The benefits of yoga therapy for eating disorder recovery

By Jennifer Kreatsoulas

Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental illnesses caused by a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors, and they affect people of every age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic group. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 20 million U.S. women and 10 million men will have an eating disorder at some point in their lives.

Far-reaching pain

Symptoms associated with eating disorders, such as restricting food and/or food groups, bingeing, purging, abusing laxatives, and overexercising, are ways of coping with trauma and other painful feelings and life events. Eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of any psychiatric illness, and suicide is also common. Affected individuals usually require professional help and support to recover.

Characterized by an obsessive preoccupation with weight, food, and body shape, eating disorders are associated with persistent eating behaviors that negatively affect one’s physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. The health-balancing practices and philosophies used in yoga therapy can be a beautiful way for individuals recovering from an eating disorder to heal their relationship with body, mind, emotions, and spirit.

As a supplemental modality, yoga therapy offers a safe space for those in recovery to develop new tools and coping strategies as they explore emotional and medical work with their outpatient team, which usually includes a therapist, dietician, and psychiatrist.

Simple, profound steps

Many who struggle with eating disorders are resistant to breathing, as the feeling of filling up or expanding is uncomfortable and scary. Helping clients to find safety in breathing is a major benefit physiologically and psychologically. Also, breathing exercises—pranayama in yoga—can help calm anxiety, slow down spinning thinking, and cultivate presence and mental clarity.

Yoga poses (asana) build mental and physical strength and can lead to more comfort in and appreciation of the body with time, practice, and support. This aspect of yoga is also a gentle way to reintroduce movement into life. Mindful awareness during asana enables people to observe their reactions to this process, which can then be explored with their yoga therapist and outpatient team. Overall, this attention to embodiment—that is, living in a physical body—through yoga poses can assist clients in learning how to feel sensations and emotions again, and even in relearning hunger and fullness cues.

In my experience, improvements in mood and self-esteem often occur as the yoga practices developed in sessions are carried into daily life. Bringing yoga therapy tools into day-to-day situations creates a sense of personal empowerment and hope in clients’ ability to manage symptom use, practice new perspectives about food and nourishment, and reframe negative body-image thoughts.

Grounding methods can help clients manage anxiety at meals and when encountering other recovery challenges. The core yogic philosophies, which include kindness, compassion, and acceptance, are extremely valuable for reframing food rules and additional self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.

Through these powerful direct experiences, yoga therapy offers clients recovering from eating disorders unique opportunities to reconnect with their bodies and empowers them to integrate into their lives patterns that support physical, mental, and spiritual health.

Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, C-IAYT, E-RYT 500, is the coauthor of Body Mindful Yoga. Jennifer provides yoga therapy online and in-person and teaches workshops, retreats, and trainings for professionals. You can also find her on Facebook and Instagram.