Can yoga fight eating disorders?

girl makes poses of yogaYoga has long been touted for its healing powers. It’s been said to reverse aging, increase flexibility and improve your mental health. But can yoga fight eating disorders? Some yoga practitioners seem to think so and there are even yoga classes geared toward people with eating disorders. A recent study published in the Journal of Adolescent Health suggests that yoga is a successful tool in fighting eating disorders.

The study included 50 adolescents, mostly girls, between 11 and 16 years old. The adolescents were split into two groups – one receiving standard care and the other receiving yoga in addition to standard care. After a 12-week period, the yoga group showed significantly less eating disorder symptoms and when interviewed immediately after a yoga session, the group showed much lower food preoccupation.

We spoke to Children’s Alison Field, ScD, who specializes in eating disorders, about this study and its potential implications.

What is your first impression of this study?

This is a very provocative study, but I think that in some respect it’s pushing it. It would be great if the outcome of this study were true, but there are not enough people to draw a firm conclusion. It doesn’t really confirm that yoga is helpful in fighting eating disorders. This study raises as many questions as it answers.

What are some problems with the study?

The oddest thing about it is that they measure food preoccupation directly after a yoga session instead of during a more general time. The group that was receiving standardized care only didn’t have an activity to compare with the yoga, such a therapeutic painting. The study had them concentrating on yoga poses instead of on food. This biases the participants to give the researchers the answers they want because they were focusing on another topic.

Does this study prompt further research into how yoga can be incorporated into the treatment of eating disorders?

If there’s going to be further study into this, it either really needs to be a large study (which could be difficult to attain) or you need to have two very similar groups. The field of eating disorders is so varied.

How do you know when someone has been successfully treated for an eating disorder?

That’s the million dollar question. Does success mean that they no longer meet the strict criteria for what defines an eating disorder? Or is success that they are simply less likely to fall back into habits that lead them to an eating disorder?

Eating disorders are unique because, unlike alcoholism or a narcotics addiction, where you ask them to stay away from tempting situations, you need to have some food in your life.

One of the study’s participants said, “This is the only hour in my week when I don’t think about my weight,” in reference to the yoga. What are other methods that people with eating disorders can use as an effective distraction?

People with eating disorders need to talk about the role of food and its emotional component. They need to practice mindfulness.

Have you dealt with eating disorders in your life? Do you practice yoga or other “mindfulness” techniques to help you reverse the negative thoughts associated with eating disorders?