Yoga can be an amazing practice for mental health (this is just one of many benefits of yoga). It has been a crucial tool in many recovery journeys, including my own. However, we often hear a lot about the power of yoga for illnesses such as depression and anxiety, and less about its powers for more stigmatised conditions such as eating disorders. Today we’re hearing from Ali about her experience using yoga to recover from an eating disorder, body dysmorphic disorder and sexual trauma.
How Yoga Helped Me Recover from an Eating Disorder
The practice of Yoga has been a large part of my recovery from my eating disorder and body dysmorphic disorder. It also played a large role in healing after being sexually assaulted when I was a child and again when I was 19.
I started practicing Yoga daily in 2011, a year after I decided that recovery was what I needed.
I am not talking about just asana, the physical postures, and what many people think Yoga is today. I devoted myself to the entire practice of yoga – studying and practicing the eight limb philosophy of yoga.
My Journey Into Yoga
When I started my practice I was in a toxic relationship. Although I was not actively exhibiting eating disorder behaviors I was still in the ED mindset.
Nothing I did was ever good enough; I was still unhappy with my body size and shape, I was constantly yelling at myself in my head, and I constantly felt like I was a failure and was unworthy of love.
On top of this, my body was still recovering from the damage caused by years and years of starving myself and over exercising.
To say the least, I was quite a mess the first time I stepped onto my mat.
My First Yoga Class
When I went to my first yoga class my mind was racing. Thoughts going through my mind at light speeds. Everything from feeling incompetent to worrying about my body to what I needed to do after the class. It was all present.
I sat on my mat waiting for class to begin. I looked around anxiously trying to size up the other students in class. They looked so calm and relaxed, the opposite of how I felt.
I clearly was the new student, and yet again I was finding ways that I was not good enough. Finding all of my flaws and beating myself up. Nothing new here… this was my normal mode of operation.
Finally, the teacher walked in and saved me from myself. She introduced herself as Karen and asked us to find a comfortable seat on our mat, whatever was most comfortable to our own unique bodies.
She instructed us to close our eyes and notice our breath. Encouraging us to leave our worries at the door and let this time be for us.
She went on to talk about Ahimsa, the first of the yamas, which make up the first limb of yoga. Ahimsa translates to non-violence, and she asked us to practice non-violence while we were lead through the physical practice.
Then we began, and I quickly forgot her beautiful words and started picking on myself.
How was it possible I was so bad at this? I couldn’t touch my toes, I could barely hold the poses, and I certainly was not elegant and fluid like the other students in class. The voice of my ED & BDD were so strong in my head.
I was looking around comparing myself to everyone. I became frustrated and started silently yelling at my body. Listing off all of the things wrong with it, all of the ways it was failing me, and how I was just not good enough.
Ironic I know. Quite the opposite of Ahimsa. But I didn’t know how to be compassionate to myself. The only thing I knew was beating myself into submission.
Rest If Necessary
Throughout class Karen kept reminding us to breathe. To listen to what our bodies were telling us and to modify poses if we needed. Even taking a rest in Child’s pose if necessary. Stating that this was a judgment free space.
I could not believe what I was hearing. Rest if necessary? This was a totally new concept for me. And I had no idea how to listen to my body.
But to my surprise I made it through the class. At the end of it all I noticed my mind was a tiny bit quieter, and my back felt good for the first time in ages. I felt better than I had in a very long time.
Her words spoke to me. I knew these were things I needed to learn, if I was going to have any chance of recovering.
The Universe Led Me to Yoga
Deep down somehow I knew that this was something I needed to help me on my journey. My soul and the universe had led me perfectly to this class, with this teacher, at this time. Everything was pointing me in the direction I needed to heal and recover. Thankfully I listened and I took action.
I practiced every day, sometimes even going to two classes a day. I took all different styles of asana with different teachers. I lived and breathed yoga. When I was not physically practicing or working I was studying or reading about the practice.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
I learned the eight limbs of yoga, starting with practicing the first three limbs daily for the first year of my practice.
I studied and examined the yamas (rules to live by) and niyamas (personal observances) looking for all the ways I could apply them to my life. Slowly my life began to change.
I learned how to have compassion for myself. Day by day the mean voice in my head began to fade. The negative self-talk became less and less frequent and I discovered my body was my ally, not my enemy.
My yoga practice taught me how to find contentment/Santosh (one of the niyamas that make up the second limb of the practice) in every day and even when things seemed hard. All of the practicing and lessons I learned on my mat proved to be extremely helpful and relevant in my life off the mat.
Applying the principles of the Yamas and Niyamas to my life brought a new awareness and connection to my body I had not previously experienced.
How Yoga Helped Me Heal My Eating Disorder
While active in my eating disorder and body dysmorphic disorder I saw my body as something that needed to be controlled. After experiencing sexual abuse I saw my body as something to be afraid of and a source of pain.
Through my yoga practice, I found my body to be my friend.
Through my yoga practice, I found my body to be my friend Click To Tweet
I learned that it is full of wisdom and is always communicating if I am willing to listen. I now know that it is always trying to protect me and is an incredible gift I have been given in order to have this human experience.
Yoga has given me so many tools to cope with stress and difficult days.
It has taught me how to be present as a way to deal with my emotions. Instead of starving myself, binging or compulsively exercising.
I have also learned how to let go of my attachments to needing to be perfect, of needing to be in control all the time, and wanting to change the past and micromanage the future.
Slowly but surely the disordered voices in my head started to subside, in large part thanks to finding Yoga. Yoga and EMDR were the most powerful tools on my journey to recovery and healing.
Yoga Helped Me In Ways I Did Not Expect
My practice also helped me in ways I did not expect. It helped me to love myself, to stand up for myself, to set healthy boundaries in relationships, and it allowed me to gain perspective into my past and the choices that I made.
As a result, I no longer spend hours obsessing over my bodies flaws. I am no longer interested in binging because I have much better ways to cope. I now know the possibility and freedom that comes from recovery.
My Mat Is Always There
My mat is always a place I know I can go when I need a break. It is there when I need to connect back to myself. When I need to listen to the wisdom of my body. It is there when everything feels like it is falling apart to support me and catch my tears, when everything’s feels amazing and I need to get centered, even when it is just another day it is always there for me with wisdom and guidance.
Without Yoga I believe my recovery would have been more challenging and would have taken more time. that is why I am so passionate about sharing yoga with others.
I am so grateful to have found this amazing practice.
I hope that by sharing my experience you might be inspired to give yoga a try and be able to find the same healing that I have.
Ali Betts is a Spiritual Life Coach, Yoga Instructor & Author. It is her mission to help as many people as she can awaken to their truth and reason for being here on this planet at this time. Ali is the founder of The Wholeistic Life where she shares insights and tips for living a life in alignment with your truth & purpose, offering workshops, coaching, retreats and more.