Patients with eating disorders struggle with dangerous and potentially life-threatening patterns of eating, medical complications, and difficulty with affect regulation. Many patients experience significant anxiety, low self-esteem and the inability to identify and express thoughts and feelings safely.
In my clinical work, I routinely integrate yoga breathing techniques into my outpatient sessions. My patients report a sense of freedom, peace, and even joy as they are liberated from the relentless eating disorder scripts that go round and round in their minds leaving them feeling exhausted, frustrated and even feeling hopeless. The safe and sacred time in therapy remind patients that they are not their eating disorder, but are free to identify their healthy selves and the desires to live meaningful and productive lives.
The benefits of incorporating yoga breathing techniques in the treatment of eating disorders are tremendous.
Yoga provides the opportunity for patients to integrate mental, physical, and spiritual aspects of themselves into a regular practice. This, in turn, supports an increase in self-esteem and confidence and fosters a deeper connection to their authentic feelings. By focusing on one’s breath and inner cues from body, mind, and spirit, the parasympathetic nervous system is tapped into bringing a sense of calm. It is in this relaxed state that we can work together to identify and connect with one’s core values and define actions that can be taken to support these values and defuse from disordered eating thoughts and behaviors.
The benefits of using yoga breathing techniques in the treatment of eating disorders include:
- Lowers blood pressure
- Reduces levels of cortisol
- Encourages relaxation and decreases anxiety and depression
- Supports a trusting relationship with self and others
- Inspires confidence and self-esteem
- Builds increased affect regulation
- Increases the parasympathetic nervous system
- Decreases sympathetic nervous system response (fight or flight)
A Focus on Breath
Yogic breathing, known as pranayama, emphasizes slow and deep abdominal breathing, facilitating a sense of relaxation and decreasing anxiety. Gentle breathing practices, such as alternate nostril breathing (Nadi Shodhana), effortlessly calm the mind, slow the heart rate, and increase the flow of oxygen to the brain. In this calmer state, patients are better equipped to defuse from negative thoughts and feelings, develop greater psychological flexibility and create connections that enrich their lives and support their recovery.
It is not uncommon for people with eating disorders to struggle with rigid beliefs and rituals, making it difficult to move through uncomfortable feelings in service of their values and recovery. Yoga breath work and gentle postures support the ability to tolerate these challenging experiences by quieting racing thoughts and making space for the exploration and inquiry into what has been lost or disconnected from as a result of restricting, binging or purging. Even more impressive is the ability to notice negative thoughts and feelings as they arise while building the capacity to tolerate, observe them and see oneself with increased compassion.
In my work, I teach simple movements of the spine that can be done anywhere: at home, in an office, even while lying in bed. I combine three classic yoga postures into one soothing practice. The poses – Forward Bend (Uttanasana), Half Moon (Ardha Chandrasana), and Spinal Twist Yoga (Matsyendrasana) – gracefully flow from one to the next, connecting breath with movement. The focus on lifting the heart shifts attention away from negative thoughts and behaviors, often demeaning and obsessive in nature, and move towards identified goals and interests that make life more meaningful. It is in these quiet moments, when we move through this simple yet loving practice, that emotional and cognitive space is created to allow for greater self-compassion and healing. Together, we breathe, relax, feel, watch, and allow all sensations and thoughts without judgment.
Through the practice of yoga and meditation, we learn the art of not comparing, but accepting this moment and ourselves just as we are.
It is a time to learn to reconnect with our authentic selves. Yoga offers patients with eating disorders the opportunity to restore a sense of calm and balance, encourage the development of increased confidence, and practice loving kindness.
For tutorials on the breathing techniques, please visit Susan Schrott’s website.