“Yoga taught me to relate to my body as an ally rather than an enemy, as a gateway to intimacy and connection with others and, perhaps most importantly, it helped me cultivate the skills I needed to be with emotions I’d nearly killed myself trying to stave off.”
– Chelsea Roff, founder of Eat Breathe Thrive.
Last month I had the absolute privilege of attending the first international Eat Breathe Thrive training, held in London Fields over three days. Eat Breathe Thrive is a non-profit organisation that prevents and helps people to fully recover from disordered eating and negative body image through evidence-based programs that integrate yoga, community and service. EBT was founded by 26-year-old Chelsea Roff who herself overcame years of disordered eating with the help of yoga and the support of her local yoga community. Chelsea’s self-starvation in her teens was so severe that she had a stroke at the tender age of fifteen, at which time all four valves of her heart was leaking, her liver was failing and her digestive system was shutting down. She was admitted to the Children’s Medical Centre in Dallas and was told by a cardiologist that she may not live another week.
Chelsea spent the next sixteen months of her life in hospital. Placed under custodianship of the State, Chelsea was discharged at the age of seventeen to her own garage apartment close to the hospital. She was offered almost-free weekly therapy by a psychologist, who suggested to Chelsea that she try yoga. By her own admission, Chelsea agreed to the idea as a bid to burn more calories but her yoga practice very quickly became so much more than this, opening her up to the deeper stirrings and yearnings of her body thus facilitating a move towards self-acceptance and self-love.
Chelsea is a mind-blowingly courageous and vibrant soul, as were each and every one of the women present at the training. We explored the concepts of self-care and embodiment together, looking at how community, yoga and service can lift us beyond our over-identification with our physical bodies whilst exploring just how wise and exquisite our bodies as organisms really are. Our physiologies are incredibly intelligent and will always let us know just what we need at any given time, yet so many of us ignore these signals and neglect our physical and emotional needs with tragic determination. So many of us in the Western world focus on the form of our bodies as opposed to their functionality; we make our choices based on how we want the body to look as opposed to what will best provide us with the energy to be the highest version of who we truly are.
Research by Avalos and Tylka (2006) has demonstrated that focusing on body functionality as opposed to a focus on bodily appearance, is related to more positive feelings in relation to the body and to greater body appreciation. A focus on bodily functionality through exercise has also been shown to produce improvements in body satisfaction, which are unrelated to changes in physical fitness (Campbell and Hausenblas, 2009). In terms of yoga, it has been theorised that yoga teaches people to focus on how the body feels internally (thus fostering interoceptive awareness) rather than on how the body looks (Boudette, 2006). Prichard and Tiggemann (2008) found, for example, that participation in yoga classes was related to lower levels of self-objectification and greater levels of body satisfaction.
Interoceptive awareness is concerned with the visceral awareness and experience of the internal ambiences within our bodies. When we fail to provide our bodies with adequate nutrition, we numb our connections to these sensations and can find ourselves cut off from our physiological signals and hence our feelings and desires. We may believe that feelings begin as thoughts and later manifest physically i.e., an event or person upsets us, we think we are angry and thus we experience a reddened face, a quickened heartbeat, shallower breathing and so on. In fact, an increasing body of research indicates that this process occurs the other way around. When a potentially emotion-provoking event occurs, our bodies react by increasing blood flow to certain areas, altering our heartbeat and breathing and so on. We then notice these sensations and attach a feeling-label to them, deciding I must be angry. Those of us with poor interoceptive awareness often fail to notice these alterations in our physiology in the early stages and are thus easily overwhelmed by them, perhaps coming to experience our emotions as being too much to cope with. By fostering our interoceptive awareness through yoga, we are enabled to notice our emotions more quickly and thus listen to and embrace their message before they overwhelm us. Such increased interoceptive awareness also facilitates the recognition of our hunger and satiety levels, which can regularly become skewed if we are denying our body of adequate nutrition in any way.
My own personal practice of yoga has enabled me to viscerally experience my wholeness and to learn to love again the body I have spent decades restricting into submission. As I practice the asanas and breathe mindfully, I sense a flow of energy beyond my flesh, my thoughts or my life story. This energy, or prana (meaning life-force in Sanskrit), feels timeless and connects me to a truth so much greater than my thighs and my acne, so much deeper than society’s message of self-worth and physical appearance. I am lifted beyond my body, my mind and my identification with these things. As I move on the mat, I also feel calcified fears and emotions move and dissipate. It is as though I am twisting and breathing myself free of years of stored-up anguish and self-denial.
Eat Breathe Thrive is a magnificent program and those of us who attended the training last month are passionate about bringing the program to the UK, Ireland and Italy. If you would like to find out more please visit their website here. You can also download the Eat Breathe Thrive App which is completely free and contains some of the EBT exercises, including the transformative ‘Tracking of Needs’ meditation. Do also look out for workshops exploring body image and yoga at Special Yoga, which we hope to arrange early in 2016.
Avalos, L. &, Tylka, T. (2006). Exploring a model of intuitive eating with college women. Journal of Counselling Psychology, 53, 486–497.
Boudette, R. (2006). Question and answer: Yoga in the treatment of disordered eating and body image disturbance: How can the practice of yoga be helpful in recovery from an eating disorder? Eating Disorders, 14, 167–170.
Campbell, A. and Hausenblas, H. (2009). Effects of exercise interventions on body image: A meta-analysis. Journal of Health Psychology, 14, 780–793.
Prichard, I. &, Tiggemann, M. (2008). Relations among exercise type, self-objectification, and body image in the fitness centre environment: The role of reasons for exercise. Psychology of Sport and Exercise, 9, 855–866.