Carolyn Costin and Joe Kelly, editors of Yoga and Eating Disorders: Ancient Healing for Modern Illness, joined us for an interview on their book. What follows are our questions in italics, and their thoughtful responses.
In your opening chapter to Yoga and Eating Disorders: Ancient Healing for Modern Illness, you state, Dan Siegel “is among many to suggest that eating disorders are disorders of self-awareness.” Can you please briefly explain this concept?
People with eating disorders have a disordered sense of self-awareness in that they no longer can read or respond appropriately to their physical or emotional cues, such as hunger or anxiety. They are unaware of, or disconnected from, their own self needs. A fancy term used to describe self-awareness is “interoceptive awareness.” Interoceptive awareness is one of the scales used as part of the standardized Eating Disorder Inventory, (EDI), which is designed to assess the level of eating disorder pathology in adults. Questions related to interoceptive awareness are included on the EDI because over time it became clear that people with eating disorders need to be assessed and treated to help them gain self-awareness in order to know what they are feeling and how to explain their feelings.
Dan Siegel is among many who study mindfulness and mind training techniques that help individuals gain self-awareness and an increased ability to regulate emotions and behavior. Yoga is one way of doing this.
How can yoga help to discover the true self and why is this important in eating disorder recovery?
True self can mean many things to many different people, but in the context of our book, discovering one’s true self means to discover oneself beyond the thinking ego/mind to a deeper essence that does not get overly caught up in things that are transient or impermanent like possessions, money, clothing sizes, or a number on the scale. Our true self is the witnessing presence, or soul self, that is not concerned with such things. It is the deeper essence of who we are beyond the ego /mind and is the part of us that is connected to the larger whole.
We all live in a time where people are overly attached to the ego/mind and have lost connection to soul. People with eating disorders seem to be an extreme example of this and need help reconnecting to a deeper meaningful part of themselves. Yoga helps do this in a variety of ways. Learning to pay attention to one’s breath can facilitate this. Being in a pose and noticing how one’s body and mind can work together can also help facilitate this. Yoga is one avenue where I see people begin to understand the concept that they are a soul that happens to have a body and mind, not the other way around.
Yoga almost seems like a long-overlooked resource for eating disorder recovery since the word “yoga” means “union” or uniting body with mind and ourselves to life. How can “being in the moment” aid in recovery?
To answer the first part of this question I would say, yes, it seems to me yoga has been long overlooked as an adjunct to healing, as are many things that have been around forever like meditation and other mindfulness practices. Hence, the need to write this book and point out the benefits of a yoga practice and philosophy which can help unite mind/body spirit in those where this has become so disrupted, as is the case with people who have eating disorders. An increasing number of people are recognizing the benefits of yoga and mindfulness practices, but it is hard to change long held ideas like, “Yoga is for gurus in India who want to contort like pretzels,” or “Meditation is for monks living in temples or caves.” The practice of yoga was developed to help humans reconnect mind, body, and spirit, and like anything, these practices have been misunderstood and misused along the way. People are often surprised to see what these ancient practices are really all about and how the research backs up what Buddhists and sages said about these practices a thousand years ago.
Part two of the question is about being in the moment, a concept that is often overlooked and always challenging to describe. It means more than just stopping to smell the roses and not letting life just pass you by. Being in the moment means practicing acceptance of the moment as it is. The only alternative to acceptance of the moment is resistance. Once you learn this, you can see resistance is what causes unnecessary suffering. There is inevitably a certain amount of suffering that goes with life. However, we often create additional, unnecessary suffering for ourselves by resisting what is. Once you realize this, you can work on how to be in acceptance, rather than being in resistance. For example, if it is raining and you wanted a sunny day, ask yourself how long you want to stay in resistance to the rain as opposed to accepting it and moving on. This concept does not mean to accept situations that are ongoing, for example, if you are being mistreated by a spouse. In an ongoing situation you can do things to try to change the situation or remove yourself from it, but accepting the truth of what is happening is still key. Accepting that you are being mistreated allows you to make a decision about how to respond to that fact.
How can yoga help a person live in their body versus living in the often times objectified body experience of someone with an eating disorder?
Yoga has an uncanny way of making the body/mind/spirit connection happen. In yoga, one slows down and pays attention, without judgment, to their body and the movements of it and its limitations. Of course, this requires going to the right kind of yoga class with a teacher who is teaching true yoga philosophy, rather than a class where the teacher or entire class is there to “go for the burn.”
A good yoga teacher helps facilitate the mind/body/spirit connection and research has shown that yoga does seem to lead to less self objectification. However, in the book we actually discuss the “shadow side” of yoga because there are so many things that can be promoted in the name of yoga that are destructive for those struggling with an eating disorder, for example, comparing bodies rather than focusing on one’s own, posing competitions, or the encouragement to fast or become vegan to make one a better yogi.
Many of the contributors for your book have recovered from eating disorders and describe how the principles of yoga have impacted them. What are some of the ways yoga has transformed you?
Yoga first transformed my relationship to exercise, then it transformed me. I discovered yoga when searching for an alternative form of exercise after suffering a knee injury I sustained as a result of my compulsive running . I was not sold after the first class but something hit a chord and I went back. In yoga, I paid attention to my breath and my body in a new way. I learned to work with my body, really feeling it as it shifted from pose to pose or left side to right side. I soon learned that lessons on the mat also served as tips for living my life in general. For example, when I have a hard time doing a fairly easy balancing pose, you can bet I have been moving too fast or somewhere I am out of balance in my life. If I push too hard, I wind up behind rather than ahead. Working with my body gets me further than demanding things of it. There are countless ongoing lessons here.
