Upside Down: Using Yoga in Eating Disorder Recovery to Flip Limiting Beliefs on their Heads

“Welcome to class everyone . . . Except for you in the back, because you’re the wrong size and shape to be in yoga . . . Take a few deeeeeep breaths and notice how much better the woman next to you is at Downward Facing Dog . . . And then also make sure that you feel some intense shame about this thought . . . because yoga is supposed to be about accepting where you are, and not focusing on comparing.  So try to get it right . . . for once . . .” 

Sounds ridiculous, no?  

Yoga’s mixed and harmful messages

Unfortunately, many people probably hear something similar when they try their local yoga class.  What started as a way to practice peace and acceptance has become, literally, an Olympic event. It’s not surprising that this shift has led to some confusion.  As a therapist in Plano, Texas working with folks who have eating disorders and body image issues, I see firsthand how this mixed message affects them.  My clients don’t often feel their bodies are welcome in traditional yoga classes.  They rarely see diversity among the other participants, almost never by the teachers, and even less by the media. In fact, finding a stock photo of a yogi who isn’t thin, white, and able-bodied is an Olympic event in itself!   

How yoga is becoming more inclusive

Luckily, this is beginning to change.  I see more media featuring diverse bodies and individuals enjoying and teaching yoga. I also hear more open conversations about yoga and body image. This is definitely true within the eating disorder treatment community. I’m excited to see it happening beyond this, as well. As I witness all of this change, it reminds me of my own journey to a love/hate (or maybe even love/neutral?) relationship with the practice. 

Honestly, I got into yoga because everyone else was doing it.  I wasn’t trying to find my true essence, just something that fit into my routine between the treadmill and the sit-ups.  The steamy, auctioneer-paced yoga at my gym was something I could “count” as a cardio workout. The harder, the faster, the sweatier, the better!  I remember looking at my activity monitor and feeling like I won the lottery. I didn’t realize I could sweat so much and burn so many calories while getting credit for doing something that was supposed to be relaxing, or spiritual, or whatever.  

An eating disorder therapist’s yoga shift

I realize this might sound surprising, coming from an eating disorder therapist who now helps people challenge their own distorted thinking around body image.  I would love to think that I’m always level-headed and confident, but no one’s perfect.  We’re all growing, and it feels important for me to share where I started. Otherwise I’m just perpetuating the same mixed message that I can accept myself only as long as I’m perfect.  

As I’ve begun to treat yoga more like a “work-in” than a “work-out,” I love helping other people on a similar path to find the peace in the practice.  And while the research validates what I discovered through my own journey -- that yoga can help to decrease anxiety, depression, and body image distress -- the reality is that it won’t do much good if you’re too uncomfortable to walk through the door! 

Tips for finding a body positive yoga class

Here are my eating disorder therapist-approved tips to find the sweet spot between avoiding yoga altogether and winning the gold medal for Standing Bow Pose:  

Look for studios that align with the spirit of yoga 

For me, this means few or no mirrors, because it’s not about how the poses look. It's about how we can feel into them.  It means that modifications are available for those who need them, because yoga is for everyone.  It means diverse instructors, because telling people to love our unique beauty means way more when all kinds of bodies are represented on the podium.  

I typically find that smaller private yoga studios tend to be more inclusive and body positive than classes offered in gyms.  You can also get a sense of the studio’s values by paying attention to the language in their course descriptions, the photos they choose, and whether the studio employs trauma-informed instructors, who are more sensitive to the impact of abuse, body image issues, and other factors that complicate our relationships to our bodies.    

Identify a “why” besides changing the way your body looks 

For example, yoga helps me with pain from a herniated disc in my neck.  I really do notice it helps to strengthen muscles that allow me to hold my daughter or walk upstairs to tuck her in at night. It helps me focus on the present moment and calm my monkey mind.  Yoga reminds me that I deserve to take care of myself, which builds a whole new type of “muscle memory” that I can use off the mat as well.  

I always encourage yoga to practice acceptance of where we are physically and emotionally. In fact, when I hear a client say they don’t want to go to yoga because they’re having a really negative body image day, it almost sounds like they’re saying, “My headache is too bad to take Advil!”  I recommend using the class as an opportunity to sit with those uncomfortable feelings, to hear the voice of the inner critic and watch even their harshest judgments pass like clouds in the sky.  

Look for classes that encourage and allow for healthy boundary-setting

I recommend that clients consider asking the studio or the teacher if there’s a non-verbal way to signal that they do not want to be touched or adjusted during class, or requesting modifications for a pose that isn’t accessible to them.  This reinforces the idea that not only are their physical bodies welcome, but also their needs and preferences, which is a belief that's important to internalize when overcoming eating disorders and body image issues.    

Learn to look at your filters, not just through your filters, and be willing to surprise yourself by seeing something familiar from a new perspective 

In my early years of practicing yoga, I remember hearing the phrase, “How you are on the mat is how you are in real life.”  At first I thought, “Great.  So that means if I can’t hold a plank for as long as the person next to me, I’m not just weak in here, I’m also weak in real life."  Recently a teacher shared the same exact phrase, and I heard it differently. 

It’s not as important what I can do, but who I am for myself.  No matter what my Plank Record is for that day, if I can be kind and curious about my experience on the mat, then I can be kind and curious when I get frustrated with my son or jealous of a friend.  By learning to see yoga as a lab for exploring ourselves and trying new things, we can start to understand our quirks and patterns as an art project, not a C-minus term paper.  

Yoga is for every body 

Yoga is for every single body.  Short and tall bodies.  Large and small bodies. Able-bodied and disabled bodies.  Yoga is for people of color and LGBTQ+ folks. Yoga is for those young and old. When we continue to make space for diversity in the studio, we return to the true spirit of yoga, so that the light in me honors the light in you.  And the heavy in me honors the heavy in you too.  

*If you're looking for a body-positive, inclusive yoga studio in the Plano area, check out The Mat at: . They have studios in both Plano and north Dallas. They recently offered a community yoga class led by one of their wonderful instructors, Stephanie St. John, called "B.I.G. Yoga for All: Be In Grace." The class description was:

"Especially meant for all body types, abilities, and genders! Chair Yoga practitioners or folks that need support of practice while in a chair can join us with ease!"

I just love the sound of that description. The class was a hit, which definitely says something. When we make our spaces welcoming to all, we reach so many more folks! Stephanie teaches a weekly class at The Mat in Plano. In addition, the Dallas location offers chair yoga.

*If you prefer online resources for yoga, check out Body Positive Yoga by Amber Karnes.

If you want to talk more about yoga and body image, I'm happy to help! If you're looking for eating disorder therapy in Plano, Texas or just want to make peace with your body, contact me at 469-850-2420 or to schedule a free 15-minute phone consultation. My name is Danesa, and we can see if we’re a good fit! I’m also happy to connect you to another great therapist in the area.

My specialties include eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, binge eating; overeating or compulsive eating, body image issues, anxiety and depression. My office is in north Plano, Texas, and conveniently located near Frisco, Allen, McKinney, Prosper, The Colony, Little Elm, Addison, North Dallas, and Richardson.