Yoga As A Tool For Eating Disorder Recovery
I recently watched the documentary “I Am Maris” on Netflix, about a young girl who discovers yoga through her journey in healing from an eating disorder. Watching this film immediately sent me into a reflection about my own journey with yoga and an eating disorder as a young girl. These days, I spend very little time thinking about what it was like to struggle with anorexia all those years ago. To be honest, I often forget about that chapter of my life altogether because it feels like a lifetime ago. But yoga is obviously still such a huge part of my life today, and I’m reminded of how it very much saved my life on many occasions just as it did for Maris.
Yoga found me when I was just 13, before I really struggled with issues with food, exercise and my body. At that time I related to it mostly as a physical practice that felt pretty good and made me more flexible. Little did I know it would become my saving grace and a guiding light through some of the darker times in my life.
Yoga studios can be like an oasis in the middle of a drought, a respite from all the harsh conditions of daily life. For that hour or more than you’re on your mat, your only responsibility is to breathe. You get to leave all the rest behind. You can move and flow and stretch too, if you choose, but all that is required is that you connect to your breath. And that can be such relief for someone who is used to trying to control everything in the world around them.
Don’t get me wrong, there have been many, many times that I’ve tried to control my yoga practice as well. It took years for me to realize that that’s not how it works. Yoga isn’t something you can manipulate, and your body isn’t meant to be controlled either. They’re both meant to be participated with. When I finally surrendered the desire to control my practice is when it really began to open itself up to me.
You see, there’s a point for every yogi where they realize their practice is so much more than just the physical asanas. That moment is precisely when the real yoga begins. When you realize it was never about how many chaturangas you could do, or whether your toes touch your head, you discover that the gifts of yoga are deeper than you could’ve ever imagined when you showed up to your first class.
The eating disorder personality type tends towards perfectionism, anxiety, and control. Yoga is often the perfect medicine to counteract those imbalances and help someone repair their relationship with themselves. I went from someone who couldn’t even relax for a moment in savasana, to someone who would stay longer after class to just lay there and breathe, because that’s when I felt most at peace.
Seriously, when I was at the peak of my disorder, I remember laying there in savasana (drenched in sweat after the hardest power class) and contracting my abs as hard as I could, just to feel like I was still working hard and “getting something” out of that time. Now there are times when I show up to my mat to just lay there, surrender and breathe for the entire hour. That shift happened because yoga kept calling me back to it, and I kept committing to show up.
It may sound counterintuitive, but the shape and appearance of your body seem to matter a lot less when you’re busy making shapes in a mirror-less room. It is such a relief to spend an hour in a place where you’re not preoccupied with looking at your body, thinking about food, or fearing that you’re not enough.
The beautiful thing about yoga is that while it’s opening you up, it’s also making you strong. I can’t count the number of times that a deep heart-opener or hip stretch would crack me open to the point of crying an ocean of tears during class. As I breathed into long-forgotten and neglected corners of my body, my body responded in kind by releasing pockets of old energy and emotions that were no longer serving me.
Combine that with the angelic teachers who held the sweetest space for me to grieve and feel what I was feeling, and that’s how I began to gain an emotional resilience that I never had before. I could trust myself to feel deep things, and know that I would still be standing after, stronger than before.
And physically, yoga became the foundation upon which my body’s strength was built. It stabilized my joints and tendons so that when I began to lift weights again, my body not only held up but was able to get stronger than before. This is crucial for someone who has spent years catabolizing their own muscle mass by way of an eating disorder. Building back physical strength is such a key step on the journey to recovery.
The fact that I no longer struggle with any remnants of an eating disorder is something I believe I owe in large part to yoga. This post is simply an ode to that fact.
I was so inspired by Maris’s story that I not only felt called to record a podcast episode about my own struggles with an eating disorder, but to also interview her about her powerful story. Stay tuned for the next two episodes of my podcast “Well, Then” to learn more about how yoga is such a powerful tool in recovery, and in life in general.