The Use of Yoga in Binge-Eating Disorder Recovery
The person with BED, binge-eating disorder, may find it hard to manage difficult emotions and bodily sensations without using food. Bingeing is a way to numb out and disconnect from emotions that seem overwhelming and intolerable. Paradoxically, the thought of giving up the use of food also brings up uncomfortable and negative emotions such as anxiety and fear.
Repressing bodily experiences of sensation and emotion causes a person to become disembodied – a state of leaving abandoned the experiences that frighten or make us vulnerable, such as pain, sexuality, hunger and satiety, and the emotions that may be negative or even positive.
Yoga can be a component of binge-eating disorder recovery because it helps to re-embody the person who has withdrawn from her body.
How does this somatic experience play out on the yoga mat? I like to use the acronym CARE, because yoga is a form of self-care that suggests to the BED yoga practitioner to begin by taking care of herself on the yoga mat.
C: Check in: When starting a yoga practice, begin by checking in to the present moment by gently taking an inventory of what’s arising right now in the three components of the Triangle of Awareness (Fig.1). It’s nice to begin by becoming grounded and centered. I like to begin in mountain pose, a go-to posture that can be used away from the mat when the yoga practitioner feels off kilter. Begin at the feet and scan your body from toe to head, noting areas of tightness, ease and no sensation.
Next, check in to the present emotional state in the mind and body. Perhaps you feel negative emotion such as anger or sorrow. If you are feeling positive emotion, then notice that. Is it happiness, gratitude, hope? If there is no emotion, then we say the present emotional state is neutral. It’s important to note what’s happening and allow a moment of reflection of what’s arising while letting go of judgment or trying to change the experience to how we think things should be.
Now, check in with your thoughts. Are they racing or steady? Is the mind in the past or future?
A: Acknowledge and Allow: While scanning the body and mind during a check-in, acknowledge whatever is arising with kindness. Most of the time, our minds say negative phrases to the body such as, “You are not good at yoga” or “Look how much better she is at yoga than me.” When the thinking mind chimes in with negative thoughts, allow them to be present because you may notice an emotion or bodily sensation that comes along with these negative thoughts. With practice, you can let these thoughts be and return to the breath or sensation of the asana in the body as an anchor.
As you move through the yoga poses, continue to notice what the thinking mind is saying to the body. Angela (not her real name), a student in my class, noticed that whenever she came into child’s pose, her belly was too large to fit between her thighs, and immediately her chatterbox mind turned up the volume: “You’re too fat for this child’s pose. You have been fat since the day you were born.”
With practice she was able to respond with care.
R: Respond: Each time Angela noticed her mind chiming in during child’s pose, she was encouraged to turn her attention to her body. She noticed stiffness in her body and shared with me later that she was reacting to the anger she had toward her body (body hatred) in this posture. With encouragement, she was able to stay with the emotion of anger. She noticed how it morphed into sadness as she had the desire to be in a different body that was not large.
When she felt she had explored these emotions long enough in child’s pose, she responded by coming back to her breath. She listened for the sound of the Ujjayi breath – the sound that the body makes that is similar to the wind in the trees or the sound of the ocean. Ujjayi means “to become victorious” or “to gain mastery.” Angela turned her attention to the sensation of the breath in her chest. As Angela mastered this technique, her experience shifted. Each time Angela experienced the thinking mind taking her away from the present moment of feeling into the asana practice, she came back to her body for assistance as her anchor.
E: Embody: The final step is to re-embody the body and mind by being mindful of using the CARE process. With time, the BED yoga practitioner relearns the practice of mindful eating – a skill that we are born with but lose with diets, trauma, and disconnection due to life experiences.
With time and practice, Angela was able to cultivate gratitude for her breath and body because she realized that her body was a necessary vehicle to keep her grounded and present in both difficult and pleasurable moments on the yoga mat. She learned to take this practice from her mat to the table.
When a binge was preparing to take over, Angela was able to check in to what was arising that drove her to use food. When she did decide to binge, Angela used her mindful awareness to:
- Check in to the Triangle of Awareness.
- Allow the emotions and thoughts to be present while noticing where in the body the sensation of the emotion was residing.
- Respond by letting them be present while knowing she did not want to or always need to react.
The experience of yoga practice encourages the student to remain present with what’s arising in the given moment. As the present moment is unfolding, the student is guided to practice acceptance and to respond right there on the yoga mat. For example, as a pose becomes more difficult and the sensations experienced in the body become more intense, yoga helps the student to delay the impulse to jump out of the pose by staying present in the difficult pose. As the student remains present in the posture, she is guided to observe the thoughts and emotions that come along with intense sensation.
These same difficult sensations, thoughts, and emotions also arise away from the mat during a binge or other unwanted eating practice such as numbing out with food, or running away from uncomfortable feelings around food.
Trusting the inner wisdom of the body also allows the BED yoga practitioner to know when he/she is hungry for food, or when he/she needs something else, such as other forms of self-care in life that do not involve food. While on the yoga mat, the practitioner learns to decide what is enough of a pose. In life, we carry over this practice to learn what is enough of work, volunteering, or chocolate cake. When we learn how to respond on our yoga mat, we learn how to respond in life and at the table (or the refrigerator or over the kitchen sink). This is the practice of mindfulness that can help the yoga practitioner cultivate a mindful eating practice.
About the author:
Shirley Kessel has worked in healthcare for over twenty-five years and has learned that health and wellness stem from tuning into and trusting your inner wisdom rather than relying on the plethora of many mandates from diet experts. Shirley holds a BS in Medical Dietetics from Penn State University. She is a “Reconnect with Food”® Yoga Therapist, and has also been trained in MB-EAT (Mindfulness Based Eating Awareness Training), MBSR (Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction), and has studied with Jon Kabat-Zinn. Shirley is on the board of The Center for Mindful Eating (http://www.thecenterformindfuleating.org). To learn more please visit her website http://www.FeastUponLife.com