Yoga is a body-based therapy that we offer, here at Orri. A yoga practise can help our clients connect with their bodies in a way that feels safe and supportive as they navigate eating disorder recovery. It can be a challenging process as disconnection and punishment of the body has often been the norm for a long time, and why it is so important to go gently and kindly. Below, we explore what yoga is and how it can support eating disorder recovery.
What is yoga?
The root of the word yoga is the Sanskirt work ‘yuj’, which means can be translated as to yoke, bind or join together. It can also mean union. At its heart, this ancient philosophy is about connecting to our true selves and recognising our connection with a greater consciousness.
In one of the foundational texts of the yogic tradition, the yoga sutras (written around 450 CE), the sage Patanjali writes ‘yoga citta vritti nirodah’, which can be translated as ‘yoga is the settling of the fluctuations of the mind’. Fundamental to the yogic approach is the recognition of the multi-faceted nature of being human and the necessity for integration between the physical, energetic, cognitive, emotional, and spiritual.
While western society has adopted yoga primarily as an embodied movement practise, its scope is much broader, offering a comprehensive set of tools, practices and guidelines for achieving wholeness. The yoga sutras codifies this knowledge in the eight-fold path:
- Yamas and Niyamas – ethical guidelines for how to ourselves and each other
- Asana – physical postures to develop and maintain ease within the body
- Pranayama – practices to manage the body’s energy (prana), typically through breath work
- Pratyahara – practices to reduce sensory input and facilitate turning inwards
- Dharana–concentration and focus practices
- Dhyana – meditation practices
- Samadhi – development of absorption/sense of unity and connection
Looking beyond the better-known physical asanas, yoga offers insights into ways to cultivate a healthy attitude towards mind, body and spirit. For example, the five yamas are:
- Ahimsa: Non-violence, or avoiding thoughts or actions that might harm other living beings and ourselves. Ahimsa means being kind to the planet as well as everything and everyone on it. To practice ahimsa, try a loving-kindness meditation and send kindness to loved ones, yourself, and your community. In your yoga practice, treat your body with kindness by observing your physical state, not pushing beyond your lmits and resting when needed.
- Asteya: Non-stealing. Modern interpretations of this yamaalso include non-appropriation and giving. Asteya goes beyond not stealing material possessions—it is also means not stealing from the environment and yourself. Practice asteya by being mindful of your consumption of natural resources, and avoiding unauthorized appropriation of ideas and cultures.
- Satya: Truthfulness in words, thoughts, and actions. The Sanskrit word satmeans “that which is.” Practice satya by observing reality without judgment. In your yoga practice, be honest with yourself by observing your body and honouring your limits.
- Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness of material goods and in relationships. Practice aparigrahaby letting go of expectations and attachments. Drop your expectations of what an asana (pose) is supposed to look like to (for example based on an image seen on social media) and focus instead on your embodied experience.
- Brahmacharya: Right use of energy, or moderation. You can incorporate brahmacharyainto your life by taking time to tune into your energy levels and honouring these, for example by resting when you need to rather than pushing through exhaustion. Find ways to relax and recharge so that you have the energy to do things that are really important to you. Child’s pose can be a great way to feel grounded and supported in rest and yoga nidra is a powerful tool for deep relaxation. (Masterclass, 2022)
How can yoga aid eating disorder recovery?
At Orri, we offer yoga as a body-based therapeutic option for our clients, led by our Somatic and Body Based Therapist, Pippa, and our Yoga Therapist, Vicky.
Together, they teach the fundamentals of an embodied yoga practice, cultivating flow, and learning to rest and let go. They invite our clients to ‘be curious’ about their experiences, and to deepen their understanding of their inner worlds, to listen and accept, without judgement.
This process encourages clients to tune into their internal landscape and learn to be with physical sensations and emotions in a way that feels safe and tolerable. They help our clients learn how to regulate their nervous system with a combination of awareness, mindfulness and self-care. For example, using specific breath techniques can help someone move gently and manageably from a hyper-vigilant or anxious state (fight or flight) into one of grounded ‘presence’ (safe and secure). , This calm state allows access to more higher brain functions, which go offline when we are in fight or flight. This in turn supports people’s ability to make better and more rational decisions, which benefits mind, body and recovery. We explore more about stress and the impacts of the body here.
People living with eating disorders can struggle to tolerate certain emotions, particularly the uncomfortable or overwhelming ones. For some, these more ‘negative’ emotions can be reminders of unpleasant past experiences. Because of this, there can be an understandable resistance towards connecting with those difficult feelings. Therapeutic yoga offers an effective path to travel safely towards this.
What a yoga practise can do is to bring that reconnection back to a disconnected mind and body. As Vicky explains:
“Using physical postures can help us practice acceptance of ourselves in the present moment, allowing us to learn to ride the wave of sensation, to ‘feel’ it as it starts, builds, plateaus and fades. This in turn can help build our tolerance of difficult sensations and feelings.
We can use the tools from yoga to help us regulate our autonomic nervous system and build resiliency, and then we can take these tools off the mat and use them in our everyday lives, such as when we are in a challenging situation.“
She explores how the learnings from our yoga practise can be implemented in daily life. For example (as we mentioned above), if sitting down for a meal creates a feeling of anxiety or overwhelm, by focusing on your breathing you can calm your nervous system, which signals to the brain you are in a safe place. This means you are more receptive to hearing what you (rather than the ED) are telling yourself about recovery and can make it easier to deal with challenges at mealtimes,
Meditation in its various forms (including mindfulness and concentration-based practises) are more yoga-based tools that can support eating disorder recovery. Regular practise over time helps bridge the gap between mind and body that the eating-disorder created and foster a greater sense of connection and wholeness.
(For students experiencing overwhelm with studies and exams, we have a guided meditation for you – led by Pippa).
How does this relate to self-love?
Throughout July, we are exploring self-love – a genuine appreciation and regard for ourselves. Nurturing our individuality, truly recognising what nourishes our minds, and growing to accept our true self separate from an eating disorder are crucial aspects of recovery.
“In the yoga wisdom tradition, the yamas and niyamas provide guidelines for managing our journey through life.” Vicky
In the context of self-love and recovery, Vicky references three of yoga’s ethical precepts (as above).
She explores how ahimsa (kindness) and granting this kindness to ourselves is crucial in developing self-love, trust and values. This may not be easy, and as with any practice, needs to be cultivated regularly.
Santosha is another core facet of yoga that relates to self-love, as it can translate to acceptance. Eating disorder recovery is full of questions – “What is going to happen?”, “What if this had happened, or that had happened instead?”, which often leads to feelings of frustration and anguish. When we’re in this space of thinking “What if?”, it’s important to honour the process of change. Whilst we may feel pressure and urgency to be fully “recovered” by a certain time, we need to accept the journey will unfold in its own time. In the meantime, we can reinforce our progress by honouring the incremental changes we see along the way.
Svadahyaya means self-awareness, something that is incredibly important for recovery. The more we can understand ourselves, our history, patterns and conditioned responses, the more we can cultivate compassion towards ourselves and our journey in recovery. In this way we foster and grow our capacity for self-love in a grounded, authentic way.
We leave you with the reminder that you are so worthy of recovery.
Opening out to your experience moment by moment, accepting it and practising kindness towards yourself are all crucial for recovery. You can use our yoga practise to cultivate these qualities, and in doing so you demonstration your willingness to love yourself, look after yourself, and listen to yourself. It will most likely require baby steps, but that is okay.
Madanmohan, 2008, Indian Journal of Physiology and Pharmacology 52(2):164-70
Masterclass, 2022: Yamas Guide: How to Practice the 5 Yamas of Yoga