A few months after I had begun teaching in recovery, I was offered a job sharing yoga with women at an eating disorder program. I was naive but excited to move into this field. Despite my initial enthusiasm, the next few months proved to be extremely challenging.
In some classes, I had women who would refuse to do anything I suggested and would simply sit and stare at me. It was unnerving and took all my fortitude to keep coming back.
Eventually, I realized I had to take a deeper look at my own struggles with teenage binge- eating and the pain I had tried so hard to stuff away. As I dared revisit the past, softening more deeply into myself, the ability to connect with my students somehow grew easier.
Eating disorders are often nuanced and complex. It is a vulnerable population and we saw the full spectrum of behaviors. As the months, and years rolled by, ED became one of my favorite populations to teach.
Below is just one of the stories from a woman I had the privilage to share yoga with. It as an example of how yoga can work in a therapeutic setting.
As usual, I have changed names to protect privacy.
About a year into the program we had a small group of women who all struggled with binge-eating. They had organized themselves around a particularly strong woman named Dawn. Despite my best efforts to invite her into into yoga, she gave me a firm no. Those in her orbit followed suit.
After a particularly long stay, Dawn finally graduated the program. Left leaderless was a woman named Chantel. I had made a playful connection with her several weeks prior and I thought I might try my luck again. Chantel was a young African-American woman, a gentle soul and seriously overweight. I am rarely privy to the back story of why someone is in treatment, other than what they may tell me. In this case, it was not difficult to guess that Chantel was carrying a world of hurt.
I do not have to cast my mind back far to remember how determined I was to bury my own pain and to use my weight as a buffer from the world. I can always relate.
It took a lot of trust on Chantel’s part to finally say a tentative yes to trying yoga. Especially, since she had watched some of the other girls doing things that were not, in her wildest dreams, possible for her in her current condition. I was thrilled when she said yes.
There was a big ottoman cushion in the room where we did yoga. I suggested we begin by lying on the floor, placing our legs on the big cushion. It is my low investment, sneaky way of getting someone into yoga. It is calming and feels pleasantly supportive to lie on the floor and rest the legs on something cushy. Often, it’s an instant game changer. It was a bit of an ordeal to maneuver down onto the floor and get the legs up. But once done, Chantel’s whole body began to relax and then I heard the audible sigh!
I have learned to have little-to-no agenda and to take things step by step. How much further can we open the envelope today without encountering resistance? This is a crucial question, especially in the beginning, because resistance could mean the door closes on this opportunity. I lay beside her and realized her breath was short and choppy with very little exhale to speak of. We lay there a little longer and her breath remained the same.
I suggested we work on her breathing, especially her exhales. She told me that she had asthma and keeps an inhaler with her at all times. For someone with asthma, learning to exhale fully can be a godsend. During an asthma attack it is difficult to get air in but, if one has practiced long exhales, the body can more readily take in a fuller inhale.
There are several wonderful tools used in yoga to help lengthen the exhale.
Singing and chanting are some of my favorites. As it turned out, Chantel loved to sing and embraced chanting. We began with sounding single syllables and she found it fun and easy for her. We had a wonderful time letting our sound out!
This is where we began. Within a few weeks, we had added a variety of breath and movement sequences. Chantel LOVED that she could now move and breathe in ways that made her feel good, including some slightly challenging standing poses. The best thing was that she began to show a new found confidence in herself.
The Chantel I first encountered, afraid to move or see herself differently was hardly recognizable as the woman who stood before me now with a new sense of self pride and openness.
A few weeks later Chantel was moved to another program. I am told she is doing well and gets to go home soon. Maybe she’ll even continue with yoga.
Chantel taught me, once again, that one small yes can be all it takes to set in motion new possibilities.