Creating Accessible Yoga Spaces for People With Eating Disorders
Advocates in the fields of yoga accessibility and body acceptance are hard at work creating far-reaching social change with the power to cultivate a deeper respect for the rich nature of the human experience. In essence, these social justice movements ask us to examine with heartfelt curiosity where there is room for more kindness and compassion in our daily interactions—both with others and with ourselves.
The groundbreaking work of grassroots organizations such as Accessible Yoga, the Yoga and Body Image Coalition, Yoga for All, Body Positive Yoga, and the Transformation Yoga Project, have inspired unprecedented discussion about what it means to be a “real” yoga practitioner. Values of inclusivity and service are at the heart of these movements, honoring the rich diversity of all bodies, ages, abilities, shapes, and sizes. Bringing yoga to untraditional settings like juvenile halls and recovery centers, offering adaptable versions of yoga poses, and challenging industry leaders and media creators to embrace diversity in yoga-related images all help to make it possible for all to benefit from the practices and philosophies of yoga.
My enthusiasm for the work being done in the accessibility and body image spaces stems from my personal story of eating disorder recovery, a healing path I have traveled for more than 20 years. Yoga was essential to my healing and is the lens through which I live my life. My study of classical yoga and my professional training as a certified yoga therapist have enlightened me to the profound depths of how yoga restores balance to our physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual health.
Eating Disorders and the Yoga Industry
My passion for yoga therapy as a healing modality for eating disorder recovery has led me to present at treatment centers around the country, speaking with both medical and mental health professionals. In my presentations, I always include honest discussions about aspects of the yoga industry that are not helpful to those healing from eating disorders. Many of these individuals have histories of trauma, struggle to feel connected to their bodies, deal with exercise addictions, and potentially experience medical complications like dehydration, electrolyte imbalances, and malnourishment (to name just a few). My intention is to offer guidelines to healthcare professionals on helping their patients find yoga classes and communities that align with recovery values—such as learning to be gentle and compassionate with oneself and letting go of perfectionism.
I also have conversations about the “yoga industry landscape” with my clients, who are all in ED recovery, because the reality is that many of our mainstream yoga spaces are inaccessible for those experiencing and recovering from eating disorders. I wish for my clients to be aware of this so that they can feel empowered to choose practices and practice spaces that serve them best.
What Are Eating Disorders?
Eating disorders are serious but treatable mental illnesses caused by a range of biological, psychological, and sociocultural factors. To quote the National Eating Disorders Collaboration, “Eating disorders…are not a lifestyle choice or a diet gone ‘too far.’” In order to recover, individuals who are affected usually require professional help and support.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) identifies five types of eating disorders: anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, avoidant restrictive food intake disorder (ARFID), binge eating disorder (BED), and other specified feeding and eating disorders (OSFED). Not yet in the DSM but on the rise is orthorexia, which is characterized by an obsession with “healthful” eating.
Eating disorders are more prevalent and more diverse than most people realize. Despite the popularly held image as to who is affected and what an eating disorder looks like—emaciated, white, privileged adolescent girls—this mental illness affects every age, sex, gender, race, ethnicity, and socioeconomic group.
Weight is not a telltale sign of an eating disorder. We typically think of eating disorders in terms of extreme thinness, but that is not the case for many. In fact, one can have anorexia without being underweight. Other eating disorders can present with various weights, too. The mental processes associated with eating disorder behaviors and physical ramifications (which include much more than weight), all contribute to the diagnosis of an eating disorder. One size does not fit all, and the eating disorder community is working hard to raise social awareness of this fact.
Over 30 million people in the United States alone meet the clinical criteria for an eating disorder at some point in their lifetime, and many of these individuals seek out yoga classes to help them heal their relationship with their body. Recent studies report that upward of 15 percent to 20 percent of students in general yoga classes are struggling with disordered eating, body image, or body dysmorphia and are at high risk for onset or relapse of an eating disorder.
