Yoga for Eating and Body Image Concerns

Low section view of a young woman practicing yogaIn addition to being a psychotherapist, I am a certified Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner and a yoga instructor. I’ve long been interested not only in movement, but in the role of body-oriented techniques in the process of psychological healing.

Tuning in to the Body

This began when I was in my late twenties, long before I ever knew that I would someday become a psychotherapist. I started taking stretch and yoga classes at a fitness center where I’d been taking aerobics. After a few lessons, I discovered that I was beginning to experience my body from the inside, rather than looking at it—and judging it—from the outside. I was forging a new type of relationship with my body, one I hadn’t known could exist. Instead of being a source of shame and frustration, my body was becoming my ally. Tuning in and listening to my body began to open pathways for healing wounds I hadn’t known how to access before.

I asked my stretch teacher about this and she explained that our bodies hold emotional and psychological issues in the joints and other areas. She said that holding a given position activates that emotion and the associated issue (e.g., fear of abandonment, or anger at a person who hurt us). Intrigued, I went on to have private stretch sessions with her and then to apprentice with her to learn the theory and technique.

Yoga was a little different: I’d sometimes find myself crying during savasana, the final relaxation pose, and although I was now aware of the reasons, I didn’t know what to do when it happened. I asked my yoga teacher. He told me it wasn’t uncommon and suggested that I picture “a bucket of tears” by my side so they had a place to go. From then on, I had a sturdy container collecting all my tears.

In 1988, my beloved yoga teacher died of AIDS. My body froze with grief. I say “froze,” but that’s not quite accurate; something stopped me from taking yoga classes from anyone else. In this time, I went from taking aerobics and stretch classes to teaching them. However, I experienced an invisible barrier when I contemplated taking a yoga class. I didn’t know enough about yoga to have developed my own practice. I didn’t know anything about the spiritual and philosophical aspects of yoga. All I knew was the magical experience I had in my teacher’s classes, and the sadness and pain I was feeling about my loss.

Psychotherapy and Yoga: Addressing the Body, Mind, and Trauma

Eventually I went to graduate school to become a psychotherapist. After graduation, I went to work with inpatient eating disorder treatment programs and taught stretch classes as a complementary treatment.  However, I didn’t return to yoga classes until about ten years after my teacher’s death. It was then when I learned about and went through the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy training program, which combined my understanding of the psychological properties of the body with yoga. Although I don’t do yoga therapy with my psychotherapy clients—and vice versa—for ethical reasons, I’ve learned how to incorporate aspects of yoga into psychotherapy sessions. I include the body in our work so that my clients aren’t involved in therapy only from the neck up.

In winter of 2008, I took a Trauma-Sensitive Yoga teacher training presented by the Trauma Center at Justice Resource Institute in Boston. This organization is responsible for the latest research on the role body-oriented therapies and yoga in the treatment of posttraumatic stress. Yoga has been shown to repair damage done to the nervous system by traumatic experiences. Unfortunately, there are aspects of traditional yoga classes that can be triggering to trauma survivors, so the staff at the Trauma Center has learned how to modify teaching techniques to make yoga feel safe for people who have experienced trauma.

Developing Yoga for Body Image Concerns

After I began teaching yoga classes for survivors of trauma, something started thumping around in the back of my mind, telling me, “You should put together something like a ‘Yoga for Disordered Eaters’ class.” This went on for several months. Last month I finally began what I’m calling the “beta version” of my “Yoga for Eating and Body Image Concerns” series. I’m not sure whether it’s a class, group, or workshop, but I do know that I incorporate yoga philosophy and asana (physical postures) practice, meditation, journaling exercises, and group discussion.

We’re halfway through the eight-class session. I’m helping the students explore their relationships with their bodies, to listen to what their bodies have to say rather than judging themselves on their bodies’ appearances. I’m teaching them how to make sense of the tears that arise when they hold a posture that opens the heart center such as Cobra or Camel and to understand the relevance of phrases like “standing on your own two feet” in Warrior pose or “carrying the world on your shoulders” in Shoulder Stand.

Yoga isn’t just about movement. The practice of yoga enables us to connect with our true nature, that spark of the Divine that dwells within us all, and then shows us how to live from that place in our daily lives. I believe that the healing properties of yoga can play a crucial role in the healing of our relationships with our bodies and our psyches.

