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How yoga can improve mental health & help with eating disorder recovery

Practiced for thousands of years, yoga has long been heralded for its potential to improve mental, physical, and spiritual health. (1) But incredibly, scientists are still uncovering new ways in which the ancient practice can help us heal—including those recovering from eating disorders

4
 minute read
Last updated on 
May 31, 2023
Person doing yoga
In this article

What is yoga?

The prevailing idea behind yoga is to go inward, focusing only on the sensations of the present moment of experience. Unlike meditation, the practice goes one step further by incorporating different poses—called asanas—into the mix.1,3

The purpose behind this is twofold: asanas help reinforce proper structure and posture in the body by targeting specific muscle groups in specific ways. When combined with deep breathing, they also help dispel excess energy which may be built up in the body, or, as the ancients believed, channel it into certain energy centers known as the chakras, which line the spine, from the tailbone to the top of the skull, and are responsible for the health of certain bodily areas and corresponding spiritual properties.

The history of yoga

First developed thousands of years ago in the foothills of the Himalayas, yoga was devised almost as a moving meditation, a way to connect breath to movement as a means to subdue intrusive thoughts and sink deeper into the mind-body connection.3

Even without believing in the mysticism behind it, yoga can be an exceptionally beneficial practice, thanks to its emphasis on movement, mindfulness, and breathwork. Indeed, these three focuses have long been touted for their ability to boost both mental and physical health.1

Yoga’s mental health benefits

In the West, yoga may be primarily thought of as a physical activity—and it certainly can have some physical effects, including building mental and physical strength, improving physical balance, improving flexibility, and alleviating pain—but the heart of the practice is truly more inward-facing. 

The attention, awareness, and focus fostered by yoga have been shown in study after study to help support parts of the brain responsible for memory, thought, and language.4 Regular yoga practitioners also showed thicker cerebral cortexes—where the brain processes new information—and less shrinking of this area over time.4

Stress management

Like most forms of exercise, yoga also lowers levels of cortisol, the stress hormone, and increases the production of the feel-good chemicals known as endorphins. And the practice, in particular, has been found to increase the output of a chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which is widely believed to combat anxiety and depression.4

Emotional regulation

Other studies have connected a regular yoga practice with increased emotional regulation, including one that found practitioners to be especially adept at controlling their feelings of anger and aggression.5 And, thanks, perhaps, to all of the above, yoga has also been regularly linked to reduced rates of insomnia and better sleep overall.2

Yet, as many regular practitioners will attest, the balancing of body and mind is just the beginning of yoga’s true benefits. The physical and mental realignment can help invite a spiritual realignment, or even reawakening, fostering new perspectives that can help anyone on the road to recovery.

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Yoga for eating disorders

Yoga practices are currently used as part of eating disorder treatment and recovery. Its mindful movement connects the mind and body for moments of reflection and healing. 

Indeed, practicing yoga allows a person to experience their body in a different way. Between controlled breathing exercises and intentional movement, a person’s focus shifts to the internal: what it actually feels like inside their body, rather than what it looks like or how it’s perceived by others. 

This can encourage an inner knowledge of one’s self and kindle feelings of self-acceptance and inner peace, which are enormous aspects not just of healing from disordered eating but healing from any type of trauma. Add to that yoga’s proven ability to lower feelings of anxiety and depression—two key contributing factors to many eating disorders—and the practice can become extremely beneficial for eating disorder patients.4

In fact, these exact capabilities were tested in a 2018 study to great effect. The results not only found a regular yoga practice to be a helpful tool against eating disorders but a helpful at preventing relapse, even many months out.6 Participants who had taken up the practice in other studies also showed increased levels of body satisfaction, a reduced drive for “thinness,” and lower levels of anxiety and depression.7

And many eating disorder treatment programs have also picked up on the idea, with yoga teachers being increasingly added as part of care teams, including at both residential facilities and virtual treatment options. 

Overcoming an eating disorder often involves a long and complex road to recovery. But incorporating a regular yoga practice can be a helpful part of the journey to healing.

Disclaimer about "overeating": Within Health hesitatingly uses the word "overeating" because it is the term currently associated with this condition in society, however, we believe it inherently overlooks the various psychological aspects of this condition which are often interconnected with internalized diet culture, and a restrictive mindset about food. For the remainder of this piece, we will therefore be putting "overeating" in quotations to recognize that the diagnosis itself pathologizes behavior that is potentially hardwired and adaptive to a restrictive mindset.

Disclaimer about weight loss drugs: Within does not endorse the use of any weight loss drug or behavior and seeks to provide education on the insidious nature of diet culture. We understand the complex nature of disordered eating and eating disorders and strongly encourage anyone engaging in these behaviors to reach out for help as soon as possible. No statement should be taken as healthcare advice. All healthcare decisions should be made with your individual healthcare provider.

Resources

  1. Desikachar, K., Bragdon, L., & Bossart, C. (2005). The yoga of healing: Exploring yoga's holistic model for health and well-being. International Journal of Yoga Therapy, 15(1), 17–39. 
  2. Woodyard C. (2011). Exploring the therapeutic effects of yoga and its ability to increase quality of life. International Journal of Yoga, 4(2), 49–54. 
  3. Pandurangi, A. K., Keshavan, M. S., Ganapathy, V., & Gangadhar, B. N. (2017). Yoga: Past and Present. American Journal of Psychiatry, 174(1), 16–17. 
  4. Janjhua, Y., Chaudhary, R., Sharma, N., & Kumar, K. (2020). A study on effect of yoga on emotional regulation, self-esteem, and feelings of adolescents. Journal of Family Medicine and Primary Care, 9(7), 3381–3386. 
  5. Karlsen, K. E., Vrabel, K., Bratland-Sanda, S., Ulleberg, P., & Benum, K. (2018). Effect of Yoga in the Treatment of Eating Disorders: A Single-blinded Randomized Controlled Trial with 6-Months Follow-up. International Journal of Yoga, 11(2), 166–169. 
  6. Hall, A., Ofei-Tenkorang, N.A., Machan, J.T. et al. (2016). Use of yoga in outpatient eating disorder treatment: a pilot study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 4(38). 
  7. Rizzuto, L., Hay, P., Noetel, M. et al. (2021). Yoga as adjunctive therapy in the treatment of people with anorexia nervosa: a Delphi study. Journal of Eating Disorders, 9(111).

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