How yoga can aid anorexia recovery: a woman who struggled with body image issues explains how it helped her accept her body, listen to it and respect it
- As a teenager, Kate Lee hated the way she looked, ‘spent three hours in the gym every day’ and barely ate. At her lowest, she weighed 42 kilograms
- She took up yoga to lose more weight – but it ‘forced me to confront my body in ways that I had not before’. Now, she wants to use it to help others
Kate Lee struggled with body image issues from a young age and was once borderline anorexic. She took up yoga because she wanted to lose more weight, but found it did something else altogether – it helped her recover from the disorder.
According to the Hong Kong Eating Disorders Association, 35 per cent of the people who sought help from its hotline over the last decade suffered from anorexia.
People with anorexia usually restrict their food intake, exercise a lot and have excessive thoughts of food and their body shape, which has a detrimental impact on their physical and mental well-being.
Lee, 21, grew up in Hong Kong and is studying for a degree in communications and entrepreneurship at Northwestern University in the US state of Illinois.
“When I would look at a banana, I would see 100 calories in it and not the nutritional value.”
Lee turned to yoga to become even thinner, and took up daily classes.
“At first, my aim was to lose calories. Over time, I noticed a shift in myself. Practising yoga forced me to confront my body in ways that I had not before. Observing my body and breath enabled me to experience my body.
“I felt present, noticing what was happening in the moment as opposed to having thoughts about the past or the future.”
Yoga, she says, made her think of herself in more mindful and holistic ways.
“There is something about hearing and moving with your breath that calms you. Poses such as pashchimottanasana [seated forward bend], sirsasana [headstand] and urdhva dhanurasana [upward bow pose] helped me face my fears and centred me.
Lee also incorporated pranayama (breathing techniques) into her yoga practice, practising kapal bhati (“skull shining breath”, forceful exhalations and automatic inhalations at a fast pace) 100 times daily.
“Focusing on my breath allowed me to observe my thoughts and not act on them.”
Victoria Fouladi, a teacher with the Iyengar Yoga Centre of Hong Kong, says the purpose of yoga is to quieten and calm the mind.
“Through the body, and the postures, the practitioner makes connections to her mind and self,” Fouladi says. “This creates a sense of wholeness. A new sense of self develops, full of confidence and contentment.”
The others include yamas (outward practices such as ahimsa meaning “non-violence” and satya meaning “truthfulness”), niyamas (inward observances such as santosha meaning “contentment” and tapas meaning “discipline”), pratyahara (withdrawal of the senses), dharana (concentration), dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (bliss).
“As a part of my yoga practice, I was introduced to the yoga philosophy of ahimsa and satya,” shares Lee. “I learned that the practice of non-violence means practising physical, mental and emotional non-violence towards others and myself. I realised that I was being violent and untrue to myself and my body by starving it of the fuel it needed.”
Seven months after taking up yoga, Lee regained the weight she had lost. “The feeling of wanting to lose weight was not there any more,” she says. She continues to practise yoga daily.
Energetic poses like jumping up into adho mukha vrksasana (handstand) or more calming asanas like supta baddha konasana (reclining bound angle pose) both increase confidence and boost the spirits, she adds.
“Asanas also take a person’s mind off of their woes and in both the short- and long-term break unnecessary thought patterns that may lead to eating disorders and create new healthy perspectives.”
Lee also trained to be a yoga teacher with the Yoga Room in Hong Kong and studied yoga in Bali in Indonesia, with a focus on women and their menstrual cycle.
Lee says that yoga helped her accept her body the way it was and to not worry about the future. Training to become a teacher has deepened her practice – and the possibility of teaching yoga excites her.
“Yoga changed my life. I want to share what I have learned and help others.”