Yoga for Eating Disorder Recovery: How Stages-of-Change Influence Experiential Movement and Re-Connection

When I first began private training — from walking with clients, to resistance training, to yoga blended with intuitive movement — I mostly worked with people who were really, really eager to do some exploration and reintegration of their mind-body relationship. Afterall, they’d asked me to come into their home, their intimate space, and they trusted me while they breathed and shifted perspective through movement. Keeping in mind the stages-of-change can be fluid, these people were primarily in the PREPARATION or ACTION stages-of-change. (See the image above for a glance at the stages.)

At the time, I wasn’t aware of how easily our work unfolded. Not until we established a long-term relationship did I realize I needed more tools to help with trauma or other body-sensitive issues that I began seeing as a pattern in our sessions, those things that without deeper exploration and care would continue pulling them back into previous stages-of-change and high ambivalence about the possibility of healthy embodiment. Therefore, after much consideration and birthing two of my own babies, I went back to school to get my master’s in mental health counseling as a way to offer therapeutic body-based exploration and counseling.

Fast forward a few years, among several more long-term clients and emerging from the fog of newborn baby days, I dove into graduate school in between afternoons at the park and 730am Sunday morning grocery runs. During my first semester of graduate school, I began leading yoga groups at an outpatient eating disorder treatment center. Then I became an intern for school requirements at this same treatment site, so needless to say I was immersed in opportunities to learn and grow as a counselor-in-training for the spectrum of people struggling with disordered eating. It was here that I also became fascinated with stages-of-change and how the stages present strongly in a nonverbal way.

Comparatively speaking, teaching someone to get in their body in their own home who willingly invited me to help drastically differed from someone in the thick of intensive partial hospitalization treatment. The former offered more opened nuances of connection, the latter tended to resist opening to explore the body, breath, etc., and I understood the mistrust, the fear, the resistance, the lack of eye contact, the turned positioning of the body. Some of these nonverbals and verbals clearly showed as PRECONTEMPLATION or CONTEMPLATION stages-of-change. The tension of opening, of experiencing distress and reconnecting takes vulnerability and courage along with a supportive container, a gentle but firm holder.

Due to these literal and figurative shapes and patterns that showed up on yoga mats or in therapy groups and my belief in the power of reparative relationships, and especially my personal experience of mothering and daunting-but-sweet tasks of attunement and attachment, I started piecing together my own perspective of the integration of stages-of-change, attachment theory, and somatic techniques among those people who struggle with disordered eating. Now I practice and teach body-based counseling and experiential movement work through the lens of:

  1. how “ready” someone is to change,
  2. how connected/disconnected or attached/detached they are from themselves of other sources of human connection, and
  3. how/which body-based techniques might be helpful for them to experience change, healing and growth.

As I continued observing, exploring and working with shapes and patterns that showed up to treatment, I also happened to have the opportunities to present this work at two different conferences — the Southeastern Eating Disorder conference in August 2017 and the International Association for Eating Disorder Professionals symposium in March 2018. While piecing together and articulating this material to be presentation-ready, I saw even more organic unfolding of parallels in traditional yoga postures alongside developmental movement in humans. (I like to tell people who say they “can’t do yoga because they can’t touch their toes” that although yoga studios might be sprouting on every street corner, they’ve actually been “doing yoga” since they were in the womb — Sometimes we just need more conscious re-patterning to access the bounty of the practice!)

From those who are seeking change at any opportunity to those whose arms are crossed and heads are turned away, what I’m most excited about are the possibilities of understanding the meaning behind the movement. What are their stories, their needs? How are their protective shells serving them? How much do we nudge them forward? How much do we hold them?  There is no one-size-fits-all answer because every person is unique. But there is a practice of noticing patterns, to hugging resistance, to being the witness to unfoldment.  And I am passionate about teaching other helpers to see these parallels and to attend and attune to clients and classes with sensitivity and effective containment to induce productive, healthy embodiment. And from my personal training and yoga backgrounds, I’m excited to support that traditional exercise is not for everyone, and that the Western yoga practice is not for everyone. But —

  1. That each stage of change serves a purpose — to shield us from perceived or incredibly real pain or to eventually help us face our growth and transformation.
  2. That we have always and will continue to need connection in the form of a trusting caregiver (that might be a helper, teacher or healer to start with…then ultimately, that guru comes from within).
  3. That the body has always and continues to work as a whole from the inside-out, and it literally unfolds from the womb to walking in developmental patterns that parallel our internal evolution.

If you’re interested in learning more about helping people with disordered eating reconnect with the body, breath, heart and mind in healthy, productive, safe ways — stay tuned!  I’ll be presenting this material in a workshop soon in the Atlanta area!  Write me for details – carolineflow@gmail.com

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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