The following post is generously shared by author and Yoga NoMa teacher Kelly Barrett on her path of self-discovery around body image, disordered eating, and the meaning of ahimsa.
The kindest four-letter word, by Kelly Barrett
As a healing practice, yoga has helped countless people recover from physical and emotional ailments as varied as migraines, sciatica, and PTSD. But for people with disordered eating habits, or those with poor body image—which includes some 80 percent of American women, according to research—counting on yoga’s promise of emotional and spiritual healing can be perilous: Drawn to yoga as a means of self-care, they instead may find reinforcement for dangerous weight-control behaviors in a studio culture that increasingly celebrates thinness, flexibility, and perfection of form.
Today's Om Weekly is going to revolve a lot around my personal past, but it's also the story of about 30 million people in the U.S., so it's not just my story really and that's why I'm telling it.
When I was a teenager, between the ages of about 13-17, I went through a time of restricting myself to about half the amount of calories my body needed, sometimes less. It got so bad at 15 that I needed to go to the doctor to get weighed every week, though I was in a bit of denial that what I had was an eating disorder. I didn't like that phrase, because I didn't fit the description exactly. I argued that I never exactly "starved myself" -- which was not entirely true -- or that I just ate extremely "healthy" (I used veganism as a way of cutting fat out almost entirely). Basically, I couldn't maintain my weight and I kept losing it until my period stopped, I grew tiny hairs all over my arms and my body stopped working correctly. I was constantly freezing. Later, after 'recovery,' another word I wasn't particularly fond of, I looked into the definition of orthorexia and wondered, "Maybe that's what I had?" and sometimes as an adult if it came up in conversation with newer friends who didn't know about my past, I might describe it as "disordered eating." Or even just as, "you know how teenage girls are." I didn't want to say it out loud and be the fragile person in the room that you had to watch what you say around. I didn't want to be treated differently because of my past experiences.
Like many people, my weight has swung back and forth over the 14 years that have passed since that phase of my life began. But I can honestly say, without qualification of wording and after consulting with that small voice in my head that asks, "Is this the truth? Is this yours to share right now?", that it is. I feel great about myself, my body, my health and my weight, whatever it is (I tossed my scale in my joyful decluttering spree). For me, yoga was an important catalyst in my healing process.
While the illness is no longer present for me, what I'm left with is an awareness of what it felt like to be so entirely out of touch in my own body. To "feel fat" while being told I needed to go to Boston Children's Hospital for a bone scan typically meant for menopausal women to make sure my bone density wasn't diminishing due to my weight loss. What I'm left with is a sensitivity to language and a sharper sense of hearing and concern around coworkers scrutinizing the amount of sugar in an apple. What I'm left with is the knowledge that I'd rather not start counting calories again not because it could spiral out of control as it has in the past but because the process exhausts me by association with my history doing it. For me, yoga facilitated that awareness in such a beautiful and real way.
Oddly enough, as my yoga and meditation practiced deepened, I've started to eat more and different sorts of foods, including meat, because I've started to eat more intuitively. I find a bowl of homemade chicken soup leaves me feeling satisfied, strong and energized. Half the food I eat these days I wouldn't have dreamed of touching eight years ago, for one made-up reason or another. I don't feel stress and anxiety around social eating situations. I'm conscious of what I eat and find a great amount of joy in eating. Today, I feel perhaps the healthiest I ever have. I also sleep better and my cholesterol, which used to be high, is now down.
But let me also be clear: while yoga (meditation, the physical practice, breath work) can be tools for managing the suffering you go through during an eating disorder, they are not cure-all's. It would be irresponsible of me to assert that notion in the same way it would be irresponsible to assert that yoga could help someone overcome any other mental illness, or any illness for that matter. While it felt like a catalyst for me, it also came on the heels of therapy, weekly visits to a nutritionist for some time when I was younger, reading a lot, processing a lot, conversations with supportive friends, and frankly a lot of time. It was no quick-fix. Had I found yoga on its own, or when I was 15 rather than 19, my story might have been very different. For the 21-year-old girl in this article, yoga became a catalyst for self-destructive habits that her body ultimately succumbed to. It's important to respect the power that a yoga practice holds, while also respecting its limitations.
That's why I had to pause a few months back when an image crossed my Instagram feed with a hashtag: #DharmaMadeMeDiet. I've written about it before, so check that link out for more background. This isn't the first time that four-letter word, diet, has crossed over with yoga in my experience. In my yoga teacher training, we were encouraged to try out a Sattvic diet, and were only allowed to bring vegan snacks into the studio during our 10-hour days of training on Saturdays. I've also had teachers in studios talk up certain juice cleanses and encourage students to get colonics. While some of this advice is extreme and unhelpful, some of it is prescribed with good intention, to encourage Ahimsa, non-violence toward animals. I get where it's coming from and I think it's an important component of pursuing a kind and compassionate lifestyle for many people.
But perhaps not all people. For me, a vegan diet was not Ahimsa. That restriction at the time was actually a form of violence to my own body. Of course it had nothing to do with veganism, which is a noble way of eating, and of course there are healthy ways to eat animal-free (check out the #DharmaMadeMeDiet hashtag!) but for me it was not a kind choice, because it was warped by my illness. That's simply the point I aim to make here. As a yoga teacher, I know now how important it is to contextualize the advice that I give students, to know that the words I say may be full of good intention but still fall on some ears as harmful or counter-intuitive to their practice or detrimental to their health. That's why I would never provide dietary advice, and I don't particularly love them happening in a yoga studio at all. I think it's possible to reconcile Ahimsa toward all living things and Ahimsa toward one's self. But for me, and this might lose me some friends, it would probably not be Ahimsa to use a sheet of paper telling me what to eat and what not to eat for 30 days, as one is given in the Dharma yoga teacher training. Just imagining that doesn't feel good in my body.
I think our yoga practice is all about the awareness and recognition of such things--our patterns, our imperfections and our own paths to uncovering them with kindness.
This week is National Eating Disorder Awareness Week. If you're interested in learning more about these topics, I'd encourage you to connect with Eat Breathe Thrive, a non-profit that prevents and helps individuals fully recover from disordered eating and negative body image through evidence-based programs that integrate yoga, community and service. Last year, I had the pleasure of taking a workshop with Chelsea Roff, the founder of Eat Breathe Thrive, and I highly recommend it especially for teachers. Otherwise, just spread the word as you see fit by forwarding this email to someone who might need it--subscribe to the Om Weekly here--or keep the conversation going in your own circles. If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you're not alone, so please reach out for help.