Wednesday, October 29, 2014

The Empty Beach

The Empty Beach

I just got home from Long Beach, California. I was travelling for work, reviewing grants for the National Institute of Health (NIH) for two days. Each day after the meeting ended, I laced up my running shoes and headed out to the beach for a long run. In late-October, it turns out that California temperatures are still between 70 and 75 degrees. When you are travelling from Buffalo, NY that is nothing short of grand.

The first day we got out late and I was tired from travelling. Still, I had run a good stretch of ocean-side, four-lane thoroughfare. About 1.5 miles in, I found the beach.  Pausing, hands on my hips and sweating from the run and the heat, I looked down the vast stretch of coastline. For miles, the beach was nearly empty. Determined to finish my mileage and get back to the hotel in time for room service and some bad television, I set my eyes on the horizon and kept running. I was not aware or present. My mind moved on to the next thought about the meeting, how it went, and how I thought I was doing. These meetings are fascinating- so many brilliant grant proposals- so many brilliant reviewers. It is mentally exhausting. I missed my daughters and my husband. I feel safe and loved with them. Within the tired knots of thoughts, I reflected, meaninglessly, on how empty the beach was.

Long Beach, CA (10/2014)

The second day, we were done early. I had an entire afternoon to run and walk down miles of beach. And that, I did. I grabbed my room key, my music, headphones, and a credit card just in case, laced up my running shoes again and headed out.

This time I was clear. Less to ruminate about. My work was done and I was flying home first thing in the morning. I smelled, in the beach air, the windy saltiness and the cycle-of-life undercurrents. I noticed the many different varieties of birds and foliage. I think I saw at least three different types of seagulls- small tiny seagulls, classic seacoast and parking lot gulls, and rougher, scraggly, seemingly street-smart big, grey and brownish ones. I saw light russet birds with long beaks and long legs and tiny sharp, quick, darting white and grey birds with almost no beaks at all. There were palm trees of all sizes and stages of being from new growth to old trees that seemed to have grown too high for their own good. I think I saw aloe and at least one cactus garden- one confirmed as it was labeled, “warning cactus garden” and the other not labeled yet clearly filled with prickly stalks holding goal-post arms. On the ground before me, I saw seaweed and tiny pieces of shells. I thought about how the sand was different from the sands on Cape Cod or the gravel in the Adirondacks. It was soft, a combination of seashell fragments, sand, and earth.

A different kind of tired, I stopped running and shifted my gaze and squinted so I could see the horizon more clearly. Looking long down the beach, I once again noticed how empty it was. Instinctually, as if called to do so by some urge that must have been felt by others for lifetimes before me, I took my shoes off and walked for miles on the edge of where the water met the sand.

I thought about how the elements, the first four chakras, were all here. Earth- as my feet sank into the sand. Water- meeting the earth, waves both crashing and lapping onto the beach.  Fire- as the sun moved closer to the horizon surrendering into the water. Last, air- the endless expanse of sky, the invisible scaffold that was holding the gulls in the air, and the Pacific air in my lungs. At the beach, they are all so clearly here. I dug me feet into the sand, the wet sand, felt the sun on my cheeks and shoulders, and breathed. “My God,” I thought, “this is beautiful.”

The beach was nearly empty.         

I wondered if people who live in California forget. If the beach is always there, right there, do you forget? Take it for granted? I acknowledge that I was in Long Beach and not Maya Tulum, Mexico or some other paradise-like beach. Still, I noticed it there too. In Mexico, the beaches were full of tourists. Not the people who live there. There is this thing humans do. We seem to turn our backs to the beauty, especially the beauty right in front of us. Like when you forget to notice how handsome and kind your husband is or how the house you live in is the house you always wanted as a kid. That is, unless we consciously set intentions and make plans- we simply don’t spend time there- in the beauty of it.

