The Power of Using Yoga Philosophy In Eating Disorder Treatment

In the process of recovery, many individuals can feel lost on their journey towards health and wholeness. Many of my patients have asked me for a road map of sorts to help them along the way. The addiction model relies on the 12 step program as means towards sobriety and a way of life but for those in eating disorder recovery the steps are not always a complementary match. I, as I often do when I need guidance, look to my inner wisdom practices for a clue as to how to approach this important question. I found the answer in my yoga practice. 
The word yoga comes from the Sanskrit root “yuj” which means “to join” or “to yoke.” Yoga means union between one’s ego-self and the divine Self. Therefore, the understanding and practice of yoga embraces connection to something greater than ourselves.

One definition of the word recover means to find what was lost. In the process of recovery one finds lost parts of themselves veiled by the disorder or the stuck self.

Yoga aids in recovery because the more one connects the small self to the larger self the easier it is to find those parts which are ‘lost’ or ‘forgotten’. Yoga AND recovery in essence are states of potential that always exists within an individual: it has always been there and will always be there. In addition, 

yoga and recovery are both a means of awakening to what one already knows and of  remembering one’s true essence.

The Yoga Sutras by Patanjali offer a short collection of ancient philosophies that codify a system of physical, mental and spiritual health. They are not meant to be rules but instead represent a value system, a map that is meant to guide us to our truest and most fulfilled self. This map is known as the Eight-fold Path, or the Eight Limbs of Yoga. The Yoga Sutras represent a value system that encourages individuals to live a life of balance and truth.

The eight limbs do not form a hierarchy, where one element is more important than the others. Instead, they can be seen as eight arms and legs, connected to one another through the central body of yoga. The eight limbs are:

  1. Yamas: tenants of moral conduct.
  2. Niyamas: observances that encompass ethical and spiritual aspects of the self.
  3. Asanas: postures that keep the body strong, flexible and relaxed; while strengthening the nervous system and refining inner perception.
  4. Pranayama: the practice of breathing that fosters the movement of one’s life force.
  5. Pratyahara: a type of meditation which includes drawing one’s attention toward silence through withdrawal of the senses from external objects.
  6. Dharana: a type of meditation that uses focused concentration of the mind to one thought or object.
  7. Dhyana: a type of meditation which aims for sustaining awareness of the Divine under all conditions.
  8. Samadhi: the superconscious experience of oneness of the soul with the Cosmic Spirit, and the return of the mind into original silence.

The Yamas and Niyamas are the first 2 limbs and are the 10 ethical guidelines and foundation to all yogic thought and practice. These tenants guide individuals to live peacefully with one’s self, and in relationship to other beings and the earth. The yoga sutras were written around 100 BCE to 300 CE and we are still studying and practicing them today. This is a testament to how profound, wise and inspiring this guidebook is which has stood the test of time.

The Yamas and Niyamas can be exquisitely applied to the treatment, recovery and healing process for individuals with eating disorders.

The Yamas include: Ahimsa (non-violence), Satya (truthfulness), Asteya (non-stealing), Brahmacharya (non-excess) and Aparigraha (non-attachment).

Ahimsa,  interpreted as non-violence is the first tenant of which all other yamas and niyamas are based on. The practice of Ahimsa extends compassion to all living things. Non-injury must start first however with oneself. As one recovers from an eating disorder, an individual has an opportunity to treat their bodies in a more gentle and kind fashion. Ahimsa in recovery is practiced by not harming or violating the body by dangerous symptoms and being gentle with the parts of that individual that are traumatized. For those with body image issues Ahimsa means limiting negative body talk and judgment and learning to accept one’s body.  

Satya means truthfulness and is the second yama. Together Ahimsa and Satya form the cornerstone of living a yogic lifestyle, one that leads to peaceful relationships with self and other. For those in recovery, Satya can be seen as moving towards what is true and away from the distortion or denial that feeds disordered behavior. Living in truth means being with what is without relying on symptoms.

Asteya is the practice of non-stealing, non-greediness or non-possessiveness but its essence revolves around the understanding that there is no need to take from outside oneself because we possess all we need inside of ourselves. Symptoms are a way of using things outside of oneself in order to make one feel in control, or numb. In recovery we can support individuals to practice Asteya and not ‘steal symptoms’ but instead to use the individual’s own inner resources to tolerate their experience. In addition, there are some disordered eating symptoms that involve stealing food to binge or binge/purge so this can also be literally translated as a commitment to not stealing.

