*Note: This post describes my experience with eating disorders. It is painful and does not glorify eating disorders in any way. Please do not read if you feel you might be triggered.
After seven years of eating disorders and five years of recovery, I still experience chronic pain and various health complications from my eating disorders; though given their severity, I am remarkably healthy. I certainly credit my yoga practice, the process of investigation and connection to Self, as transformational to my healing process.
There is no question in my mind that yoga is beneficial to the treatment of and recovery from eating disorders, as well as addictions, which often go hand in hand. Yoga helps bring peace and understanding of the sacredness of all life; yes, including your own. However, yoga as a part of recovery is certainly best coupled with a knowledgeable mental health professional, for both obvious reasons and for other reasons I will discuss later in this article.
For me, yoga has been a constant source of challenge and comfort. I took my first yoga class in college, when I was 17. At the time, I liked the way my body felt during and after yoga. I felt drawn to the yoga postures, or asanas, which were similar to stretches and strengthening postures I had learned as an acrobatic gymnast since the age of three (modern yoga asana in the West is, in fact, based in part upon gymnastics). I didn’t really know anything about yogic philosophy, history, or spirituality. At that time, though my teachers were just college students themselves, teaching in the college’s gym, I considered them to be good instructors. Of course, the focus was on movement, core engagement, and so forth, rather than the deeper meaning of yoga, but I was perfectly happy with that.
As a 5’4”, 110-pound college freshman, I had gained weight. In high school I had starved myself from a 134-pound curvy and muscular gymnast to an 88-pound anorexic teen. I never missed a day of school. I did, however, quit the gymnastics team I had been a part of for 12 years. The last time I saw my coach, frail and unable to perform the flips or carry the weight of another person on my shoulders, he yelled at me in front of my mother for letting down my teammates. We drove away, my mom in silence and me in tears.
I do not remember much from 10th and 11th grade, except that my fingernails started peeling off, my hair started falling out, I lost my period for several years, and I had no friends. During this time, I got straight A’s and somehow traveled to France with my French class for 10 days; my first trip abroad. I also journaled extensively. Most of my journaling was angry and desperate. I filled journals with calorie-counting, day by day. To this day, I do not know how or why I survived. My records show that I ate under 100 calories per day for weeks at a time, and under 500 calories per day for months. I would hold my piss and strap ankle weights on under my pants to fool my mother into thinking I had gained or at least maintained my weight every time she tried to weigh me. My mother would sit in the bathroom as I showered to ensure I wasn’t vomiting. She removed my mirror from my wall. She would pull me out of school every day during lunch period to watch me eat, sitting in her minivan in the parking lot. I would hide the food under my hoodie or throw it under the van.
I don’t recall seeing doctors during this time. My parents discussed the idea of placing me in an eating disorder treatment center; however, the costs of $20,000 and upwards led them to conclude it was not feasible.
I remember gaining the minimum amount of weight my mom required in order for her to allow me to get my driver’s license. My senior year of high school improved quite a bit – I made a few friends and we did normal teenage things like go to concerts and gossip.
Under stress from college, however, the eating disorder evolved from anorexia to binge eating and bulimia. I was thin and very unhealthy, not to mention I had constant swelling in my throat and face. Bulimia went with me to my classes, to my internships, to my study abroad in France living with a host family, and even to yoga. It was obsessive and painful. Fortunately, I graduated college a semester early, a few days before I turned 21. I went home. For nine healing months, I was free from bulimia and anorexia. I lived at home and worked as a substitute teacher for all grades and subjects, taught an after-school French class to third, fourth, and fifth graders, and wrote articles for a local business magazine. I also started attending a yoga studio that miraculously existed in my small, rural hometown. I became friends with some of the students, most of whom had children my age, and with the teacher, named Thunder. Looking at what I pay for yoga trainings and classes these days, the cost was quite doable. However, being a freshly graduated college student, it seemed monumental. My mom supported my classes at the studio.
Thunder gave me a brand-new copy of the Bhagavad Gita and strongly encouraged my yoga practice. He was the first to introduce me to meditation and to aspects of yoga beyond asana. At the time, I found the Bhagavad Gita interesting from a linguistic standpoint, but only skimmed the text, still not really understanding how it connected to my yoga practice. It wasn’t until recently that I truly dug into the text.
