We often look at elite athletes and think they have “perfect” bodies. What we don’t see: the rigorous training, the authoritarian diets, and the constant monitoring of their physical form in order to perform great feats. It’s no wonder some athletes go to extremes. Estimates indicate that a third of athletes experience some kind of eating disorder, compared to about 8 percent of the general population. Eating disorders are especially common among athletes who compete in sports where they’ll be judged on aesthetics or where size and weight factor into competition.
Such was the case for Jamie Silverstein, a former Olympic ice dancer. While winning world titles, she struggled with disordered eating and body-image issues. She found that yoga—in addition to therapy, seeing a nutritionist, and leaning on the support of friends—helped her recovery.
“I was lucky enough to have teachers and be in a recovery mindset where yoga did become part of my healing toolkit,” she says. Research indicates that yoga can be an effective tool for dealing with disordered eating. A 2020 analysis of almost four dozen research studies concluded that yoga has a significant effect, especially on binge eating and bulimia. Indeed, some eating-disorder clinics incorporate yoga into their protocols as a way to get patients in touch with their bodies.
Connection, not competition
Treatment programs may also recommend yoga as a way for athletes to stay active without falling back into competition mode, which may retrigger their disordered eating.
When Silverstein stopped competing for a few years to focus on her health, she continued her yoga practice. By 2006, she was back on the ice in the Winter Olympics in Turin, Italy. That was her last competitive ice dance; she retired from the sport for good afterward. Instead, she poured her passion into becoming a yoga instructor.
Now 37, Silverstein incorporates the principles of yoga into everyday life. Between operating two successful Seattle yoga studios and raising two toddlers, she credits yoga and meditation with keeping her present. “Yoga was the first place where, rather than being my body, I could inhabit it and start to listen to it,” she says. “It took me having children to be in a place where I’m celebrating my body.”