How can you help those in the Yoga community who may be experiencing an eating disorder?
Eating disorders are serious and complex mental health conditions that can affect anyone, regardless of age, gender, ethnicity, sexuality and sociocultural status. It is estimated that almost one million Australians experience an eating disorder — this number is expected to be much higher if we consider those who have not yet been diagnosed or who have not sought treatment.
One of the myths about eating disorders is that you can tell if someone has an eating disorder based on their appearance — that eating disorders are experienced by people who are underweight and look malnourished. What we actually know is that eating disorders are experienced by people in bodies of different sizes and shapes, across the weight spectrum. People can engage in disordered eating practices, such as restrictive eating or dieting, binge eating, and over exercising, but may not necessarily meet the criteria for an eating disorder. This does not mean these behaviours are any less serious — they can have a significant impact on a person’s physical and mental health.
Restrictive eating or dieting is normalised in our society as a means of modifying our size, weight and shape. We are constantly bombarded with messages through the media, family, and our peers that we are not good enough, that we are not attractive enough, and restricting what we eat to make our bodies to fit society’s perception of the ideal body will lead to a healthier, happier and more successful life. What we do know is that dieting is not sustainable in the longer term and can have serious health implications, including an increased risk of developing an eating disorder.
Yoga and eating disorders
It may be surprising to know that eating disorders are also experienced by those who practice Yoga. You may have had experiences yourself of students or fellow teachers disclosing that they are currently experiencing an eating disorder or are on the road to recovery. Perhaps you have noticed students who seem to be overdoing it in their practice, who place immense pressure on themselves to practice regularly and for long periods, and become distressed when they aren’t able to practice. You may have heard the diet talk or the negative body talk in conversations before and after sessions, or perhaps you are aware of students or fellow teachers who are engaging in yoga for weight loss.
Yoga seeks to nurture the physical, psychological, social and spiritual wellbeing of those who practice and there is growing research that suggests yoga may play a role in the prevention and treatment of eating disorders. However, there is also some research to suggest that, for some individuals, practicing yoga may have a negative impact on body image — a key risk factor for the development of an eating disorder. The environment in which yoga is practiced may have an influence — an environment that can lead to individuals engaging in body comparisons and negative self-talk. The motivation for practising Yoga is also linked to body image, with research demonstrating that practicing yoga for psychological or spiritual reasons is associated with greater body satisfaction, compared to practicing for appearance-based or aesthetic reasons. While further research is needed to determine the link between yoga, body image and eating disorders, and what benefits yoga may offer for the prevention and treatment of eating disorders, there is a significant opportunity for yoga teachers to play a role in identifying those in the yoga community at risk of developing an eating disorder and supporting them to seek the help they need.
Understanding eating disorders, being able to identify the warning signs, and knowing how to approach a person you may be concerned about is an important first step in supporting your students, colleagues, and peers who may be struggling with an eating disorder. While it is not your role to diagnose and treat and eating disorder, you are in an ideal position to identify and help those who may be struggling to get the support they need from a qualified health professional.
Potential signs that someone may be struggling with an eating disorder
There are a number of physical, psychological, and behavioural signs to indicate that someone may be experiencing an eating disorder. In the Yoga studio, some of the signs are described below:
- Body dissatisfaction — the person verbalises or demonstrates during practice that they are dissatisfied with their weight and/or shape. They may share their desire to achieve the ideal ‘yoga body’
- Engaging in body comparisons — they may describe how their body weight, size or shape is not acceptable or not the correct body type for yoga, or compare their body to the bodies of other students and teachers.
- A drive for thinness — to achieve a lean body, or are motivated to lose weight through Yoga practice, their eating behaviours, and other physical activities
- Motivation for yoga practice — they indicate to you that their key motivation for practicing yoga is for the purpose of modifying their weight and/or shape
- Engaging in dieting or are restricting their food intake — whether it is following a fad diet (e.g., intermittent fasting, keto, paleo), fasting, skipping meals, or have commenced a vegetarian, vegan or gluten free diet (where the intention or motivation is not linked with ethical, environmental or food intolerances/gastrointestinal health conditions)
- A focus on the quality or purity of foods — removing foods/food groups from their diet if they don’t meet these rules or guidelines where the intention is to lose weight or modify their size and shape.
- Using laxatives, diuretics, or weight loss pills
- Visiting the bathroom frequently for extended periods, before/during/following Yoga practice.
If you have noticed any of these signs and are concerned about a student, fellow teacher or peer, we encourage you to contact the Eating Disorders Victoria (EDV) Hub on 1300 550 236 or visit www.eatingdisorders.org.au.
AUTHOR: Dr Lauren Bruce, Education Research Fellow, Eating Disorders Victoria.