I found myself thinking a lot recently about the journey that brought me to my current relationship. No, not with my significant other, but with food! I have to admit, in the past, I turned to food for comfort and as a reward. When people meet me today and I talk about what and how I used to eat, they cannot believe that I once would “super size” a Big Mac meal at McDonald’s or order a large pizza ‘just for me’ and proceed to eat the whole thing in one sitting. I remember trying to control my food intake by not eating breakfast or lunch and then allowing myself to eat after working a long, stressful day, often seeking traditional comfort foods, such as a box of macaroni and cheese or a bowl of fettuccine alfredo. I would eat so quickly and so much that I would feel uncomfortably full and disgusted with myself afterwards as I realized I had no self-control, and then finding myself repeating the same pattern the next day. It wasn’t until I discovered yoga that I was able to change my relationship with food.
So what was it about yoga that helped me transform my view of food from one of comfort to one of simply fuel for the body, like learning is fuel for the mind? Turning to the research literature for some answers begins to shed some light on what I personally experienced. It is a critically important subject to explore due to the millions of people who suffer from eating disorders in the United States. In fact, according to the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA), “In the United States, 20 million women and 10 million men suffer from a clinically significant eating disorder at some time in their life, including anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, binge eating disorder, or EDNOS (Wade, Keski-Rahkonen, & Hudson, 2011). (EDNOS is now recognized as OSFED, other specified feeding or eating disorder, per the DSM-5).”
Recent research is focusing on how someone’s ability to tolerate distress is related to self-destructive behaviors and exploring yoga as a way to increase an individual’s level of distress tolerance to change those behaviors. What the research suggests is that yoga does support an increase in distress tolerance and subsequent reduction in emotional eating behaviors. One particular study had women that struggled with, as I did, emotional eating, participate in a yoga practice twice a week for 8 weeks with amazing results.
When I first started taking yoga classes, I found myself on my mat in as many classes as I could attend, sometimes 5-6 times per week. What I learned from those early classes is that yoga encouraged me to stay present on my mat and simply breathe. By focusing on my breath as I stretched and challenged my body, I was able to step back from reacting to any dis-ease I might have been experiencing in the moment and simply observe how it moved and changed. I also learned that it was within my control to move my body and breath in a way that made me feel more comfortable in my own skin. From those early experiences on my mat, I quickly internalized that simply breathing consciously in moments of distress creates space between a trigger and my resulting behavior, opening up the opportunity for me to ‘respond’ instead of ‘react’, which I began to experience as extremely empowering!
As I became more conscious of how my body felt and learned to pay attention to sensations and feelings that arose on my mat, I learned how to choose between backing off or deepening into a pose based upon the messages my body would send to my mind. I began to value and honor the wisdom of my body, which allowed me to begin to understand why I developed the ‘reaction’ of emotional eating to self-soothe in times of distress. I had basically used the normal, naturally adaptive human response of dissociation to tolerate distress, separating my body from my mind and ignoring the body and its innate intelligence. Once I understood that my eating behaviors were not ‘abnormal’ and, in fact, were quite adaptive, I could then begin to have compassion for myself.
As I created opportunities to pay attention to my body’s messages, my mind-body connection got fired up and rewired. I began to notice when I felt hungry. I could then make a more mindful decision of what to eat and how much I ate. I then began to observe how my body would respond to the foods I ate, guiding me and supporting healthier choices. My cravings for fat, sugar, salt and carbs shrunk and new cravings for salad and hummus grew. I no longer skipped breakfast and gave up McDonald’s altogether. I no longer felt the need to deprive my body of fuel, forcing it to run on empty until it ‘deserved’ to be rewarded with food after the mind had accomplished a very long daily ‘to do’ list. And as my distress tolerance increased and my eating behaviors changed, my body thanked me by releasing the excess weight I gained over the years.
My personal “case study” of how yoga transformed my relationship with food would be considered only anecdotal evidence by the research community and not valid to recommend yoga as an alternative healing modality for eating disorders. So, it is encouraging to see that research is beginning to emerge to validate my personal experience and the research community beginning to support yoga as an effective way to improve the overall health of individuals that have experienced a significant amount of distress in their lives. If you are interested in reading the research study mentioned above for more details, click on the link below.