© Copyright 2011 by Deborah Klinger, MA, LMFT, CEDS, therapist in Durham, North Carolina. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Bethany

    Bethany

    March 9th, 2011 at 5:36 AM

    My dad is pretty evangelical so when I decided to practice yoga as a teen he would not let me. He said that opening the mind like that was allowing evil spirits into my head and body. Do you still hear stuff like that today? I would like to try yoga, I think it would be a great exercise and a powerful stress reliever in my life but I always hear those little nagging thoughts of my dad in the back of my head and I can’t get past all of that to try it.

  • Carew

    Carew

    March 9th, 2011 at 5:48 AM

    It’s amazing how a technique so old actually has solutions to not only general problems but also some others that are a result of the modern lifestyle. Eating disorders would fall into this category if I’m not wrong.

    And being connected from within with your body,as I’ve heard,can really help you in overcoming challenges and doing formerly difficult things and actually rid yourself of problems.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    March 9th, 2011 at 10:51 AM

    Bethany,
    I live in the South, and do hear of things like this from time to time. I’m sorry, but not surprised to hear that your father’s words have so powerful an effect on you. Yoga is based in ancient spiritual practices originating in India, and it includes guidelines for moral and ethical living. I don’t understand the fundamentalist rationale for the idea that it opens one to evil spirits.

    I encourage you to try a yoga class with an open mind, and see for yourself whether there is any merit to your dad’s beliefs. There are also some terrific books on yoga. I like Donna Farhi’s, “Yoga: Mind, Body and Spirit,”Desikachar’s, “The Heart of Yoga,” and Iyengar’s, “Light on Yoga. Let yourself learn about what yoga actually is. Good luck!

    Carew,
    I agree with your sentiments! Just one thing: eating disorders have been around for a long time. There are certainly factors in our modern culture that make it an environment that supports the existence of eating disorders, but there have always been cultural factors that support disordered eating. For example, the current cultural ideal of thinness/intense opposition to fatness coupled with an abundance of cheap processed foods can contribute to disordered eating. But in the middle ages, girls who apparently didn’t need food because they were so spiritually evolved were revered because of the cultural valuing of the triumph of the purity of the spirit over the base desires of the flesh.
    There are genetic factors and familial factors and life experience factors in addition to cultural factors that contribute to the development of an eating disorder.
    Thanks for writing!
    Deborah

  • JJ

    JJ

    March 9th, 2011 at 3:49 PM

    I’m in the middle of a eating disorder relapse and had a pretty neat experience the other day. I was going to the gym to go running on a treadmill despite shin splints, and saw an old yoga instructor walk by. The insanity of my situation struck me for a fleeting second, and I literally took off my running shoes and joined her class, the first time I’ve allowed myself to do something like that in months. It was a wonderful decision, and I emerged actually feeling relaxed and peaceful… not something that is really characterizing my days right now.

  • Bethany

    Bethany

    March 10th, 2011 at 5:48 AM

    Deborah, Thanks for those words of encouragement. I know that I have a lot of personal work to do to get to a point where yoga and the practice of will be beneficial in my life but I am trying to get there. Thank you again for that understanding because anytime I have tried to explain this to anyone else they automatically think that my family and I are just a bunch of wacks.

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    March 10th, 2011 at 8:37 PM

    JJ, what a wonderful experience! Thank you so much for sharing it with us. Hang in there– recovery is worth the effort.
    Bethany, you’re welcome. I wish you the best on your journey.

  • Soco

    Soco

    August 23rd, 2012 at 2:24 PM

    Thank you so much Deborah. Your words here encourage me to continue in the path I am now. I’ve been practicing yoga for some months now where i’ve been going thru the process of recovering from depression. I practiced yoga before, then i left it when i moved cities and now, since i came back, i found relief in it. In the worst moments i found in yoga and the practice of buddhist meditation a “safe place to be” … and just yesterday again a cried during relaxation, just as you said, after de “Camel” pose… some upsetting feelings and memories emerged and at the same time, a warm and huge feeling of forgiveness filled my being and there is when i cried. I’ve been very sensitive today… and although it is not easy to go thru painful states of emotions… I feel confident that this is just the healing process. Thanks to therapy of course, combined with bioenergetics approach, my yoga and meditation…my ways to “come back to my true home” that is my heart.
    Thank you for sharing and your concern for helping others.

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