Yoga And Eating Disorders: My Story

I’m no expert on eating disorders, but I had one.

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It wasn’t anorexia, or bulimia, or binge eating, orthorexia, body dysmorphia – it was all of those and more. It was the culmination of an entire existence of thinking that changing my body meant changing my life. That if I could change my appearance, I could change what was happening to me, change the way I felt, and change the way people treated me. My life was a life of mild to medium dieting, wishing, exercising, restricting – probably much like any typical girl. Then one day, it transformed. Don’t get me wrong – it was always taking up too much brain space – the negative thoughts about myself, the wishing I was different, the chastising when I ate things I disallowed myself – oh, god, the wasted time. I could have been growing, living, reading, loving! But one day, it became my entire life. I gave it ALL my energy. Do you want to know something ironic? So there I was, finally skinny, men looking at me all the time, people asking if I was a model, so many dates – finally, right? It worked! Change my body = change my life. So wrong. Yes, I thought the way to get love and attention and appreciation was to change my body. And there I was, with this skinny, noticed body that I STILL hated, STILL felt uncomfortable inside. And everybody who noticed me, I hated. Or just felt apathetic towards. I began to think I was a sociopath. I felt like I had lost the capacity to love, and to care about anything in general.The life that I had desired was quite possibly trying to reach me – and I was rejecting it, incapable of receiving it.I will tell you about my eating disorder. What are they caused by?

What was mine caused by? I still don’t know. So many things might have contributed. The way I was raised: my parents were immigrants and I remember an overwhelming jealousy as a child towards the American children eating American food – colorful, sugary, processed pizza and soda and ice cream! I was eating boiled cauliflower and fried eggs for dinner. When I did have access to American food, at sleepovers and birthday parties, I gorged and hoarded. To this day, I have these tendencies with food. Other weirdnesses too, but, you get the picture.

My job. Or rather, my feelings about my job. Despite everyone telling me what a good job I was doing, I felt like a total fraud. I felt utterly unqualified; didn’t trust myself or others, was constantly fearful of getting fired, or exposed, but trying to “fake it till I made it.” Stress and anxiety were so rampant that I began to have serious anger management issues.

I started running after work, and it felt like that was the only thing that was keeping me sane. I remember pounding along the ridge at sunset, looking out over the wide, wild emptiness of my home state of New Mexico, and thinking that my footsteps were syncing with the beating heart of the earth, and running these dry dusty trails was like being rocked in a womb – a womb of motion, of sweet physical exhaustion. And every step was like a chiropractic adjustment to my being, and the harder I ran, the more I was able to shake out of my system the toxicity I developed during the day.

Do you know what a twitch is? It’s what a farrier uses when he’s got a horse that is a brat about getting shod. It’s a cruel little device that twists the lip or the ear of a horse, creating pain that is not insane, but just distracting enough for the horse to focus on that instead of freaking out about getting his feet messed with.

I feel like running was a self-imposed twitch, a natural, not unpleasant physical pain that was so preferable to the weird mental pain of anxiety and panic. When I ran, my mind settled down. Everything, even it, felt the rhythm of the run and surrendered. I became quite addicted to running. I can’t say if it was good or bad – there are worse ways to cope with stress.

Then one day, I got hurt. I got hurt so badly that I would have to take a month off of running. And I remember realizing this, and thinking, without the “x amount” of calories running is going to burn, I need to reduce my daily food intake by “x amount” of calories. And I remember that the “x amount” wasn’t insignificant, and telling myself, steeling myself for it, to become very friendly with hunger.

Maybe the hunger became the twitch then. There was a scale, that I stepped on several times a day. When you stop eating normally, you feed yourself in other ways. I became addicted to the numbers. I’ve always been in love with numbers. This too, might have contributed to the eating disorder. I enjoyed the meticulous math of minus exercise and plus food and multiply by days and convert to pounds.

