Millions of North Americans suffer from disordered eating—compulsive or stress eating, and restricting—marked by obsessive food thoughts, guilt, and body-hatred. Lurching from overindulgence to deprivation, chronic dieters grasp at the latest diet fads.
Even more startling, up to 24 million Americans of all ages and genders suffer from eating disorders: binge eating disorder, anorexia, and bulimia—linked to depression, they have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. Yet, only 1 in 10 people with eating disorders receive treatment.
Yoga therapist and innovator Sarahjoy Marsh believes that it’s possible to break free from cycles of disordered eating, and that yoga is an effective tool in doing so. She outlines how this is possible in her new book, Hunger, Hope & Healing: A Yoga Approach to Reclaiming Your Relationship to Your Body and Food. Fusing yoga with psychology, neuroscience, breathing interventions, and mindfulness techniques, Marsh has developed an accessible and much needed roadmap that leads to recovery. The book is full of insights to awaken understanding and innate intelligence through grounding and restorative strategies. Marsh provides daily inquiries, action steps, yoga poses, meditations, and breathing exercises that are easily applicable to anybody, no matte where they are on their journey towards recovery.
Sarahjoy Marsh answered some questions about the book and her approach for IAYB. Based in Portland, Oregon, Marsh has a master’s degree in counseling and has been training yoga teachers, yoga outreach volunteers, and mental health providers—including clinical psychologists and social workers—in yoga therapy tools for 26 years. Marsh is also committed to using yoga for social justice and has founded two non-profits. Living Yoga brings yoga to prisons, alcohol and drug rehab centers, and transitional facilities. DAYA Foundation teaches yoga and mindfulness tools to those with addiction, anxiety or depression; medical issues such as cancer, multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease; and social or financial constraints.
Based on your experience as a yoga therapist and teacher, how can yoga help people recovering from disordered eating and food addictions? How is it different (and perhaps even more effective) than other approaches?
Yoga provides relief, refuge, body-centered kindness, and opens us to the possibility of new perspectives about ourselves and life. This is particularly profound as we embark on the journey of recovery, from any addiction or self-harm strategy, because we are essentially embarking on the journey out of shame and back to love, wholeness, and belonging. We must outgrow the myths from which we have been shaping our lives, the myths that tell us there is something wrong with us that needs to be fixed, the myths that say we’re unlovable, or the myths that tell us who we are and how we are is not enough, is unacceptable, or causes the suffering of others.
Yoga facilitates this process initially by reviving our body intelligence. Re-learning to breathe, feel, and respond may seem too basic to be powerful. But the loss of these intrinsic capacities drives our brain and bio-chemistry away from homeostasis into chronic internalized stress. This loss also reflects how we were shaped by the messages all around us, and how we unknowingly continued to organize ourselves to relieve the pain of this shaping. By the time we engage in disordered eating or food addiction, we’ve already been conditioned to have a certain overtone in our relationship to our body and our emotions. If the overtones include disdain, frustration, aggression, restlessness, or fear (to name a few), these attitudes keep shaping our brain and bio-chemistry. This shaping alters our cognitive capacities. Our thinking changes. Our body image becomes distorted, but we don’t see it as distorted thinking.
Herein lies one of the strengths of yoga to support us in recovery: as we re-learn to breathe, we nudge our brain and bio-chemistry toward health. As we re-learn to feel, both sensations and emotions, we normalize that these things happen for humans everywhere, and we learn to navigate the fleeting and often tender nature of sensations and emotions. As we re-learn how to wisely respond, we are able to engage in healthy developmental processes that we would have explored earlier in life if we’d had the support and guidance to do so. We develop empathy for ourselves and others.
Yoga as a therapeutic tool can be more powerful than talk therapy when a client’s brain and nervous system have been organized by trauma, altered by addiction, and further deepened by the repetition and urgency of the addiction. As this person embarks on the journey of recovery, talk therapy may attempt to engage their narrative and their cognition-developing brain (the left hemisphere), yet often the history of our frightened, anxious, or painful shaping is embedded in our right-brain. We may not have the words to describe the feelings. Yoga addresses the right brain, soothes the limbic brain, and, as we work with a yoga therapist, we are able to re-develop the interpersonal brain circuits of empathy, self-soothing, and trust.
We are born with full spectrum radiance. Through the process of socialization and conditioning, most of us narrow our 360-degree life down to a manageable “slice” of what would have otherwise been our innate and expressive wholeness. Part of this narrowing down serves to wisely protect us from the potential pains of abandonment, rejection, shunning, or shame. These choices are often subconscious.
A primal dilemma ensues: conditioning shapes us to “belong” yet in other ways requires us to abandon or reject aspects of ourselves. For example, we may be inclined to be socially spontaneous but our family system says that’s dangerous and we don’t behave like that. Or we may be enamored of books, yet our parents are certain we should play sports. To help manage the pain of this dilemma, in which we shape ourselves to belong, we may become dedicated to managing our body composition through rigorous food restriction patterns or diets or compulsive exercise. This is both a distraction from the underlying, and often unnameable, pain of saying no to authentic aspects of ourselves, our emotions, our fullness; and a way to cultivate efficacy, experience independence in the choices we are making for ourselves, or create a feeling of agency. Another pain-management strategy may be emotional eating, or bingeing and purging. These strategies may be attempts to soothe or numb the pain we’re in, but as such strategies cause changes in our brain chemistry and in our thinking, the strategies start to have more control over us than we do over them. Life can become limited to navigating our food and exercise episodes and our pre-occupation with them. Our lives become more narrowed, more rigid, more fragile, and more anxious.