After nine months at home in Virginia, I turned down a Fulbright Teaching Assistantship in Luxembourg in favor of moving to a tiny village in eastern France, where I taught English to high-school and older students in a technical program, some of whom were older than me. Two weeks before traveling there, I randomly decided to see a doctor. I asked if I should be concerned that my hair would sometimes fall out in the shower. She encouraged me to take biotin. At this visit, I mentioned my past eating disorders for the first time to a medical professional. The doctor was rightly concerned, and advised me to see a mental health professional. I went home, and due to what I think was a combination of nerves about my upcoming travel and the discussion with the doctor, I started inducing myself to vomit again that very day. I told no one.
In France, I continued practicing yoga, taught by a very old man wearing a white turtleneck in a community center room. However as the months went by, my bulimia worsened. A yoga practice can only mitigate so much when there are significant stressors in life feeding the disorder. I ended up with what I believe to be nerve damage in my throat; one day in France there was a nightmarish and acutely painful ripping sensation that doctors could not explain then or later. I thought I would die. It was painful to eat. However, I immediately stopped vomiting without mental health intervention. I have not induced myself to vomit since, nor have I restricted my calorie intake or exercised excessively.
My health problems piled up, regardless. The difficulty of navigating the French healthcare system, and the fact that I did not live near a city or have a car, made getting healthcare difficult. The teachers in France were very kind to me and helped take me to medical appointments, but the situation became untenable and my mental health was deteriorating under the stress. I returned to the U.S.
Back in Virginia, I taught at a French immersion summer camp, where additional health issues seemed to spring up out of nowhere; my body was under stress and manifesting its struggle in different ways. I had a long road to recovery ahead of me. I started graduate school in the fall, where I continued taking yoga classes to find peace and connection.
Several years have passed, and I now live in Atlanta. Many doctor visits later, I feel stabilized yet know my body needs to be treated with the utmost care; I must remain vigilant. I started my 200-hour yoga teacher training a year ago this month. Delving deeper into yoga and committing to a regular practice of self-care and continued healing is critical to my physical, mental, and spiritual well-being.
My experience with many doctors and my reading of the literature in the field shows that eating disorders are very poorly understood, and that even the most well-intentioned of interventions can lead to a worsening in the disorder. It is here that I want to discuss yoga in more depth, as it relates to eating disorder recovery. The benefits of yoga for anyone who commits to a regular practice are reduced stress, improved mobility and strength, a calmer mind and breath, and ultimately, a deeper connection to the Self. These benefits are immeasurable. However, the process of connecting the mind, the body, and the breath, not to mention connecting to one’s own divine nature, can be absolutely TERRIFYING for someone in the depths of an eating disorder. For me, coming out of the eating disorder was like flipping a switch; sheer fear and specter of death jolted me into a shocking reality. I have spent the last several years coming to terms with the fact that I abused my body, in some ways irreparably, and that I have to learn to forgive myself and understand that I was suffering from a disease. If others, like me, experience that switch flipping, it could be overwhelming. I was essentially in a state of denial and dissociation about my disease for years and felt suicidal once I realized what I had truly experienced.
For this reason, I urge yoga teachers and mental health professionals to be incredibly sensitive and careful with your students; for yoga teachers, please do not mention “working off the calories” from a meal in your yoga class, or engage in any non-body-positive talk or criticism, including jokes. For mental health professionals, I urge you to know your client well. Do not advise them to take any old yoga class or practice with just any teacher because that “jolt” of connection to the body could cause severe mental anguish. I still encourage yoga as an excellent part of healing, especially later in recovery. I simply wish to emphasize the intensity and shock of truly understanding one’s eating disorder at the outset of recovery, and that this must be addressed with the utmost caution and care.
I am not a mental health professional, but I hope that this brief article serves to illuminate understanding of eating disorders and how yoga relates to the recovery process. I hope to improve awareness, destigmatization, and understanding of eating disorders, both by medical professionals and by family, friends, and coworkers of those suffering.
Thank you for reading.