Yoga therapy applies the practices, tools, and philosophies of yoga to restore physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health. Unlike a group yoga class, yoga therapy is an individualized approach, providing clients a private and safe space to focus on topics that are most relevant to their personal lives. Yoga therapy sessions are tailored to meet the client where they are, and may include a combination of discussion, yoga philosophy, lifestyle education, yoga poses, breathing exercises, relaxation and grounding techniques, and meditation. The yoga therapist will also provide guidance on how to apply these teachings and practices to daily life to reduce suffering and increase inner peace.
Why Yoga Therapy for Eating Disorders?
A new and rapidly expanding field, this adjunctive therapy provides individuals in eating disorder recovery a uniquely empowering path to healing. As a member of the outpatient team, the yoga therapist supports individuals as they navigate their work with a therapist, dietitian, and other team members. A yoga therapist can offer direct experiences that help clients reconnect with their bodies, downregulate anxiety, improve mood, practice new coping skills, explore self-compassion and acceptance, and apply new perspectives and beliefs to food, nourishment, and recovery in general. Ultimately, yoga therapy aims to help clients create healthful practices to support their recovery goals.
What Does the Research Say?
Research on yoga and eating disorders is growing. One study found yoga reduced anxiety, depression and negative body image in outpatient eating disorder recovery clients. Studies have also shown that yoga was associated with reduced preoccupation about food, a decrease in eating disorder symptoms, and increased awareness of emotions. Certainly, larger and more robust studies are needed, but the early research presents a positive picture of yoga’s healing potential for those recovering from an eating disorder.
Many eating disorder treatment centers are now offering yoga as part of the clinical program in residential, partial hospitalization, and outpatient settings. It is also a growing trend for therapists, dietitians, physicians, coaches, and other mental health professionals to integrate yoga into their treatment plans. Additionally, many individuals in recovery are sharing their personal stories on blogs and social media about how yoga has helped them recover, and these anecdotal accounts are perhaps the greatest evidence of yoga’s healing qualities.
The benefits of yoga therapy are vast. Considering yoga is centuries old, how could it not offer immense healthful advantages? I have experienced many of these benefits in my own recovery journey, and now have the privilege of observing the benefits in my yoga therapy clients.
Some of the benefits of yoga therapy include improvements in self-esteem, body image, and mood, and a decrease in anxiety. As a practice-based modality, yoga therapy offers clients new hands-on tools to manage urges to use symptoms and engage in food rituals and body checking. The focus on embodiment helps clients get comfortable feeling sensations again, which can translate into relearning hunger and fullness cues as well as emotions.
As a complement to traditional forms of treatment, yoga therapy gives clients tangible ways to cope with what’s coming up in therapy. Yoga poses are a gentle way to incorporate movement into life and serve as containers for clients to observe their responses to being in their bodies, which can then be explored with their yoga therapist and therapeutic team. Grounding techniques can help with meal-time anxiety and other recovery-related challenges. To help downregulate a heightened nervous system, breathing practices teach clients how to calm spinning thinking and be more present. The philosophies of non-harming, non-judgment, compassion, contentment, and acceptance, to name a few, are incredibly beneficial for untangling from food rules and other eating disorder thoughts, beliefs, and behaviors that drive a self-destructive mindset.
How to Find a Yoga Therapist?
When searching for a yoga therapist, it’s important to seek out professionals who are certified by the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT). The credential mark will read C-IAYT, and these professionals have completed 820 hours of yoga therapy training, covering a wide range of education, including yoga philosophy, yoga psychology, anatomy, biology, and neurology, plus the practices of yoga poses, meditation, breathing, relaxation, and more. Yoga therapists have vast knowledge and specialized education to make these practices accessible, trauma-sensitive, and adaptable. You can search the directory on the IAYT website to find a yoga therapist. You might also ask a trusted yoga teacher or your therapist or dietician if they know of a certified yoga therapist in the area.
Some yoga therapists, like myself, work specifically with eating disorders. Others are more generalized or have different niches. Take some time to learn about the yoga therapist you are considering working with and perhaps schedule a call in advance of meeting to ask questions; it’s important that you feel comfortable.
Remember, yoga therapy is not the same as taking a yoga class. Yoga therapy is a one-on-one session, whereas a class is a group setting. In yoga therapy, the session is customized to apply the teachings and practices of yoga to complement clients’ recovery goals. When considering a yoga class, it’s important to acknowledge that some yoga class styles and environments can actually be quite triggering. Consider these guidelines on the NEDA blog when considering a yoga class.
Yoga therapy is a unique healing modality, offering individuals in eating disorder recovery safe, supported, and healing practices and tools to navigate the challenges of recovery with a focus on cultivating the mind-body connection. Whether through yoga poses to explore body image, breathing practices to promote inner calm and mental focus, or yoga philosophies to bring new perspective to an idea or belief, yoga therapy is a most valuable addition to eating disorder treatment approaches.
About the Author:
Jennifer Kreatsoulas, PhD, E-RYT 500, C-IAYT, is a certified yoga therapist specializing in eating disorders and body image. She is an inspirational speaker and author of Body Mindful Yoga. Jennifer provides yoga therapy via online and in person at YogaLife Institute in Wayne, PA, and leads yoga therapy groups at Monte Nido Eating Disorder Center of Philadelphia. She teaches workshops, retreats, and specialized trainings for clinicians, professionals, and yoga teachers.
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Written – 2018