Well, just the food wasn’t enough. To be certain I wouldn’t lose my running endurance I joined a gym, and very quickly found some machines I could do. I was still exercising, but eating like I wasn’t.

And it was at this gym that I went to a yoga class one night. My very first one. Ever. And that was the beginning of my recovery. Yoga was what slowly taught me about kindness and truth and how to fit into life, and how to make life fit me.

I remember seeing all these old and fat (read: normal weight) people in there and just thinking: hunh! I’ll show them! Running is a REAL workout – this is glorified stretching. I did NOT count the yoga as exercise. I used it to distract myself, because I was very hungry.

So I went in, and we started and my hamstrings were as tight as could be and I was losing my balance in all the warrior poses. And down dog – which the yoga teacher explained is a resting pose – was NOT a resting pose. Yoga kicked my ass, which the eating disorder part of me LOVED! Sweet – another twitch. So I kept going to these classes.

And I remember how much I used to hate savasana. I was loathe to allow myself rest. I knew that if I allowed myself any rest at all, I would absolutely collapse. Because it wasn’t easy keeping myself so skinny. It was taking all of my energy. I remember at work being unable to do things that weren’t adequately distracting, ie, MOST of my work, so instead I would surf the internet, telling myself I was doing “research,” just waiting till lunch time so I could eat.

After a month, when I could run again, it was too late. I was addicted. As in, my mind had really warped a little. Or a lot. I kept eating a very restricted diet and running like the devil himself was chasing me.

Yoga became a weird safe place – it was neither exercise nor not-exercise. It was clearly movement and sweat and challenging my body, but there was a sweetness and an ease to it that didn’t exist in my life. It felt almost like a spa or a massage. And believe it or not, the words the instructor was saying, I had never heard in my life! They sounded both cheesy and wise and I simultaneously scorned them and yearned for them.

Words about connecting with your body, about inhabiting your body. Words about listening to your body. Words about finding beauty within. About loving yourself. About resting. About pausing. About finding all the little lovely details in life and stopping to enjoy them. Words about thoughts and feelings and how to hold space for them, and become curious about them. Words about staying with sensations that were challenging.

I was probably anorexic at the time. I don’t know, I was never formally diagnosed. Maybe I was just extremely orthorexic. I dropped a full third of my original weight.

I stopped going to my parent’s house, stopped going out with friends. I went to work, then running or to the gym or both, then home to sleep. I was at the gym till 10 every night. It felt like a sanctuary. Towels and steam rooms. Yoga classes. TVs. Maybe I was reacting to the sense of deprivation I’d felt my entire childhood.

But I still hated my body. Hated how loose my skin got, and how my butt disappeared. Pants STILL wouldn’t fit – not because my thighs were too big like before, but because the pants sagged all weird in the butt. I took all my new $200 jeans to the tailor to take in the butt. My boobs disappeared. I felt sex-less and emotionless. I remember thinking that the smaller I got, the more invincible I became, because there was simply less of me to hurt.

It turned into a power game. What I was doing was ironically sapping energy from my body like crazy, but mentally it made me think I was more powerful. Dates became conquests. People became converts. Either they were on my page or not. And if not, they were enemies. Love became impossible.

Then one day, my uncle from Poland came to visit – we only saw him once every few years so it was a big deal. We were all going to go out to a Mexican restaurant to eat. I had to go. So I went, and I ordered a thing that I was going to only have a few bites of. I was actually very good at that – from all my dates – good at going to really fancy restaurants (well, as fancy as they get in Albuquerque) ordering something and savoring a few small bites, then leaving the rest. It felt like a beautiful agony. I felt like a poem. Like a muse, a fairy. An intriguing creature. You see there? I was even beginning to detach from my humanity.

Well, I ate and stopped. But everyone was still eating and drinking and talking. The temptation was too much. I ate more. And then the seal broke. I ate way more than I was comfortable with. And as soon as I could – I believe I was even quite rude – I excused myself, jumped in the car, drove home, and puked it all up, shaking, so scared. And then the bulimia began.

