Helpful or Harmful? The Twin Potential of Yoga for People with Eating Disorders by Lisa Kaley-Isley


Often, the relationship between trauma and eating disorders are interlinked together because of the inability to find comfort in the body and mind. This uncomfortable sensation drives choices to sacrifice a part of ourselves rather than a conscious choice to not live wholly. In this article, Lisa Kaley-Isley - Yoga Therapy Board Member and Clinical Psychologist (US)- discusses how yoga practices can be helpful or harmful. Power lies in the ability to choose which from moment to moment.  

Yoga can be both powerfully helpful and harmful.  We usually only want to think and talk about the ways yoga can help, but the truth is, the philosophy and practices can also be put to harmful use.  I have long thought this is particularly true when it comes to yoga for people with disordered eating attitudes and behaviours. First of all, let’s face it: a lot of the people practicing yoga today are female, and a lot of females have complicated relationships to food and the size and shape of their bodies.  That does not mean all of us meet diagnostic criteria for an eating disorder, but a surprising number of yoga practitioners do, or have some symptoms of disorder. This finding is not limited to women, and some of the men who practice yoga struggle with the same challenges. 

What do I mean by yoga can be helpful or harmful?  Starting with the potential for good, it’s apparent that many people find yoga practices a very useful way to form a more positive relationship to their bodies. The concepts of mindfulness, non-competitiveness, compassion, positive embodiment, and empowerment can be transformative when integrated into our actions and attitudes.   These “yogic attitudes” are designed to foster health and wellness and their adoption can be transformative.  When we shift from thinking we only have value if we look a certain way, or believe that being present is more important than shrinking ourselves, our relationships to our bodies naturally also shift toward being more compassionate, accepting, and interested in our genuine well being.   

But let’s face this, too. Modern asana practice can be used as a tool to keep us on the wheel of non-acceptance and self-improvement. How often do we hear this: our attitude and intention make a difference in the effect and outcome of our actions? They do. We can move in asana to help our bodies become/remain healthy, fit, flexible, and strong, or we can push our bodies to please our minds without regard for the well being of our bodies.  Hot, vigorous, and challenging yoga classes can be mis-used as excessive exercise to foster unhealthy weight loss or low weight maintenance. Pushing when we need to rest, over-doing when we need to back off, are examples of our minds driving our bodies to perform rather then respecting and nurturing them. It’s not always obvious when we have reached the tipping point between what does us good and what does us harm, but it’s easy to use yoga practice as a socially acceptable “cover” for what the person secretly knows is a determined effort to burn off calories and force the body to conform to an idealised weight and image.  This can become dangerous and life threatening because for people with below healthy body weight and a strict restricting diet, excessive heat and vigorous activity are risk factors for cardiac arrest. It’s all about the matching of person to practice in the moment.  Sometimes we need more activity and sometimes we need less. The buddhi wisdom we aspire to cultivate in our yoga practice is the ability to know which we need for health at any given time and do that.

Food can also be a source of nourishment or punishment.  It’s so hard to get the balance right between over and under eating, and healthy or “comfort” eating.  Dietary advice changes, and it’s also apparent that what is good for one person’s digestion is not necessarily what works for someone else. It takes a lot of figuring out and daily staying with it to eat healthily.  There are lots of good reasons to add or subtract particular foods from our menu. Ahimsa, the injunction of not harming, is often used in yoga communities to recommend vegetarian or vegan diets.  There are many good reasons for this guidance, but it can also be used as a screen to hide overly rigid and restrictive eating patterns. The guidance not to eat for several hours before practicing can be used to justify missing meals completely.  So what appears to be good can actually not be good for the particular person. It depends. 

It has always been like this in the yoga tradition. There are two parallel tracks in the yoga texts when it comes to the body.  The ascetic path used physical postures to strengthen the control of “mind over matter,” to eliminate the body as a distraction by ignoring and over-riding its natural urges. The ascetic yogis end goal was to become enlightened, not to reach an idealised weight, but they certainly restricted their food and did not do practice with the intention of fostering the well being of their bodies. The other path was to nurture this body made of food (annamaya kosha), and to practice in ways that increased capacity and nurtured wellness. The definition of hatha yoga as “forceful” and “overriding” tapas parallels the path of hatha yoga defined as the balanced path of “sun/moon.” 

Yoga therapy has clearly identified with yoga as a path of wellness and healing. It espouses a definition of yoga that embraces wholeness and integration rather than choosing to value one part of the person while suppressing the other.  

Want to learn more?

Lisa Kaley-Isley has spent the last 25 years bridging her knowledge of psychology and yoga to provide yoga therapy to individuals struggling with the everyday stresses of life, mild to severe anxiety and depression, and the concomitant physical and psycho-emotional challenges of coping with acute and chronic medical illness. 

Join Lisa from Friday 7th to Sunday 9th September where she will be offering a 3-day yoga therapy informed training on how to adapt yoga practices for people who have experienced trauma and struggle with eating disorders. 

The workshop is open to yoga practitioners, yoga teachers and therapists, yoga teacher and therapist trainees, and health care practitioners who are also yoga practitioners.  Many, but not all, of the participants who attend this workshop are likely to have experienced one or both of the conditions.  The experience may be personal (self or other) or professional.  This experience is welcomed but not required to participate.  We will hold safe space for all to explore the practices and concepts being shared.

Spaces are still available for booking here.