The Science of Willpower

Secrets for self-control without suffering

How Yoga Can Help End Binge Eating

One breath at a time, end the suffering of binge-eating.

Binge eating feels like the ultimate loss of control. Those who suffer from it often worry that their self-destructive relationship with food will define their lives forever.

However, a recent study identifies a path to healing: yoga. The study, conducted by researchers at Deakin University in Australia, found that yoga can help obese women who struggle with binge eating [1-2]. The 12-week yoga program included postures, breathing, relaxation, and meditation. All of the practices emphasized mindfulness, or non-judgmental awareness and acceptance of thoughts, sensations, and emotions. The women attended one 60-minute yoga class per week and were encouraged to practice at home for 30 minutes a day.

By the end of the 12-week program, the women reported less binge-eating, higher self-esteem, and a more positive body image. The group also showed statistically significant decreases in BMI as well as hip and waist measurements.

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To find out more about how yoga might have helped the women make peace with food, themselves, and their bodies, I talked to Maggie Juliano, director of Sprout Yoga, a non-profit organization that provides yoga to people with disordered eating.

According to Juliano, yoga gives people the skills to stay with what they are feeling, rather than turning to food to escape. People who are obese or suffering from eating disorders have a tendency to dissociate from their bodies -- to choose not to feel what they are feeling when they are angry, anxious, or sad. Often, they turn to food to numb themselves. "There's this sense that I have to feel better right now, " Juliano says. "There is a complete intolerance of what is happening right now." This need to escape unpleasant feelings triggers a binge.

When you eat to escape what you are feeling, you lose touch with the experience of eating, as well. This is one reason binges can spiral out of control. "You have no understanding that you are full, way past full, into uncomfortable, because you're so out of it," Juliano explains. "You have no connection to what you're eating. You're eating a pint of ice cream and can't even taste it. Or you go to make yourself some toast and before you know it, half the loaf is gone."

Mindful yoga directly challenges the habit of dissociating from your body and your present-moment experience. "The whole point of yoga is to stay connected to your body. You learn it through practice, through breathing, and through breathing through the sensations."

Juliano teaches her yoga students how to use what they learn in class to connect to their bodies when they're feeling the urge to binge. "It can be as simple as bringing your palms together and pressing your hands together as you exhale. Or standing in mountain pose, rooting your feet into the ground, and feeling your breath." The physical sensations become an anchor for the mind, making it possible to pause and find the space between a craving and automatic eating. "Yoga lets you say I'm feeling really overwhelmed, but I'm going to breathe through this now." As you breathe, you can acknowledge that where you are right now -- this craving, and this bad feeling -- is a moment in time. It won't last forever, and you can survive it.

By teaching you how to accept your body as it is, and what it can do, yoga also teaches self-compassion -- a necessary component of healing from any eating disorder. Women who binge often feel shame and guilt about their behavior. "Women hear all the time that lack of willpower made you fat, made you binge. That message is that if you do binge, you're bad," Juliano says. But research has shown that beating yourself up only increases your suffering and the need to escape feeling bad.

Self-compassion, on the other hand, can interrupt an episode of overeating and prevent a full binge. [3-5] It allows you to recognize that all humans experience suffering, and the desire to be free from suffering -- even when it expresses itself as a binge -- doesn't make you a bad person. When you can see this desire to be free from suffering as the need behind the behavior, guilt and shame can give way to acceptance and self-care.

For more information about Sprout Yoga, visit http://sproutyoga.org/.

Studies mentioned:

1. McIver, S., McGartland, M., & O'Halloran, P. 2009. "Overeating is not about the food": women describe their experience of a yoga treatment program for binge eating. Qualitative Health Research, 19, 1234-45.
2. McIver, S., O'Halloran, P., & McGartland, M. 2009. Yoga as a treatment for binge eating disorder: A preliminary study. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 17, 196-202.
3. Leary, M.R., Tate, E.B., Adams, C.E., Batts Allen, A., & Hancock, J. 2007. Self-compassion and reactions to unpleasant self-relevant events: the implications of treating oneself kindly. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92, 887-904.
4. Adams, C.E., & Leary, M.R. 2007. Promoting self-compassionate attitudes toward eating among restrictive and guilty eaters. Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology, 26, 1120-44.
5. Bacon, L., Stern, J.S., Van Loan, M.D., & Keim, N.L. 2005. Size acceptance and intuitive eating improve health for obese, female chronic dieters. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 105, 929-36.

 

Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D., is a health psychologist at Stanford University.

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