how the posture feels within ourselves. In doing so, the practice becomes interoceptive, prioritizing curiosity and kindness rather than external-based judgment.

At The Emily Program, yoga is one of the integrative therapies incorporated into all levels of care, from outpatient to 24/7 residential eating disorder treatment. This ensures accessibility and inclusiveness for every person, regardless of diagnosis, body shape, or experience level.

The path of yoga is one of experience versus outcome. It’s a practice that helps support connection and peace, both on and off the mat. In shifting awareness of our internal experience, yoga ultimately invites us to come home to ourselves.

What Is Mindfulness?

Mindfulness is a practice innate to our human experience. With roots in Buddhism, mindfulness appears as an integral part of just about every religion, spiritual practice, and focused movement throughout history. Mindfulness is our human capacity to pay attention to present-moment experiences with openness and curiosity. It promotes balance, choice, and acceptance of the present moment, taming the often ruminative and judgmental aspects of the mind.

There are three fundamental goals of mindfulness practice:

  • To reduce suffering and increase happiness
  • To increase control of your mind
  • To experience reality as it is
    • To live life with your eyes wide open
    • To experience the reality of your connection to the universe, your essential “goodness,” and your essential validity

A mindful stance welcomes whatever thoughts and emotions arise, examines them with curiosity and openness, and then lets them go. From a mindful place, thoughts and emotions have no power over you. Rather than denying or invalidating every thought, feeling, or action as “good” or “bad,” a mindful view urges you to release the need for evaluation.

Similar to yoga, the art of mindfulness aims to achieve a higher level of connection, awareness, and unity between the mind, body, and spirit. Without mindful awareness, yoga wouldn’t be yoga.

Any activity in daily life can be practiced with mindfulness. Intentionally paying attention to the moment, without judging it or holding on to it, is all that is needed. Core mindfulness skills are the foundation of dialectical behavior therapy (DBT).

How Are Yoga And Mindfulness Useful In Eating Disorder Treatment?

While many people associate eating disorders with certain observable physical features and behaviors, the cognitive components can be even more oppressive. Those with eating disorders are almost universally preoccupied with distressing thoughts about food, eating, and body, limiting the ability to be present and fully participate in life.

What’s more, eating disorders often serve to distract from unwanted or unpleasant emotions or experiences, causing additional disconnection from self and relationships with others. Recovery involves learning new, more adaptive coping skills that can aid in the reconnection with self and others. While everyone’s goals and experiences in recovery will be unique, integrating trauma-informed yoga and mindfulness into eating disorder treatment can often serve as a non-threatening tool to begin healing the emotional and physical body. Bridging the gap between body and mind in these ways can aid in developing a non-judgmental and curious mindset in the face of otherwise distressing thoughts, emotions, and behaviors.

Yoga at The Emily Program has been found to help clients explore new ways of thinking about their bodies, focusing on what the body can “do” versus how it “looks.” This shift in perspective aids in decreasing preoccupation with body parts and fosters greater self-acceptance. Additionally, yoga helps clients regulate their nervous systems, manage symptoms of anxiety and depression, and create a space for quiet, calm, and gratitude.

Additional reasons to integrate yoga and mindfulness into eating disorder treatment include:

  • Mindful movement, breathing, and meditation can create a much-needed “pause” between stressors and response, allowing for choice in how to respond to eating disorder triggers (e.g., anxiety at meals)
  • Acceptance and care of the body is at the heart of yoga, mindfulness, and eating disorder recovery
  • Traditional yoga and mindfulness practices are non-judgmental, non-competitive, accessible, and intersectional, aimed at liberating all people—not just those who are thin, white, and privileged

More and more research is being conducted to understand the benefits of integrating yoga and mindfulness into eating disorder treatment. Empirical research on its benefits is still in the early stages, but preliminary results suggest yoga and mindfulness to be promising adjunct treatment strategies, along with standard multidisciplinary care.

Current research supports the following benefits of yoga and mindfulness, which translate well into eating disorder treatment:

The Role Of Yoga And Mindfulness At The Emily Program

At The Emily Program eating disorder treatment center, yoga is for every person, regardless of diagnosis, body shape, or experience level. We believe in fitting the pose to meet our clients and NOT the clients to meet the pose.

