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Reconnect with Food: Yoga in Relationship with Food, Body Image, and Emotions

Beverly Price, RD, MA, RYT
©Yoga People, LLC 2017

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Conversation is a barrier to intimacy...you can talk your way out of feeling.  For individuals struggling with weight and food issues, many have learned that a diet or psychotherapist cannot solve the root these concerns—only you can look inside and discover what your soul needs to learn.  For someone with an eating disorder, disordered eating, or a food addiction, the benefits of yoga can be a powerful tool to uncover your attachments and move forward with awareness.

How doe yoga works in healing your relationship with food?

Yoga can help delay impulses.  Through a regular yoga practice, individuals may find themselves in postures that are difficult or awkward.  Learning to stay within the poses and work through these postures can help an individual, who feels an urge binge or practice unhealthy food behaviors, delay acting on this urge.  In our society, there is a natural tendency to want to escape anything that causes psychological or physical discomfort.  People tend to escape by overeating, working too much, getting caught up in unhealthy relationships or by drug/alcohol use.  In yoga, individuals are encouraged to observe rather than react to their discomfort by breathing and listening carefully for what his/her body/mind is conveying. 

Individuals learn to tolerate uncomfortable emotional states without running toward food for comfort, for which they truly may not be hungry, or numbing out by turning away from food.  When in various yoga poses, postures are held for a certain length of time while maintaining the breath.  Often, individuals tend to want to “run away” from uncomfortable situations.  Practicing yoga can help maintain discipline, help an individual to feel and accept uncomfortable emotions and avoid eating and other impulsive behaviors.

Individuals begin to enjoy their body for the first time.  They start to define their body in terms of “what it can do” versus “what it is.”  They learn that they are not mere extensions of their body, but possess beautiful internal qualities.

For many people, part of maintaining weight maintenance is learning to tune in to the body's signals of hunger and satiety.  For individuals with eating disorders, particularly binge eaters, eating only when hungry and stopping when the body is satisfied will result in the body slowly returning to its natural set point weight.  Unfortunately, most people who have attempted to control their weight through dieting are fearful of allowing themselves to decide when and how much to eat. Yoga can help those with weight and food issues trust their body and understand the messages given to them by their own body.

The physical discomfort of overeating and under eating becomes more obvious as greater awareness learned in the regular practice of yoga makes all sensations more apparent.  This can make it easier for eating disordered patients to choose to stop eating before the point of physical discomfort as well as honor hunger and nourish the body.

Mindful awareness, which emphasizes “observing” vs. “reacting” to daily stresses in life.  When one becomes stressed, they tend to hyperventilate causing stress hormones to elevate, insulin and blood sugar to rise throwing your body into fat storage mode.  Dr. Herbert Benson, from Harvard Medical School, studied the relaxation response when one breathes deeply using the diaphragm vs. the chest.  Dr. Benson showed that deep diaphragmatic breathing lowered blood pressure and heart rate in his subjects.  In a relaxed state, insulin and blood glucose levels are stable allowing the body to burn calories for energy versus store them as fat around the abdomen.

Yoga also emphasizes mindful eating.  Individuals learn to experience the taste, texture, and other sensual qualities of food and to pay attention to what and how much they are eating.  They also learn to rely on their higher wisdom and intuition to make decisions about food and daily life decisions.

Staying present is another important concept learned in yoga, where as the mind starts to wander, individuals are taught to draw their attention back to the breath.  Poses are also meant to be enjoyable, thus teaching the individual with an eating disorder how to engage into life and “let go” of whatever they are holding on to that is hindering them from untangling the hold of their addiction.

Yoga students are taught to look inward and focus on inner qualities versus the body’s outward appearance.  Students are encouraged to let go of competition with themselves and others.  Yoga teaches self-acceptance in this way.

In yoga, students are taught to “find their edge” meaning working at a pace of intensity that is not too extreme where breathing is compromised, but also challenging themselves and taking balanced risks.  This is an important concept in life as individuals begin to “take their yoga off the mat” and find their edge in everyday life—especially in learning how to control overeating when their body begins to feel sensations of fullness. 

Interestingly, the neurologist, Antonio Damasio, headed the team that created the Iowa gambling experiment.  Dr. Damasio studied patients with damage to a small but critical part of the brain called the ventromedial prefrontal cortex, which lies behind the nose.  The ventromedial area plays a critical role in decision-making.  People with damage to their ventromedial area are perfectly rational.  They can be highly functional, but they lack judgment.  Addicts can articulate very well the consequences of their behavior, but they fail to act accordingly—because of this brain issue causing the disconnect between what one “knows and what one does.”   Studies have shown that meditation can act on the cerebral cortex improving awareness, focus and memory.  Further studies are warranted to understand the exact mechanics of yoga and how yoga can help food addiction and related eating behaviors involving these intricate brain centers.

We thank contributing author Beverly Price. Beverly Price, RD, MA, RYT is a registered dietitian, exercise physiologist and registered yoga teacher who specializes in the treatment of anorexia and bulimia nervosa along with compulsive and binge eating.  She has a private practice located in Royal Oak and Ann Arbor, Michigan www.reconnectwithfood.com , where she blends mindful and conscious eating with yoga in her Reconnect with Food Ò counseling and support programs.  She is affiliated with Jonny Kest's Center for Yoga in Michigan and presents at his annual Midwest Yoga Conference. Beverly is the co-author of Nutrition Secrets for Optimal Health and the DVD, Reconnect with Food...unplugged!   Beverly is featured regularly on television, radio and in print.

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Copyright  2007 Beverly Price