Yoga and Eating Disorders

Several studies show positive results using yoga as an adjunct treatment of eating disorders; but yoga can also be damaging for this population.

Heated yoga classes are unhealthy for a client with anorexia.

Their heart is already under distress without this added feature. (Bikram standard is around 105 degrees with 40% humidity.) Also, many heated classes have at least two walls covered with mirrors. A teacher may state that a focused gaze leads to a focused mind, but for those with body image issues and/or eating disorders any and all staring at the body will inevitably bring up thoughts that conflict with recovery.

Eating disorder students need to be practicing with eyes closed in a room absent of mirrors.

Classes centered on alignment can be overly body-centric, which lead the eating disordered mind to perfectionistic thinking rather than pondering their internal structure. In these types of classes an instructor may break down a posture and gather the class around themselves or a volunteer performing a particular pose to demonstrate the right or wrong way to do a posture. While that can make a movement practice safer, it is black and white thinking, which we are trying to move the client away from.

Eating disorder students need to be aware that every posture will look and feel different on each distinct body in order to release judgments.

Fast paced flowing classes may not have specific guidance on moving at your own breath pace. Without focus on the breath, is the practice really Yoga? That type of movement could be categorized as exercise or stretching, which is beneficial for clients who need to move to release energy… but it doesn’t provide a productive linkage between the two components that are distorted in our clients.

Eating disorder students need the neutral gateway of breath inside movement to create a compassionate linkage between mind and body.

The above classes pose no problem to the normal healthy teen or adult, but even in someone considered “recovered” from their eating disorder, we should guide them towards practices that continue to build a deeper inner value of themselves.

If you are a yoga teacher, you are bound to come across this population in your classes. Use these techniques to hone your skills towards helping this community in your generalized classes.

• Eyes closed as much as possible.

• Listening within, rather than looking outside.

• Cueing the breath with movement.

If a student asks you for help after class… first, be proud of your teaching! They trust you so much that they are willing to share something they hide from most people. Then offer the following tips:

1. An ideal referral would be to send them to a professional seasoned in yoga therapy and treatment/experience with eating disorders.

2. Refer them to a classroom teacher you personally know is sensitive to this population.

3. Gentle and restorative classes tend to have more of a neutral clientele and environment that can be healing for this population.

4. Direct them to practice at home with a book or a video that you approve.

Here are several research studies in treating eating disorders with Yoga: http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4047628/

- Caroline McCarter

Caroline McCarter owns a private yoga therapy practice in Austin, Texas, where she creates customized yoga practices for physical, mental, and spiritual issues.  She is also contracted out by the Texas state mental illness facility, the University of Austin, and eating disorder treatment centers for her specialized yoga teachings. Website: www.yoga-rx.com.