Yoga in Eating Disorder Treatment

Written by Caroline McCarter, E-RYT, Therapist at McCallum Place Austin

The benefits of using Yoga as an adjunct treatment for eating disorders (ED) are vast. I have first-hand experience of the progress my clients make using Yoga psychology (neutral investigation into behaviors), mindful movement (creating linkage between the mind and body by way of the breath), and meditation techniques (new thought pattern creation). A Yoga practice that can truly move beyond an ED is one that inspires new peaceful thoughts and connections between the mind and body as well as pleasant food relationships and eating patterns. An ideal referral to help your client would be to send them to a professional seasoned in Yoga Therapy and treatment/experience with ED.  If they are not at your disposal, here are some other options:

  1. Working with a Yoga Teacher in private.
  2. Ask them to practice at home on their own to a book or a video that you approve.
  3. Refer them to a classroom teacher you personally know is sensitive to this population.
  4. Gentle and Restorative classes tend to have more of a neutral clientele and environment that can be healing for this population.

I stress these above options because as Yoga gains in popularity, it has diminished in quality. With a clientele that is easily triggered, we need to differentiate between what practices encourages recovery and what disrupts it.  The greatest purveyors of encouraging unproductive thoughts and behaviors are found in public classes.  Here are a few examples:

Bikram Yoga which also goes by the name of Hot Yoga; requires a room heated to around 105* with 40% humidity. While that alone is unhealthy enough for a client with anorexia, the room is also required to have at least two walls covered with mirror. During the 90 minute practice the student is asked to stare at themselves repeatedly in the mirrors. The teacher will state that a focused gaze leads to a focused mind, but for those with body image issues and/or ED any and all staring at the body will inevitably bring up thoughts that conflict with recovery. Our clients need to be practicing with eyes closed in a room absent of mirrors.

Anusara Yoga is centered on alignment of the body, but its body centric teachings can lead the ED mind to perfectionistic thoughts and their corresponding behaviors. For example, in many classes the instructor will break down a posture and gather the class around one student performing a particular pose to demonstrate the right and wrong way to do a posture. While that can make a movement practice safer, it is black and white thinking, which we are trying to move the client away from. Our clients need to be aware that every posture will look and feel different on each distinct body in order to release any judgments.

Vinyasa Yoga is a fast paced practice moving from one posture to the next without specific guidance on moving at your own breath pace. Without focus on the breath, the practice doesn’t meet the definition of Yoga. That type of movement would put it into a category of exercise or stretching. This may be beneficial for clients who need to move to release energy… but it doesn’t provide a productive linkage between the two components that are distorted in our clients….Mind and Body. Our clients need the neutral gateway of breath to create a connection between the two.

Caroline McCarter teaches Yoga for McCallum Austin as well as treats clients individually in her private practice YogaRX. Caroline is a registered  E-RYT by the Yoga Alliance (the highest certification available), and a member of International Association of Yoga Therapists. Caroline is also certified in First Aid and AHA Heart Saver CPR, and her Master’s of Library & Information Science has aided her mind to think logically in order to quickly analyze each individual session and delve into the right practice for you.