Yoga and Mindfulness for Anxiety, Body Image, and Eating Disorders
GUEST WRITER [Jana Kyriakou]: How can yoga and mindfulness help with healing anxiety, negative body–image and eating disorders? Jana Kyriakou is a certified and experienced teacher in mindfulness, yoga, and yoga therapy. In this article you will learn:
- what Jana has noticed runs as a current theme underpinning her teen and adult clients’ anxiety, body image, and eating disorder challenges
- how generic yoga classes/private sessions differ from therapeutic yoga classes/session, and what therapeutic yoga / yoga for mental health looks like
- some possible starting points for parents looking for a safe yoga experience for their teen in support of their mental health / mental illness healing journey.
Jana is a certified mindfulness and yoga teacher, who is specialised in various healing modalities such as Laughter Yoga, Yin Yoga, and Yoga Psychology. She’s combined her experience of working with teens who are experiencing anxiety, eating disorders and poor body image for many years to create focused individual therapeutic experiences, as well as an online teen yoga course. You can learn more about her teen yoga course and offering at the end of the article.
YOGA AND MINDFULNESS FOR HEALTHY SELF-ESTEEM
For many years, I’ve been teaching yoga and mindfulness for teens and adults with various anxiety issues, including poor body-image, self-harming tendencies and eating disorders. I offer group courses and workshops and individual yoga therapy sessions in Czech republic. But my audience has been international, born and raised mainly in the western Euro-American part of the world. And most of my clients are dealing with very similar feelings of insecurity about their body, about their image and achievements in their social circles – all boiling down to the question: AM I GOOD ENOUGH?
I don’t have a magic formula and I wish we would all be free of the comparisons of the modern media and social pressure. But what I know for sure is that specially structured yoga and mindfulness practice, including carefully chosen words and cues, can help prevent and heal many mental disorders, including those related to the relationship we have with our bodies.
HOW CAN YOGA HELP?
Yoga is a holistic system of human beings’ health, wellbeing and life in harmony with the rest of the world. Yoga supports physical, mental, and emotional health. It is an ancient wisdom that has been also broadly researched by modern scientists so that our western minds better understand it’s profound benefits on our overall health. With ancient wisdom and modern science we can now not only better understand the practice, but also adjust it to individual life circumstances and health needs. Especially focused yoga therapy that goes beyond open public classes can help heal structural (physical), physiological, mental and behavioural difficulties and illnesses.
Yoga does not replace traditional western methods of psychiatry or psychotherapy, but it becomes a complementary component of overall therapy. We are holistic beings and the mind is connected to the body. Yoga focuses on supporting the healing process through the physical body, it works with the breath, which directly affects the autonomic nervous system. And through mindfulness meditation practice it also works with the mind. Experience and studies show that yoga, as part of a therapeutic plan, often accelerates healing and helps sustainability and prevention of relapse. Physical exercise itself supports mental health too, but studies show that as yoga incorporates breathing practices, mindfulness and body awareness it’s more efficient than, for example, aerobic exercise itself.
At the end of the article you will find a few links to selected scientific studies if you’d like to learn more about the research behind yoga’s benefits for helping with healing anxiety and eating disorders.
A prerequisite of yoga functioning as a supplement to therapy is that the content of the yoga lesson for therapeutic purposes needs to be adjusted. Most public yoga lessons do not take into account the specific problems associated with mental illness and in some cases can make the problem worse. For example, some yoga programs that focus on extreme physical postures or promote an extreme yogic diet can further accelerate perfectionism, harmful overexercising, comparison, extreme control, disconnection and disrespect for the body.
WHAT DOES THERAPEUTIC YOGA/YOGA SUPPORTING MENTAL HEALTH LOOK LIKE?
Therapeutic yoga for mental illnesses also includes elements of physical postures, breathing exercises and mindfulness meditation, but in a modified form. It focuses on the following aspects that are practiced on the yoga mat, but that are also important life skills off the mat, in everyday life:
1. Safe and supportive environment in the room
Whether working in a group or individually, therapeutic yoga sets up a safe environment. At the beginning of the lesson, the rules of taking part voluntarily at all times (no one is forced into any practice), discretion, mutual respect and non-judgment are reminded.