Our yoga groups are offered to clients at all levels of care, facilitated by trauma-informed registered yoga teachers. Our unique approach to yoga blends wisdom from the eight limbs of yoga, an understanding of the challenges faced by clients with eating disorders, and trauma-informed principles. Guiding yoga using a trauma-informed approach means that language comes from a place of invitation and inquiry, often reminding clients that everything is an option, an idea, and a possibility—making the practice your own is key. Mindfulness is central to this approach as well. We work with clients to help them experience the present moment; each group begins with listening and checking in, leading to effective action that supports each individual’s needs. At any point during the practice, a client can come back to stillness or any other movement that feels supportive. We explore all eight limbs of yoga, viewing yoga as a work-in versus a work-out.

Yoga and mindfulness are not siloed practices at The Emily Program. The tools of yoga and mindfulness are woven into both group and individual therapy sessions. During individual one-on-one therapy sessions, our licensed clinicians aid clients in processing yoga group experiences, noting what was elicited during the practice, and seeking understanding through a mindful lens of compassion and curiosity. Our clinicians resource clients at the beginning of group and individual sessions with grounding techniques, such as inviting a deep inhale and long exhale breath, or locating a focal point that they can return to at any point.

Additionally, meal support—foundational to treatment—offers clients the opportunity to confront maladaptive eating disorder thoughts and practice mindful eating under the care of our team. Some principles of mindful eating that our clients practice include acknowledging responses to food (likes, neutral, dislikes) without judgment, and learning to be aware of physical hunger and satiety cues, in an effort to rebuild inner body wisdom.
Ultimately, frequent communication among our multidisciplinary team members supports a successful mindfulness and yoga-based integration.

A Few Real Life Stories of Yoga Benefits in Eating Disorder Treatment

Here is a collection of eating disorder treatment reviews and comments from clients and their families.

A client who was a competitive dancer came to yoga with much apprehension. She was used to forcing her body to achieve perfection in poses regardless of pain or discomfort. To experience movement in yoga that set rules, judgments, and criticism aside to focus more on being kind and compassionate to one’s body and self was a challenge for her. I remember her telling me “I can’t do this! You’re asking me to be kind to myself and do what feels good in my body? To let go of judgment? Yeah, right!” After practice and time experiencing yoga at The Emily Program she was able to move into poses with a different perspective — one of treating her body well and with kindness. Dance was still very much a part of her life, but now she had something to balance out that experience! She was able to see her body as amazing for what it could do with dance and things in daily life and developed a greater appreciation for this!

One client observed that for the first time in a long time, she was able to be gentle with her body, to stay in a restorative posture and listen to her body without judgment from ED. She mentioned that for the first time since she could remember she felt safe and supported enough to relax and was surprised that yoga could be accessible to her.

Another client expressed that by focusing on yoga postures and his breath, he was able, for the first time to truly hear all the self-criticism and judgmental thoughts that were running through his mind. This awareness allowed him to practice compassion and a non-reactive stance. He said he was able to hear the thoughts, breath, and watch them pass. The yoga postures gave him something else to focus on, and with practice, the thoughts were not as strong and at times had disappeared.

Once a client decided to move into a yoga pose in spite of her fears of her current body size “getting in the way” of performing the pose. We discussed fitting the pose to “meet her body where it was at,” not where she thought it “should be.” For the first time in 25 years, she was able to experience activity and she did it in a way that was filled with acceptance, receiving the full benefit of the pose, and challenging old thought patterns.

Yoga and Healing at The Emily Program

At The Emily Program, our staff can see the positive effects that yoga has had on their clients’ lives. Remaining at the forefront of this breakthrough therapeutic modality will continue to be a priority. We want our clients to live healthier, happier lives, and yoga is one integrative therapy we’ll continue to use to help them reach these goals.

If you or a loved one is experiencing an eating disorder, help is available. Reach out to The Emily Program today by calling 888-364-5977 or completing our online form.

Get help. Find hope.