Eating Disorder Recovery: Do Yoga, But Leave Room For Cake

I realize that this might sound like a downright nutty thing for a dessert blogger to say, but here goes: I'm doing a yoga teacher training.

It's 100% true, friends. In January of 2015, I'll be spending the month in lovely (so I hear, I haven't been yet) Asheville, NC to do a month-long intensive yoga teacher training at the Asheville Yoga Center. 

With this amazing experience coming up, yoga and its place in my life has been on my mind a lot lately, so I thought I would dedicate a few moments to talking about the role of yoga in my eating disorder recovery.

As I told you in my last post, I suffered a pretty significant ED relapse well into my recovery. As a part of my renewed desire to connect with people and form community, I decided to start doing yoga. What started as a way to spend time away from thinking about food swiftly graduated to a sweet way of life, and a powerful ally in my recovery process. 

Recovery and the reluctant yogi

There are all sorts of great reasons to practice yoga, including but not limited to increased strength, flexibility, and mental clarity. I definitely started doing yoga for the wrong reasons. They were these:

  • I was already pretty flexible, so I thought I might be better than other people.

  • A lot of places offered cheap intros. Since I change zip codes frequently, I figured I could cruise through every intro in town, and by the time I did the first ones would have forgotten me and I could cycle through again. After all, I had two last names now that I was divorced (in what might be a weird decision, I re-absorbed my maiden name as my last, and kept my married name as a middle name). Am I proud of this? Not necessarily.

  • I thought it would get me out of the house and at least keep me from eating for an hour at a time.

From the get-go, my attitude could be summed up as “nama-stay away.”

Whenever a teacher would start to chant I would roll my eyes; I decided early on that I would never effing say “namaste”. I suspected most people didn’t even know what it meant and were saying in the same way that bridge and tunnel girls (or Britney Spears) get Chinese characters as tattoos. I sure had no clue what it meant. When teachers prompted breathing exercises, I would inhale-exhale loudly, to make my annoyance known. Let’s get on with the calorie-burning part, I would think. Don’t you know how much I paid for this practically free intro special?

Far from inner bliss, the immediate benefit of yoga was that it simply gave me a place to be.

As a freelancer, unless I have a meeting or deadline, there’s rarely a sense of time or location urgency. This freedom can make it easy to procrastinate about everything, from taking a shower to sending back contracts. This can make it difficult to feel important. People often glamorize the life of a work-at-home type, but I envy the purpose and accountability of “regular” jobs. If I don’t have a boss breathing down my neck or a huge deadline, it’s hard to feel vital, or like I am needed in the world. When I did have a job, even if I slacked half the day on facebook, I felt like I got the society points from doing a job.

Yoga helped me feel vital. After I plowed through my first intro special, at Blue Moon Hot Yoga in Santa Fe, I realized I wanted to continue, so I forked over the $90 a month fee to do another month. When I went back to Philadelphia, I continued too, at Dhyana Yoga. When I zigzagged back to Santa Fe, I took up practice at BODY, which was close by my residence, and remains my "home" studio today. I buy unlimited passes, which are not cheap. My significant other always offers to help with the cost if I'm low on funds. His reason is this:

Yoga makes me a nicer person.

My regular practice at yoga started sort of like this: motivated by getting my money's worth, I would treat classes like important appointments. My studio slowly became my community, a place to be where I was welcome, and where I wasn’t working. The community expanded beyond my home studio: I realized that in other cities, a yoga studio was a place where I could feel at home, whether in Oklahoma City or Philadelphia. I had found a way to feel at home in the world that wasn’t food related.

Yoga had an effect on my relationship with food.

For the first time, I was clearly able to see the connection between what I ate and how I felt. Have you ever eaten a big greasy breakfast before doing a vigorous yoga class in a heated room? If not, trust me: it is not suggested. I learned that certain foods made me feel better or perform better. For many, this can be an invitation to retreat into disordered thoughts: I don’t feel good if I eat before yoga, therefore I will go to three back to back yoga classes and not eat. I’m happy to say this was not the case for me. My body did begin to call out for those foods that made me do better twists and backbends: bananas, peanut butter, honey, yogurt, rich, oat-y bread. But there was still room in my life for cake. A therapist of mine told me, “sometimes we simply want things because they are delicious”. While something like cake might not have much to offer nutritionally, but what it offers on a soul level is nourishing. Performance-wise, I’d just probably wait til after yoga class to eat it.

And yes, yoga helped my body.

For the first time, I found myself really and truly impressed by my body’s strength, and it was like I got it: mind and body. Using your body in tandem with your mind. Not fighting, not seeing exercise as a punishment. I loved my body when I did yoga. It felt like making art.

After finding a flyer for free meditation classes, I decided to give that a go, too. It was a series of six sessions. The first session was packed. We were urged to meditate with our hearts rather than trying to quiet our mind. If you meditate from your heart, the idea went, your mind will quiet as a happy side effect, with the ultimate goal of a serene state being a much loftier goal. This is an exceedingly simple thing that is very hard to do; less and less people showed up each succeeding week. I kept on going. I can’t say that I attained inner peace. But I can say that for at least an hour after the meditation sessions, I felt kinder and sweeter as a person. The fact that I literally could not eat during this time helped, too.

Breaking through emotional barriers

Seeing the progress I gained through yoga and meditation, of course I wanted it to be more. One day, I did a backbend in class and started crying. I felt that I had let go of something that I no longer needed. I wanted more. Bring on the catharsis!

I asked a teacher: apparently, this phenomenon is quite normal. The part that remained most interesting to me was that this can occur in part because we store memories in our bodies, lodge the yucky stuff somewhere in our muscles, and you never know when you might dislodge something. But while those a-ha moments are gratifying, they are not the point, and seeking them can become an addiction (why must everything be so complicated?). The point is the process, and by becoming fixated on potential catharsis, we miss the present moment entirely. By observing yourself, you can envision an ocean inside of you: it can sometimes be choppy, it can sometimes have a massively powerful undertow. But things will level out eventually.

So ultimately, it is through embracing the deep connection of a regular practice, not simply hitting the right backbend, that we can begin to release those hardened layers of emotional residue that has manifested physically. And those in eating disorder recovery tend to have plenty of emotional residue.

The best part? The regular practice doesn’t even have to be yoga. You can develop any number of practices to help connect you to to the world, and bring your mind and body right in the moment. It could be gardening. Knitting. Dance. Long walks. Or go ahead and copy me and do yoga, too. There’s enough to share.

Have you ever tried yoga?