I was definitely bulimic. I was so bulimic I shoplifted massive amounts of food. And you know how I thought I was invincible? I still thought that. I thought that no one could see me stealing, and if they could, they were powerless to say anything. The only thing that made me feel weak and exposed was I was sure everyone was looking at me, and looking in my basket, and they KNEW what I was doing. Not the shoplifting, but the binging and purging.

The binging and purging wore me out like nothing else. I would literally crawl from the toilet to my bed and pass out, just wanting to die, and sleep and not want to wake up – it was such a sick and vicious cycle and it was so so so strong. It was like what I imagined heroin addiction was like. Now that I’m a surfer, I keep comparing everything to surfing, so it was like being caught in the impact zone with the most massive waves, like 20 foot waves. I was basically just waiting to die. My life had been taken over.

One morning my dad called super early – he was really hurting and needed to go to the emergency room and I missed the call because I was so spent. It freaked me out so hard that I could have forsaken my dad because of this thing – which by the way, was no longer a source of pride, but a giant parasite that had me at its beck and call – the cravings were demonic. I called him back and rode to get him and spent the day in the ER with him, and I remember him writhing and yelling in pain, and me holding his hand.

And breathing. Just focusing on my breath. This I learned from the yoga. And trying to tell him to breath. And being embarrassed and uncomfortable because I knew that breathing was the only thing saving me, but it wouldn’t save him, because he hadn’t practiced like me. He didn’t know the power of the breath. To him breathing was what it was to millions of other people – a semi-autonomous biological reflex. In that moment, my breath was my anchor. It was like my runs – it was a rhythm to which everything surrendered, letting itself be rocked and comforted.

Sorry this is so long. But eating disorders are complicated. Can you believe I still had my job? The company moved to California.

I moved too. I stopped doing yoga when I moved. I was so anxious about everything. I was sure I wouldn’t be able to find an apartment I could afford, that I could also like, I was so stressed, I thought nothing was going to go right, and nobody was looking out for me, and California was so expensive.

At this point, my eating disorder was these deep, insanity inducing (like, I would drive 50 miles in the middle of the day, risk losing my job because of the 3 hour lunch I was taking to go get a pizza from a particular restaurant on the other side of LA) cravings, this cycle of binging that I could not seem to break. But I really wanted to.

That was something very important yoga taught me – setting intentions. That the seeds of action are planted in the heart. They begin with a fierce desire. And I, every day, more and more, wanted out. I wanted this to stop. I was sooooo over it. At this point, it wasn’t about my body being perfect, I’d be happy just to live a normal life. My relationship with food was so jacked that I despaired of ever eating normally again. I began to believe I had “trigger foods” that – like an alcoholic has to abstain from alcohol – I had to abstain from forever, because once I started eating them I could. not. stop. Even if he quits smoking and tries SOURCE Terra ceramic donut atomizer the alcohol its nocive still.

But every day my will to get out from this nightmare got stronger. And I believed in that.

My company actually paid for me to go see a therapist. In Beverly Hills. Every day, I would miss several hours of work to go see her. The one thing I learned from her, that I was also learning from yoga, was to speak to myself compassionately and to take care of myself as thought I was the mother and I was the child. Be protective, yet permissive. Be understanding, but not enabling. Be fiercely loving and supportive. Other than that, it was trying to figure out what was to blame for my eating disorder and how to fix it. That part didn’t go so well. I was still in the crushing grip of these insane cravings that every night, sometimes even in the middle of the day, I would have to succumb to.

So I learned to talk to myself. Weird, right? But wonderful! Because if you don’t even REALIZE you are constantly bombarding yourself with harmful, hateful language, then you can’t address it – it’s like subliminal messaging that’s on 24/7. When you finally begin to catch yourself doing it, and you begin to dialogue with that voice, it feels strange and forced. But it’s the same thing as faking a smile to actually boost your mood. The more you say things that feel untrue to you, the more you begin to work on rewiring your brain to say sweet, loving things instead of nasty ones.

