How Yoga Helped Me Recover From an Eating Disorder

Written by Gena Hamshaw

The first time I tried yoga, I spent the better part of class feeling as though I’d been ripped off. This was not because I had a bad teacher, or because the studio lacked something to be desired. It was because I had spent the class making a mental tally of the calories I was burning, and they didn’t add up.

In other words, I’d wasted a workout.

This had all sorts of serious ramifications. It meant that the precious hour of my time I’d allotted to exercise for the day hadn’t yielded adequate energy expenditure. It meant I’d now have to carve out gym time. It meant I might have to cancel my after work plans to squeeze in another workout, or skip my lunch break, or leave the office for a while just to get in the appropriate amount of cardio. Yoga had deceived me: it had promised me a good workout, and given me stretching and a few hops around a rubber mat instead. I was furious, and swore I’d never do it again.

It should come as no surprise that, at the time of this experience, I was just barely recovered from a major bout of disordered eating. Though “recovered” technically, I was still painfully regimented about food and exercise choices, and any minor shift in my fitness or food plans was likely to throw me into a tailspin of anxiety. I’d heard that yoga was good exercise, and arrived at my first class with that expectation in mind. At the time, “exercise” meant nothing to me other than sweat and panting. The notion of movement as nourishment was totally alien to me.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who has had this experience with yoga. Indeed, if you’ve ever been prone to any type of disordered eating or body dysmorphia, I’m guessing that you’ve had similar thoughts at one point or another. In my seven or so years of practicing yoga seriously, I’ve realized that many men and women who find their way to yoga have eating disorder histories. It occurred to me early in my practice that there might be something distinctive about yoga -- physical or spiritual -- that makes it complementary to recovery, but for a long time I struggled to articulate what that might be.

Now that there are a few more years between me and my last relapse, I have a better sense of how yoga fits in with eating disorder (ED) recovery and body acceptance. In future articles, I hope to expand upon this theme, and talk about the connections. In this one, I’ll focus on what may be yoga’s most important contribution to my sustained recovery: namely, the fact that it is the only type of exercise that forces me to surrender goals, and focus instead on fully inhabiting my body.

When I say that yoga makes me surrender goals, I mean that I don’t arrive at class with an objective. For me -- a person who is type A, driven, goal oriented and a perfectionist to the extreme -- this is quite a claim, but I’m being honest. When I practice yoga, there is no amount of calories I’m hoping to shed, no distance I want to cover, no time in which I hope to make it across a finish line. My only aim (if that’s the right word for it) is to have the wisdom to adjust my practice to what I need (that day, that hour, and at that moment).

Why should the capacity to adjust be so remarkably hard? For me, it’s hard for because disordered eating defined my life for a long time, and rigidity is the foundation of disordered eating. When I was struggling most, my life revolved around schedules, rules, patterns and goals. Every day began with a fitness objective and a food regimen. How I felt -- physically and emotionally -- was beside the point. There was no room for spontaneity in this picture, no room for intuition. There was only room for my agenda.

And that’s precisely why yoga was so tough. Yoga asked me to open myself up to a teacher’s wisdom, rather than marching through my own list of tasks. It asked me to feel my body, really feel it -- each twist, turn, stretch, and movement. I had become profoundly disconnected from my body through years of deprivation and obsessive exercise, and this level of awareness was both revelatory and deeply freaky. To some degree, I remember my first yoga class as the moment when I was forced to realize that I actually had a body -- an odd sentiment, perhaps, but if we think about disordered eating as an attempt to destroy the physical self, it makes some sense. Disordered eating is a war against the body; yoga practice revives it, and forces us to recognize its needs.

I’m not actually sure why I returned to yoga after swearing I never would. Perhaps it was because I suspected that there was more to it than I thought. Or, perhaps it was because yoga had scared me, and typically the things that scare me in life are the things I need the most. Once I let go of the idea that yoga was going to be a “workout” in a traditional sense, I was able to appreciate both its physical benefits (strength, flexibility, endurance) and its tremendous spiritual offerings as well.

To this day, the type of yoga that speaks to me tends to be fast paced, but I enjoy a range, and I never abandon a class simply because I’m not confident that I’m burning calories at a breakneck speed. Instead, I arrive at yoga class profoundly grateful: grateful for community, for wisdom, and most of all, grateful that I’ve learned how to value my body. If you’d have told me six years ago that yoga would one day be not only my favorite kind of movement, but also the space in which I make sense of my lived experience, I’d have been shocked. But, if yoga has taught me anything, it is that, in spite of my boldest declarations, I can always be surprised.

Thank goodness for yoga’s surprises.

Ready to learn more about how to unlock the power of food to heal your body, prevent disease & achieve optimal health? Register now for our FREE web class with nutrition expert Kelly LeVeque.

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