Brahmacharya, the fourth yama has a few interpretations including the practice of non-excess. The essence of this tenant no matter which interpretation you consider is the understanding that imbalance can distance oneself from their own source of wisdom. Eating disorders are about excess: an excess in restriction or eating, in counting calories, food thoughts, rituals, in hunger and satiety. In addition, excessive and compulsive behaviors such as sex, exercise and spending sometimes accompany eating disorders. Practicing Brahmacharya means becoming aware of and repairing imbalance by appropriating safe boundaries. In the process of recovery each individual must confront which behaviors and practices are too much or too little and work to understand what is enough. This indeed is the practice of Brahmacharya in recovery.

Aparigraha is known as the tenant associated with non-hoarding or non-attachment. The more one attaches to stories, beliefs or behavior sets the more stuck one gets. Non-attachment is the practice of letting change, growth and transformation become a possibility and a reality. For the individuals with eating disorders, practicing aparigraha can mean not clinging or attaching one’s self- image to a number on a scale, size of clothing or narrow beliefs about foods. For the bulimic or binge eater it can mean literally not bingeing or hoarding food. Aparigraha means letting go of the identity of the eating disorder and making room for a true sense of self.

The Niyamas include: Saucha (purity), Santosha (contentment), Tapas (disclipline), Svadhyaya (self-study) and Isvarapranidhana (surrender).

Saucha translates into purity or cleanliness. The observance of saucha which entails clarifying all which is not anchored in truth is meaningful for those on a spiritual path. The Niyama of Saucha refers to both inner and outer cleanliness or purification. For the those on the path to recovery, Saucha can be interpreted as self- care or living a ‘sober’ life without symptoms. We can purport outer cleanliness to mean maintaining healthy boundaries in relationships and learning not to engage in behaviors that are toxic. Eating a balanced nutritious diet, maintaining a normal weight and learning to still the disordered thoughts, negative self-talk, cultivates a calm and peaceful inner environment.

Santosha means contentment and this niyama represents the practice and observance of acceptance. Mother Teresa said, Be happy in the moment, that’s enough. Each moment is all we need, not more.”  Santosha, as it pertains to the  recovering individual with disordered eating means finding ways of staying in the present moment and not using symptoms to take one’s self out of the moment. It is also the willingness to be with one’s realities without fixing, changing or controlling it to be different whether it be one’s intake, weight or feelings that are overwhelming.

Tapas has two different interpretations. Tapas can mean discipline or is can be translated into the burning desire to better one’s self. For those in treatment from disordered eating, Tapas can mean not giving into the inner waves of craving (binging, purging, compulsive exercise or starving).  This becomes self-discipline, but of a different nature than of the eating disorder. As one develops this type of accountability for their recovery they may tap into the other meaning of Tapas the transformative energy which occurs from the healing process. When self discipline in treatment makes way for the burning desire to return to wholeness there is no stopping an individual from total recovery. This is Tapas.

Svadhyaya: Sva means “self” and adhyaya means “investigation, inquiry, or education.” This important observance is the practice of self-study or anything that supports someone to understand themselves more deeply. For the individual recovering from eating disorders practicing Svadhyaya means to stay committed to the process of PROCESS- the willingness to peel the layers and be ready to work on the next layer that surfaces. It means being involved in any form of self inquiry whether it be reading books about recovery, being involved with a treatment team or engaging in creative endeavours that bring an individual closer to themselves. Ultimately, it means re-learning about oneself without the eating disorder.

Isvarapranidhana the final observance and niyama translates into surrender to the Source or celebration of the divine. In many ways, Isvarapranidhana is a two step process for it is only when one surrenders into something bigger than themselves that they can truly honor the divine wisdom within themselves. For those in recovery this niyama encapsulates the moment in which an individual let’s go of the power of the eating disorder and moves into the grace of healing. Simultaneously there is surrender as well celebration in the trust one gathers from releasing what no longer serves them. Having a new found gratitude for one’s body and one’s renewed life an individual has been transformed. This is the practice of Ishvaraparanidhana.

As you can see, this system, is a way of life. Recovery, too, is a way of life. Thus, the yamas and niyamas and recovery encourage individuals to practice awareness and growth, to make decisions that are in accordance with one’s body, thoughts, feelings and true essence. Both yoga and recovery offer individuals with a process on how to live and direct one’s life toward fulfillment.

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