To live a 360-degree life is to live with courage, empathy and aliveness. A 360-degree life welcomes the whole of who we are to express itself. We come to understand that the undercurrent of our shared humanity includes the seeds of countless expressions. We see the painful expressions as pleas for love and belonging; and as opportunities for empathy rather than shunning. As our lives expand into our original full spectrum radiance, we become more welcoming toward, curious about, and forgiving toward those aspects of our human expression that were once cause for fear. We become more free from fear and capable of love.
I love how one of your practices is “coming back to awe” – how do we lose our sense of awe? How can we reconnect with this through yoga?
We lose our sense of awe when life shapes us to forget. This shaping begins very early for some of us. We are born with innate human hungers to be seen, cherished, celebrated, and soothed. If we grow up in early environments where these hungers don’t get tended to, where we live in a kind of deficit of being seen, we develop a distorted sense of who we are. Often this includes a personal narrative that there is something wrong with us, or that we will never be good enough, or that only when we have worked hard enough will we be acceptable. Likewise, an early environment that is mis-attuned, chaotic, neglectful, or abusive also distorts how we see ourselves. We lose sight of ourselves. We forget that our most intrinsic nature was once that full spectrum radiance. An expansive experience of love and belonging.
Yoga teaches us that the first cause of suffering is avidya, translated as ignorance or the absence of wisdom. What is implied here is that we are “ignorant about,” or have forgotten, our basic nature. Considering that ignorance implies something got ignored, or forgotten, if our early care providers were unable to see us, to mirror us back to ourselves, or to reflect the awe of us back to us, we may have forgotten how to do this for ourselves. Yoga re-awakens this.
Yoga can awaken this awe initially by connecting us to our body intelligence as it cares for us. For example, we do a certain yoga pose and experience our body temperature going up. We become still and experience our body temperature returning to homeostasis. Our body intelligence is wisely caring for us. We generate a sensation in a yoga pose, our body intelligence is nudging us to pay loving attention to the sensation. We lower our arms after an overhead pose and our fingers begin to tingle, get warm, or grow heavy again. Once more, our body intelligence is working on our behalf! This realization is a body-centered reminder that life welcomes us, that what sustains our body intelligence also infuses the natural world around us. And that, fundamentally and unequivocally, we belong.
A second and very important way that yoga helps us to come back to awe is the internal brain process of feeling our body, sensations, breath, and our “sense of self” on the inside. Interoception, a relatively new consideration in neuroscience and intra-personal development, is like proprioception on the inside. If our early experiences were mis-attuned , neglectful, or abusive, we may have learned to dissociate. Anorexia might have helped with this dissociation; as could the purge part of our binge-purge cycle. As we move through yoga poses and take sensitive note of our sensations from the inside, we are re-growing our internal radar systems. We are growing a sense of self! This is a healthy developmental process that our brains needed. A healthy sense of self can revel in the awe of life, and nature, and the intimate mystery of fingernails growing themselves. We are re-awakened to awe, which has an anchor in our own body and heart, yet connects us to the vastness of life all around us too.
You have personal experience with disordered eating. How does this inform your work as a yoga therapist?
Even more important than my disordered eating strategies, what was buried beneath those patterns and body-centered self-hatred was shame. Shame greatly informs my work as a yoga therapist because I intimately understand how painful internalized shame is, the tricks and disguises shame can come up with (disguised as motivation, for example), and how shame once believed it needed to protect and care for us. Yoga teaches us that love, not shame, is our essential nature. Blessedly, yoga offered me this poignant insight so repeatedly that I very deeply see and know this love as the center of each person with whom I work. Whether a student comes to see me for anxiety, ptsd, anorexia, or a broken heart from the loss of a relationship, an essential aspect of our work together will be to restore their ability to move from move not shame. This means we are also learning about the language of shame; we’re learning to set clear boundaries with shame; and we’re cultivating strategies for self-advocacy and accountability, not self-abandonment.
I also have a very tender, understanding, and hopeful perspective on how early life trauma shapes us, how it asks of us to courageously and deliberately forge our life path, and how it can develop our capacity for empathy. My own early life trauma was chaotic and painful enough to know something was wrong, yet stable and “ordinary” enough to question myself. My intuition was clear and available, but I couldn’t find it trustworthy. Something was terribly wrong, but I couldn’t speak to others about it. The isolation became great. My disordered eating further deepened and sustained this isolation, and kept me distracted enough that I could not speak about what had happened. Navigating, surviving, and then thriving through this confusion has developed my ability to warmly welcome whatever arises for my students; to offer a fundamental non-shaming, non-blaming, non-rejecting stance; and to understand the power of a resilient and empathetic nervous system to provide a compassionate lighthouse for my students, no matter how stormy their ocean may seem to them.
At what point did you feel ready to synthesize your work and knowledge into a book? Could you give us a little insight into your writing process?