Last Updated on February 5, 2021 by Katherine Dittmann, MA, MS, RD
A rash of new research has yet to explain why and how yoga and other mind-body therapies appear to be effective in treating and preventing eating and body image concerns. Much of the evidence remains anecdotal and the actual benefits are unclear. The research indeed suggests that yoga practice is helpful, but the studies have conflicting results and the effects are not as great as expected.
What’s increasingly clear is that yoga enhances embodiment and mindfulness, two qualities that we do know are helpful in preventing and treating these issues. To state it broadly, both embodiment and mindfulness require present-focused awareness and deliberate attention to sensations, thoughts, and feelings in order to establish a mind-body connection. When we are not fully inhabiting our bodies, it can be tricky to identify and manage emotions, impulses, and thoughts leaving us at their mercy.
Below are seven potential outcomes of a sincere and consistent practice. The term yoga here refers to asana or postural yoga, which is one of several limbs of the complete practice. I kept it simple given much of the research begins with the physical practice, although it is very likely that those who delve into the other aspects of yogic philosophy will have enhanced benefits.
1. Yoga can help with impulse control.
The mindful awareness developed through a consistent practice helps create the mental space needed between impulse and behavioral response (such as eating, restricting food, or compensating for eating) in order to have better access to coping skills and make wiser decisions. Increased mindfulness can also curb compulsive or mindless eating.
As renowned psychologist Viktor Frankl said, “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.”
2. Yoga teaches how to tolerate discomfort.
The moderate physical discomfort encountered in some yoga postures or during seated meditation is a metaphor for difficult life situations and distressing emotions. As we build up our tolerance for both physical and emotional discomfort, we not only learn to stay with distress without using food and other means of coping, but also we allow the discomfort of hunger and fullness to come and go without the urgency to “fix” it.
3. Yoga teaches body appreciation, leading to body acceptance.
Yoga happens from the inside out. Through consistent and observant practice, yoga can promote increased reverence and respect for the body. The body is seen as a partner, rather than an adversary. Trust is built through mastery of postures leading to less need to enforce one’s will on the body.
4. Yoga can enhance interoceptive awareness.
Because of the internal nature of yoga practice, physical sensations and signals become more accessible. These sensations include the subtle changes in hunger and fullness. The big shift happens with the realization that one is actually more in control when listening and responding to the body than when trying to resist the body.
5. Yoga can improve the ability to handle stress.
Yoga and mindfulness have been shown to dampen the threat-defense nervous system and engage the attend-and-befriend system, which results in decreased stress levels. An improved response to stress may lead to a decrease in using food or restricting to manage stress.
6. Yoga can increase overall mindfulness.
In general practitioners are more likely to stay present, aware, observant, non-reactive, and non-judgmental. Cultivating a state of mindfulness may reduce automatic food-related responses to emotions and life situations.
7. Yoga can encourage appropriate effort.
Postural yoga is part active and part observant. Some effort is required to position oneself, but the yoga happens while observing the posture unfold in the body with the breath. This quality of non-striving helps the practitioner find his or her own edge. The edge appears when limitations are respectfully challenged and the body’s needs are observed.
How has yoga helped you? Leave a comment and let me know.
For a more in-depth look, here are two freely-accessed articles: