Yoga and Eating Disorders - Part I
Yoga in the West
Yoga is one of the most complete, rich and powerful systems of physical, mental and spiritual development and transformation that have ever existed in the history of humanity, with its origins being traced around the third century BCE, in ancient India. This great sum of esoteric, intrinsically spiritual teachings and practices has been preserved, evolved and remained vibrant and alive, but also secret, through a tradition of exclusively oral transmission from teacher to student. Yoga was firstly introduced to the West towards the end of the 19th century, but it was not until the 60’s that the interest in it skyrocketed, when a number of Eastern spiritual traditions become a significant pole of attraction, through the New Age movement.
In its totality, yoga consists of several distinct branches, each of them using different means to reach the same goal of union and self-realization. Since yoga’s entry in the West, one of those branches has been greatly emphasized and widely spread and practiced; that of hatha yoga. Hatha yoga is the physical aspect of yoga, which primarily -but not exclusively- consists in the practice of yoga postures or asanas. This type of yoga has become so popular over the years that today, in the collective mind, yoga as a whole is almost equated with yoga asanas.
Moreover, in the last decades, a large number of hatha yoga styles has been developed, each with a different focus and intention. Very broadly speaking, two main categories can be identified in contemporary yoga practice. The first is based on vinyasa, meaning movement synchronized with breath, and flow; asanas are practiced in carefully created sequences, one asana is linked with the next one, and the transition from one to the other is done in a fast, flowing way, with each inhalation and each exhalation leading to a different asana, while the longest that one stays in the same asana is for five breaths. Vinyasa flow styles of yoga are often quite dynamic and physically demanding, they are warming in nature, aiming to ‘detox’ the body and improve both strength and flexibility, through the sweat that is being released. This, we could say, is the ‘solar’ or, in the terminology of depth psychology, the more ‘masculine’ way of practicing. The most famous of those styles is the system of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga, which has formed the foundation on which many other vinyasa flow styles have been built.
On the other hand, there are the slower, more calming and grounding styles of yoga that are based on holding yoga asanas for a longer time and are characterised by the following elements: paying greater attention to the anatomic and energetic details; moving from one asana to the other in a slower, gentler way; staying in one pose for several breaths and focusing on the experience in the body and mind. These approaches place greater emphasis on the awareness with which one engages in their practice, the quality and depth of the breath and the release of stress and tension from the body-mind. This, we could say, is the ‘lunar’ or more ‘feminine’ way of practicing. Some of the most important and well-known representatives of this style are the more ‘mindful’ practices of classical hatha yoga, Iyengar yoga and Yin yoga.
Yoga and Eating Disorders' Clients
In my eating disorders practice, I have met -and continue to meet regularly- many clients who were also yoga practitioners. Their involvement in yoga would range from occasionally joining a class to being whole-heartedly devoted to a daily practice, or sadhana, while some of them were also yoga teachers. Interestingly enough, those who were most likely to be interested in yoga, would exhibit purely restrictive tendencies, such as in anorexia and orthorexia, or would fluctuate between restriction and excess in their food intake, such as in bulimia and in the combination of chronic dieting/binge-eating. Both my clients, who have had a similar experience, and myself have reported initially finding great relief and a kind of refuge in yoga, the discovery of a practice that made us feel good, in combination with a fascinating philosophy that promised to solve all our struggles and guide us straight into the light. However, this usually only lasted for so long…
Let us take a closer look at why this may be so.
The effect of vigorous Yoga practice and lifestyle on Eating Disorders' sufferers with restrictive tendencies
There are certain elements of contemporary Western yoga practice that make it both more attractive to eating disorders’ clients, but also more distabilising and potentially fortifying of their unhelpful thought and behavioural patterns.
First of all, between the two major yoga styles that were described previously, 9 out of 10 people who tend to restrict their food intake and struggle with their body image will choose the fast, flowing, dynamic one. And this is no wonder. Flow yoga is no less complete or spiritual than slower, more mindful styles. The problem lies in the way that it has been presented, used and often misused in the Western culture. Vinyasa flow yoga or the even more dynamic ‘power yoga’ more closely resemble a work-out, an alternative way to exercise. This stripping of yoga of its spiritual roots allowed for it to become more easily integrated as an exercise form and health regime in different religious and cultural environments. Those styles of yoga have been largely incorporated in gyms and fitness centres, and yoga has been widely advertised as the next fitness trend, with terms like ‘yoga abs’ and ‘yoga butt’ attracting many people who were primarily or sometimes exclusively interested in sculpting their bodies.
Whereas this is not necessarily bad in itself and it has been argued that many people who are drawn to yoga for purely physical reasons, later discover the many and deeper benefits of the practice, when it comes to those struggling with their body and shape, practicing yoga in such a way can only exaggerate and add to their dissatisfaction with and neglect of their bodies. Chronic dieters and those with anorexic traits are usually already exercising excessively, and sometimes compulsively; therefore, it does take long for yoga to become a -definitely more exotic- part of their exercise addiction.
The environment in which yoga is practiced can also add to the intense self-and-body-consciousness that eating disorders’ clients present. Since those populations are most often already members of gyms and fitness centres, they are more likely to come across yoga through their schedules. Gym practice instantly creates a mindset of not only exercise, but also competition, as it is goal-oriented and there’s a clear motivation to ‘manipulate’ the body and to make it more desirable, more attractive, fitter, etc. Also, gym studios are almost always equipped with mirrors. Practicing yoga in front of a mirror creates too much focus on the outer appearance of the body and the poses, which is totally contrary to yoga’s nature and purpose of connecting with the internal experience and with how the body feels in a pose, instead of how it looks.
Moreover, in stronger practices, whether in gyms or elsewhere, there is usually more emphasis on moving deeper into poses, pushing and overcoming one’s limitations, challenging oneself and going into more advanced poses. This is an essential part of a well-rounded yoga practice; however, for people who have been pushing themselves beyond their limits and overlooking their needs for such a long time, this approach is not at all helpful, as it reinforces the tendencies they already have in excess. As a result, their practice might easily turn into another battlefield, in which they are trying to achieve more, do more, strive and perform. It is not unusual for people with food and body image issues to be using their practice to intentionally burn calories, and to also constantly check their bodies and what they look like, throughout the practice.
Dynamic yoga’s detoxing potential is another factor that makes it very enticing for the restrictive types of eating disorders’ population. This great desire for detoxification, purity and cleanliness is emphasized and reinforced through yoga’s association with healthy and ‘clean’ eating and all the special diets, from vegetarianism to raw food to juicing and fasting. Thus, the already well-established dichotomy between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foods finds valid support and becomes even more intensified through yoga’s promotion of a certain lifestyle and eating habits.
Furthermore, the ascetic figures of the Indian yogis on the one hand, and the perfectly toned and super-flexible bodies of Western yoga teachers on the other, can create a role model that matches and justifies the ‘ideal body’ in the mind of eating disorders’ sufferers. Their overwhelming desire to look and eat in a certain way becomes rationalized and disguised into an attempt to be a ‘proper’ yoga practitioner and many fall into the trap of judging their progress in yoga based on their outer appearance.
Note: It goes without saying that in all styles of yoga, including the stronger ones, as well as in the various health food approaches that are available at the moment, there is truth, value and potency. My purpose in this article is in no way to criticize any of those systems; I only aim to talk about the effects that certain aspects of those practices can have on people struggling with food and body image difficulties.
So, how can we understand, from both a psychological and physical/energetic perspective, the adverse influence that the exclusive practice of dynamic and challenging yoga styles can have on individuals suffering from serious body-image disturbance and restrictive tendencies with regard to food? And what type of yoga would be recommended and beneficial for those practitioners?