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!
Pregnancy and parenting require a great deal of strength, physically, mentally and emotionally. For women with a history of Eating Disorders, these challenges can be amplified as they watch their bodies change and grow.
Katherine McPhee Foster, runner up on season 5 of American Idol, recently became a new mom to a baby boy. She is one example of a woman who came close to experiencing an Eating Disorder relapse during pregnancy.
Katherine McPhee began her struggle with bulimia when she was in middle school. However, after a treatment program and therapy, she became stable for 4-5 years before her pregnancy.
This is why when Katherine began struggling with her body image during her first trimester, it came as a bit of a shock to her. To cope with these feelings, she decided to seek help from her therapist.
Ilene Fishman, board member of the National Eating Disorders Association in the USA and an Eating Disorders clinician, said that it is completely normal for thoughts of disordered eating to resurface during pregnancy as the body changes and one may feel out of control. For someone who has recovered from a past Eating Disorder, this can be especially scary.
For Katherine, her Eating Disorder stemmed from an unhealthy relationship with herself. Psychotherapy helped her develop a healthier relationship with herself which, in turn, helped her manage her Eating Disorder throughout her pregnancy.
Here are some tips for dealing with disordered eating thoughts during pregnancy:
Seek professional help ASAP. This can be a professional you have had a good experience with in the past or someone entirely new. It is important that you feel you can be completely open and honest with them. If you find they aren’t being sensitive to your concerns, you may want to consider switching providers.
Look at it as an opportunity for growth. We live in a society that constantly challenges us. Moreover, when we age, our bodies naturally change. Overcoming these thoughts of disordered eating that may occur during pregnancy can build resilience.
Remember that there is nothing to be ashamed of when asking for help. It is the best, most courageous thing you can do for yourself and your baby in the long run. Rather than seeing yourself as a failure, look at your challenges as an opportunity for growth that will help you reach your full potential as an individual and a mother.
We have the power to raise the future generation to place their focus on good health rather than weight and physical appearance. Before we can teach our children, we need to be able to embrace these positive attitudes in ourselves.
Does social media promote Eating Disorders? Or can it actually be a useful tool to help in recovery? This is a really important topic especially during the pandemic as people are spending more and more time online and on social media.
Research shows that there is a correlation between time spent on social media and increased risk for Eating Disorders, however there is no direct causation. Social media has its pros and cons in terms of Eating Disorder support, and it is important to be aware and informed of both in order to gain a balanced perspective and make decisions that are best for your own recovery.
On the one hand, social media can serve to promote wellness, health and inspiration for individuals with Eating Disorders who are seeking recovery. On the other hand, it can also lead to an obsession with healthy eating as young women and men post about their “clean”, impractical diets. Social media is also linked to negative body image, as people compare themselves to unrealistic, often photoshopped bodies and feel badly that they can’t live up to an impossible standard.
Those who use social media regularly tend to form strong connections to influencers, even though they really don’t know the individual. These connections are actually stronger than what a person might feel towards models or athletes on TV. Social media makes it seem like you are privy to a person’s personal life which creates a strong bond and connection. So, when an influencer looks fit and toned, it can cause people to focus increasingly on their own appearance and their negative feelings towards it.
With all of the potential negative aspects, it seems easy to suggest taking a break from social media. However, it is important to understand that this can be extremely difficult for some people, especially during a pandemic when social media might be a person’s main source of social interaction.
When used effectively, social media can be a really positive source of support and healing for individuals combatting Eating Disorders. For example, it can be a great way to share resources, messages, and images that are healing or affirming. Many social media apps have begun to adopt a greater emphasis on true health, nutrition and wellness, promoting evidence-based nutrition and health messaging and encouraging positive viewer engagement, which counters some of the misinformation. There has also been a positive shift towards promoting diverse body types, shapes, sizes and colours. Social media groups can provide a social support system for people who may need that connection to others who they feel understands what they are going through.
Here are some tips to make your social media a recovery-based space:
Unfollow accounts that make you feel badly about yourself.
Intentionally search for accounts that promote body positivity and body diversity.
Follow positive social media accounts that spread joy, acceptance, and who choose to lift others.
Take small social media breaks from time to time.
Give non-appearance related compliments. For example, instead of commenting on how good your friend looks in their most recent Instagram photo, comment on how artistic the photo looks.
Remember, it’s YOUR feed. You have the control to cultivate it to make it positive and supportive to your healing journey instead of negative and triggering.
With the increased use of social media during this pandemic, it is crucial to be mindful of whether using it is helpful for you and your mental health. All in all, social media can be a negative influence for those with Eating Disorders, but it is possible to cultivate your feed into a more positive and supportive space for your healing journey.
Do you find social media triggering for your Eating Disorder? How can you curate your own feed to make sure it is a recovery focused space?