Yoga helped me to accept my body after anorexia. Here’s how it can help you embrace your body too
by eating disorders & mental health activist James Downs
As part of The Positive Planner Instagram series Movember Mondays this November where we are bringing talk about men's mental health to the fore, Finn joined eating disorders & mental health activist James Downs to discuss his mental health journey and recovery. James was incredibly open and honest about his experience and how yoga helped him heal and accept his body. You can catch the video here if you missed it.
Now 31, James developed anorexia at 15. Over ten years later, his discovery of yoga helped him finally put together the pieces of a long and complex recovery. He has since trained as a yoga and barre teacher in order to share his passion for movement with others. Here he shares his story, talks about how you can learn to accept and embrace your body with yoga and offers his top tips and favourite yoga postures for learning to sit with yourself, just as you are.
What it’s like to live with an eating disorder
Like a disciple of a cult of self-loathing, I spent years devoting myself to the hatred I had for my body. Astonishingly good at looking the other way, I denied that my ritual means of self-punishment was actually an eating disorder called Anorexia Nervosa. People around me didn’t want to see the reality either - especially when their stereotype of what anorexia looks like was challenged by my male body.
Besides, there was little support on offer anyway. When my doctors told me “you'll probably have to live with this” or worse, “eating disorders are just attention-seeking” I was left falling deeper and deeper. My commitment to gruelling amounts of exercise renewed with every alienating encounter. Miles had to be run, even if I fainted. Food had to be avoided, even if it meant hospital. Rejecting my body was compulsory, even if the cost was to miss out on school or hurt my friends and family.
Society and body dissatisfaction
Eating disorders of course are complex and different for everyone. But my experience of shame and disgust at my physical existence, and compulsion to change my body in order for it to be acceptable, is not unique. Research shows consistently that a dislike of our bodies is something we share across all sections of society. 90% of British women feel body-image anxiety, and growing numbers of men feel ashamed about their lack of muscularity. Young people are so uncomfortable in their own skin that they increasingly skip meals, try crash diets and exercise excessively in order to improve their appearance.
Body dissatisfaction is the norm, and whipping yourself into shape with punitive exercise and dietary regimes is presented as the solution.
Finding my path to recovery
But it doesn’t need to be this way. At the heart of my recovery from an eating disorder wasn’t just learning to eat “normally”, if such a thing exists. Recovery was about learning to cope with the intense emotions I didn’t like to connect within my body. Recovery was coming to terms with the fact that I had a body at all - that it was something to be taken care of, however hard and unnatural that seemed. It was about connecting with and harnessing my appetite for life, as well as food. Recovery was about putting together these broken pieces.
This is where yoga stepped in.
Acceptance is key
Acceptance is a central concept in yoga. It means learning to sit with yourself just as you are, without needing to run away or change anything. I was introduced to mindfulness in psychotherapy, and when I encountered yoga I realised that I could use this practice of focussing my attention on my breath and the present moment and integrate it with movement.
Yoga became my “moving meditation”. Instead of focusing on getting my body to “better” versions of postures, I had to learn to be OK with where I was. Instead of focussing on achievement, making progress or being the best, I realised that it is sometimes “good enough” just to show up to class, whether or not you can do the perfect downward-facing dog. Acceptance became my antidote for years of self-rejection and punishment.
Finding space mentally and physically
Clearing a space for yourself to tune into the body can help you get a better sense of what is really going on for you, mentally as well as physically. After all, emotions are called “feelings” for a reason - they are felt in the body.
Yoga helped me to gently become attuned to my mental and emotional processes - some of which were very difficult - in a way where I could gradually tolerate them without getting overwhelmed. Of course, this kind of practice has to be done at a time that is right for you, and in an environment that feels safe and supportive. Finding the right teacher and a style of yoga that resonates with you is key.
Become your own nurturer
“No pain, no gain” is a phrase you can leave at the yoga studio door. Instead of pushing your body to the maximum and straining or draining yourself, yoga at its best teaches you to balance and regulate your energy and to always be compassionate.
In a culture where we often feel we have to “earn” that “naughty” slice of cake, or “burn off” the tub of ice-cream we ate on the sofa last night, the fact that yoga demands we treat ourselves with compassion can seem alien to us. Surely it is about getting into the splits, whatever the cost? No. Yoga invites you to use postures to get into your body, rather than forcing your body to get into postures. Over time, I learnt to be my own nurturer, based on awareness of myself and what I need. Sometimes that means having an invigorating practice, other times giving myself rest, without condition. This was a true revolution for me, and one that changed me so much that I felt the need to share it.
Sharing my revolution
So I took a yoga teacher training course. Over a year later, I now teach yoga, in a range of different styles, to a huge variety of people.
If you scroll through social media, you might think that yoga is only for skinny, white women, people who are incredibly flexible, or those who can both fit into and afford designer yoga pants. This isn’t true, yoga is for everybody, whatever their body looks like. There is no prescribed shape or size you have to be to have a yoga practice that you find useful to your life. There are no bonus points towards enlightenment if you have an expensive yoga mat, or can touch your toes. You don’t need an expensive studio membership either, there are lots of free resources and videos to follow at home.
Maybe you have practised yoga before and want to get back into it. Maybe you are one of so many people I talk to who want to try yoga but are stopped by limiting thoughts that they “aren’t flexible enough” or “won’t be good enough”.
But you are enough, and you can start today.
Read on for instructions to my suggestions for three yoga poses you can easily try at home:
1: Legs up the wall
This is a really restorative pose for tired legs or when you feel you’ve been rushed off your feet all day.
- Support your back and neck with any padding you might need to feel comfortable.
- Take your legs up a wall or comfortable chair.
- Breathe deeply into your upper back and chest as you allow the weight of the legs to drop down into the earth.
- Feel free to bend your legs or modify - for example taking the legs wide or bringing the soles of the feet together.
- Dare yourself to have as little involvement as possible in keeping your legs suspended against gravity and allow yourself to just let go.
2: Seated forward fold with butterfly legs
- Finding a comfortable sitting position, bring the soles of the feet together and allow the knees to drop out to the side like the pages of a book.
- If this isn't comfortable or it is difficult to sit upright, try sitting on the edge of a cushion, or support the underside of the knees with extra cushions - the more the better!
- As you take your chest forwards, try not to round the spine but to extend forwards, leading with the chest.
- Relax the head and neck and deepen the breath to fill the space between your belly and your legs.
- Optional - hug a cushion for extra physical and emotional support!
3: Heart opener over cushions
- Lay down in a warm and comfortable space where you won't be disturbed.
- Lodge some cushions for support underneath your upper back, allowing the front of the ribs to gently peel open as you deepen the breath.
- Take your arms behind you or wherever feels comfortable, and support your pelvis with your feet flat on the floor unless you want to extend your legs straight.
- If you have a yoga bolster cushion, play around with placing this below the chest or behind the knees. If you don’t have one, any cushions will do.
- As the front of the body is exposed, notice a sense of openness as well as perhaps a feeling of vulnerability as you deepen the breath to fill up and ease out any tightness in chest, shoulders and heart region.
4: Foetal position
- Make this shape your own. Support yourself on a comfortable surface with as many cushions and props as you might need, under your head, between your legs, under your hips, etc.
- As you breathe into this shape, cultivate a sense of holding yourself in unconditional care, as a mother has for a child.
- After you have reached a position where your body and breath are stilled and calm, turn gently to the other side, and embrace yourself just as you are in this shape.
- There is no need to achieve, be or do anything in particular. Listen to your heart and know that you are inherently valuable and worth caring for.