The practice of yoga is nothing new; in fact, it’s been around for over 5,000 years, but only recently has it gained popularity in the United States. A 2016 Yoga in America market research study, conducted by Yoga Alliance and Yoga Journal, found that the number of yoga practitioners in the U.S. had increased to 36 million, up from 20.4 million in 2012. The awareness of the practice has grown as well; today, 95% of Americans are aware of yoga, up from 75% in 2012. Why the explosion of an ancient practice in the past four years? There’s a rising interest in health and wellness and consumers are looking for alternative therapies. And let’s face it — stress levels are at an all-time high and yoga has been shown to calm the nervous system and reduce anxiety. But what if there were other reasons to hop on your yoga mat beyond improving flexibility and reducing stress? What if yoga could help heal your relationship with food? Preliminary research shows that this mind-body practice may support mindful eating and disordered eating treatment.
Yoga and Mindful Eating
Yoga is much more than downward-facing dogs and sun salutations. In fact, the physical (asana) practice is just one tiny piece of what yoga is according to ancient yogic texts. Yoga also includes meditation, concentration, breath work (pranayama) among many other practices (known as the eight limbs of yoga). When we think about yoga in this holistic way as a mindfulness-based practice, it makes sense that yoga practitioners report improved self-attunement, awareness of feelings and a heightened attention to eating patterns.
A 2013 study looked at 87 adults who practiced yoga at a facility at least once per week and found that yoga tenure significantly correlated with mindful eating and fruit and vegetable consumption. The longer the students had practiced yoga, the more likely they were to engage in mindful eating. Students reported eating more slowly, paying attention to food portions, and being more conscious, disciplined and mindful with nutrition.
Anu Kaur, a Registered Dietitian, Wellness Coach and Yoga Teacher, says yoga “brings us to the ‘present’ experience and we learn to cultivate an attitude of openness, acceptance and curiosity. This process allows for the mind to build its capacity to observe thoughts and emotions as they arise, free of judgment. Over time, as we practice this self-acceptance ‘on the mat’ we can learn to do it ‘off the mat’ like with our eating.” One technique Kaur teaches her clients is how to practice deep breathing for three minutes before starting a meal. “If one practices following their breath and then slowing their breath down, there is a calmness that settles into the body. This experience of the relaxation response can be applied to mindful eating.”
Yoga and Eating Disorders
In the U.S., approximately 30 million people suffer from a clinical eating disorder at some point in their life, and many more struggle with body dissatisfaction and sub-clinical disordered eating. Body dysmorphia and body image concerns go hand-in-hand with disordered eating and yoga allows the opportunity to reconnect with one’s body, promoting body appreciation, respect and attunement.
A 2010 study in the Journal of Adolescent Health looked at 50 adolescents in outpatient treatment for eating disorders. They divided the participants into two groups — one receiving standard care and the intervention group, which included standard care in addition to private yoga sessions twice a week for twelve weeks. Both groups saw reductions in depression and anxiety but the yoga intervention group had significantly improved eating disorder behaviors, including lower food preoccupation.
Another study, conducted in 2009, looked at 50 women with binge eating disorder and the women who received a weekly yoga class plus encouraged daily home practice saw significant improvements in binge eating behaviors compared to the control group, which only received mindful eating education.
Diana Dugan Richards, Registered Dietitian and Yoga Therapist, suggests that yoga allows a client with disordered eating to experience being in the discomfort that usually turns them to food to cope. “Yoga encourages being in the chaos and intensity of physical sensation in a mindful and very present way. It involves intentionally slowing of breath, and being with the sensation, emotion, or feeling that is so intense they usually turn to food to numb or silence it. Then understanding, in time, the transient nature of the craving for food or desire to purge a feeling can be met with the steadiness of self-compassion.” Dugan Richards also notes that the effectiveness of yoga as an adjunct therapy really depends on the level of disordered eating and the person’s cognitive function.
Yoga is not just what we see in the magazines. It’s not just for thin women with flat abs who can balance on her fingertips or place her foot behind their head. That’s not even close to what yoga truly is. And yet, the picture of yoga that gets painted in the media can create a sense of trepidation and deter people away from the practice. It’s important for people to know that yoga is for everyone and comes in all different shapes and sizes, just like we as humans do. If you’re not ready for the physical (asana) practice of yoga, try practicing meditation or deep breathing. Or, try a restorative yoga class where you hold poses for long periods of time while being fully supported by props, eliciting the relaxation response.
Many people report first trying yoga using an app, DVD or at the gym. Kaur recommends working with a yoga teacher one-on-one, especially if it’s your first time or if you have specific medical conditions. If you’re not able to do a private session, Kaur suggests trying a few yoga classes at a yoga studio first. “The environment, the community and often the intention of the teacher can offer support at another level. I always say that if the teacher or studio did not resonate with you, explore other yoga studios in your area. More likely than not they will find a place that could be a positive support system.”
Kara Lydon, R.D., L.D.N., R.Y.T., is a nutrition coach, yoga teacher and self-proclaimed foodie. She is a recipe developer, food photographer, writer and spokeswoman. Her food and healthy living blog, The Foodie Dietitian, features seasonal vegetarian recipes and simple strategies to bring more mindfulness and yoga into your life.
*This article was written and/or reviewed by an independent registered dietitian nutritionist.