What got you into yoga, and what does the practice mean to you?
I was invited to yoga by a friend who was worried that I would not be okay if left alone. What she didn’t know is that I had recently been sexually assaulted and was, in fact, planning to take my life. We were both teens at the time. Not knowing what to do and trusting her intuition, she asked the yoga teacher, whom she trusted, for help. After class the teacher invited us to stay for tea, and we just talked. She asked if I would come again tomorrow. We repeated this pattern for months—yoga class, tea, please come again tomorrow.
This pattern saved my life. The yoga held space for me to find and feel safe again in my body and to listen to its needs. The tea, which she didn’t know for years after, was a reminder of the tea I would have with my grandma when things were hard. The yoga teacher being with me without judgment and the community give me a reason to make it to tomorrow.
My practice has always been a reminder of the time my teacher created with me—a gentle place to listen within, receive comfort, and know that I’m not alone.
Tell us a little bit about the work you do. How do you bring the therapeutic benefits of yoga to people with limited access to this practice?
I am a yoga therapist and a yoga teacher trainer. I have dedicated my work to transform what it means to live with stress, trauma, PTSD, and eating disorders within the human experience.
In all of the work that I do —community workshops, teacher trainings, or one-to-one sessions— I offer scholarships for those with limited access to the practice due to physical, cultural, financial, or any other boundaries.
In your experience, how can yoga help someone who is recovering from an eating disorder?
When practiced intently, yoga supports us in cultivating our ability to embody our inner experience with self-compassion. It prepares us to recognize our bodies’ physical needs and how our emotional states are experienced within our bodies. We learn to acknowledge our thoughts and feelings without judging, fixing, or being overwhelmed by them. Instead, we witness and support ourselves with self-compassion.
In particular, I am speaking about two critical skills yoga develops: interoception and self-regulation. Both are essential for recovery, whether for people with eating disorders or other mental health challenges. Interoception is becoming fluent in your body’s communication, so we can listen to the body’s wisdom and appropriately respond to our physical and emotional needs. This is the key to an intelligent, nourishing, and sustainable relationship with our body, mind, and food and to the ability to self-regulate our experience in challenging times.
What are some of the challenges you have experienced working in eating disorder recovery, and what strategies have you used to overcome them?
Holding space for someone experiencing a mental health disorder is as hard as it is rewarding. As a caring professional, I witness their story and suffering. My role is to listen without judgment and hold hope for their recovery when they may not have it, all while facilitating the discovery of tools and embodied practices. Sometimes I feel like I cannot break through the strength of the eating disorders’ thoughts and behaviors, which is a powerful draw to overstep my role as a yoga therapist and become personally involved in supporting them.
The most important strategy I have learned is to care for myself so that I get to rest, lean on my supportive community, know when I need a break, and nourish my ability to do my work with peaceful, calm awareness.
Are there any small victories you’ve experienced in your work in eating disorder recovery recently that you’d like to share with us?
Since the beginning of the pandemic, we have seen a significant global increase in mental health challenges. It is easy to get overwhelmed by the suffering and feel pressure to do more than I can. For me, the victory is that we can pause to acknowledge and witness humanity’s strength, courage, and resilience.
What do you see as the greatest barriers to yoga participation for people who are recovering from eating disorders?
Unfortunately, the most significant barrier is the culture in many yoga studios and communities. Too often, the wisdom and practices of yogic texts are distorted and leveraged to promote the beliefs and values of the teacher or lineage. A far too typical example is a teacher guiding students toward controlled eating behaviors (cleanses, juicing, and fasting) as part of their “yoga practice” when these recommendations are beyond the teacher’s professional scope. Teachers often praise, encourage, and leverage the results as examples of dedicated practice and even a spiritually enlightening experience but disregard the physical indications that the body and mind are malnourished.
Secondly, yoga teachers are often ill-equipped in their knowledge of the eating disorder spectrum and the ways the signs and symptoms may present in their students. Without this knowledge, and with the common belief that yoga is a panacea, the teacher can unintentionally feed the eating disorder, such as by praising over-exercising as dedication to the practice.
We love seeing how people are taking yoga into service and therapeutic realms. We are also wary of the pitfalls of hierarchies and assumptions that come with a desire to “help” or “serve.” Those of us who choose to serve must commit ourselves to work deeply on ourselves before and during our service. Could you say something based on your experience about the dangers if you don’t do this inner work?
When we make the choice to serve others or to be a helping professional, we can easily fall into a trap. We can begin to believe that the people we are helping “need us” or that if the person we are serving only knew what we did they would “be better.” Examples of this guru mentality can be seen throughout history and the harm it causes for everyone involved.
We must face this danger directly and recognize our own humanity and capacity. When we do our own work and are responsible for our own way(s) of being, we are able to more clearly see ourselves and create boundaries that prevent harm to others. This allows us to recognize the ego pushing to be acknowledged, our pain overshadowing our work, and when we are taking on the work of another.
Ultimately by looking into our own shadows, we can see ourselves in those we serve —and those we serve in ourselves. This creates a place for true empathy and understanding, without the need to relate or to treat those we serve as broken and in need of fixing.
What can yoga teachers and yoga therapists do to cultivate spaces of greater inclusion, accessibility, and positive embodiment for themselves and practitioners from marginalized groups?
The first step is to understand the barriers to inclusion, which requires us to listen, learn, listen, and learn some more. We need to look with a critical eye at our own practices, and how our locations, prices, processes, image, room setup, and actions can create barriers to inclusion.
While we may not be able to remove all barriers, many are easily resolved through active awareness and holding ourselves responsible for continually challenging ourselves to create inclusion. This isn’t something we do once; it must become a continual practice.
Do you have any advice for other yoga therapists and teachers working in eating disorder recovery?
If you are inspired to support this community, thank you. Wanting to help is only the first step. I encourage you to develop your knowledge and toolbox. Yoga can be an incredible tool to aid recovery, but it can also hinder recovery and even endanger the person in our care. You can start with programs like the “Eat Breathe Thrive Immersion,” “Eating Disorders: How Yoga Teachers Can Help,” and “Yoga and Eating Disorders: A Free Online Course for Yoga Teachers.”
I recommend finding a mentor who has experience working with people in eating disorder recovery. Learning about eating disorders matters, but we also need to gain experience working with people with eating disorders. Having a mentor helps us prepare and debrief responsibly within the safety of a mentor relationship.
Where do you see yoga (or yoga therapy) going in the future?
I believe that one day we will all work together in supportive union as holistic, complementary, and clinical peers, providing a whole-body experience of health and wellness for all people. Mindful living will become a normal way of living, each of us compassionately embodying our lives fully and completely.