I’m writing this as a resource for yoga instructors. It is by no-means complete and you are likely going to have to browse this blog and my podcasts to fully understand a lot of the things I talk about here. If you can’t be bothered to do that, however, this is give you the quick and dirty.
Eating disorders are genetically based, and more common than you think
First off, eating disorders are genetically based. If a person has the genetic predisposition for an eating disorder and that person goes into prolonged energy deficit, they are highly likely to develop an eating disorder. Second, it turns out that you can’t tell who is genetically predisposed to, or indeed who has an active eating disorder, by looking a someone. A person can be heavily restricting food, purging, excessively exercising, all of the above and more, in mental hell, and not look underweight. It is important that you understand that.
What is going on?
Depends who you ask. The rather outdated and stereotypical idea is that an eating disorder is the result of something … repressed? Who knows. The thing about that sort of theory is that is is impossible to prove or disprove, so I tend to err on the side of common sense and biology. And my own experience. My experience was that something incredibly strong and biological was happening to me when I lost weight. The theory I think is most plausible and scientifically valid is that restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia are migration responses. Biological, not necessary logical, brain stem responses to perceived food scarcity. If you want a full explanation on that you will need to buy my book. But in short, when a person with the genetic predisposition for an eating disorder loses weight, their brain thinks it is because food is scarce and starts to turn on the migration switch. This makes us want to move a lot and eat very little (that is what migrating animals do) and the brain disincentives eating because stopping and hunting to food means you’re not migrating. Get it?
In times when human migration was a thing, it wouldn’t have lasted all that long. We would migrate as a tribe, and then when we got to where all the buffalo were, we would, as a tribe, stop and feast. This would be the natural shutoff to the migration response. In today’s environment where people are having their migration switch turned on for reasons other than food scarcity (going on diets) there is no natural shutoff. This leads to the eating disorder setting up behavioral neural pathways and becoming what we would call “entrenched.” This, is how eating disorders kill people. The malnutrition goes on and on until the body starts to fail.
And … to reiterate, you cannot necessarily tell if someone is in malnutrition by looking at them.
Eating disorders affect many things other than eating
It is also important that you understand that eating disorders affect more than just the way we regard and react to food and eating. An eating disorder will effect every part of a person’s life and how they live their life. Think of it more like a brain that believes that vital resources are scarce, and therefore, to be able to live with less makes one more fit for survival. Additionally, energy deficit — that’s what happens when one doesn’t eat enough to meet one’s energetic requirements for a prolonged period of time — is stressful for the body. It is stressful, because as far as the body is concerned you are in a famine, and that means you could die soon. As a result, most of us become uptight, anxious, irritable, etc.
Many people with eating disorders don’t just restrict food. They also restrict:
– Pleasure and enjoyment
– Leisure time
– Social time
etc etc. Basically anything that makes life worth living. The brain thinks that there is food scarcity thus environmental hostility, and therefore it acts as if living in a hostile environment. Many of us live as if there is a war on when we have an eating disorder. We hoard food, we feel guilty for spending money, and we feel guilty for taking time off work, we are scared of relaxation time.
Movement is a large part of an eating disorder for many people. Exercise, but also lower-level movement. Not wanting to sit still. Walking a lot. Standing. Cleaning etc. People with eating disorders are often seeking excuses not to sit still, and yoga can be one of those.
Why indeed do people with eating disorders get attracted to yoga?
Overworking, underspending, under-eating, over-exercising are all congratulated in our society. Which makes the good feeling we get when doing these things even stronger. In the yoga community, these traits are really really congratulated. Hence, people with eating disorders often seek this community. For example, your friends might tease you for being fussy over what you are eating, and tell you to relax more — because they know the real you likes to relax and are worried about the changes they see in you. However, if you go join a yoga studio, suddenly you are surrounded by people who are encouraging you to go on that cleanse, and encouraging you to be “healthy” and exercise more. So you, or should I say your eating disorder, feels validated and safe in the yoga community. You can get away with not eating animal fat and people will applaud you rather than say things like “but you used to love burgers …” like they might do in your wider group of friends. Basically, the yoga community can be very straight-laced. And this is attractive to people with eating disorders.
