As I work to support women struggling with eating disorders, I am aware that the body can feel like their number one enemy. The images in the media and the cultural focus on size and shape prey on young women's vulnerable minds. They become victims trapped in a body that does not conform. Controlling their food and exercise seems like the best solution to find love and acceptance.
Overtime, once again they will learn that love and acceptance are not gained by body image. They are gained by an internal felt-sense of joy, ease and pleasure within the confines of the muscles, skin and bones - and even the fat. When this love and acceptance are for the Self - then the rest of the world will follow. They will find out the intrinsic value they have in being women. Beautiful from the inside out.
Getting from point A to point B seems like a million mile trek unless you find tools to help you traverse the long journey. One of the most profound, effective, and FUN tools is movement. You might call it dance but this can be limiting since many people have a pre-conceived notion of what dance is. The idea in using the word movement is that it is very open ended. It could be moving in any way at all. There is no right or wrong way to move.
For the purposes of healing and recovering the lost parts of yourself, it's important to begin to recover a deep attention to your inner urges. Moving to the rhythm of music while keeping focus on your internal impulses is an impactful way to cultivate that inner attention.
This week for our movement group at the IOP, I brought a play list of songs inspired by the 5rhythms practice developed by Gabrielle Roth. (The rhythms she proposes are Flowing, Staccato, Chaos, Lyrical, Stillness.)
I began by leading the women into their bodies methodically, beginning with the head - moving down to the toes. As we felt into the music, we each dove deeper into the interior of our bodies. Once we had opened up in this way, I let the songs play in order with sparse guidance amidst the music.
Some of the prompts I offered the moving women were:
At the end of the movement experience we took 5 minutes in complete silence and stillness, laying on our backs. I asked each woman to place a hand on her belly and hand on her heart at the completion and say thank-you to her body. In reflection some women shared the complexity of having had a good time moving but simultaneously knowing that they are not grateful for their bodies much of the time. Others shared that they recognize the abuse their bodies have been through and they can appreciate them for enduring it all.
Once again, I am left with the important take-away that healing is a practice. Having used self-destructive coping tools to deal with the stressors of life for a long time, it's not easy to convince you that there are other options out there. You will need to find new, expressive and self-empowering tools to use - and just like with any craft, you will need to practice to master their art. But once mastered, these tools will be rewarding beyond your wildest imagination.
Moving toward recovery is a beautiful opportunity to get back in touch with lost parts of your embodied experience. Find music you like, that you resonate with, that shakes you up, that brings your to your knees. Music that makes you pray. You might find that you thank your body at the end. And surely your body will thank You.
Yin Yoga is a passive style of yoga developed by Paulie Zink and taught by Sarah Powers and Paul Grilly that integrates yoga poses and knowledge of Chinese meridian theory. Meridians are lines of energy that run through the body and correspond to internal organs. These can be accessed through acupressure, acupuncture, hand-on-healing, and even by your own stretching to activate them.
The Stomach/Spleen meridian pair are the main meridians you can target for benefits relating to disordered eating.
"The stomach meridian is the yang meridian and is paired with the Spleen yin meridian. It helps support physical and emotional nourishment. It functions with the Spleen meridian in the assimilation of Qi from food through digestion and absorption. The Spleen supports self-esteem and open mindedness." (Taken from NaturalHealthZone)
The idea in Yin Yoga is to target the energy lines so it's not as important that you do the exact pose in the exact right way. As long as you feel a stretch, an opening of energy, a deepening of sensation - in the area you're working on.
Here are some tips for your Yin practice:
Here is a list of some poses that correspond to the Stomach/Spleen Meridian:
Escaping uncomfortable feelings is actually doing you more harm that good: A Somatic Psychology approach to TOLErAtINg DIsCOmFOrT
What are people so afraid of? When it comes to emotions, why are people so afraid? It’s the sensations in the body that are hard for us to tolerate. Whatever it is that is uncomfortable makes us feel like we’re going to fall apart, explode, collapse, or hurt. And the thought of any of those happening to us is unbearable. So we divert our attention, run away, eat, don’t eat, sleep or get high. We all have found some way to get through the difficult sensations somehow.
But the problem is that by doing all of these things – we end up having to do them over and over and over because we can’t escape that life is uncomfortable. So without getting into our bodies – diving in to the core of the sensation – we never learn how to be with the difficulty and how to manage ourselves better. We are blocking our way to growth and fulfillment.
When we learn to be with the discomfort – we learn to tolerate it – we can become curious about it. And when we become curious about it, we are cultivating a witnessing part of our minds that can make other choices. And when we make space for other choices, we have space to learn to influence ourselves; that is to actually change the shapes our bodies are making and change how we interpret them. For example it’s possible to turn our fearful tingling into courageous sparkling or to turn tight nervousness into strong confidence.
This way, the sensations become tools. We can shape-shift inside them. We can become artists within the framework of our own bodies.
Imagine the inside of your body is a blank canvas. If emotions start to happen naturally, and you become fearful that you will be taken over – you shield yourself, protect yourself, use a black shadow over the whole thing so as not to have to look… Sadly, you will never know what you are missing.
In actuality, with no sensation, your canvas is white and empty. As emotions start to flow, sensations begin to creep up – if you take a look with curiosity – colors will begin to fill in. Depending on the emotion – it might be washing you over with red, little dots of blue, or blinding yellow. And as you look, you could choose to add a little hint of gold. Or a smudge of green.
This is a visual way to think about what we can also do on a sensory level. For example, being overcome by anger feels HOT. Taking a deep breath can cool you down. Or maybe splashing your face with cold water before responding will help you have more space. And little by little you get to choose how much heat to allow.
