Nearly one million Australians suffer from an eating disorder. Around 9% of adolescent girls have, or have had, an eating disorder. Eating disorders, including anorexia, bulimia and binge-eating, can have devastating effects on the people living with the disorder as well as their close family and friends. A 2012 study found that 1800 Australians had died from an eating disorder in that year – higher than the annual road toll.
Yoga can help, and there are some encouraging research findings to back up the theory.
How yoga helps
While not restricted to females, women and girls make up an estimated 75-95% of people suffering from anorexia and bulimia. When it comes to developing their sense of self, women and girls are greatly impacted by the way others view them. Many girls, consciously or unconsciously, internalize the ideals of female beauty and behaviour that they see around them each day.
The anxiety this causes leads to extreme self-monitoring which can manifest in feelings of shame about the body, depression and a fractured connection with their own feelings and physical sensations. This process of self-objectification is strongly linked with the development of eating disorders.
Studies have show that yoga therapy can improve body-responsiveness and awareness in women with eating disorders which in turn reduces self-objectification and increases body satisfaction. These outcomes were shown in a 2005 study to reduce disordered eating attitudes.
Another study in 2009 showed that a group of young out-patients who practiced yoga experienced a greater decrease in eating disorder symptoms than similar groups who went through standard care. The authors of the study reported that the group practicing yoga “significantly reduced food preoccupation immediately after yoga sessions. Results suggest that individualized yoga therapy holds promise as adjunctive therapy to standard care.”
Yoga programs for eating disorders
The positive findings of these and other studies have prompted psychologists around the world to experiment with integrating yoga into programs for people with eating disorders, and that’s what we’ve been helping with here in Sydney. The team at the Adolescent Medicine unit at Westmead Children’s Hospital wanted to include yoga into a new program they are running for outpatients there. Along with A Sound Life, we’ve been working closely with the psychologists and other clinical staff at Westmead to design a yoga program that is very carefully crafted to meet the needs of the children on the program.
Last week we taught the first class to the kids there and it was a fascinating and rewarding experience. The type of yoga we taught was very different to what you may experience in a general yoga class. The language, movements, rhythm and focus of the class were all designed to help students become more closely connected with their bodies and aware of their present moment thoughts and feelings. This mindfulness-based practice was developed with input from both mental health professionals and experienced yoga teachers and the program will be evaluated over the next 8 weeks.
We’re looking forward to evaluating the feedback from both the students and clinicians at Westmead as we continue to teach and develop the program. If the results are promising, we will go on to develop a more comprehensive study that could provide new clues as to how and why yoga can help people with eating disorders.