The Healing Power of Yoga in Eating Disorder Recovery

Recovery from mental illness and addiction is a process – one of rebuilding a life, harnessing resources, connecting with the self and finding meaning. It’s unfortunately not something which can occur as a result of a course of tablets and a doctor’s appointment, and treatment which adheres to such a rigid definition often has a narrow and short-lived result. There is an increasing recognition that recovery requires hope, control and opportunity and that these things can be found outside of the mainstream medical catalogue. They can be found in yoga.

When experiencing any mental illness it can be difficult to even contemplate dragging yourself to a mat to engage in any exercise, and the mind will no doubt be racing away from it even once you are there, but this is all part of the process.

Yoga is not a magic wand or an instant fix, but the practice consists of tiny changes which together will not in itself alter your life, but can alter your attitude to life, the tools you use to cope with difficult situations, the approach you take to daily activities, and thus, in all of this, be life changing.

Around the world, practitioners are starting to realize the power of yoga in recovery. It is seen as a tool to help deal with life and connect with oneself, but also more formal programmes explicitly aligned with recovery are cropping up. In the US, Nikki Myers has set up a movement called Y12SR, aligning together yoga with the traditional twelve step programme, whilst closer to my home Camilla runs classes and retreats in Brighton and London ‘aimed at anyone who may be currently experiencing challenges in life that have left you feeling out of balance.’

It’s not just a case of yoga making you ‘feel better.’ There’s clear evidence to support the use of yoga for recovery. Shaura Hall of Yoga Love trained with the Mindfulness Institute and unites her scientific background with yoga practice. Her knowledge of neurobiology led her to really explore the evidence for yoga and addiction. Concentration enables individuals to develop emotional regulation and override learned behaviours, with a particularly powerful effect on the dopamine system, the feedback loops of which are often found to be skewed in those with addictions. Her practice is therefore delivered from an informed space, and she works with individuals to highlight the aspects of practice which mediate and soothe the condition.

A compassionate approach to discomfort reduces struggle and trauma, and yoga has been found to have been as effective as antidepressants.

The Yoga Project run specific courses and classes for those recovering from long term illnesses and addictions. They state how ‘recovery from any addictive or compulsive behaviour shares the same aims as yoga: a quest for self-control, discipline and strength.’ It’s a point shared by Alan Marlett, who set up the Mindfulness Based Relapse Prevention Centre and has noted that through building resilience, acceptance and understanding researchers have already found that yoga helps people accept the negative emotions and physical cravings that so often lead to a relapse.

Durga Leela runs Yoga of Recovery (YOR), a yoga retreat that uses the twelve-step principles for recovery, which looks at the roots of addictive behaviors through the 6 Tenets of YOR – Life is Longing (union), Prana (vitality), Relationship (belonging), Sweet (beauty), Love (true Power) and Progress (direction and guidance). Her approach is spiritual and her focus on channelling consciousness, but with the same effects taking place upon the body. When the prana energy of the breath is balanced, the sympathetic and parasympathetic systems are in balance.

Yoga means union, and one of the most important things in recovery is connecting together the emotional, cerebral, social and physical parts of one’s life to create meaning. Addiction is often a result of having lost some kind of connection with either oneself or community and replacing this with something else. Empowerment and belief in one’s own ability to create real and lasting change are crucial in recovery. It’s a rewarding and wholesome moment when you notice that your heels touch the floor in downward dog, or you can stretch just a little further in triangle pose. No one has made that happen, just your own practice and belief.

Everyone is a unique individual, and the practice of yoga is accepting that and encourages individuals to accept themselves. There’s no judgement – just you and the mat – which is an incredibly liberating place to be in.

Imperfections aren’t criticized but embraced as part of what makes people unique.

Yoga won’t make the issues that have led to addictive behaviors go away, but it will create the space to explore and accept them. Shuara notes how the discomfort of some yoga positions can be seen as trials that replicate difficulties in life, and as important learning lessons on how to deal with them.

The space to connect with all aspects of your being –  the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual – and allow whatever comes up can feel challenging for individuals so used to numbing, fighting or running from difficult emotions, but is a very healing process to go through. Releasing some of the emotional trauma that is stored in our energy and body means that there is less of an urge to ‘treat’ it through maladaptive means. It’s a way to get ‘in touch with one’s own Self and develops the right perspective about life, becoming deeply contented no matter what is happening externally.’ As Durga describes it. ‘This is tremendous healing.’

It’s not only physical practice of moving through the postures – the asana – that is beneficial for recovery but the language of yoga. Phrases such as ‘wherever you are today, that’s enough’ ‘just work to what you can’ and ‘maybe you can go further, maybe you can’t today’ are at odds to the harder, faster, stronger mantras that seem to repeat through most exercise classes. The kind of questions that come up in yoga are about being curious, rather than finding a cause and blame, and thereby encourage a playful and enjoyable process of change. I don’t come out of a yoga class angry at my limitations and at what I have achieved, but instead I am proud that I have taken the time to tune into my own body.

‘Come back to the breath’ is the phrase used most often in yoga. Come back to the one thing you always have, without seeking any external behaviour, substance or routine. Come back to yourself. Really, that’s what recovery is all about.

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