On the first evening, we sit in a circle marked by suspicion. Twenty women share a common painful experience, yet none of us knows anyone else in the circle. Of these women, some 60% to 70% have never told anyone about their painful behaviors, perhaps not even spouses, family members or therapists. Very soon, a sense of sisterhood will arise in the courage, camaraderie, vulnerability and empathy experienced through yoga.
Binge eating, bulimia, food addiction and compulsive thinking about food, exercise or body image are painful behaviors. Once intended to help self-soothe or navigate other kinds of pain, these actions can spiral beyond our ability to control them. We may have avoided a primary, underlying pain, yet we now have the secondary pains of despair, shame and a loss of faith in our ability to “control” what we do.
What Yoga Offers the Food Addict
Yoga provides relief. It develops new life skills, cultivates courage and transforms relief into healing. Relief comes as diaphragmatic breathing and mindful stretching soothe specific parts of the brain, balance brain chemistry and nourish the systems of our vital health. Since food also affects these systems, we come to understand why we can be feverish, panicky and compulsive about food; and why food provides relief — even with the first bite.
Relief through yoga offers moments of hope. It counters the relief we get through painful food strategies that further erode our faith in ourselves. Most important, yoga provides much more than temporary relief. In my book, Hunger, Hope and Healing, I write about how yoga revives our courage for the journey of recovery and helps us consider letting go of old behaviors while we learn new skills. Lessening reliance on an action that we’ve felt soothed by can be scary. When we’re afraid, our breathing changes. But in regulating our breathing through yoga we can lessen fear.
Diaphragmatic breathing (also called belly breathing) is our native breathing. When exhaling, the body activates the parasympathetic nervous system, which controls relaxation. To lessen fear at any time, simply belly breathe with a longer exhale: Place your hands on your belly, then inhale through your nose, feeling your abdomen expand. Exhale slowly through pursued lips, as if exhaling through a straw; feel your abdomen tone. Make the exhale two counts longer than your inhale.
Together, the circle of women learns to lessens their fear. Breathing reduces the shame, anxiety and helplessness that come with food issues. A shared vulnerability, empathy and sisterhood emerges, ending the isolation of painful behaviors. When we have companionship on the path of recovery our faith in our ability to heal is restored.