Then, I considered that the beach being right there is sort of like mindfulness and meditation always being right there. Mindfulness and meditation are like a California beach in the sun- there for all of us. It is as if  we all have condominiums whose lofts and patios opened right up to the beach. When I was running by- those days on the beach- I could see people sitting inside, busy with their lives, and backs to the beach. Forgetting. Not seeing.

When I get present, mindful, and meditate, it is peaceful. I feel a relief from my daily worries, calming, and clearing- just like this walk on the beach was for me. Yet, until rather recently I would neglect presence. I knew how good it felt, the benefits, all of that. Presence, mindfulness, and meditation were and are easily accessible. Your brain and body are- literally- always right here with you. There is no time, no moment, that it can’t be done.

I am writing as a reminder that we all have beaches that we are ignoring.

You have immediate access to beauty, peace, and stillness.

It is right there. Turn. Look.

Yeah, life gets crazy, stressful, and busy. And- turn around, watch the sun set, breathe the air and dig your toes in the metaphoric sand of your life- just for five minutes- do it anyway.

And- those of you who live at the beach- for God’s sake, go outside.

Why? Because you can and I am here to remind you how beautiful it is.

Catherine Cook-Cottone
The Yoga Bag





Monday, October 20, 2014

What Yogis Could Learn from Runners


What Yogis Could Learn from Runners 

I am both a yogi and a runner.

In fact, I have been running since 8th grade (which works out to about 36 years). I have run cross-country, track, triathlons, marathons, half marathons, 5ks, and the famous Boiler Maker in Utica, NY. I have run in cities all over the United States, in the winter, summer, fall, and spring. I am a life-long runner.

My yoga practice began in a more serious manner in 2001 and is much younger than my running. When I started doing yoga, I learned about non-judgment. I also saw non-judgment practiced and modeled among my teachers, by the yogis that I met in my travels to trainings, and in the studios I attended.

Lately, something has shifted in yoga. Online, in conversations, on blogs, all over--there seems to be a growing need to judge other yogis.

I truly love that there are variations of yoga and my yogi friends across a variety of practices. I have done Hatha, Vinyasa, Bikram, Power Yoga, Ashtanga, Acro, TIMBo, and many more types of yoga. I have taken classes with Ana Forrest, Baron Baptiste, Seane Corn, and studied at the Himalayan Institute and Kripalu. Each variation has its own beauty, wisdom, and focus. I have experienced this as openness. The more ways I learn to practice- well, it is like learning more ways to love.

I wish we could let the judgment go. I am not sure how it serves us.

All these decades that I have been running, fellow runners ask about your running history and your goals. You might say, “I am training for a full triathlon” or “I do 5ks” or “I do half marathons” or “I jog with friends and do walk/run a lot” or something else like that. Nearly universally, the other runners honor the efforts of their sister or brother runner. We are glad you get out there, take care of your body, and share the love of the run.

As I was running this morning, I was reflecting on how as a yogi I am always telling runners how much they could learn from yoga, how yoga can help them, and all that. It was then that I thought about this judgment-thing that has manifest among some yogis. I realized that perhaps we, the yogis, could learn something from runners. 

Like runners, we could honor our fellow yogis for their spiritual journey; however like or not like ours it is, no matter how many limbs are integrated, and how Western or Eastern, or reflective or active. 

Like runners, we could just honor the practice, the importance of the individual, self-directed journey, and be in non-judgment.

So, here it goes. This is a shout out to my running friends and to my fellow yogis- all types of runners and all kinds of yogis:

I love you and I honor your practice.

Runners, I know what it takes to lace up the running shoes and get your feet on the road.

Yogis, I know what it takes to get your body on your mat.

I honor your effort.

I honor your self-love.

From a place of openhearted acceptance and non-judgment, I say- however you shine- keep shining!

See you on the roads, trails, or yoga mat soon. I look forward to sharing a knowing nod, a smile, and a sense of camaraderie as we honor each other for our efforts to be on our journey. 

