Is yoga actually good for treating eating disorders? If so, why? And which style is the best for recovery? As a yoga practitioner myself, these are questions I’ve set out to answer by combing through studies that asked the same questions. Lucky for me, in recent years, yoga has been empirically explored as an intervention for treating eating disorders (ED) such as bulimia nervo
sa (BN), binge eating disorder (BED), and anorexia nervosa (AN) (Brennan et al., 2020; Diers et al., 2020; Pizzanello, 2021). The following are highlights from recent research that indicate yoga’s effectiveness in ED treatment.
The Mindfulness Movement: A Catalyst for yogic interventions
In more recent years, mindfulness-based interventions such as meditation have come on the psychotherapy and ED recovery scene. Mindfulness has proven to help with many biological and psychological functioning including emotional regulation and body awareness – two big factors in EDs and ED recovery (Diers et al., 2020). Yoga as an intervention for ED comes from the recent implementation of mindfulness techniques in treatment and recovery (Brennan et al., 2020).
Eating disorders are associated with a disruption in emotional regulation, poor body image, and the inability to experience emotions and body sensations, including hunger and fullness cues. The mindful movement aspect of yoga can help people begin to feel body sensations, become more aware of emotions, and tolerate emotional distress as they learn to tolerate the body positions experienced in yoga practice (Brennan et al., 2020; Diers et al., 2020; Pizzanello, 2021). The idea that body sensations accompany most if not all emotions (Pizzanello, 2021), provides a strong argument that body-based interventions for ED can help patients increase emotional awareness as they mindfully awaken to their bodily sensations through yoga (Brennan et al., 2020). Equally important is the fact that body awareness also helps people experience hunger and fullness cues which is an important element of ED recovery (Pizzanello, 2021).
Which style of yoga is best for recovery?
Yoga practices that emphasize awareness of internal experiences including physical sensations, thoughts, and emotions can be most helpful for ED recovery. One research study used Kripalu yoga, which invites practitioners to accept these internal experiences without judgment (Brennan et al., 2020). Mindfulness and self-compassion were encouraged in each class.
Finding a studio that is non-competitive is important for ED clients. Starting yoga in recovery could trigger over-exercising or the inclination to engage the “yoga lifestyle” (i.e., strict diet and exercise regime), which can mirror ED behaviors for those with EDs. Thus, having an instructor and yoga community that is non-competitive and encourages participants to listen to and be gentle with their bodies is key for those in recovery. Research shows that practicing yoga in a recovery group with processing afterward is ideal, especially for those newer to recovery (Brennan et al., 2020). For those who choose to do yoga outside of a treatment center or group, it is advised to process the experience with your therapist.
Yes, yoga has been found to be a potentially beneficial intervention for treating EDs. Yoga’s focus on mindfulness of the body and emotions can help those with EDs to begin to feel and appreciate their body. Doing yoga as part of recovery should be processed with a therapist and should be sought in a safe, non-competitive environment. The Chrysalis Center offers gentle yoga for those in recovery for EDs. If you are interested in incorporating yoga into your recovery, speak with your treatment team about the best way to start your yoga practice.
Brennan, M. A., Whelton, W. J., & Sharpe, D. (2020). Benefits of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders: Results of a randomized controlled trial. Eating Disorders, 28(4), 438–457. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640266.2020.1731921
Diers, L., Rydell, S. A., Watts, A., & Neumark-Sztainer, D. (2020). A yoga-based therapy program designed to improve body image among an outpatient eating disordered population: program description and results from a mixed-methods pilot study. Eating Disorders, 28(4), 476–493. https://doi.org/10.1080/10640266.2020.1740912
Pizzanello, H. C. (2021). An exploration of yoga’s potential to incite feelings of aliveness and authenticity in women recovering from anorexia nervosa. Smith College Studies in Social Work, 91(4), 324–363. https://doi.org/10.1080/00377317.2021.1976698