One of the first things I noticed when I started yoga was the beauty of my instructors. Each and every one of them glowed with an inner light that glossed over any physical imperfections, and their bodies, unlike the hard, tense-looking physiques of my aerobics teachers, were simultaneously sinewy, strong and soft. If yoga made you look like that, I thought, count me in.
Nearly a decade later, I still admire the look of “yoga bodies”, but not half as much as I admire yoga minds. So many forms of exercise cling to the “no pain, no gain” mentality, with an emphasis on burning calories or getting “cut”. Yoga, on the other hand, is all about finding peace with your body; appreciating it for what it can do, and finding your own personal limitations and abilities. If confidence and peace begets beauty, it’s no wonder that my instructors have that special glow.
For people with eating disorders, that same confidence and peace can do more than create an attractive-looking physique: it can be lifesaving. A 2005 study published in Psychology of Women Quarterly found that people who practiced yoga had “greater body satisfaction” and fewer incidences of disordered eating and behavior than those who participated in other forms of exercise like aerobics, jogging or using cardio machines. In fact, while women who spent more time in aerobic activities had a greater chance of having an eating disorder, the more often a woman practiced yoga, the less likely she was to suffer from self-objectification or dissatisfaction with her body.
Eating disorders have more to do with control and body image than they have to do with actually eating. Many treatment facilities use yoga as a complementary therapy; others use it as the therapy itself. Bree Greenberg-Benjamin, a therapist in Burlington, VT, runs a special program that combines yoga and group therapy to treat anorexia and bulimia. In an interview with local newspaper The Burlington Free Press, she explains how this unique treatment protocol works:
“One of the best parts about the program is that it affects both physical and emotional symptoms since yoga has a profound healing effect on the body as well as the mind. There are so many positive outcomes from this combination: the ability to connect to feelings, sensations and breath in the body, a decrease in numbness, the ability to feel hunger and the compassion to respond to it, less internal chatter and clearer decision making, a decrease in feelings of shame and guilt and higher self worth and compassion for self.”
Even more traditional programs like Florida’s Renfrew Center (made famous in the 2006 documentary “Thin”) encourage eating disorder patients to engage in yoga. However, experts warn that the type of yoga matters greatly – a more meditative, gentle yoga tends to be better for those with eating disorders. This is because exercise can be used as a purging behavior – very dangerous for bulimics trying to break the binge-purge cycle – and because perfectionist behavior, so common in those with disordered eating, can turn an innocuous yoga class into a competitive, negative experience. Renfrew body-image specialist Adrienne Ressler tells Columbia News Service that yoga instructors should focus on the yoga’s “forgiving nature” and forgo any aerobic or power-yoga styles for a gentler, explorative practice. Then, she explains, patients can reap the benefits of “certain postures that emphasize what a patient needs to do in life…Bulimics need poses that emphasize containment, while someone with anorexia, she can benefit from some of the postures that emphasize opening up and being flexible.”
I’m no expert, by any means. Still, it seems to me that along with the proven clinical results of yoga’s positive effect on eating disorders, the beautiful, strong, and diverse bodies of the yoga community can only help inspire and encourage those struggling with eating disorders to embrace their own inner glow.