Catherine Cook-Cottone
The Yoga Bag


Sunday, October 19, 2014

Self-care, Substance Abuse, and Eating Disorders- 20 Minute Survey- Please Help

We are doing some very important work on Self-care, eating disorders,
and substance use- PLEASE complete this survey- It will take you about
20 minutes and be a HUGE help to my research team!!! 

Do self-care practices influence eating behaviors and substance use?

RESEARCH PARTICIPANTS NEEDED!

You are being invited to participate in a research experiment titled
“The Influence of Self-Care on Substance Use and Disordered Eating
Behaviors” This study is being conducted by Amy Fish, B.S. under the
supervision of Dr. Catherine Cook-Cottone in the Department of
Counseling, School, and Educational Psychology, University at Buffalo.

This research study is intended for adult participants who are 18
years of age and over.  If you are not yet 18 years of age, please do
not participate in this study.  Researchers are investigating any
unique associations among self-care practices, eating behaviors, and
substance among ethnic and racial minorities given that these
populations are unrepresented in research.  As such, ethnic and racial
minorities are highly encouraged to participate.

This study consists a series of questionnaires regarding eating
behaviors, substance use, and self-care practices.  Your participation
is estimated to require about 20 minutes of your time.  There are no
known risks associated with participating in this study, however it is
possible that you may experience some slight discomfort regarding the
topics of the research.  As payment for your participation, you may
choose to provide your contact information to be entered to win one of
five $20 prepaid giftcards!!


https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/8TLVQTB

From http://cis-greatercentraltexas.org/self-care/

Saturday, October 18, 2014

Daily Meditation as Archeologist: The Excavation of My Mind

Daily Meditation as Archeologist:
The Excavation of My Mind

My daily meditation practice has been a process of excavation. I sit, close my eyes, and begin to focus on my breath. I then bring my mantra to mind. I use mala beads to move from one recitation to the next. Once I have meditated on my mantra, I bring my awareness to-- my awareness. I watch as thoughts move into and out of my awareness.

I see them.

I imagine them as layers of sediment that I am carefully removing as I get closer to the center. My thoughts present in a sensational form. They are cloudy and I don’t bring them to clarity. I let them soften even more until I let them go.

Each thought seems to have another one just underneath- at least lately. There has been a lot on my mind. Meditation has helped me see quite clearly the many layers. I have a sense that, before I meditated regularly, all of these thoughts competed for awareness, a process that was quite taxing on my cognitive capacity. I often craved relief and would seek it in a glass of wine or some other escape.

As I have deepened my practice of yoga and moved toward a daily meditation, I have found that the physical grounding of asana (yoga poses), the calming of breath work (pranayama), and meditation allow me to see, become aware, of these layers as they truly manifest in my experience.

I have come to notice that being in inquiry about this, my thoughts, my choices, my actions and reactions is- in and of itself- powerful. I have become aware that there is nothing I need to fix or defend. That awareness and presence are sufficient.

They have an excavating effect. 

You may wonder what I am seeking- why dig? Why excavate? What else is there to know?

In essence, my meditation allows me to act as the archeologist of my mind. I excavate, see, and discover the nature of my mind through careful, reflective, awareness. Like an archeologist, this inquiry allows me to uncover the patterns of human behavior, my patterns, and my layers. This is empowering. I am left with self-knowing, the self-love that comes from caring practices toward the self, and calm presence.

Like the archeologist, I am in belief that under the layers there is an understanding. What I find will bring me closer to knowing the self (as an archeologist becomes closer to understanding the history of human kind).

Ultimately, I am in search of this space to which Victor Frankl refers -

Between stimulus and response there is a space.
In that space is our power to choose our response.
In our response lies our growth and our freedom.
 Victor Frankl


This is what I seek- this space, the power to choose, growth, and freedom- and layer-by-layer I get closer.


Catherine Cook-Cottone

The Yoga Bag

From www.nydailynews.com

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

Just What You Need to Prepare for the Holidays: Meditation, Malas, and Yoga

We are in mid-October- the perfect time to get your meditation practice steadied for the holidays. If you are ready for a half day retreat- keep reading. We have something  just for you.

Kate Rogers, Kathleen Engelhardt, and I are collaborating to bring yoga and meditation to you. Our November 8th workshop will instruct, inspire, and ignite your meditation.

How?

  • with a yoga practice, 
  • crafting of your own malas, 
  • instruction on meditation, 
  • selection of a mantra, 
  • and of course a great, healthy snack. 
This is just what you need before the holidays!

Go to this Facebook link for the registration information.

https://www.facebook.com/events/711166365636237/




Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Wide Right, No Goal


If you don’t know what I am talking about Google “Wide Right, No Goal and Buffalo.” You will run across links and blogs like this: Buffalo Bills- http://www.ubbullrun.com/2014/8/11/5811720/worse-buffalo-moment-1-wide-right and Sabres- http://adm1370m-buffalo-sabres.wikispaces.com/No+Goal!.

Or- you can go to lululemon Walden Galleria and see the words etched on the floor at the entrance (or not- see images at the end of this blog).

It is our shared history. For the Buffalo Bills it was "Wide Right" and for the Sabres it was "No Goal." Some say the Bills Game was one of the worse moments in the history of Buffalo sports. I am not so sure about that. These games were most certainty among the the hardest to watch. Most of us remember where we were, whom we were with, and the brand of beer we were drinking.

The Bills game went down like this. The Buffalo Bills had one of the best seasons in the history of the team. They were strong, solid, and made us PROUD. It was the BIG GAME. There were eight seconds left in the Super Bowl. Buffalo had possession of the ball and was trailing 20 – 19. The team lined up for a 47-yard field goal. Norwood set up for a field goal attempt. This was a 47-yarder and would be Norwood's longest ever on grass. We all held our collective breath.

Wide Right. No Goal. 

That was it.

We stared at the TV. Silence- for a long time.

Then, the cautious glances to others in the room. Man, we love this team. We wanted this for them, for us, for Buffalo.

Yeah, for Buffalo.

People have asked me why the lululemon store at the Walden Galleria put “Wide Right. No Goal” at the entrance of the store. They did it for good reason. They did it for the Buffalo Bills (Wide Right) and the Sabres (No Goal). The answer I give is the same when I work with kids and adults on empowerment.

It is our efforts, our trials and tribulations, and our ability to dig deep, try again, and persevere that make us who we are. Success, sure that is great. But character, honest-to-goodness, gritty, get up and pull yourself up by your bootstraps character- man- that comes from days like “Wide Right. No Goal.”

I am the mom of the teenage athletes. I am the wife of a former Rugby playing, half Ironman completing, dedicated father. I have been a college athlete and fancy myself an adult athlete. We love to win and achieve personal bests. But that is not why we are in it. That is not why we play. We do it because we love the game, the running, the yoga, the whole-hearted living of it. We love facing the edge of no-you-can’t and not-today and persevering.  It teaches you about life.

Like this. I am also a researcher and I submit my work, like all researchers, for peer-review. I collect all of my “Wide Right. No Goal” letters telling me they can’t or won’t be publishing my work. That is my fire. It is what I stand on to learn. I know my work is good- just like that team, our team- the Buffalo Bills- the Sabres- were and are amazing.

In the face of hardship, I know exactly what to do. I look at the feedback, take a deep breath, grab my bootstraps, and re-submit. I learned how to do that as a swimmer in college, running marathons and half marathons, and breathing through a yoga pose. Persevere Catherine. You’ve got this.

If you have tried at anything in your life- you have had your “Wide Right. No Goal” days. I tell my daughters and myself, “It is not the good days that define you. It how you handle the hard days- that is how you know who you are and that is how you show others who you are.”

Buffalo- we have handled our “Wide Right, No Goal” with grace and glory. Our teams were and are great. We were and are great. And Buffalo was and IS great.