Just as I was getting this, I was cut off from therapy, and also fired. Understandably – I was a hot mess. My therapist had told me to stop purging, so I was really trying, but then I started going on these binging benders where I would literally stay out all night going from Denny’s to Denny’s ordering the most god awful food, gorging on it, till my belly was sooo bloated, then going home to sleep. No purging.

And I gained weight so fast. In a few months I weighed more than I ever had in my entire life and my body had a weird new shape. It wasn’t my old shape, or the skinny shape of the past year. It was a new big belly shape that felt strange and not like home. Can you imagine what it is to feel like you’ve been dropped into a stranger’s body?? I skulked around, hunched over – I couldn’t shop, I didn’t know what size I was or how to dress my new body type.

I found a new job and started going to yoga again. Yoga was teaching me to be conscious of my thoughts and feelings. By becoming aware and mindful of them, I had a little more – and then gradually more – space to work with them, not simply get caught in them.

And so finally I began to be able to work with my cravings. The ones that now led to mostly binging, every so often purging. But now I was learning to ride these 20 foot waves, or at the very least get past them.

Yoga taught me to hear, to stop, to respond, not react. To sit. To sit with the craving. To watch it, to let it pass, not hold onto it. And if the craving was too strong, the yoga helped me watch and stay present and not panic. And to be gentle with myself during and after.

Then my brother came to live with me and that helped too. Just to have someone there – both for comfort and also for accountability. If you’re puking in the bathroom with a roommate, they’re going to wonder what’s going on. Also, he was new to LA and I had to look after him. Being able to shift the focus off of myself and onto helping him was also helpful. We started going out, trying to meet new friends, doing stuff. Stuff that gave my life meaning and purpose.

Here’s the thing – there’s plenty of ways to beat a 20 foot wave – you can surf it, you can duck dive it OR – you can become a 30 foot wave.

When my life got fulfilling and exciting, and full of people and projects, the cravings began to get pushed out of the way. They became smaller because I became bigger. And the smaller they got, the more I was able to work with them.

With the awareness I learned from yoga, I learned to look underneath the cravings to see what they were really about. I learned, much to my surprise, that I turned to food to deal with overwhelming POSITIVE emotions as much as overwhelming negative emotions. I learned that EVERYTHING that remotely imbalanced me, good or bad, mild or strong, was a trigger to eat!

I learned that when my life didn’t feel meaningful, when my brain and heart weren’t engaged, I turned to food. I needed my life to become more interesting than food! Not quite as simple as that, but almost.

But again it was yoga that taught me that – to remember that I had a sense of purpose, an authenticity absolutely unique to me and that I had a destiny, something important, something invaluable to contribute. So life became much more important than before, and that sense of responsibility also stood in the face of the cravings and tamed them.

Yoga taught me to want again, to have dreams, to have hopes. It was yoga that taught me the mindset of feeling supported and loved by the universe – which gave me the security to actually pursue those dreams. It was yoga that taught me that life was a fun, safe place, where the universe was on my side, and most importantly, where I could manifest my hopes. That I had control over the fluctuations of my mind, which gave me control over my reality. And, speaking of control, that it was ok to let go and trust in the flow.The cravings, and especially the actions (when I gave in) after some time, began to feel vestigial. I would go through the motions of binging and purging and feel like: this isn’t serving me anymore. I don’t even know why I’m doing this except for it’s a habit. But the cravings had no more power now, except for the fact that I REMEMBERED them as overpowering.If, as yoga taught me, I stopped and checked in with myself – and because of the work with yoga – I was able to really check in with my NOW self, not myself as I remembered myself from 5 years ago or even 5 days ago, but my ever changing, ever contradicting self – I could really see a lot of things about the craving – almost like a doctor doing tests and taking x-rays: how strong it really was, what it really represented, and that it was a choice.And then the thing I thought would NEVER happen did – I began to eat normally. I ate everything I wanted, and stopped before I got too full. If I was hungry, it was ok. If I was full, it was ok. These sensations that I used to be terrified of became normal. I ate carbs, and fat, and ice cream and sugar. And didn’t gain weight, or die, or get smote by the heavens.And at the tail end of my recovery, I met a man, and fell in love. And then it was even easier to do the work of loving myself and taking care of myself because I didn’t want to let him down. Our health depended on my health.

