We speak to two eating disorder survivors about their experience and how yoga became a tool for their recovery
Eating disorders are manipulative illnesses. Having experienced anorexia myself, I know just how difficult it can be to both escape, and stay away, from its clutches. It is far from impossible, however, and what’s clear is that the path to recovery looks different for everyone.
A tool more people are speaking up about, and a tool I use to this day, is yoga.
Defined as a group of physical, mental and spiritual practices, yoga is perhaps best known for its asanas, or poses. Typically, a yoga practice will involve a beautiful blend of breathing exercises, mindful movement and meditation. Praised for relieving stress, anxiety and encouraging mindfulness, yoga can be incredibly therapeutic.
According to eating disorder charity Beat, eating disorders affect an estimated 1.25 million people in the UK. I was keen to get a clearer understanding of how yoga can support these illnesses in particular, so I spoke to Kammy Karginaite and James Downs, who both credit their recovery, in part, to yoga. Both are now yoga instructors, keen to share its benefits with others.
Kammy tells me the first time she gave her body a second thought was when she was 10, after her mum gave her her first bikini. “I was feeling so grown up. But I remember putting it on and looking at my belly and being really unhappy with it.”
What started as a seed of self-doubt grew roots after a traumatic experience in her early teens, “I was raped by my boyfriend at the time and it was the most horrific thing anyone could go through. I didn’t tell anyone because I was ashamed and thought I was in the wrong, so, basically, I just stopped eating.”
Kammy also suffers from a rare bone disease which led to her needing a lot of time off school and being unable to join in during PE lessons. This sense of feeling different and not being in control of her body fuelled her eating disorder. At the age of 17 she tells me she thought she was better, but her eating issues started taking a different form, and at age 20 she started showing bulimic symptoms.
By the time she got to her early twenties, Kammy decided to get support. Initially taking the NHS route, she found group therapy wasn’t right for her and decided to go private. During this time, Kammy had started experimenting with yoga at home and at classes at the clinic, but it wasn’t until she moved home with her parents due to illness that she hit breaking point, “And then I started doing yoga more.”
James said for him, the fact that his body was male challenged the eating disorder stereotype, making it easier for both him and others to deny what was happening. He says he found there was little support offered, and was told by doctors that he will ‘probably have to live with this’ or worse, ‘eating disorders are just attention-seeking’.
“At the heart of my recovery wasn’t just learning to eat ‘normally’, if such a thing exists. Recovery was about learning to cope with the intense emotions I didn’t like to connect with in my body. Recovery was coming to terms with the fact that I had a body at all - that it was something to be taken care of, however hard and unnatural that seemed.
“It was about connecting with and harnessing my appetite for life, as well as food. Recovery was about putting together these broken pieces. This is where yoga stepped in.”
The introduction to yoga
Meeting a yoga instructor called Andrew changed everything for Kammy, “I made myself have a bit of routine to go to his class. And honestly, as soon as I walked into his class, just his presence helped, he’s so zen and calm.” Kammy tells me she would stay behind after class and they would continue to chat, with Andrew teaching Kammy more and more poses.
Around the same time Kammy came across the Yoga with Adriene YouTube channel and started experimenting more at home and reading up on the philosophies behind yoga. She explains that no matter how bad her day had been, when she started a yoga session, she wouldn’t think of anything other than her practice.
“Even though the mirrors were around - I wasn't looking at myself in the mirror and thinking, ‘I look disgusting’. Instead I was like ‘Oh my God, I can actually do this pose now and get into this!’ and I'd feel proud of myself, which never came easy.”
For James, yoga became his moving meditation. “I was introduced to mindfulness in psychotherapy, and when I encountered yoga I realised that I could use this practice of focusing my attention on my breath and the present moment, and integrate it with movement.”
He says that instead of focusing on getting his body to be ‘better’ in postures, he had to learn to be OK with where he was and that sometimes it was ‘good enough’ to simply show up to class, regardless of how his body performed in the poses.
How yoga supports eating disorder recovery
If mindfulness is the beating heart of yoga, then self-acceptance and self-awareness are the lungs. James articulates this perfectly when describing how yoga has supported his eating disorder recovery, “Acceptance became my antidote to years and years of self-rejection and punishment.”