I grew up all over the United States of America the daughter of a Naval officer. In 1992, I moved to Buffalo to attend graduate school. I was 27 years old with a heart full of dreams, a mechanical pencil, running shoes, and not much else. I have seen this city grow and prosper in terms of business, academics, art, culture, sports, athletics, and community. I am so proud to live here, to be an associate professor at the University at Buffalo, to be a homeowner, and to have raised my two beautiful daughters in this believe-anything-is-possible town.

So go to lululemon and stand on the “Wide Right. No Goal” entrance, dig deep in all the shared history, learning, and pride.

Now, like then, we grasp hands, set our eyes on the next game, and walk toward our future- proud of how hard we worked and how far we have come.

That is why it is there.




UPDATE -- 10/16/2014 (2 days after my first post)

There has been a rising debate about the message on the mosaic tyles. News outlets have covered the debate and there have been strong feelings expressed regarding the the message on the mosaic. 

I have learned from my yoga practice and my studies that right and wrong are complicated concepts and what makes sense to one person in a given context can make no sense at all to another person in his or her context. I have also learned that trying to be right and getting defensive can get in the way of connection and understanding. 

For some people "Wide Right" and "No Goal" are rallying cries bringing us together, in solidarity, to fire us up the for the next game. I have come to understand that for others these words feel like rubbing two of the the hardest times in our sports history into our collective faces. I have listened to my friends and read the comments and concerns. I understand why people are unhappy with the mosaic. 

It makes sense to remove the mosaic. No matter the reason it was put there in the first place, it doesn't make sense now-- and I know for a lot of people it never made sense. 




I have no doubt we will get through this. In Buffalo, so many times the hard stuff has brought us together. I think about the October Storm in 2006, it was around this time of year (October 12th and 13th). We were a city of neighbors with shovels and snow plows. My husband went up and down the street with our snow blower and a shovel. My daughters and I bundled up and went out to help. As a family, we worked with our neighbors and moved trees and tree limbs to clear the streets. It is one of my best memories. 

This is the Buffalo that I know. This is the Buffalo that I love. 

When the next snow storm comes- we will all be out there-- together-- with hot chocolate, snow blowers, and shovels. Once all is clear, we will be finding the fastest route to the powdery hills of an Ellicotville ski resort, or four wheel to Chestnut Ridge to slide down the gigantic hill, or build fabulous snowmen in our front yards, or cross country ski to one of our wonderful restaurants or bars.

When the sun shines down for another of our glorious summers we will meet at Shakespeare in the Park, go to an art or food or music festival, or do yoga by the waterfront, run the hills of Chestnut Ridge together, or hike Letchworth Park, or  journey to the eternal flame and make a wish, or read a book under a hundred-year-old tree at Delaware Park, or take our boats to the harbor, or paddle board in the calm waters on Grand Island. 

Of course, we will be there- together- cheering for our teams- hoping for and dreaming about our next championship and victory. 

I wish we could fit all of that on a mosaic- it would be beautiful. 

Catherine Cook-Cottone
The Yoga Bag

See Buffalo News for more on the story: Click for Buffalo News Story


Monday, October 13, 2014

The Truth About Eating Disorders and Yoga

The Truth About Eating Disorders and Yoga
Catherine Cook-Cottone


The Truth About Eating Disorders and Yoga: that is the title of a recent piece in Yoga Journal. I have been researching eating disorders and yoga interventions for over 10 years (see my research page here http://gse.buffalo.edu/about/directory/faculty/cook-cottone). When I read, what I believe was a well-intentioned article; I was conflicted about it. I was very happy this important topic was brought to light. However, I was also somewhat confused by the content and disheartened (read the article here http://www.yogajournal.com/article/eating-disorders/truth-yoga-eating-disorders/).

I imagined what I might think as a parent of someone who was struggling with an eating disorder or a care provider trying to decide if patients should be encouraged to do yoga or not. From this perspective, I worry that the article might have been discouraging, framing yoga as a risk for patients. Most certainly, the highlighting of a tragic story of parents finding their daughter dead, in a yoga pose, was alarming and I would guess terrifying for parents with a child who is struggling.  For weeks, I have thought about it, reflected on it, and wondered if I should write about it. Many people have commented and blogged about this article. At this point there has been no voice, among the many, representing what is known in the research. I decided to write.