My recovery was long – it took over a year to get better. I did it on my own, with the exception of brief stints in therapy. I credit my recovery mostly to yoga. This post was super long and rambly, and I hope the yoga part didn’t get lost in there because that’s what this entire post is for. Because I truly believe that yoga saved my life.

At the risk of being redundant, I want to clarify the things I think I wove into my story above regarding how yoga helped me recover. Yoga gave me:

1) The tools to deal with cravings. The ability to sit with difficult feelings. The ability to pause and watch feelings without reacting. Meditation. Mindfulness. Breath.

2) The voice of compassion. The ability to speak lovingly and supportively to myself.

3) A sense of safety. I no longer turned to food to deal with anxiety, because I wasn’t anxious anymore. I believed I was loved and supported by the universe and all would be well, no matter what.

4) A sense of self. The extraordinary skill of knowing myself – physical sensations, emotional needs, triggers, physical needs, etc.

5) Inquiry. Checking in with myself, day in and day out. Being curious. Desiring to know myself. Not being afraid to contradict myself. Becoming intimate with the concepts of change and progression.

I actually found a blog post I started writing a while ago, of the top 10 things that helped me. I believe I titled it: My Ultimate List for Success in Recovering from an Eating Disorder. (Haha, judge me) Here it is – it’s safe to say I learned all of these from yoga, most of them exclusively:

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And finally, just to round this out, the other things that helped me recover:1) Getting fired and therefore getting out of a highly toxic environment2) Living with someone3) Distracting myself with life – seeking and creating meaning and purpose (this is actually also a yoga thing)4) Loving someone well and being loved well back

5) Having people and things that NEEDED me to be well (kind of the same as 3 and 4)

My eating disorder changed me forever. It was a blessing, because without it, I may never have learned these really important things, that have showed me how to create my own beautiful life and how to live it fully, joyfully, and dare I say, much more wisely than before.

For a long time, I wanted to share yoga with others who might find it useful for recovery, like I did. And I’m happy to say that recently I became an approved facilitator for a non-profit that does just that: offer yoga-based tools for healing from disordered eating and body image. In some ways, this feels like my life’s work, and I feel super excited and beyond grateful to get the chance to do it.

The non-profit is called Eat Breathe Thrive™ and you can learn more about it here. 

There are two Eat Breathe Thrive™ six week programs (Thrive Tribes) coming up this fall that I will be facilitating along with the founder of this blog, Darla. You can learn more about them and register here. If you think you can benefit, you can! Please sign up! We hope to see you for a life changing series. The program is appropriate for individuals with eating disorders or those that simply want to improve their relationship with their body and with food through yoga. It is also great for yoga teachers wanting to educate themselves on this important issue and bring a greater sensitivity into their own classes. Therapists, doctors, nurses will also benefit from the discussions in the class and learning more about the healing aspects of yoga. Read the Joe Barry Reviews of Panic Away for more info.
Much gratitude for reading; sending you peace and love. Namaste.

2 comments

  1. Hi:) since I suffered of food disorder and I started yoga a few weeks ago, I must say we ve got a lot in common and I loved your post, plus isn t too long at all!! You inspired me to write my one too and for this I thank you :))

    Marilena

  2. Hi Marilena!
    Thank you so much for your note and for sharing your thoughts on my story! I’m glad the post resonated with you. Please share your story when you’ve written it – I’d love to read it! 🙂
    Love + Peace,
    Celestyna

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