Yoga & Mindfulness: Keys to Healthier Food & Body Relationships
Ever since I knew I was going to become a registered dietitian (RD), I dreamt of merging my yoga background with my nutrition expertise – a fusion of Eastern (yoga) and Western (clinical nutrition) philosophies. This year, I have slowly started to integrate yoga and mindfulness tools into my nutrition counseling work — and I truly feel like it makes a difference for any client who is open to letting me guide them. Whether it’s a few yoga poses, meditation, guided imagery, body scans and/or breathing techniques, they are all powerful complements to nutrition.
While the article I wrote and am sharing below is written specifically for those struggling with eating disorders (EDs), my clients who do not have EDs also really benefit from yoga and mindfulness practices. And really, it’s basically for the same reason why they help those with EDs. If I had to sum that reason up into one single word, it would be …
In my own words, “embodiment” is being in the body and not living from the neck up. It’s not easy in our (diet) culture to truly be embodied, which is why tools like yoga and other mindfulness techniques can be a doorway in. In the article I wrote (https://www.todaysdietitian.com/newarchives/0519p40.shtml), which is written for other RDs but can be of benefit for anyone interested in this topic and the research around it, one of my sources described embodiment as, “when you’re able to connect to your experience within your body.”
So, why then, is embodiment important for healing relationships to our bodies and food? Because if we’ve spent years struggling with EDs or disordered eating (which really just means dieting), that means we’ve spent years adhering to external, rigid rules around food and movement choices. It means that we’re making choices from outside of us — that have nothing to do with how our bodies feel or what they might be communicating to us about their unique needs. So, getting back into the body is really non-negotiable, in order to re-connect and develop a truly healthy relationship to it — and to food.
What’s The Deal With Mindfulness?
“Mindfulness” is SUCH a buzzy term right now – I see it everywhere. And that’s cool, but I think it’s helpful to remind us all what it actually means: Maintaining a nonjudgmental state of complete awareness of thoughts, emotions or experiences on a moment-to-moment basis. In other words, it’s being in the body!
And when I say “yoga and mindfulness techniques,” all I’m saying is yoga poses plus meditation, breathing exercises, etc. In actuality, the physical postures of yoga (asana) are just one of the eight limbs of yoga – meditation (dharana) and breathing (pranayama) are two entirely separate limbs – and are indeed considered yoga, too.
How Yoga & Mindfulness Techniques Can Help Us
I do hope you will take a read through the article linked above to learn more about the research and hear from some of my brilliant colleagues doing similar work. But here’s a list below to help explain some ways these yoga-based tools can help us in our relationships to food and body:
Cognitive defusion: This is a term that simply means not being fused with thoughts. It’s hard to remember sometimes that we are not our thoughts and that we do not have to believe everything we think in our minds. We can watch them (mindfulness) but we can choose to react, or not. This is critical in repairing relationships to food and body, because often we have old tapes playing in our minds about both (“Bread is bad for me so I can’t eat it,” or “I’ll only be loved and accepted if I lose weight.”). Mindfulness tools can help us create space from ourselves and our thoughts, which then can help us the rewiring process of our brains.
Physiological benefits: Research shows yoga helps in decreasing stress, depression and anxiety, and improves physical strength, balance and bone density — all of which can help us feel more at ease in our bodies, around food and in life in general.
Increased compassion: Yoga & Mindfulness tools help us to slow down and treat ourselves with care. One of the sources in my article, who teaches yoga for body image, sees yoga as a way to increase body acceptance, and I whole-heartedly agree with her. Instead of the “no pain, no gain” garbage that we hear from some in the exercise world, yogic practices help us to meet ourselves and our bodies exactly where we are, and work from there with love — not harshness. As she puts it in my article, “It’s really about reconnecting people to their bodies in a way that’s joyful, pleasant and full of compassion.”
Increased interoceptive awareness: This is a term that means sensing the internal signals of the body. Yogic practices are the perfect complement to intuitive eating (and moving), if you ask me, because they help shift us away from the external to the internal. They facilitate the process of re-establishing connection to our bodies, and therefore our hunger and fullness levels, food preferences and desires, etc.
A Note of Caution
While heated, power yoga classes — quite typical in our Western culture these days — are not inherently bad and can be practiced in healthy ways, it’s not rare that sometimes people with EDs or unhealthy relationships to food and/or body may use these types of yoga practices in an excessive (and dangerous way).
Yoga was not created to burn calories and help us have “perfect bodies.” It is a practice with physical, mental, emotional and spiritual benefits, created as a way to integrate and heal the whole person. If it is abused, none of those benefits are reaped.
The type of physical yoga practice that is healthy for you depends on your relationship to your body and to food, and whether or not you struggle with an ED or disordered eating. As I say in my article, slower and gentler practices in unheated rooms are typically the better choice for the majority of the ED population. And if you’re a mentally and physically healthy person who can practice and benefit from more strengthening practices, I still suggest incorporating some restorative and/or gentle practices into your routine, because it is when we slow down that we can really listen.
Overall, I believe these tools help us come home to our bodies, and from there we can heal our relationships to food and body, and enjoy a life free from worrying about either. If you need help developing a healthier relationship to food, your body and yourself, please visit my Nutrition Counseling page, and we can explore working together.
In true health,