I have spent years in academic study pursuing the truth about yoga and eating disorders. I am careful, cautious, and in serious study. This line of inquiry matters to me for many reasons. I hope that someday we will get close to the truth. I know that finding truth will take years, perhaps decades, and likely careers to discover.

My take on the article by Chelsea Roff (read more about Chelsea Roff here http://www.eatbreathethrive.org/chelsea-roff.html) was that her intentions were good. I have watched her journey across media channels. She most certainly is an inspiration and is doing very important work. I applaud her breakthrough effort to bring attention to the risk some practitioners bring to yoga class. Also, I think her article, critically, calls attention to the importance of watching for practitioners who are struggling. In addition, I hope her article inspires the industry to integrate screening for risk into teaching/studio guidelines, teach a protocol for intervening during our training programs, and encourage studios to have policies related to those at risk. 

The TRUTH is…

My first concern is with the title. As an academic, I am part of a group of individuals who work decade after decade in pursuit of-- what use of the scientific method guides us cautiously toward-- “the truth.” Practice guiding conclusions are made only after a foundation of theory (i.e., theory papers and qualitative studies), exploration of ideas and experiences among individuals (i.e., clinical case studies), pilot studies, controlled trials, randomized controlled trials, replication-- and eventually-- works that aggregate many studies (e.g., systematic literature reviews and meta-analyses). Even then, we speak in terms of “the evidence suggests that___,” or “current research indicates that____,” etc. The word truth holds a scared place. Years of discovery and rediscovery have taught us that, perhaps, we only get glimmers of truths and-- most certainly-- it is only together that we get close. That is, we carefully read and review the work that has been done, honor and cite those who have done the work, and base our current assessments and cautious guidance on what is known- empirically known.

A More Careful Review of the Literature

Given that context, I would argue that we do not know the truth about yoga and eating disorders. Here is what we know- right now. Please note- we don’t know that much at this point.

Early studies were correlational. That means that participants were likely given a survey that asked a lot of questions about yoga, eating disordered behaviors, eating disorder risk factors, etc. Researchers then ran the data to see what went with what. For example, did yoga correlate with lower rates of eating disordered behavior and risk factors?

In an early study, Daubenmier (2005) found this:

  • Yoga practice is associated with greater awareness of and responsiveness to bodily sensations, lower self-objectification, greater body satisfaction, and fewer disordered eating attitudes.
  • As predicted, yoga practitioners reported more favorably on all measures. Body responsiveness, and, to some extent, body awareness significantly explained group differences in self-objectification, body satisfaction, and disordered eating attitudes.

Some of the research that Roff referred to in her article was done by Neumark‐Sztainer and colleagues. Here are findings from a study published in 2011. This was a survey study that combined yoga and Pilates in one category and analyzed data accordingly. This information is directly from the study:
  •  Among study participants, 17.6% (n = 221) of the young women and 5.2% (n = 53) of the young men reported an average of 30 min or more of yoga/Pilates per week.
  • Among yoga/Pilates participants, the average time spent in yoga or Pilates was 2.0 h/week (SD = 1.4) for young women and 2.2 h/week (SD= 1.7) for young men.
  • Young women who participated in yoga/Pilates were less likely to report body dissatisfaction than nonparticipants (36.1% vs. 51.4%, p < .001).
  • The proportions of young women reporting unhealthy weight-control behaviors, extreme weight-control behaviors, and binge eating did not differ significantly by yoga/Pilates participation.
  • Men participating in yoga/Pilates were more likely to use extreme weight control behaviors (18.6% vs. 6.8%, p=.006) and binge eating (11.6% vs. 4.2%, p=.023), and marginally more likely to use unhealthy weight control behaviors (49.1% vs. 34.5%; p=.053), than non-participants after adjusting for sociodemographics, weight status, and overall physical activity.

