The Center for Eating Disorders Blog

National Eating Disorders Awareness Week: Q&A with Yoga Practitioner Heather Whittington

As part of the activities arranged by the Center for Eating Disorders at Sheppard Pratt to acknowledge National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, February 24 to March 1, Heather Whittington, a certified Phoenix Rising yoga therapy practitioner and meditation instructor spoke with us about the connection between eating disorders and yoga. See below for more info on yoga classes with her during NEDAW.

1. Do you think meditative and yoga therapies directly help ease the symptoms of eating disorders, like anorexia and bulimia, or do you think those disorders are inadvertently helped through the healthy self esteem that the therapies help create?

Healthy self-esteem is certainly a side-effect I encounter with both private Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy clients and meditation students. Some say it out loud, others exhibit it though their actions. While I am not a researcher (yet!), my experience is that the majority of people I work with express a change in the relationship with their body. They begin to connect with the little things that feel good, often discovering that something as simple as their breath invites an element of self-acceptance and release. I can say that I have seen people respond to this work even in their first session! It affirms my commitment to this type of work over and over again.

A 2005 study from Psychology of Women Quarterly states that people who practice yoga “reported less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance, and fewer disordered eating attitudes compared to non-yoga practitioners.” The article goes on to say, “results suggest that not all physical activities have the same relationship to disordered eating symptoms with increased participation, and some, such as yoga, may promote better eating habits with greater practice.” Furthermore, the study found that “yoga practice is associated with greater body awareness and responsiveness, which, in turn, are associated with lower levels of trait self-objectification, greater body satisfaction, and lesser disordered eating attitudes.” The study says, and I agree, that these results “are encouraging because they suggest that yoga may be a means to reduce the internalization of a self-objectified view in girls and women.”

2. What is it about yoga that positively affects self esteem?

There is a saying that in yoga there is no right or wrong, no good or bad, no better or best. In yoga, we learn the art of not comparing, but accepting this moment and ourselves just as we are. Sure, it takes practice and willfulness. It may seem impossible at first. But if you are courageous, and ready to step out of what Tara Brach calls the “trance of unworthiness,” you will find the rewards are endless. I have seen powerful transformations – in myself – in my clients. It often starts with something as simple as enjoying your breath. Ultimately, I would say that learning to be compassionate to one’s self, and eventually others, is the essence of the practice.

3. Why is yoga more effective at helping eating disorders than other types of exercise/therapies?

I like to say that yoga is a work-in, not a work-out. The first instruction in yoga is to incorporate “present moment awareness” into your practice. This is achieved by paying attention to your breath, to body sensation.

This means pay attention to what is happening right here, right now. Consider a gym full of cardio equipment with headphones and televisions, or people reading while on the treadmill. They have little connection to their body, and in many cases do not even enjoy what they are doing! By paying attention in a yoga class, many people find out that there are things about their body they actually like! “This stretch feels good” or “Hey! I feel my breath!” or “I noticed I stopped worrying for a moment.”

They learn to slow down, to watch their thoughts, and to be more aware and take an active role in their own life.

Unlike many exercise programs, in a yoga class you are experiencing your body in a way other than visual – it is rare that you will find mirrors in a yoga studio! If you can imagine stripping away the image of an ideal, and really experience your body from the inside, you might be surprised what you will find. I have seen many first-time practitioners weep as though they just reunited with a long lost friend. In this case, the friend is their body. It is powerful.

4. Are there certain types of yoga, or specific moves, that are more (or less) beneficial than others?

This depends on the person. Yoga class is an opportunity to find balance in your life. If you are anxious, competitive or lead a fast paced life with no downtime, you will benefit from the slow pace of a gentle, restorative class. If, on the other hand, you find it challenging to get out of bed in the morning, and feel you have virtually no energy, a flowing vinyasa class may be more your style. There are gradations in between. Ultimately, find a practice that helps you achieve equilibrium, and does not add stress and anxiety to your life.

As far as specific postures, there are many schools of thought. My style of yoga is non-prescriptive, so generally I will say find the postures that make you feel connected to your body, and explore them with curiosity.

5. Is it important to go to yoga in a group (for the support) or is stay-at-home-yoga OK too?

Why pick one or the other? Here are my thoughts:

I think many people benefit from a group class because of the support and the instruction that a certified teacher is going to give. While there is no “right or wrong,” there are certainly postures where you can harm yourself through improper alignment. It also gives you a way to keep your practice going – how many times have people decided to make a positive change, only to abandon the effort a few weeks in? The support you can get from a teacher and a class is priceless.

Don’t be discouraged if the first studio you visit isn’t for you. It may take a little shopping around to get the right chemistry. Another tip – call or meet the instructor prior to class and ask questions. If you are comfortable, let them know where you are coming from. Yoga teachers and therapists are compassionate people who want to support you. Use that to your advantage. If you are not comfortable in a group, you can always seek out a private instructor or yoga therapist.

Once you learn postures and techniques in class, practice at home. You will find that you develop your own posture series just by going to class! There are some good books and DVDs out there, but often they present an idealized image – what I call “model yoga.” By combining the two venues, the benefits will increase significantly.

6. How does meditation positively affect the urges/symptoms of binge eating?

Jean Kristeller completed a study at Indiana State University that implemented a 6-week meditation group. The results showed a decrease in the frequency of binge eating, as well as a decrease in reported depression and anxiety. It seems that the compassion towards self and others, paired with a clearer connection to physiological cues, were particularly important. I am especially happy to see that the practice of “forgiveness meditation” was incorporated into the study, and a reported half of study participants found this especially helpful. When we can forgive others, and ourselves, our life really can open up. When we slow down and listen to our body – I mean really pay attention – transformation can take place.

In addition to being a yoga instructor, Heather K. Whittington is also a former executive and winner of the 2003 Entrepreneur of the Year award. She now works with corporate executives and other people who are ready to manage stress and feel fully alive. We thank her for her input on this entry. To participate in Heather’s free yoga classes during National Eating Disorders Awareness Week, visit www.eatingdisorder.org/events.php or call CED at 410-938-5252.

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