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Yoga Therapy: A Healing Modality for Eating Disorder Recovery

Yoga therapy is a holistic healing modality that applies Yoga practices and philosophies to balance physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. As an individualized approach, the client’s goals are the focus of each session.

Common goals for individuals seeking yoga therapy include but are no means limited to lifestyle changes, health, stress, pain, emotional distress, and mental health.

Unlike a group yoga class, in which all the students follow a sequence led by the teacher, yoga therapy offers a highly personalized and therapeutic experience.

With the guidance of a certified yoga therapist, clients explore various elements of Yoga to incorporate into daily life and support their personal growth.

Depending on the client’s goals and preferences, yoga therapy sessions include a combination of discussion, yoga philosophy, lifestyle education, and direct experiences, such as asana (yoga poses), breathing exercises, guided relaxation, meditation, and grounding techniques.

Benefits of Yoga Therapy for Eating Disorders
As a supplemental modality, yoga therapy offers those in eating disorder recovery a safe space to develop new tools and coping strategies as they navigate their work with their outpatient team. Breathing exercises can help calm anxiety, slow down spinning thinking, and cultivate presence and mental clarity. Yoga poses build mental and physical strength and help clients reconnect with their bodies, leading to more comfort in and appreciation for their bodies with time, practice, and support.

This aspect of Yoga is also a gentle way to reintroduce movement into life and observe their reactions to the process, which can then be explored with their yoga therapist and outpatient team. Overall, this attention to embodiment through Yoga poses can assist clients in learning how to feel sensations and emotions again and even relearn hunger and fullness cues.

Improvement in mood and self-esteem often occur as the Yoga practices developed in session are carried into daily life, creating a sense of personal empowerment and hope in the client’s ability to manage symptom use, practice new perspectives about food and nourishment, and reframe negative body image thoughts.

Grounding techniques can help clients manage anxiety at meals and when encountering other recovery challenges. The core Yoga philosophies of kindness, compassion, and acceptance, to name a few, are incredibly beneficial for reframing food rules and other self-destructive thoughts and behaviors.

Promising Research
Peer-reviewed studies on yoga and eating disorders are increasing in number and quality. One research study of outpatient eating disorder recovery clients found that yoga lessened negative body image, anxiety, and depression.

In a few other studies, yoga was shown to reduce preoccupation about food and eating disorder symptoms. An increase in emotional awareness was also found.

Large studies on the healing role of yoga in eating disorder recovery are needed, no doubt. However, the current research is promising and captures the anecdotal evidence that so many individuals in eating disorder recovery are sharing about their personal yoga stories on blogs and social media.

It also speaks to the growing trends of yoga being offered in eating disorder treatment programs as well as therapists, dietitians, physicians, coaches, and other mental health professionals incorporating yoga into their treatment plans for their clients.

Finding a Certified Yoga Therapist
To find a yoga therapist, seek out those certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT), as these professionals have completed 820 hours of yoga therapy training. This comprehensive training includes yoga philosophy, yoga psychology, anatomy, biology, and neurology, plus the practices of yoga poses, meditation, breathing, relaxation, and more. They are also trained in making these practices accessible, trauma-sensitive, and adaptable.

To find a yoga therapist, search the directory on the IAYT website. A trusted yoga teacher, therapist, or dietician may also be able or recommend a yoga therapist with the credential mark of C-IAYT.

Some yoga therapists, like myself, specialize specifically in eating disorder recovery. Others are more generalized or have a different specialization. It’s smart to call in advance of meeting with a yoga therapist to ask questions so that you feel comfortable and can make an informed decision about with whom you would like to work.

It’s also important to remember that yoga therapy is not the same as taking a yoga class. Yoga therapy is a 1×1 session customized to apply the teachings and practices of yoga to accommodate the clients’ recovery goals.

If you are currently taking yoga classes or are considering trying one out, it’s essential to acknowledge that some yoga class styles and environments can be triggering. Consult these guidelines on the NEDA blog when choosing a yoga class.

By learning how to breathe, reconnect with our bodies, be present, and open our minds to new healing possibilities, yoga therapy can shine a bright light on our innate strengths and support us as we take steps in our recovery journey.