The spiritual, yet attainable concept of seeing beauty as something we are, rather than the cultural demands of size, shape, or weight can come through yoga. Can you speak to this in relation to eating disorder recovery?
Despite progress in many areas, our culture remains appallingly relentless in telling girls and women that how they look is more important than who they are. Sadly, similar messages are now marketed to boys and men, as well. Whether or not we’re discussing yoga, these cultural pressures are a profound denial of our humanity.
However, as veteran yoga teacher Laura M. Dunn writes in her chapter The Shadow Side of Yoga:
“… if approached rightly, yoga has the potential to transport us from the dim, self-centered lens through which we usually view the world toward a wholly different, expansive and Self-aware state of being.”
“Unfortunately, multitudes of people come to yoga studios seeking firmer thighs and weight loss. For those of us who know the destructive impact of eating disorders, Westernized commercial yoga often has a disturbing shadow side that erodes the well-being of our students.
“Mixed with commercialism and pop-culture, yoga is often stripped of its intrinsic value, revealing a dangerously dark underbelly. Immersed in yoga’s shadow side, students ‘perform’ yoga primarily to master impressive postures, look great in shorts and feel more valuable in other people’s eyes.”
“The shadow side of yoga creates challenges for any practitioner—and especially for teachers and treatment providers working with the distorted body focus evident in individuals with eating disorders.”
“Any modern yoga environment that validates (or fails to challenge) these cultural standards undermines yogic values—and increases the challenges facing human beings in our culture.”
“Rightly practiced yoga has the potential to disentangle us from the confines of a limited self. Yoga helps facilitate dispassionately witnessing our body, mind, and emotions. Through this practice we build a relationship with our observing self; and loosen our fractured associations with our disordered-self, thin-self, abused-self and even our healthy-self in order to integrate these myriad selves into one cohesive whole self.”
“Both teacher and student must persist to bring the focus of attention back to our inner landscape time and time again. Our real self-understanding—and healing–comes from within, becoming illuminated only when we are still enough to see and sense ourselves on a deeper level.”
“As human beings, we all need help to perceive our true nature. Genuine yoga practices maintain a timeless quality and light that are so effective with eating disorders. Yoga nurtures the ability to see that the ultimate measures of our value and humanity are our wisdom, character, connection with others, and connection with the universe-at-large.”
Please describe the differences in yoga for the general public and yoga as a therapeutic tool for recovery.
There are all kinds of yoga classes, studios, and teachers. Yoga for the general public can and does teach and facilitate the same concepts that are useful in recovery from eating disorders or other kinds of problems. Many types of yoga can benefit people with eating disorders. The key is in how yoga is taught and if the concepts of yoga are woven into the class, such as the Yamas and Niyamas, rather than just aimless poses or Asanas with no connection to anything else.
There is not a special eating disorder yoga type or class per se that is now out in the world for people with eating disorders. However, in our book, some authors, including myself, describe yoga classes they have developed or how they have incorporated yoga into their work with eating disorders. Yoga and Eating Disorders: Ancient Healing for a Modern Illness is just a beginning introduction to yoga as a component of eating disorder treatment. There is much more to come and, in fact, I am still getting material from people who learned I was editing this book. I expect there will be a volume 2 and plenty of other books surfacing in the near future to help explain how best to use yoga to help those suffering from eating and body image problems.
About the authors:
Carolyn Costin MA, MEd., MFT, CEDS FAED., is an eating disorder clinician, author, and international speaker renown for her expertise, passion and accomplishments.
In her twenties, Carolyn recovered from anorexia, became a teacher and a psychotherapist. After successfully treating her ﬁrst eating disorder client in 1979, Carolyn recognized her calling.
Carolyn’s humanistic, relational approach, the outstanding success of Monte Nido, (the residential program she founded), and her books for sufferers, professionals and the public, spurred Carolyn to international acclaim
Having left Monte Nido Carolyn maintains her private practice sharing her clinical insight and wisdom with clients, significant others, and professionals. She remains active in the eating disorder field lecturing, training, teaching and supervising.
Books: The Eating Disorder Sourcebook, 100 Questions and Answers About Eating Disorders, Your Dieting Daughter, 8 Keys to Recovery from an Eating Disorder (Book and Workbook) and Yoga and Eating Disorders.
Joe Kelly, NCLC, works with loved ones of people with eating disorders, and trains eating disorder professionals how to engage clients’ male loved ones as treatment and recovery allies. A journalist since 1985, Joe was an award-winning Minnesota Public Radio reporter, and co-founded New Moon Girls magazine and the nonprofit Dads & Daughters. He served on the Eating Disorders Coalition board, and was Fathering Educator at The Emily Program. Joe’s 13 books include Dads & Daughters® and (with Margo Maine, PhD) The Pressure to Be Perfect: Eating Disorders, Body Myths and Women at Midlife and Beyond. Joe has contributed chapters to Prevention of Eating- and Weight-Related Disorders and Encyclopedia of Diversity in Education. Learn more at www.joekelly.org.