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The Body Connect

By: Nina Gilbert, LMSW, RYT 200, Primary Therapist at The Renfrew Center of Nashville

Posted on October 03, 2016

There is a pitiful lack of scientific research that "proves" the power of yoga for healing from an eating disorder. However, for a practice that has been around for 5,000 years, we might make a reasonable guess yoga has something to offer us. The essence of yoga is to unite the mind, body and spirit. Yoga does this through pranayama (breath work) and asana (physical poses). An eating disorder is pretty much the opposite of yoga. The inherent nature of an eating disorder is to disconnect the mind from the body, creating a state where obsessive, racing thoughts and distorted perceptions create major imbalances throughout one's whole being.

When I teach yoga to patients in recovery from an eating disorder, we focus on tuning into the sensations of the body (so simple in concept, yet so foreign for my clients). My clients are often in a fragile physical and mental state, sometimes due to malnutrition, but mostly always due to years (or decades) of living without regard for the body's needs. My clients are generally terrified to feel, not just their emotions, but their physical bodies as well. They have worked so hard to deny and suppress hunger, fullness, pain, fatigue, etc. that getting back in touch with those messages can be scary, because then what? They discover they are hungry and they've worked so hard NOT to be hungry. They discover they have a belly (because that is a part of the body) and having a belly means terrible things to them. They discover they have a body with needs and they don't believe they deserve to have needs. Now they may have to make different choices, and that would likely go against what the eating disorder wants.

Besides tuning into the one and only body that each person is given in this lifetime (a concept I like to remind my clients of during classes), yoga is a fantastic opportunity to practice distress tolerance. In my classes, we often practice asanas (poses) like pigeon pose, an intense hip opener. This stretch creates strong sensations around the hip and inner thigh. When we practice this pose, some days it can feel pleasant, but other days it can feel unpleasant, like prying the hip open with a car jack, yet each time we get to practice observing the experience without judgment. I encourage my clients to explore the sensation (however intense) rather than react to it (by coming out of it) or distract from it (by getting caught up in their minds). I ask them to breathe more deeply, stay more present, be more curious. Because just like moments in life, I tell them, pigeon pose won't last forever; if you love it, you can practice not becoming too attached to it, and if you hate it, you can practice watching it pass.

For a disorder so based in amputating the body from the whole being, yoga is an essential practice for restoring the mind body connection. As a yoga instructor and Primary Therapist at The Renfrew Center of Nashville, I feel honored and humbled each week to share this practice with my clients.

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