Barriers to Accessibility
The oversaturation of mainstream high-intensity, fitness-focused classes and workshops makes it difficult for those in eating disorder recovery to find trainings that support their healing. Such classes often reinforce unhealthy drives, such as overexercising and focusing on weight loss in order to change one’s body to fit an ideal.
Talk of cleanses, detoxes, and weight-related comments in yoga classes are highly triggering for those relearning to feed themselves appropriately and compassionately. Also, strenuous classes can deter people from trying yoga in the first place—both for fear of not being able to keep up and feeling self-conscious about their bodies.
We need for those in eating disorder recovery to come to yoga to support their healing, and we need more teachers with skill sets that make them feel safe and welcome.
The growing number of yoga teachers with certifications related to accessibility, adaptability, and trauma sensitivity are leading the charge in expanding practice possibilities. However, the continued lack of options for inclusive practices that welcome all sizes, abilities, and backgrounds can still be isolating, leading many individuals to avoid yoga. We need for those in eating disorder recovery to come to yoga to support their healing, and we need more teachers with skill sets that make them feel safe and welcome.
This is not to bash fitness-focused classes, which meet the needs of many practitioners. That is a positive I celebrate. But, from an eating disorder perspective, many who seek yoga to support their healing feel discouraged and unable to access the benefits of yoga and its philosophies to the fullest because the dominant offerings reinforce harmful social messages.
The yoga industry’s obsession with images of ideal bodies is a widespread problem, and for those individuals of all sizes, shapes, colors, and abilities who are healing from eating disorders, those images and the yoga products they advertise are counterproductive to the values of acceptance, self-care, and self-love inherent to both yoga and the recovery process.
How, then, do we—yoga practitioners, yoga teachers, and healthcare providers—support members of our yoga community who struggle with eating disorders? How do we help them to integrate yoga into their recoveries, while taking their safety and continued growth into consideration? I believe it begins with awareness, and that it is actionable through the values of inclusivity and service.
For my colleagues doing exceptional work in accessibility, adaptability, and trauma sensitivity, I welcome the opportunity to consider how we might more fully include eating disorders in the conversation. Adding education on eating disorders to yoga teacher trainings and advanced certifications is one option that would help expand awareness of eating disorders and mental health in general.
Teaching yoga practices such as asana and breathing requires a sensitivity to the fears and anxieties of those who struggle with embodiment as a result of an eating disorder. Certainly, attending to these sensitivities is more the work of a yoga therapist than a yoga teacher. Nonetheless, a general awareness of eating disorders will expand a yoga teacher’s knowledge base and enhance their ability to be inclusive and of service.
There are also myriad other ways in which studio owners can raise in their yoga spaces an awareness of eating disorders, perhaps by including more gentle classes on the schedule or hiring teachers with certifications in accessibility, adaptability, and trauma sensitive yoga.
Studio owners and yoga teachers with a social media presence can also practice including those healing from eating disorders simply by diversifying their posts to integrate images and messages that acknowledge all body sizes, colors, abilities, and ages. You might even share on your own news feed the posts of others that represent the values of inclusivity and service, amplifying voices that are engaged in conversations about accessibility, adaptability, and body image. Be mindful of the words used in your posts to avoid perpetuating insensitive cultural and social messages about bodies, diets, and exercise.
Join the Conversation
If you are a yoga practitioner who has experienced an eating disorder, please share how yoga spaces can feel more supportive. And if you are a yoga professional who has found ways to expand accessibility for those healing from eating disorders, please share what’s working in your space.
For my part, I am committed to compassionately educating the yoga community about eating disorders, and informing the mental health community about yoga. If you feel called to learn more about eating disorders, I invite you to reach out to me. With an open heart I will answer your questions as well as guide you to educational resources and other practitioners doing this work in the world.
Let's inspire and encourage each other to continue the conversation so that we can make our practices and our teaching more effective and more inclusive for all.