Guest Post: How Yoga Helped Me Escape My Eating Disorder
I am excited to feature this guest post about how one woman utilized her yoga practice to support her recovery from her eating disorder. If you have used yoga or Mindfulness to support your own recovery from mental illness, life , or substance abuse and would like to share your story via guest blogging, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org
Confession: I began doing yoga as a way to exercise behind my friend’s and family’s backs. After having been put on an exercise restriction in 2006 when I was first hospitalized for a dangerously low heart rate due to my eating disorder, my doctors and nutritionist told me exercise could not be a part of my life until I gained weight and was “more recovered”. So, although I had been joining gyms and exercising behind everyone’s backs since then (something I do NOT recommend and ultimately pulled me deeper into my disorder), when my friend invited me to a warm vinyasa class at a local studio, I happily accepted. “Yoga” and “going to the gym” give quite different impressions, don’t they? Initially I loved how I felt after each practice. I felt tired and sweaty and accomplished. However, the entire practice I was anxiously waiting for the next challenging pose–thinking they burned more calories than the “easier” poses which focused on breathing and flexibility. At the same time I was fixated on whatever I would be eating for dinner afterwards. Every tiny morsel of food, how the meal would look, taste, smell, and how I would eat it. I was anything but a mindful yogi.
As time went on I began to notice myself getting stuck in class, both in my head and with my physical progress. It was as if I hit a wall that seemed impossible to surpass. I could do the poses, and do them well, but not to my fullest expression and definitely not with the healthiest mindset. I found myself faced with my thoughts–unable to run or numb them in any way. Standing in warrior two, with only the sound of my breath and no other distractions, I was forced to choose either to listen to the negative, eating disorder driven thoughts, or to push that aside, fall into the posture, and focus on my breath.
I don’t remember a specific moment when my thoughts began to shift and my practice became less of a competition with myself and more of an acceptance of who I was. But it happened, and continues to happen. I do, however, remember going to an arm balance workshop after a night of eating and drinking more than usual and getting myself into an inversion that I never thought I would be capable of. When I came out of the pose I felt strong, confident, and invincible–three things that I hadn’t felt in a long time–if ever. It was at this point that I began focusing on fueling my body for each class which, over time, meant fueling my body always. There’s a quote in a book titled “Meditations from the Mat” in which Rolph Gates speaks about how yoga poses never end. He states “The reality is that the posture never ends, it just shifts from one form to the next, one lesson to the next, one opportunity to the next. We remain life’s student whether we are inhaling or exhaling, in a relationship or out of one, saving the world or looking for a temp job. The posture never ends.”
For me, this meant that any challenges I faced while standing in a posture on the mat never went away, and that how I took care of my body both mentally and physically was not isolated to yoga class itself but to all areas of my life. I began to focus on my breathing in class, and out. I began to focus on how each pose felt instead of how I thought I looked, which in turn allowed me to begin focusing on this in my daily life. When I found myself in an uncomfortable pose I was unable to run from the discomfort, and instead began to relax and embrace it. I learned how to let things go–to confront my fears, experience them, understand them, and ultimately let them go.
I began choosing healthier and more nourishing foods to fuel my body day to day. They often contained more calories than my usual perfectly portioned, low calorie snacks, but they made my body feel good–something that yoga taught me was okay to feel. I began eating bigger meals that filled me up and didn’t leave me longing for more. If I was tired I allowed myself to sit and relax instead of forcing myself to be active. I began to truly listen to my body, and treat it well.
As I began to fuel my body, give it rest, and allow it to tell me what it needed I also began to see my yoga practice improve. I was gaining muscle, flexibility, and courage. If I wanted to do a pose I became determined to do so. However, if I was unable to accomplish it due to whatever reason, I allowed myself to feel frustrated and then I simply took a deep breath and let it go.
Over time, as I stepped on my mat, I was able to stay present; to forget what I thought of my body and myself beforehand and focus on the here and now. My mat became my sanctuary, a place where I was no longer attached to my expectations of myself. Rolf gates states that “eventually, caught up in the beautiful work of being present for grace, we forget about ourselves, and through self-forgetting we find ourselves”. I definitely found myself on my mat, and continue to find myself every single time choose to practice.
For the past 10 years I have found myself stuck at not only a low weight but an unhealthy state of mind. I was in and out of recovery programs, sneaking behind my loved one’s backs, and always listening to the unhealthy voice. I was controlling, rigid, and extremely hard on myself. Yet, after almost two years of practicing yoga regularly I have come to realize that I have learned how to care for myself both physically and emotionally. I am now in a healthy weight range for the first time since I was 15 and I am kind to myself when I go against the rules that my eating disorder has set up for me. I can’t say that I am recovered, or that yoga was the sole reason for my big step towards recovery, but I can say that it contributed immensely to how I viewed myself, my body, and the world around me. Each pose may look like a normal pose to others, but to me it is more than that. It is proof that with proper care and nurturing, my body is capable of doing more than I ever dreamed possible.