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Yoga Therapy and Eating Disorders

Did you know that yoga can be a great support for people with Eating Disorders?

We interviewed Aglaia Gurevich, Registrar and Program Administrator at Sheena’s Place, as well as Kelsey Johnson, Program Manager at Sheena’s Place, to help answer our questions and to give us some useful information about how yoga can be used as a support for people with Eating Disorders.

Questions and Answers:

1. Can you please tell us a little bit about yourself, your background, and what drew you to yoga?

Aglaia: I hold an HBSc from U of T in Psychology with the focus of my research being on the integration of Cognitive Science Theory and Mindfulness Meditation Therapy to Eating Disorder and Mental Health management. Growing up as a dancer, in my early twenties I began to explore the mental and physical practice of Yoga and Mindfulness Meditation. The transformative positive effects of my practice inspired me to complete my teaching certification as Yoga Instructor. I believed that sharing my understanding of the practice with others by helping them heal, strengthen and open their bodies and minds would be a meaningful progression in my personal and professional path. I currently co-facilitate both of the Gentle Yoga groups at Sheena’s Place and am witness to the ongoing interest and engagement of our community with this group.

Kelsey: I am a Registered Social Worker with an MSW from U of T. I’ve been connected to Sheena’s Place since 2016, when I began a student placement here. I love the community and have had the opportunity to facilitate many kinds of groups as I’ve transitioned from student, to facilitator, to program manager. While I do not personally lead the yoga groups, I have had experience providing tech support for these sessions since we’ve moved online and evaluating its effect on participants.

2. What kind of participation do you get in your yoga groups?

We have offered this program weekly for years, and have had many people register over time. Typically we have about 15 registrants per season, although we have now switched to a drop-in online model to make these groups more accessible. Next week we begin our summer season, where we will offer 2 different drop-in yoga time slots, and we have over 50 people registered to participate.

3. How can yoga help in the Eating Disorder recovery process?

The intent is to provide a space where participation in our yoga groups will assist with the development of self-compassion, a more kind and nurturing relationship to the body, and an increased capacity for mindfulness and self-awareness. Our groups offer a space to engage in very gentle movement practice, with opportunities to develop awareness of body sensations and to honour personal boundaries and limits, acceptance of what comes up and of physical limitations.

Many people in our groups describe feeling disconnected to their bodies, a lack of self-trust, and limited awareness of physical cues. Many people with Eating Disorders may be working towards developing a more compassionate relationship to themselves, and reducing comparison and self-criticism. The feedback we have received from participants indicates that our yoga groups can be supportive of these goals. Here are some themes from the feedback we’ve received from yoga participants:

  • A significant majority of our yoga participants report that participation in the group was supportive to their recovery journey

  • Reduction of pain/increased ability to cope with chronic pain

  • Offering choice and an invitational tone is important

  • Invitations to be curious about the body can help reduce tendency towards self-judgement

  • Supportive of the development of self-compassion

  • Participants appreciate the gentle approach, the invitations to be gentle with themselves, and honour their bodies wherever they are at (with no pressure to change)

  • Participants appreciate the reminder that the body’s capacity to engage in movement may change from session to session, and that’s okay!

4. What are some benefits that you have seen for people with Eating Disorders?

  • Giving participants permission to pay attention to, and to choose what feels most supportive for themselves and their bodies

  • Developing skills to check in and gauge how their body is feeling and honour their physical needs

  • Creating a space where people can meet themselves where they are at – everyone has different physical capabilities, and in our groups, participants are encouraged to honour their bodies – including limitations – without judgement

  • Holding space for the possibility that our abilities and feelings may change session to session and that’s okay

  • Focus on process rather than end goals (such as doing specific poses); this is why we can have people of all different levels in our classes

5. Who would you recommend yoga therapy to and how does it complement other forms of treatment?

It’s important to mention that yoga may not be the right practice for everyone. People may be at a place where mindful embodiment feels too uncomfortable. People may find that yoga or other movement activities may result in physical comparison, self-criticism, or contribute to over exercise. People may be medically unwell and unable to participate in movement activities. Individuals should consult with their care team (if they have access to professional support) to determine if yoga is a beneficial choice at this point in their recovery journey.

Yoga can be complementary to other forms of support, but we do not consider this to be a stand-alone form of treatment or support.

The yoga sessions that we provide are a very gentle practice, with an emphasis on connecting with and honouring the body where it’s at (including any limitations) and practicing self-compassion and acceptance, rather than striving for particular poses or pushing past limits. This can be a supportive practice for folks who are looking to connect in a nurturing way with their body, and are able to practice those skills in this context.

Thank you so much to Aglaia Gurevitch and Kelsey Johnson for this very informative interview!

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