Kammy highlights that once you connect with your body through a practice like yoga, you start to fully appreciate what your body does for you. Developing a sense of gratitude towards your body is a difficult thing to accomplish when you have an eating disorder, but yoga seems to facilitate it in a gentle way, both on and off the mat.
“Sometimes I catch myself pushing myself throughout the day and, with my illness I've got, I try and do all this stuff that a normal person with normal health would do. I'll push myself and I'm like... no. That's the whole point of yoga. You’re paused and calm and do each pose really slowly and take your time and don't push yourself.”
As well as connecting you to your body, James explains that yoga helped him connect with his inner self too. “Yoga helped me to gently become attuned to my mental and emotional processes - some of which were very difficult - in a way where I could gradually tolerate them without getting overwhelmed.”
James says yoga, at its best, teaches you to balance and regulate energy, and to always be compassionate, “Yoga invites you to use postures to get into your body, rather than forcing your body to get into postures.”
Since experiencing first hand the benefits of yoga, both Kammy and James have become teachers. Kammy teaches Pilates, yoga and meditation and tells me that in her classes, listening to your body is a key theme as well as accessibility (Kammy always offers alternative poses for people at different levels or those struggling with injuries). She also ensures mental health is always part of the conversation.
“I always talk about mental health and wellbeing, I tell my students to repeat affirmations and mantras, because I think that's such a huge thing. Words mean so much... what words we say to ourselves, it's such a big thing.”
Throughout James’ yoga journey, he says he learnt to become his own nurturer, being able to listen to himself more clearly, “This was a true revolution for me, and one that changed me so much that I felt the need to share it.”
James now teaches a range of styles to a range of different people. Keen to smash stereotypes, James makes the point that yoga isn’t just for thin, white, priviledged women, “Yoga is for everybody, whatever their body looks like. There is no prescribed shape or size you have to be to have a yoga practice that you find useful to your life. There are no bonus points towards enlightenment if you have an expensive yoga mat, or can touch your toes.”
If you’re struggling with your eating
Yoga is not going to be the right approach for everyone and it is certainly not a ‘cure’ for eating disorders. But it can be a tool. I ask Kammy what advice she would give to anyone who may be struggling with their eating and she shared her top five tips.
1. Open up to someone
2. Use self-care when negative thoughts come up
Write down four or five things that you absolutely love doing - what sets your soul on fire? For me it’s yoga and I love writing as well. It could be anything from spending time with a friend, having a glass of wine, reading your favorite book, going for a 10 minute walk. And whenever you have one of those negative thoughts, do one of those.
But I'd say with exercise, something like the gym or HIIT (high intensity interval training) might not be a good choice because they're not gentle to your body and that’s what you need to start with. Try and choose a class that’s a little bit gentler to start with, and then maybe go on to do other ones. Just make sure you're doing it because you want to, not because you feel like you have to.
4. Give yourself a reality check
I know it might not be for everyone, but sometimes you need that slight reality check. I asked myself, ‘what kind of future do I want?’ And again, I wrote it down. Write down things that you want for your future, and then realise how what you're going through now is going to stop you, and then how getting better will affect it.
5. Use affirmations
I have little sticky notes with affirmations around where I do my makeup. Sometimes I’ll notice my skin is bad and start to have negative thoughts, but then I’ll see a note that says ‘I am beautiful’ and I look at it and it helps. It makes you pause, because you're reading something. And then repeat it a couple of times. The more you do it, the more it becomes a habit.
If yoga is something you would be interested in trying, Kammy is running a yoga and Pilates event on 3 August at Nuffield Health Gym Wokingham to raise money for Beat, the leading eating disorder charity.
She tells me mental health will be discussed on the day too. “I want to do mental health talks too because I want to bring people together and say there's no stigma, there's no shame, there's no judgment,” says Kammy.
You can find out more about Kammy’s work over at her new website, honesthealing.co.uk. James teaches yoga at Camyoga and you can follow him on Twitter to see more of his work as a mental health activist.
If you would like to speak to a counsellor about eating problems, visit Counselling Directory. You can also search for therapists in your area by entering your location in the box below.