Can yoga help people with eating disorders? A number of studies suggest that it can, but what exactly have those studies been measuring? What do they tell us about how and why yoga can help?
Anybody who’s tried a few different classes knows that there are many different styles of yoga. A steamy, fast paced Bikram class and a laid back restorative practice don’t seem to have much in common with one another. Different yoga styles use different techniques and, as a result, have different outcomes (you’re unlikely to develop killer abs during a yoga nidra and a lunchtime vinyasa class rarely includes a long, deep relaxation).
More and more eating disorder treatment facilities are offering yoga as a complimentary therapy, but there are few guidelines on what approach teachers should take, and what training they need in order to deliver the most appropriate practices. One of the reasons for this is that there haven’t been enough high-quality studies on what actually works. While the literature on yoga for eating disorders is encouraging, studies so far have measured different types of students (ie. Type of eating disorder, age, circumstances etc), doing different types of yoga (Iyengar, individualised yoga therapy, hatha etc) with (unsurprisingly) different outcomes.
What type of yoga is best for people with eating disorders?
So, when it comes to supporting people with eating disorders, does it matter what kind of yoga is taught? Yes. If you're familiar with Patanjali's Yoga Sutras, the ancient text that underpins the practice of yoga, you'll know that the first principle of yoga is Ahimsa - non-harming. Yoga teachers working with eating disorders are supporting a vulnerable population and Ahimsa should always be our primary concern. How do we figure out the most effective - and safest - way to support students with eating disorders?
It's helpful to begin with an understanding what eating disorders are, how they develop and what symptoms people experience. Eating disorders are complex and have many different risk factors, including:
- Genetic factors
- Psychological factors (ie. perfectionism, low self-esteem, body dissatisfaction)
- Socio-cultural factors (ie. Social/cultural ideas of beauty and body image)
- A history of trauma
What’s more, up to 97% of people with eating disorders also experience other mental health issues, such as:
- Obsessive Compulsive Disorder
- Chronic Fatigue
- Cardiovascular disease
While not everybody who develops an eating disorder has experienced trauma, it is recognised as a significant factor. Traumatised people find it difficult to attune to their bodies and tolerate the intense physical, sensory and emotional experiences that they feel. These experiences are also common in people with eating disorders and there is lots of evidence to show how some very specific yoga techniques can help with the symptoms.
Trauma Sensitive Yoga for eating disorders
Based on the work of psychiatrist Bessel van der Kolk and yoga teacher David Emerson, trauma sensitive yoga techniques have been developed to help traumatised students increase their emotional awareness and develop trust in their own bodies.
This approach has many benefits for working with people with eating disorders, not least the fact that trauma sensitive yoga has been well researched and shown to reduce unhealthy coping behaviours and increase feelings of ownership over one’s own body.
It’s also a gentle and non-directive type of yoga that empowers students to make positive decisions about what they do with their bodies, rather than trying to live up to external ideals (a strong pattern for people with eating disorders). The gentle, non-aerobic approach makes it safe for those with anorexia or bulimia who have a history of over-exercising. In contrast, yoga classes that emphasis external appearances (such as getting the shape of a yoga posture 'right') or require strong, active movements could potentially encourage unhealthy behaviours in people with eating disorders.
What’s more, trauma sensitive yoga has distinct guidelines around the language used by the teachers, how they interact with students and the environment in which classes are taught. These guidelines make it easier for teachers to keep their students safe, help them make progress and monitor results.
At the moment, there aren’t any studies specifically on trauma sensitive yoga for eating disorders, although there is plenty of evidence that this approach reduces many of the symptoms experienced by people with eating disorders, including anxiety, depression and problems with emotional processing.
Trauma sensitive yoga is the foundational approach that we use at A Sound Life, an organisation that provides specialised yoga to people in at-risk and underserved populations. Evaluations conducted at the Adolescent Medicine Unit at Westmead Hospital show that both clinicians and student-patients found the trauma-sensitive yoga delivered by ASL teachers to be helpful in reducing anxiety and, in turn, helping students to manage their symptoms. ASL also brings trauma-sensitive yoga into drug and alcohol rehab centres, domestic violence shelters and other environments in which the people accessing services have a history of trauma.
Yoga can and does help people with eating disorders and others affected by trauma and teachers who are trained in trauma sensitive yoga techniques can make a big difference to the lives of their students.
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Nikola Ellis is the founder of Adore Yoga, yoga therapist, counsellor and teacher trainer. She conducts regular trainings that help people of all ages, shapes and abilities enjoy the benefits of yoga and meditation, including Meditation Facilitator Certificate Trainings; Level 1 200hr Teacher Training and Post Graduate Yoga Teacher Training in Mental Health, Adaptive Asana and the Foundations of Yoga Therapy and a highly regarded professional 650hr Graduate Certificate of Yoga Therapy.