My team became very interested in yoga interventions and eating disorders. Note that the studies I listed above were surveys. In our review we looked at yoga used as an intervention with pre and posttests conducted to see if yoga interventions made things better, worse, or had no effect. [Survey, or correlations studies, do not assess pre and post test findings- so they can’t say if the yoga practice can help explain changes in eating disordered behavior or risk. They can only describe what seemed to go together]. 

Jessalyn Klein and I completed a systematic review and synthesis of the yoga literature. We searched databases for peer-reviewed articles about yoga practice and Eating Disorder symptoms and correlates.  Again- at this point there have been VERY FEW studies completed.


  • Of the 14 articles reviewed, 40% used cross-sectional designs to examine risk and protective factors for Eating Disorders among yoga practitioners, and 60% used longitudinal designs to assess the effectiveness of yoga interventions for preventing and treating Eating Disorders.
  •  Yoga practitioners were reported to be at decreased risk for Eating Disorders, and Eating Disorder risk and symptoms were reduced or unchanged after yoga interventions.
  •  Conclusions: More well-controlled studies are needed to understand whether the positive effects of yoga on ED symptoms and correlates are related to the type of yoga practiced, the amount/frequency of practice, and/or other variables.
  • See the article here: http://yogaclub.us/attachments/Yoga%20as%20Medicine%20-%20Effects%20of%20Yoga%20on%20Eating%20Disorders.pdf


Using Yoga Against Yourself

Perhaps, this is what was Chelsea Roff was talking about? I am very happy that her article brought attention to this often negected risk that is inherent in embodied practices. Like others before me (e.g., Dittmann, & Freedman, 2009), in my forthcoming book, “Mindfulness and Yoga for Embodied Self-Regulation: A Primer for Clinicians(see Springer Publishing, 2015) I address this issue.

I tell the story of Mathew Sanford (2006), author of the deeply moving and inspiring book “Waking: A Memoir of Trauma and Transcendence.” Sanford articulately describes the moment he had taken his self-destructive struggle onto his yoga mat. After a traumatic injury, yoga was Sanford’s pathway to healing. However, for a while, he used this healing tool against himself. He notes, “I know the moment my yoga practice passed over into the threshold into violence” (Sanford, 2006; p. 203). Practicing with a spinal chord injury that left him paralyzed, Mathew describes pushing and straining so hard in a pose that he broke his own leg. The injury was complicated as was his recovery from it. Sanford (2006) states, “Breaking my leg was the harshest lesson that I have ever experienced in yoga. For me, nonviolence is no longer an intellectual platitude within my practice. It is an energetic fact” (p. 213).  

I believe this turning of yoga into a self-destructive act is what Chelsea Roff was describing in her tragic story of a death of one yoga practitioner, who also apparently suffered from a clinical level eating disorder. Like any other practice, yoga can be misused and turned against the self. It is this notion that I think was the spirit of Roff’s piece.

I agree that this can happen and I am concerned that yoga teachers are often not prepared to identify, assess, set limits, and refer. Yes. We need to integrate warning signs, screening tools, and how to confront and refer someone who is struggling into yoga teacher training. However, it is my belief that this is the exception and not the rule. Research to date supports this contention. That is, although some people who are already struggling with clinical levels of risk or struggle may misuse yoga as a self-destructive tool, many may benefit from the practice. It also seems that for some, depending on various factors (dosage of yoga, style, etc..), yoga may have no effects. I also believe there are factors present in some yoga communities (note- not the yoga- the community) that trigger risk. Although, this has yet to be effectively researched.

So What is the Truth about Yoga and Eating Disorders?

I don’t think we know. It may be that some people who are struggling are drawn to the practice (see Neumark‐Sztainer et al., 2011). That makes sense to me. Those who have eating disorders find challenge in the mind body connection. Yoga lives in that connection.

