In their article in the Qualitative Health Research journal, authors Jill Anne Matusek and Roger M. Knudson propose a radical new approach to what constitutes recovery from an eating disorder. They urge that recovery should be considered (and measured or studied) not by cessation of physical symptoms, but relief from the pyschological and psychosocial factors accompanying anorexia, bulemia and complusive overeating. Rethinking Recovery From Eating Disorders: Spiritual and Political Dimensions, Qual. Health Res. 19:5, p. 697. The authors begin by noting “Overall, the ‘best’ evidence-based therapy interventions are hardly producing good clinical outcomes, with only 30% to 50% experiencing relief from their symptoms and/or recovery.” (Citations omitted). The authors also note two strains of outcomes from eating disorders in the mainstream media – either full recovery with hope for the future, or containment of symptoms and management of chronic disordered eating.
Interestingly, the authors note that recovery from an eating disorder can be seen solely by weight restoration and cessation of disordered eating, but they caution that this approach is not enough and provides only a superficial level of the experience of recovery. Because they were not satisfied with the more short sighted view of recovery, the authors undertook a study “through a narrative approach aiming to capture and present the women’s recovery experience through storytelling and performance-based texts.” Id. (Citations omitted). They note that there have been realistically only three studies aimed at capturing the spiritual aspects of recovery from ED; by Garrett in 1998, Reindl in 2001, and Redenbach and Lawler in 2003.
The three studies reviewed in the article provide a clear link to yoga, noting that eating disorders “are an extreme form of desire: a spiritual craving expressed through the body…” where recovery includes “an abandonment of food/weight obsessions, a firm resolve to never again starve, binge, and purge, and no longer feeling cut off from oneself and others.” Id. at 698. “…Overcoming bulemia involved coming to terms with the core sense of shame associated with needing and wanting, experiencing a sense of “enoughness,” recognizing and listening to bodily sensations, and learning to tolerate emotional distress.” Id. Interestingly, several of the women interviewed for the research study conducted by the authors practiced yoga. Id. at 699.
The Yoga Sutras of Patanjali comprise the underlying principles of yoga. As I’ve blogged on before, these sutras provide in concise pithy statements, the foundations of yoga. The sort of “why are we doing this” background. In those Sutras, we find “The art of Yoga is the repeated practice of restraining the fivefold movements so one can detach from desires and achieve ultimate freedom.” Sutra 1.7. This Sutra refers to the movements of the mind, which are described in Sutra 1.5 as “The mind modifications are composed of fivefold movements that are either afflicting or unafflicting, distressing or undistressing, pleasing or painful, troubling or untroubling, disturbing or undisturbing.” So in Yoga we are seeking to calm the mind (See Blog Post on Yoga for PTSD and Sutra 1.2), and reduce our desires. We do this to access that part of ourselves that is real. That part we talk about when we say we “feel like ourselves again.” This is a basic principle of yoga, that Pain comes from the inability to separate true self from the illusory self. Sutra 2:17. In this way, doing yoga, with a firm emphasis on the foundations of yoga, such as the sutras, appears to be more useful in recovery from eating disorders than merely just focusing on stopping the disordered eating behavior. But there’s more to yoga than just reducing desires and calming the mind.
The aim of yoga is to connect, both with the body and mind, then with the self to all other selves, all other people, and finally to the higher power/higher self, god, universe or whatever you choose to call it. See Sutra 1.19 (“What arises is a state of awareness where the seer is merged with nature.”) When we practice yoga regularly in a studio or other environment, we sometimes feel connected to the other people in our class. That’s one reason we say Namaste at the end of class. To salute that element of universal light that exists in all of us, all around us. Some yoga teachers end class by chanting “Jai Sri Satguru Maharaj Ki” to which the students respond “Jai!” Its meaning? “May the Light of Truth overcome all darkness” to which the students respond “Victory to that light!”
The article goes on to mention that recent research has found that women who recover from eating disorders believe that spirituality was an important factor in their healing and recovery. (citations omitted). In concluding about the many studies they cite, the authors state “These findings support the broader empirical evidence that spiritual practices promote physical and emotional healing beyond the realm of eating disorders.” Id.
The authors report that “What emerged from these accounts is an understanding that overcoming an eating disorder requires attention to the whole human being in all its mental, emotional, physical, social and spiritual richness.” Id. at 703. They summarize their findings as “Recovery from an eating disorder appeared to be experienced by recovering/recovered women as a spiritual (re)connection of the self to body, nature, and society.” Id. at 705 (citations omitted). “The results of this study argue that treating eating disorders and their recovery requires a reconceptualization of treatment and recovery to include a focus on the whole person, with particular attention to spiritual and political dimensions.” Id. The authors also note that recovery is an ongoing process of restoration and discovery. Id.