Last September, we gathered nearly 400 change-makers from across the globe for an incredibly important cause. We welcomed yoga professionals, mental health providers, researchers, and people with lived experience of addiction and eating disorders. The purpose? To explore the transformative power of yoga in addressing the rising tide of addiction and eating disorders.
ADDRESSING A GLOBAL CRISIS
Over a million people have lost their lives to drug overdose in the United States since 1999. Opioid-related fatalities have skyrocketed, increasing 781% in just two decades. This isn’t merely an American issue; it is a crisis that transcends borders and cultures. North America is awash with Fentanyl, Africa and the Middle East have seen a surge in the synthetic opioid Tramadol, and the UK just recorded the highest number of drug poisoning deaths ever on record.
Eating disorders, too, are skyrocketing around the world. In the UK, hospitalizations have nearly doubled over the last five years. Charities have reported a 300% increase in calls to hotlines since the pandemic, and many people report waiting over a year to access treatment. And of course, with this illness, time is of the essence – eating disorders have the highest mortality rate of all psychiatric conditions. One person loses their life to this illness every 52 minutes. The Untold Stories Behind the Data Published data, as vital as it is, paints an incomplete picture. Deaths related to addiction and eating disorders are often misclassified as heart attacks or respiratory failure due to stigma, fear of police, and inadequate reporting systems. This concealment not only obscures the scale of the problem but adds an insidious layer of invisibility to it.
My own experience leading a nonprofit on the frontlines of this crisis confirms this. At Eat Breathe Thrive, we help to fill the gaps where healthcare falls short. Increasingly, we’re caring for people who can’t afford treatment, are considered not sick enough for care, or are not diagnosable with an eating disorder to begin with. These individuals don’t get counted in research studies, because they never get access to healthcare to begin with.
CREATING CULTURES OF PREVENTION
We began this year’s symposium by acknowledging a difficult reality: Despite decades of public health campaigns, cutting-edge research, and advancements in treatment, we have not yet turned the tide. Our focus at this year’s event was not just on treatment but on prevention – on the idea that we need communities that don’t just react to crises but preempt them.
ADDRESSING ROOT CAUSES
One theme we heard echoed by many presenters was that our prevailing approach has been reactive rather than preventative, treating symptoms after they manifest rather than addressing the root causes. Over the past century, we have grown to understand addiction and eating disorders not as moral failings but as biological illnesses – and that’s been progress, but it’s also been our achilles heel.
There’s that old saying: “To a person with a hammer, everything looks like a nail.” In much the same way, when we frame addiction and eating disorders as purely biological diseases, we limit our toolbox. Eating disorders have genetic components, yes, but they are also rooted in deep psychological and social problems. Given how deeply embedded the disease model is in our collective understanding, it’s no surprise that our healthcare system is better equipped to prescribe pharmaceuticals than comprehensive, biopsychosocial solutions.
EXPLORING NEW PERSPECTIVES
On Friday, we heard from physician and author Dr. Gabor Mate, renowned journalist Ethan Watters, and award-winning scholar Dr. Niva Piran, whose insights into the cultural history and social implications of addiction and eating disorders were eye-opening. Their presentations challenged us to question the dominant paradigms and consider how these disorders are deeply entangled with our historical, social, and cultural environment.
We then turned our focus to the forces that continue to entrench addiction and eating disorders in our society today. On Saturday, our presenters spoke not only at broad societal issues like food insecurity and social inequality – but also at how the healthcare system itself can inadvertently perpetuate the very problems it aims to solve.
One explored how shame, stigma, and systemic inequities in our healthcare system continue to deter people from seeking help. Dr. Rachel Goode, Dr. Erikka Dzirasa, and Dr. Norman Kim all shared compelling personal stories and astute insights about how bias, weight stigma, and racism prevent many people from seeking help. We also heard from a group of clinicians on ethical concerns surrounding contemporary treatments for addiction and eating disorders. They discussed the influence of weight stigma and the push towards pharmaceutical solutions, as well as the potential consequences of life-altering medical interventions, especially for young people.
THE ROLE OF YOGA
Finally, on Sunday, we turned our attention to how yoga can help prevent illness and form part of a “cultural immune system.” While it’s no cure-all, research suggests yoga fosters what scientists term ‘protective factors’ – traits like mindfulness, self-compassion, interoception, and emotional resilience – which serve as a potent inoculation against addiction and eating disorders.
Our first keynote was from Harvard researcher Dr. John Kelly, who shared insights from a half-century of compelling research on the impact of yoga and community-based interventions for recovery. Throughout the day, we heard from over a dozen grassroots community leaders working to realize this transformative potential of yoga. Finally, we closed with a presentation from Dr. Jennifer Webb, a trailblazing researcher who shared insights into what it truly takes to establish truly inclusive spaces to practice yoga.
As we reflect on the learnings and connections made during this transformative weekend, it’s clear that there’s still much work to be done. Yet, the very existence of this symposium and the conversations that transpired give me hope that change is not only possible but on the horizon.