Overall, it looks—somewhat—cautiously-- promising. That is, there is some evidence that yoga may help. We are not sure what about the yoga practice helps, what type of practice helps, and what aspects of the practice are important to include (e.g., breath work, asana, meditation). There is—honestly-- more that we don’t know, than we know.

I have seen tremendous growth in my own life and in the lives of others manifest through the practice of yoga. I have researched a yoga intervention as a prevention tool for eating disorders. I have done pilot work using a yoga intervention as an adjunct treatment for eating disorders. I continue this work today. I want to know if it works, why it works, how it works, and how might it work best. I most certainly want to know what might cause harm, who might be at-risk in yoga class, and what might place people at risk. I have seen yoga studio cultures that promote the thin-deal, encourage fasting, and hire and maintain dangerously thin teachers. Note- as I mentioned above-  these are yoga studio variables and not yoga. As the body of research grows, it is my hope and intention that studio features and variables will be de-coupled from the 8-limb practice of yoga. And that both will be the focus of research going forward.

So, yeah- for at least right now- I don’t think we quite know the truth about yoga.

So, what can you do now?

I have a short list here for guidance. Do these things for a healthy, body positive yoga; prevention of eating disorder risk; and referral for those who are struggling:

  1.  Let yoga be about yoga. The yoga scriptures do not speak about weight loss and body sculpting as a pathway to enlightenment. Teach yoga, not self-judgment. 
  2. Create and maintain a body positive culture. Teach yoga that brings awareness to the body and honors the body. All shapes, sizes, abilities, ages, ranges of flexibility, and levels of strength belong—as students and teachers—we all belong.
  3.  See http://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/types-symptoms-eating-disorders  and http://www.eatingdisorderfoundation.org/EatingDisorders.htm for signs and symptoms of eating disorders.
  4.  If you see someone at risk and you do not know what to do, get help. Contact a local eating disorder specialist and ask for guidance.
  5.  See http://www.eat-26.com for an eating disorder screening tool.
  6. Eat well, maintain a healthy weight, and get help when you need help. A yoga teacher with an eating disorder (even if you are keeping it a secret) is creating risk in his or her community. Take a break from teaching and get help for yourself.
  7.  Be careful with food cleanses, fasting, juicing, and eating guidance. Work with a nutritionist who has familiarity with eating disorder behavior. Do not guide people on topics outside of your expertise.
  8.  Privately, consult with any students you believe may be at risk. If necessary, require a student who is presenting dangerous behavior or appears to be at-risk to get help before you allow them to continue to attend classes. See “How to Help Someone with an Eating Disorder” at http://anad.org/wp-content/uploads/2010/11/How-to-Help5.pdf
  9. Follow the research. We all have access to Google scholar. Use it. National and international eating disorder organizations also provide research updates- see links ANAD, NEDA, and Something Fishy. 
  10. Yoga training programs should include warning signs for mental health issues, risk assessment, guidelines for intervening, and practice in confronting struggling students safely and compassionately.






References and Additional Readings:

Dittmann, K. A., & Freedman, M. R. (2009). Body awareness, eating attitudes, and spiritual beliefs of women practicing yoga. Eating Disorders, 17(4), 273-292.

Douglass, L. (2009). Yoga as an intervention in the treatment of eating disorders: does it help?. Eating Disorders, 17(2), 126-139.

Daubenmier, J. J. (2005). The Relationship of Yoga, Body Awareness, and Body Responsiveness to SelfObjectification and Disordered Eating. Psychology of Women Quarterly, 29(2), 207-219.

Klein, J., & Cook-Cottone, C. (2013). The Effects of Yoga on Eating Disorder Symptoms and Correlates: A Review. International journal of yoga therapy, 2(2), 41-50.


Neumark‐Sztainer, D., Eisenberg, M. E., Wall, M., & Loth, K. A. (2011). Yoga and pilates: Associations with body image and disordered‐eating behaviors in a population‐based sample of young adults. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 44(3), 276-280.