Inner-awareness, or interoceptive awareness, is the ability to sense what is happening inside our body at any given time. Our bodies do not use words to communicate with us. It doesn’t stop us in our tracks and shout “Hey! You need to drink water! Or “Hey! You need rest not action…Yin not Yang. The way our bodies communicate with us is through sensations and interoceptive awareness is our ability to understand that communication. Most of us, if not all, have the capacity to develop this awareness but some of us we may only partially develop this skill. Trauma, neglect and lack of knowledge of our body can sometimes leave us feeling confused, let down and even betrayed by the sensations in our body. Some of us completely ignore and shut down the sensations our bodies give us. Whilst others become hyper-responsive to stimuli of all kinds. Having the ability to listen to our body and respond to its needs is essential to having a healthy relationship with ourselves. Our body will always tell us what it needs, but often we misinterpret or ignore its signals and our body brings us to a halt.
Before I started doing yoga I could go for days without checking in with myself. Days without checking in with how I was feeling or what was going on in my body. Much like a sleepwalker disconnected from what is real and not real. So many of us live our lives controlled by our mind, allowing the mind to swing us back and forth, from the past to the future, dragging us along in a whirlpool of thoughts, worries and fears… For the most part we are not even aware that this is happening.
For many years I suffered from eating disorders and for individuals with disordered eating and negative body image, many types of interoceptive awareness are either completely absent or they become hypersensitive. I learnt to choose which signals I would tune into in my body, learning to ignore signs of hunger, tiredness, pain and emotion and take comfort from the heightened awareness of my heart beat, blood pressure and the dizziness I often felt.
My body became a tool for the mind to find a sense of control over events that were happening in my life. My eating disorder became my identity and something I held on to when I felt lost or unsure. The awareness I had of my body was one of discomfort and unease. My body was a thing that I felt I was stuck with and I tried my best to ignore its needs. I was aware of what was happening to my body and how it fought to keep me alive but I did not have the mental power or willingness to change.
The practice of yoga can help us to rebuild the bridge between our body and our mind. It helps us to reconnect with what our body needs and wants. For me that bridge has lead to acceptance and love, for myself, my body and for the people I love and care for.
Yoga attends to all parts of our being – our body, mind, breath and our emotions. When you practice yoga with full awareness the Asanas, the physical postures, moves your body and gently massage your internal organs. The breath keeps you in the present moment and leads the mind into a calm meditative state that brings steadiness and flow to your practice both on and off your mat. A clear calm mind is like a laser beam, helping you to focus your attention, your Drishti, and allow you to take decisions more effectively. When the mind is calm, we can allow our creativity to blossom.
The more I practice the more I realise how my practice on my mat affects my life off the mat. Living with awareness creates space in your mind so that you can more clearly see your thoughts and behaviours. You become more aware of how the small choices you make every day affect you, your community, and the world around you. You no longer react with the same irritation or aggression to situations or events that present themselves or to what people say, but instead you can choose to respond with a clear mind, free of judgement. You can be proactive instead of provocative – in both your speech and your actions. Often we say things without thought, words just jump out of our mouth. As we journey on the path of Yoga, our words become more selective, more powerful. When we act with awareness, we are in control not our mind.
Yoga has taught me to listen to my body…to know when my body needs rest, when it needs to be nurtured. It has given me the tools to live my life with awareness of other people’s feelings and to my surroundings. Yoga has helped me to become aware of my body, including the pains or discomforts. The secret of awareness is to just watch everything that is going on in the body and mind, without judgement – as an observer. When we die our body is the only thing that we have had with us for our entire life. It is the loyal vessel in which we live. I know that my body is on my side, it wants me to live, it wants me to be happy. I now trust that it will tell me what it needs and my body trusts that I will respond.
Repetition will stabilize your breath. With deep and quiet breathing vitality will improve, which will influence the brain and help the mind to grow pure and stable and fit for meditation. Without vitality little can be done, hence the importance of its protection and increase. Posture and breathing are a part of Yoga, for the body must be healthy and well under control, but too much concentration on the body defeats its own purpose. When the mind has been put to rest and disturbs no longer the inner space, the body acquires a new meaning and its transformation becomes both necessary and possible
Sri Nisargadatta Maharaj, 1900
In July this year I stumbled across an article about yoga and how yoga can help in the recovery and the prevention of eating disorders. I was captured by the story of Chelsea Roff and her road to recovery. From her recovery Chelsea went on to create an organisation, Eat Breathe Thri
ve (EBT), to help young and adult people sufferning from EDs. After reading the article I went online to find out more about Chelseas work and a few weekes later I found myslef at a weekend intensive course held by Chelsea in London. The course was the first ever EBT intensive held outside of the US and it was amazing. I got to meet some truly inspiring women and share their stories.
Having struggled with eating disorders for many years I feel truly grateful that I now get to be a part of planning the second ever EBT intensive this side of the Atlantic. The London intensive will be held at The House of Yoga in Putney and this will be the second leg of the EBT European tour which will start in Italy and finish in Ireland. The date for London has been set for the 13th - 15th May.
Below I have shared a blog entry written by LUCIA GIOMBINI back in 2014.
