Yoga Guidelines for Eating Disorder Recovery

So you’re ready to add yoga to your Eating Disorders Recovery plan? Here are some suggestions to help you find the best yoga classes.

By Karen Samuels, PhD, Licensed Psychologist, and Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT

Yoga, with its tenets of peacefulness, self-compassion, mindfulness, and self-empathy, both empowers and enhances recovery from eating disorders and body image despair. Through physical poses (asanas), breathing exercises (pranayama), and self-care that is non-harmful (ahimsa), and meditation, yoga promotes harmony within and strengthens the relationship with the body.

The boom in popularity of yoga classes has resulted in an increase in research and peer review articles on yoga and its benefits for a variety of conditions, including eating disorders. A 2016 study found that yoga combined with outpatient eating disorder treatment decreased anxiety, depression, and body image concerns, suggesting yoga is a valuable adjunct treatment strategy. More robust studies are needed, but the early research is promising and reiterates anecdotal evidence that yoga can be beneficial for those recovering. Indeed, many ED treatment centers are offering yoga classes, both residential and outpatient programs.

Many living with eating disorders and body image despair are already going to yoga classes to heal the relationship with your body, self image and learn healthy ways to heal. We want to offer strategies for “help that helps, not help that hurts!”

It is important to recognize, however, that not all yoga classes support a recovery mindset. Like many health campaigns today, yoga has been swept along with social media, promoting the stereotype of a particular body type. The yoga selfie craze can breed body comparison, and the hyper-focus on yoga as fitness can prompt competition, overexertion and perfectionism. In other words, these triggers can fuel your eating disorder and body dissatisfaction.

Some of today’s yoga marketing and fitness-oriented class styles, or certain aspects of them, can be unhelpful for those in recovery. We wish to shine a light on the fact that the intentions of what is being offered may not align with the intentions and needs for vulnerable students in their own recovery.

Recent studies report that upwards of 15-20% of students in general yoga classes are struggling with disordered eating, body image disturbance (aka body image despair) and are at high risk for onset or relapse of an eating disorder. Students are easily influenced by suggestions made by teachers who are unaware their instructions are triggering.

We offer those some guidelines for selection of yoga classes and environments that are most supportive. Whether you’ve been practicing yoga for some time or are considering try it, here’s a few tips for what to look for when choosing a yoga class.

  1. Choose classes that are gentle, beginners or restorative in nature, as these practices are focused on bringing balance to all the systems of the body and calming the mind. Yin yoga (slow, holding poses longer) can also be good option. Flowing (vinyasa) classes can also be fun, however, avoid classes that are described as vigorous or primarily fitness focused. Yes, chair yoga can be a wonderful class to try, too.
  2. It’s best to not practice initially in heated rooms, as these classes tend to be more physically demanding and can be unsafe if you struggle to properly hydrate or nourish themselves. Vigorous styles are more appropriate for those in well-established recovery with stable physical activity. It is crucial to obtain clearance from your health care team before beginning your yoga practice.
  3. Research teachers who are trained in trauma sensitive yoga. These teachers are educated in trauma and have a deep awareness of how to shape classes that support individuals with a trauma history. Simply review the Bios of teachers on the yoga studio’s website and look for phrases like “trauma sensitive” and trauma aware” yoga. Many yoga teachers Bios may also describe their own recovery from eating disorders, body image struggles and addiction.
  4. Look for yoga studios that do not have mirrors. They may be hard to find, as many studios have mirrors to assist students with alignment of the physical poses. Mirrors can have an adverse effect, creating distraction and distorting body image concerns. No mirrors automatically removes this potential, encouraging a more internal experience. This is a vital aspect of eating disorder recovery—getting to know oneself from the inside out. Learning to trust one’s body will serve your life, rather than your life shackled by body distress.
  5. Choose studios with empowering offerings. Be selective: find workshops and other yoga-related workshops that are NOT focused on food restriction or changing your body. Looks for themes of acceptance, resilience, compassion, presence, and yoga philosophy concepts that are body positive and healing. If the studio, or teacher is urging dietary changes PLEASE remember your own unique recovery plan. Food restrictions are well know triggers for onset, relapse or worsening of eating disorder symptoms.
  6. Focus on noticing what your body is telling you and not pushing beyond that point; do you listen carefully and rest when fatigued? Take great care not to force poses, strain to match others in the room, or ignore injuries or limitations. Do not hesitate to use supportive props: blocks, bolsters, straps, chairs, all serve to help you find your own pose with correct alignment.
  7. Ask if the studio or teacher offers a non-verbal way to signal if you do not wish for the teacher to touch you. Physical adjustments may be uncomfortable, and a non-verbal cue allows for safety and assurance your preferences will be understood. While many teachers ask if you have injuries, it may be more complicated to explain your eating disorder and/or trauma recovery.
  8. Before, During and After classes seek to: “meet yourself where you are” with acceptance. Practice body confidence/acceptance language and self-talk. It is common to practice yoga seeking to “accomplish” more challenging poses. Try not to drive yourself towards achieving more, every time you get on your yoga mat can be a time of curiosity and learning.

Your body will guide you as you learn to listen with care, attention and intention. Yoga means to find the “yoke” of mind and body, connection to a deep lifelong learning.

Whether you are new practitioner or have been taking yoga classes for some time, we encourage you to give our suggestions a try. It takes tremendous courage to pursue eating disorder recovery as does showing up for a yoga class and exploring your relationship with your body and yourself. Choosing classes that support this exploration in sensitive and caring ways is a powerful expression of self-care and commitment to yourself and recovery.

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