I know that it’s not easy to interrupt a strong flood of emotion when it comes on. This is why practicing when you’re not in a difficult moment is very important.
Taking a breathing pause a few times a day is a good place to start.
Try this: Set an alarm on your watch or phone for 3 random times throughout the day. Each time the alarm goes off, stop what you are doing and count three full breaths. Get curious about the experience. How long do 3 breaths feel? How do 3 breaths affect your body? Your mind? Your mood?
This is one small step toward your growing capacity to tolerate discomfort and handle the stressors of life with just a little more grace.
Changing your thoughts about yourself may seem impossible. You have a very long term relationship with 'you' and it feels like you absolutely know and can rely on the view you have of yourself. When you hear yourself thinking "I hate myself" or "I can't do anything right" or any number of other self-defeating thoughts, you are actually abusing yourself emotionally. And as with any kind of abuse, it leaves a mark on your psyche. This internal negative self talk is very hard to break because it becomes a habit of the mind every time you are at all feeling insecure about yourself.
What you might not realize is that these negative thoughts are not true. They are a structure made up of many experiences you have had over the course of your life. More than likely, you have internalized messages that you received at a very young age from your care givers. It doesn't have to be the exact words they used that are going through your head now, but even passive ways they communicated to you that left you feeling unworthy. Your self-esteem is built on reflection you get from the world early on, so turning things around later in life is a daunting task.
At the eating disorder recovery IOP where I work, we often come up against a big challenge with clients when it comes to self-esteem. A treatment program is fertile ground to examine your beliefs about yourself and weed through them. Then of course, comes the tricky part: planting new seeds of positive self-image.
This week in group, I brought in a song by India Arie called "Strength, Courage and Wisdom" and played it for the group. I asked each of the women to spend time reflecting on the song by journaling or drawing. We listened to the song 10 times in a row to really let it sink in. The song is groovy and fun. It's catchy too so it's easy to start humming along after the first time you hear it. Some of the women found themselves joining in under their breath as they journaled.
When I asked them to share with me and the group what it was like to listen to this song each one of them said a version of, "Cool, song but I don't relate at all. I don't feel I have those qualities and I don't know how to get them." Although it was exactly what I expected to hear, their response made me sad. I looked around the room at these young women who had reached out for help in a world that sometimes makes it seem like having an eating disorder is par for the course to become pretty, successful and desired. I saw their strength. I saw them showing up here at the IOP day after day, riding the waves of up and down and picking themselves back up over and over when they fall. I saw their courage. I saw women who are choosing to look within for the answers. I saw women who, although they may waiver at times, they are beginning to build faith in their ability to change. I saw their wisdom. But they did not see these things in themselves.
I asked them what it feels like when someone gives them a compliment. Each in her own turn said that she can not accept a compliment and uncomfortably waits until it's over, then shakes it off. I asked each of them to think of one and sculpt two other women into the shapes of the person giving a compliment and herself when she is being complimented. For example, one woman sculpted a peer standing upright, chest and arms wide open in a welcoming gesture. Then she sculpted her peer in a stance that was slightly turned away, stooped over and averting her gaze. As we examined the sculpture we found that the person who was rejecting the compliment, was actually also rejecting the other person. She was making connection between the two impossible. And also, she was tense and holding tight, making things harder for herself than they have to be.
The points that came up in our discussion are very important to understanding what you are doing when you identify with the negative self-talk. Your whole body organizes around it. You are actually tensing up and holding on to the beliefs so strongly that your body tightens and is working hard to defend against any possibility that your thoughts might not be true. Your whole system is hunkering down. No wonder you feel trapped, alone and insecure. There is no space for anything else.
So how do you get from this place to a more open, fluid and self-accepting place?
There are a few important steps:
1) Recognize that this posture WILL change when the belief system changes. Whether you like it or not, your body will reflect the state of your mind.
2) Becoming WILLING to allow it to change. This means you have accepted that you will change and you are curious about how.
3) Make a choice with your mind to influence your body posture. This is the rational step that we humans need to get "on board". You could call it a goal, an objective or a commitment. This choice will need to be made again and again until the new habit of mind and body become second nature.
4) Find tools to use to influence your body and make a little more space. The tools I am talking about here are already a part of your human body, but you may not be using them deliberately. The key here is to try a tool and track how it has affected you. Some tools might make you feel more open, others feel more grounded, some might help you feel safe. You will need to learn a few and adjust them to your needs in each moment. My favorite and most widely used tool is the breath. Breath as a tool is a subject in and of itself. Start with taking one deep full breath into the tension and see what happens.
5) Practice these tools when you are alone. It's important to practice when you are at ease and not in a triggering situation. This way you are giving your body cues that you will be able to use anytime. Practicing in the safety of your own space, when you are alone or with a therapist or other supportive person, takes away some pressure. Sometimes it's hard to do something different even when you're alone but at least no one else is there to be critical of you. You can work with your own inner critic and discover more about it.
6) Practice these tools when you are in different situations. Once you have practiced on your own, the tools will become more and more available in your day to day. You will find that using them throughout the day help you shift your inner world as needed.
Allowing yourself to be open to other possibilities besides self-defeating, self-loathing thoughts is a journey. It will not change overnight. But it will not change at all if you don't take some initiative. You have been a victim of circumstance for too long. You can choose not to continue being a victim of your own thoughts. With patience and determination, you will learn to heal your relationship with yourself.
Yonat Piva, MA, LMFT
I write about navigating the challenges of prenatal, postpartum, parenting & relationships. I believe we can inhabit our bodies with a renewed sense of fulfillment in being a human woman.