Eating disorders are among the most common mental health disorders that contribute to extreme physical stress on the body. Eating disorders often stem from past trauma, low-self esteem, the need for control, poor tolerance to major life stressors, co-occurring mental health disorders, and poor parental guidance in terms of body image and dieting. Eating disorders are often associated with negative health consequences that affect almost every organ system in the body including the cardiovascular system, the musculoskeletal system, skin and hair, the gastrointestinal system, teeth, and the oral cavity, the endocrine system, and the kidneys. Individuals with eating disorders are also known to have low body awareness, which results in the development of body dissatisfaction. Body awareness involves the attentive focus on, and the awareness of internal body sensations such as emotions and feelings of hunger, exhaustion, and satiety (fullness). Research has shown that yoga cultivates a direct experience of the body, which may be particularly effective in increasing body awareness to counteract body dissatisfaction and the development of eating disorders.

Yoga as meditation

Yoga is an intervention that addresses movement, breathing, and awareness of bodily sensations; it helps to increase awareness of internal states and reorganize physiological responses connected to symptoms. Originating in India, it is a practice designed to create a sense of well being, improve self-confidence and efficiency, increase attentiveness, and provide an optimistic outlook. Comprised of physical and mental disciplines, yoga improves the body’s sense of embodiment and awareness.

The therapeutic benefits of yoga in eating disorders

Case studies have reported that yoga, when used as therapy, can allow individuals struggling with eating disorders and body dissatisfaction to become in tune with their bodies and to overcome the emotional burdens associated with their eating disorders. Encouraging evidence has emerged regarding the therapeutic potential of yoga in eating disorder treatment by reducing binge eating and food preoccupation, increasing awareness of binge eating triggers, and using of yoga techniques as an emotional and mood regulator. An individual who has a history of binge eating disorder may be obsessed with thoughts of binging in order to fill an empty void but using yoga as a mindfulness technique can help the individual concentrate on the present moment and allow these obsessive thoughts to pass by engaging in a more self- loving activity such as yoga. Practicing yoga poses and breathing exercises on a daily basis can help reduce the stress and negative thoughts associated with the present eating disorder. Many eating disorder treatment centers use yoga-based therapy as an alternative therapeutic approach for the treatment of eating disorders.

Mental health disorders differ from holiday blues

Yoga can be a double-edged sword to those with eating disorders. According to some research, relying on yoga’s promise of emotional and spiritual healing can be perilous: Drawn to yoga as a means of self-care, they instead may find reinforcement for dangerous weight-control behaviors in a yoga studio culture that increasingly celebrates thinness, flexibility, and perfection of form. Although yoga is known to improve self-awareness and foster the mind-body relationship, however in many cases, an individual’s approach to yoga can exasperate obsessive-compulsive tendencies, reinforce unhealthy body ideals, and become one more place to disassociate from oneself leading to worsening eating disorder symptoms and self-esteem.

There are many case studies stating these therapeutic benefits, specifically for binge eating disorder, however, these case studies are quite small with only a few participants in each study. Larger retrospective studies are needed in order to gather more evidenced-based date for the relationship between the healing powers of yoga in individuals with eating disorders. Additionally, there are slim evidence-based studies linking yoga with unhealthy eating habits and poor body image and as a result, more studies need to be performed in order to analyze the cost-benefit of yoga therapy in relation to eating disorders.