Yoga: a new way to fight anorexia and bulimia
After Carolyn Coston took her first yoga class, she burst into tears. “This is not a real workout!” she thought. Coston, then in her 20s, had recovered from anorexia but was battling an exercise addiction.
“I was used to pounding the pavement and burning tons of calories,” said Coston, who had dropped 45 pounds at the height of her anorexia.
That was 30 years ago. Thousands of sun salutations later, the trim but healthy blonde is grateful for the way yoga taught her to respect her body and helped her keep her anorexia and exercise addiction at bay.
Coston, who runs three West Coast eating disorder treatment centers that offer yoga classes, believes yoga can play a significant role in helping people recover from eating disorders.
At eating disorder treatment facilities like the Renfrew Center in Coconut Creek, Fla., and New York Presbyterian Hospital in White Plains, N.Y., gentle, meditative yoga courses have become a staple. Across the country, yoga studios offer workshops tailored to those battling eating disorders, addiction and low self-esteem.
Matthew Godino, a 33-year-old New York City yoga instructor, believes yoga has been vital to his continuing recovery from anorexia.
“Yoga has given me the tools to meet life’s challenges more effectively,” said Godino, whose weight once plummeted to 88 pounds. “So instead of turning to food or to an addictive process like starving, I have a healthy alternative.”
In Godino’s case, yoga helped assuage the anxiety that led to his anorexia. But most people with eating disorders turn to yoga for another reason: to learn to accept their bodies.
Yoga instructors have long believed that yoga can increase body satisfaction by switching the focus from what the body looks like to what it can achieve. At the same time, they say yoga encourages people to be aware and forgiving of their physical limits. When eating disorder patients become more attuned to their bodies, experts say, they are more likely to treat them with the respect they deserve.
Few scientific studies have explored these claims. But a recent California study sheds light on yoga’s ability to prevent eating disorders.
In a recent article in the journal Sexuality Research and Social Policy, Jennifer Daubenmier, a psychologist at the University of California in San Francisco, examined yoga’s ability to reduce some people’s "self-objectification," or their tendency to base self-worth on appearance.
“There is some evidence that poor awareness of one’s inner thoughts, feelings and body sensations has been linked to eating disorders," Daubenmier said. "I had started yoga classes myself and had taken classes in Buddhist psychology. I thought yoga fostered a greater mind-body connection, an awareness of physical sensation in the body, and a greater ability to respond to those sensations appropriately.”
Daubenmier studied several female participants as they completed a yoga teacher training course. By the end of the training program, the women reported less self-objectification than they did at the start.
Daubenmier’s findings are encouraging. However, she and other experts agree that eating disorder patients should be discerning about the kind of yoga they choose to pursue.
If people aren’t careful, yoga might trigger some of the obsessive compulsive behaviors associated with eating disorders. “We don’t want the aerobic aspect of yoga to become another addiction,” Godino said. “The kind of yoga that would work best would be a gentler style, something focused on breath work, relaxation and meditation.”
Experts also admit that finding the right kind of yoga instructor is vital to the recovery process.
Adrienne Ressler, a body image specialist at the Renfrew Center, tells yoga teachers never to make class too competitive. Many people with anorexia are perfectionists anyway, she explained, and frustration over incorrect posture could deter many from yoga before they’ve given it a chance.
Instructors, Ressler added, should emphasize yoga’s forgiving nature, and focus on poses that allow patients to explore their physical and psychological boundaries.
“A thing that’s really helpful about yoga is that there are certain postures that emphasize what a patient needs to do in life,” Ressler said. “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.”
Yoga is rich with symbolism, Ressler explained, and teaching someone to be more flexible and open-minded about poses in class can often make it easier for them to embrace those same attitudes in life.
“It removes the patient away from a very adversarial relationship with the body,” Ressler said. “It helps them recognize how the body and mind work together. It’s ironic, as obsessed as these patients are with their bodies, they’re still living in their heads.”