2. Interoception – mindfulness of the body
Interoception is a perception of the body and its signals, such as the ability to notice hunger and satiety signals, stress reactions that appear in the form of tension, perception of emotions and other needs of the body. Experts agree that disconnection from the body is one of the important reasons or outcomes of mental health problems.
3. Emotional regulation
Yoga teaches the perception of emotions and the regulation of their manifestations through gentle breathing exercises, the release of stress from the body through movement or guided relaxation.
4. Coping with unpleasant feelings and discomfort
Therapeutic yoga and mindfulness teach noticing and observing unpleasant feelings in the form of physical sensations through non-judgmental examination.
5. The power of decision-making and self-confidence based on internal needs
The yoga student is encouraged to understand that she/he has yoga practice under her/his own control and can decide for her/himself how the practice will continue, unlike copying any external image.
6. Personal purpose, inner voice and true self
The yoga student is led to listen to her/his deeper wisdom and intuition, not to the external pressures of society. She/he is guided to separate the voice of her/his thoughts or her/his illness from the voice of her/his deeper self. “I’m not my thoughts / I’m not my illness”. “I’m exactly where I should be in life and my life has a purpose and a deeper meaning.” “I have something to offer the world”
7. The art of letting go
In a yoga practice that supports mental health, people are led to abandon perfectionism and learn how to let go in relaxation positions.
8. Non-comparison and acceptance
Yoga practice teaches us to notice our human tendencies to compare ourselves with others, especially in external elements – appearance, material possessions, work or academic achievements, etc. It teaches the gradual acceptance of oneself, the present moment and one’s own uniqueness.
9. Kindness, compassion and gratitude
In yoga that supports your mental health, people are led to practice gratitude and self-compassion. For example, practicing gratitude for the body and thanking it for what it does for us every day is often the first step away from self-hatred, especially in conjunction with body-image.
10. Space for sharing and self-reflection
Sessions might include some safe space for non-judgmental sharing, journaling and reflection on the effects of the yoga practice and on the healing journey.
Before you or your loved ones start any yoga practice check with a health professional. Depending where you are on the healing journey, gentle yoga can be recommended.
YOGA AND MINDFULNESS: SOME POSSIBLE STARTING POINTS
If you are considering joining a yoga class while living with or suspecting a mental illness, consider first where on the illness spectrum, or rather where on the healing journey, you are at the moment. Then do a bit of research and talk to your therapist; your therapist might have tips.
When you are considering private sessions, ask the teacher about her or his education and experience in the yoga and mindfulness field. Check if they have any particular training or experience in the field of mental health and working with mental illnesses. They don’t need to be psychologists or psychiatrists, they don’t substitute the role of a health professional. But the teachers offering yoga therapy usually spend several hundreds of hours in advanced training.
If you prefer to find a group yoga class, look for the descriptions that include focus on working with stress, or specific issues like eating disorders. Again the teacher should have some training in that area.
If you are looking for an online course for your teen, you may want to purchase my online yoga course for teens. It’s not a focused, individualised yoga therapy course, but it includes all the 10 aspects mentioned above in a small introductory dose. In my online teen yoga course for joy and calm, you will find 4 lessons:
- yoga to energise and boost self-confidence
- yoga for healthy and pain-free backs
- yoga for calming stress and anxiety
- yoga to stretch and relax the whole body
A few links to scientific studies
Effects of yoga and mindfulness on treating mental illnesses including eating disorders:
- “Randomized controlled trial of yoga in the treatment of eating disorders” (2010) Journal of Adolescent Health, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/20307823/
- “Yoga as a treatment for eating disorder: a preliminary study” (2009) Complementary Therapy Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/19632546/
- “The role of mindfulness based interventions in the treatment of obesity and eating disorders: an integrative review” (2013) Complementary Therapy Medicine, https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/23876574/