Yoga is an ideal component of therapy for individuals with eating disorders. The word yoga, translated from Sanskrit, means yoke, the union of self with the divine, of mind and body. The practice fits in especially well with the therapeutic model that is followed at Veritas Collaborative, Dialectical Behavioral Therapy: learning radical acceptance while acknowledging the need for change. Yoga is a time-tested way to change habits or patterns of thought and behavior that no longer serve us or are, in fact, harmful. The foundation of the practice is compassion, first for oneself, then for others.
Yoga, broadly speaking, is about paying attention and stilling the mind. It’s about being fully present in any given moment while also being able to pause to discern the next right action. In other words, it’s full of seemingly ironic dualities, but one of the goals is to try to overcome feelings of separateness or alienation and achieve a sense of integration. I often encourage students to simply “notice what you notice.” Through gentle asanas, or postures, and breathing techniques, I encourage the patients at Veritas Collaborative to focus less overtly on their bodies or the technicalities of movement and more on the sensations or feelings they experience as they move or, as is the case in many poses, as they sit or lie still. By trying to foster a safe and supportive, non-competitive environment in the yoga room, I try to give the students tools they can use on and off their yoga mats. In movements that incorporate simple breathing techniques, I often guide them for the first few rounds and then invite them to follow their own breath patterns, telling them to take their time. This helps them assume some responsibility for their own experience, but it also sharpens their tools of perception and builds confidence.
Many of the students in the college and university population have had experience with yoga, but previous experience is certainly not required. Yoga is nothing if not adaptable, and there are days when some of the students are on “sitting yoga” only, while others can do “regular” yoga. Poses can be changed to suit any individual so that everyone can get the benefits. Many males and females with eating disorders also cope with other medical conditions such as orthostatic hypotension, a sudden drop in blood pressure that can occur after standing up quickly, so it’s important to safely guide them from sitting to standing. For students who may have issues with bone-density loss or diminished strength and flexibility, it’s important to be mindful of their endurance in poses that use the arms and hands to bear weight, such as the tabletop or cat-cow poses. Yoga is about finding and exploring edges, not going beyond them.
The young men and women at Veritas Collaborative are also great teachers. They seem to get a lot out of restorative poses, such as lying over blankets that support the spine and lift the chest. Lifting and opening the chest and shoulders is a great way to calm the mind and open the heart. One of my favorite restorative poses is viparita karani or “legs up the wall”. It’s a great anti-gravity inversion and a restful, rejuvenating pose. When we practiced it in a recent class, one of the students said that she had basically been told to do that pose before to help alleviate her edema, an excessive build-up of fluid in the body’s circulatory system and tissues.
Restorative poses can be done at any point during a class, but they are a nice way to lead into the classic final pose, savasana. After several minutes of supported, silent rest, the students are calm and collected, ready for the rest of their day – or, as some have jokingly said, a nap. In combination with other therapies, the repeated practice of yoga can help adolescent and young adult males and females seeking recovery from their eating disorder to regain a sense of health and well-being; the peace and inner fortitude they cultivate on the mat can be carried into other areas of their life during and while maintaining eating disorder recovery.
Written by Leslie Waugh, RYT-200, Yoga Instructor, Veritas Collaborative
For more information about how yoga is integrated into treatment at Veritas Collaborative or about the Programs we offer, please call 919-908-9730 or email firstname.lastname@example.org