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When L. was five, she went to spend the night at a friend’s. Soon, her mother got a call from the sleepover mom: L. had eaten 10 hot dogs. L.’s mom was horrified. But to L., the story makes sense. Eating the hot dogs had helped her deal with overwhelming emotions. “What I remember is how nervous I had been about going to my friend’s house,” says L., who’s now 36 and lives in Lawrenceville, New Jersey. “That story is my clue that I have had issues with food my whole life.”
By 14, L. was bulimic, a condition that waxed and waned through her 20s until, at age 30, shortly after she married, she entered an eating disorder treatment program. There L. met Jill Gutowski, a psychotherapist and yoga instructor, who offered yoga classes to patients in the program. “From the moment Jill talked us through the initial meditation, I thought, ‘This is a practice I need to know more about,'” says L. “I recognized that for the entire class I didn’t think about how many calories I’d eaten. To go into an environment where I could shut off those thoughts was just incredible.”
In the years since, L. has begun to bring the calm awareness she experiences in yoga with her to the dinner table. She has not been bulimic for the past several years, and her relationship to food has become more joyful; she now enjoys spending time cooking with her husband. Like thousands of others with eating disorders as well as many people who overeat simply out of stress or loneliness, L. found that yoga can radically change one’s relationship to food. In fact, at eating disorder programs across the country, therapists are incorporating yoga and mindfulness meditation into their work—at a time when millions of Americans are struggling to develop healthful eating habits. According to the National Eating Disorders Association, 11 million Americans have eating disorders such as anorexia or bulimia.
As too many of us know, you don’t have to have a clinically diagnosed eating disorder to have disordered eating. A Harvard survey released in February found that binge eating—defined as eating copious amounts within two hours at least twice a week for six months, and feeling distressed and unable to stop—affects nearly 3 percent of the adult population. On any given day, 45 percent of American women and 25 percent of men are on a diet, yet nearly one-third of American adults are obese. We eat to quell boredom, sadness, or fear, and we often eat without thinking, finding the potato chip bag empty before we even realize we opened it.
It’s no wonder that many people troubled by such issues are looking to yoga for help, says clinical psychologist and registered yoga teacher Lisa Kaley-Isley. She began offering yoga classes to eating disorder patients two years ago at the Children’s Hospital in Denver, where she is chief psychologist. “Yoga addresses the mind, where the anxiety and compulsions are, and the body that is the focus of the anxiety and compulsion,” says Kaley-Isley. “It does so with an emphasis on creating strength and flexibility in both.”
Slow Way Down
So far, little research has been done to verify the therapeutic effects of yoga on eating disorders and more garden-variety eating problems such as emotional eating or yo-yo dieting. But a few studies do show that yoga can help. One well-known 2005 study of 139 women by a researcher at the Preventive Medicine Research Institute in Sausalito, California, found that women who practiced yoga felt better about their bodies, had a better sense of what their bodies were feeling, and had healthier attitudes toward food than women who did aerobics or ran. A 2006 State University of New York study of 45 fifth-grade girls also found that after a 10‑week program that included discussion, yoga, and relaxation, the girls were more satisfied with their bodies and less driven to be unhealthily thin.
Initially, yoga affects those with eating problems simply by slowing down anxious and chaotic thoughts. “When you are anxious, your mind is like a fan on high speed,” says psychotherapist and yoga therapist Michelle J. Fury, who joined the staff of Kaley-Isley’s program two years ago. “But when I ask the patients in yoga class to pay attention to their breath, to their feet on the mat, I am bringing them back to the present moment and slowing their negative thought patterns down.”
Over time, that slowdown allows people to begin to reconnect with feelings that might be uncomfortable, including hunger and fullness. At Four Winds Yoga in Pennington, New Jersey, Gutowski and psychologist and yoga instructor Robin Boudette offer Inbodyment workshops. They combine Forrest Yoga (a practice created by Ana Forrest and centered on heat, deep breathing, and long-held poses) and mindfulness meditation. In the three-day workshops, each day begins with breathing exercises followed by a series of warming poses, then asanas, including hip openers and mild backbends.
“When you are in a difficult pose, you want to come out of it,” Boudette says. “But you learn to stay in it and realize that discomfort comes and goes.”
That process has had a profound impact on G., 49, of Princeton, New Jersey. Before she began private therapy with Boudette a year ago, she had stopped paying attention to her hunger. Because she traveled constantly for her high-powered business career, she simply ate whatever was in front of her. As a result, she gained weight, quit exercising, and felt heavy and lethargic. “It didn’t even occur to me to ask the question, ‘Am I hungry?'” G. says. “My body and eating had become completely disassociated.”
Eat Like You Mean It
To help G. connect with both her body and her eating habits, Boudette led her in an exercise popularized by mindfulness meditation teacher Jon Kabat-Zinn. Boudette gave her a raisin and asked her to take a full minute to look at it, to smell and feel it, to put it in her mouth and roll it around. Then she asked her to bite into it, to feel the texture and to experience the sweetness. “I was thinking the exercise was ridiculous,” says G. “But then two days later, I would be eating something, and I would think, ‘This is a really interesting texture,’ or ‘This smells good.’ It made me think about what I eat and how I eat. Now I catch myself and say, ‘I can just enjoy this.’ I’m being kinder to myself.”
As yoga replaces impulse with reflection, troubled eaters can also think differently about what it means to nourish them. Certainly that’s true for Kathy McMillan, 43, of Knoxville, Tennessee. For six years, McMillan experienced joint pain and severe fatigue. She says that she tried to soothe herself with food. “I’d make a big bowl of pasta and immerse myself in a carbohydrate fog.” Finally, the sixth doctor she saw diagnosed her with Lyme disease and, among other things, sent her to an Ashtanga Yoga class. “I was the worst student in the room,” she says. “I couldn’t lift into Downward Dog. But I was willing to try anything.” In the two years since, not only has -she regained her strength and energy, but she has also revamped her eating habits.
“Before, I didn’t think about what I was doing with my body,” McMillan says. But within a month or two of beginning yoga, she noticed a shift. “I can feel my legs internally rotate in Downward Dog,” she says. “The body awareness is unreal.” As that awareness grew, McMillan’s attitude toward herself changed and, with it, her relationship to food: “I started to respect my body more. I could see that my doctor was helping me and that through yoga I was going to be well. So, every time I put something in my mouth, I asked, ‘Do I really want this?'”
What McMillan and others experience on the mat is a rising consciousness that follows them home. Mary Taylor, a yoga teacher, chef, and coauthor of What Are You Hungry For? says, “Instead of coming home and feeling the need for an emotional eating experience and then being mad at yourself for grabbing the chips and salsa, you begin to ask, ‘What does my body really need at this point?'”
In her slow evolution, L., too, has begun to ask such questions. “My teacher stresses that there’s no perfect pose—the pose you do today is perfect. If there is no perfect pose, is it possible that there is no perfect body, and I’m not lacking anything? If so, then I’m not eating to change myself but to sustain myself. That’s a very different way of looking at it.”
Dorothy Foltz-Gray is a writer based in Knoxville, Tennessee.