To understand, you have to understand that for many of us, when we have an eating disorder, we start to gravitate towards anything slightly martyr-ish, and things that should make us “good” people. I don’t think this needs to be psychoanalyzed. I think it is a survival aspect. I think a brain that believes that it is existing in a hostile environment where there is competition for food goes into productivity overdrive — trying to always be doing something to better one’s situation. I think that in a non-famine environment this translates into being a real little goody-two-shoes (on the surface at least). And for many of us, we gravitate towards over-working, and seeking productivity in everything we do, including our “leisure” time. In fact, many of us struggle to allow ourselves leisure time, but we know we should allow it — all those instragram posts about allowing yourself “me time.” So yoga seems more attractive because society tells us yoga is “good” to do and it is a way to be productive even in leisure time. It is an acceptable way to be going something under the label of “self-care” without actually totally allowing ourselves to do what we really want to do which is watch Netflix with a never-ending supply of chocolate and really rest.
So that makes yoga attractive, alongside living simply, veganism, OCD, … people with eating disorders often tend to love to “go without” and usually get a feeling of superiority for being able to subside on “less” than other people need. Less in terms of food. Less in terms of spending money. Less in terms of social interaction. Less in terms of fun. And this is where is gets complicated, as the messages associated with yoga are designed to address a perceived tendency within society to over-consume, not move enough, and over-stimulate, for people with eating disorders who have a tendency to move too much and under-consume, they get led further out of balance in a yoga environment.
Cleanses should not be part of your studio offering
For the questions on nutrition and clean eating: https://tabithafarrar.com/2017/05/anorexia-recovery-adult-nutritional-science/
You never know who you are dealing with, and I feel it is irresponsible for yoga studios or instructors to recommend cleanses or any sort of nutritional advice. Instead, yogis should teach that trusting and listening to one’s body, without judgement, is the key to a good relationship with that body. If your body wants a burger, it is because your body knows that it needs a burger. Your body wants that item. Your judgement over whether that item is “healthy” or not, is judgement not truth. The only truth is with what the body asked for. Basically, encourage people to be non- judgmental towards the communication that the body gives over what it needs. The human body has been around for thousands of years, and seemed to do really well without us micro-managing macronutrients. While it may be trendy and lucrative to offer cleanses, in doing so you are marketing to people’s insecurities and selling them the idea that 1) they can’t trust their body and 2) they need to change their body. Neither of these things should be what yoga is about. Yoga is about mind and body connection. Not about the mind micro-managing the body.
There is no evidence that “clean” eating leads to better health. For anyone, whether they have eating disorder genetics or not, food restriction often leads to a tendency to binge eat once allowed access to that food. So unrestricted consumption of sugar tends to lead to lower actual consumption of sugar overall. As those who restrict tend to go buck-wild and binge at some point. Here is a podcast explaining that concept: https://tabithafarrar.com/2017/12/state-science-sugar-addiction-podcast/
Additionally, yoga communities tend to push people toward hyper-analyzing what they eat. Orthorexia is a from of a restrictive eating disorder that can be just as serious and mentally exhausting. Orthorexia podcast here: https://tabithafarrar.com/2017/11/orthorexia-healthy-eat-unhealthy-foods/
What can a yoga instructor do?
We live in a culture obsessed with thinness and body idealization. The biggest thing that you can do as a yoga instructor is to not be part of the problem.
- Address any eating disorder or disordered eating you have yourself. Eating disorders are common amongst yoga instructors — both male and female.
- Don’t participate in or promote any cleanses or schemes designed and marketed towards changing people’s bodies.
- Don’t post body-focused pictures or photos on social media. Do nothing that turns yoga into being about looking good.
In short, focus on the real meaning of yoga, which is mind-body connection. Promote this message of self-acceptance as the goal in your classes, your social media, and your own practice.