Over the last ten years I have been working with young and adult people suffering from Eating Disorders (EDs). We know that a standard, universally applicable, treatment simply does not exist, but we are certain of our aims; namely the achievement through psychological intervention, of not just a reduction of symptoms, but a new integration of mind and body.
This is arguably also one of the most important goals in our own life, if we are interested in discovering more about ourselves. We usually treat our body as an object but it is also the subject of every single experience in life. Every thought we think produces a different physiological effect and influences how we look at and perceive ourselves. To go further, specific movements and postures can have a positive or negative impact on our thoughts and feelings.
This interrelationship between body and mind is one that I find both fascinating and complex, and is the subject of my blog.
To begin with, I would like to talk about the incorporation of one of the most ancient eastern practices into the treatment of EDs.
I started practicing yoga as a way of improving my own health three years ago, and after experiencing its benefits, looked into research on the subject to see if it had a strong enough scientific basis to recommend it to both friends and clients. Below is a summary of scientific literature on the subject of yoga and EDs, and on the effects of yoga on the general mental state. I have also included references and suggestions for further reading.
I hope you will find the topic as interesting as I did, as I believe that only through knowledge can we be guided towards positive transformation in our lives.
The quote at the top of this blog, in my opinion, sums up what we can achieve through the practice of yoga.
Yoga in Eating Disorders
In the 21st century the mindfulness techniques of yoga have been adapted as an addition to the treatment of individuals with Eating Disorders (EDs). Yoga offers promise to the field of EDs as a mind-body therapy that can promote a stronger connection with, and a greater acceptance of, oneself and one’s body. It can be a powerful tool to understand how we experience our body.
It can also focus on raising an individual’s awareness of the patterns of his or her mind and body experience in the present moment (Neumark- Sztainer, 2011; Douglass, 2011, 2009; Mitchell et al., 2007; Dittmann & Freedman, 2009; Boudette, 2006; Scime et al., 2006).
Research on the incorporation of yoga into ED treatment programs is in its early stages, with preliminary findings suggesting that yoga may enhance the effectiveness of treatment. Young people suffering from anorexia nervosa who did yoga as a part of their therapeutic programme reported that they enjoyed the sessions, felt able to relax, and noted improvements in their mood. They reported feeling more appreciative of, and more connected with, their own bodies. The aim of yoga is to understand the nature of normal human suffering, and to alleviate it.
What yoga may offer is a somatic approach that complements other therapies commonly used to treat EDs.
What is it?
Yoga has historically been viewed as a discipline that increases self-awareness through body based practices, meditation, self-study, and the reading of philosophical texts. Yoga can be defined as a psychosomatic/spiritual discipline or a mind-body technique for achieving harmony of mind and body.
Key components and goals
Different types of yoga exist and each of them consists of four components, namely: physical postures/movements (Asanas), meditation/positive thinking (Dyhana), deep relaxation (Savasana) and controlled breathing (Pranayama). The main goals are the following: cultivating self-acceptance; respecting personal boundaries; challenging resistance; tolerating discomfort; encouraging clients to set a goal that joins their yoga practice with a life challenge, physical or emotional.
So far, scientific studies have shown that yoga practices positively influence the mental state. The slow rhythmic breathing and meditative/relaxation techniques are designed to induce a sense of calm, well-being, stress tolerance, and mental focus, all of which may minimise depression, anxiety, stress and negative thought cycles. Yoga uses the adoption of gentle physical poses to enhance strength, flexibility, and balance, giving a sense of awareness over the body (Kinser et al., 2011; Vollestad et al., 2012).
Yoga also effects changes in the neurophysiology of the body by influencing neurotransmitters, inflammation, oxidative stress, lipids, and growth factors (Balausbramiam et al., 2012).
Recent research shows that the body-based practices of yoga have the potential to positively shift the way we experience our body, making the person more receptive to healing. Additionally, the practice of yoga emphasises body awareness and involves focusing on breathing or specific muscles or parts of body; it is consequently possible that yoga may – amongst other things -improve the attention span.
Attentional focus is a major aspect of yoga practice. It produces physiological and psychological effects similar to those induced by relaxation, in that it tends to promote self-control, self- efficacy, body awareness and stress reduction.
The diagram below charts out the effects that the different components of yoga produce (blue columns on the left) in our brain (central purple column) and therefore in our thoughts and feelings (green column of the right).
Overall, yoga seems to hold the promise of not only increasing our lifespans, but also of sustaining our good health, vitality and productivity. I would also suggest that the time is ripe for a reappraisal of the relationship between science and yoga and would be well served by a serious research programme, ideally leading to positive results in clinical practice.
In relation to eating disorders, yoga can help to balance the work of all the clinicians involved in the care of EDs, be their focus, physical, psychological, individual or family.
A wish for us from the ancient wisdom:
Maharaj: What then is your problem?
Man: I need a response to life, not only intelligent, but also very quick. It cannot be quick unless it is perfectly spontaneous. How can I achieve such spontaneity?
Maharaj: The mirror can do nothing to attract the sun. It can only keep bright.
As soon as the mind is ready, the sun shines in it.
Be pure, Be alert, Keep ready!