Yoga Therapy as a Binge Eating Disorder Treatment Option

Marissa Sappho, LCSW, BCD, CEDS, Co-Founder & Director of Clinical Services, Aurora Behavioral Health
Marissa Sappho, LCSW, BCD, CEDS, Co-Founder & Director of Clinical Services, Aurora Behavioral Health

By Marissa Sappho, LCSW, BCD, CEDS, Founder & Clinical Director, Aurora Behavioral Health

Every body tells a story, and when we are in the throes of an eating disorder, that story goes unheard. I have found that yoga therapy helps people with eating disorders determine what happening in their body and in life through postures, breath work and guided meditation. It is a therapy session for the body and mind that allows an individual the chance to discover and tell their recovery story.

When I’ve asked clients, “What comes to mind when I say the word “exercise?” everyone groans or sighs with pained expression; a reaction I expect. For many people with eating disorders, exercise is a dirty word.

For many of those with binge eating disorder (BED), the concept of exercise conjures feelings of ambivalence, passion, obsession, fear, shame, punishment, guilt, reward, pleasure/displeasure, obedience and rebellion. Folks have storied histories to physical activity. Some have been overweight since childhood–sometimes related to early on-set, with well-meaning but misinformed parents who offered up sports teams, personal trainers and gym memberships to help “get the weight under control.” Others enjoyed physical movement in balanced activities before development of the eating disorder, at which point the relationship to their body and movement shifted. Others have complicated relationships to their body, which have inhibited engagement in movement in positive ways.

I have found physical movement to be a critical element in the process of BED recovery, but particularly by combining mindfulness with yoga therapy, which has been very successful in my professional work at Aurora Behavioral Health Eating Disorder Treatment Center.

The Center’s clinical approach is rooted in yogic principles—the yamas and niyamas—which offers a template for ethical living and includes concepts of what should and should not be done. For instance, the yama Ahimsa means non-violence, and it can be interpreted as acting gently and in a kind, non-violent manner through words and actions, to others and oneself.

People with BED often commit violent acts to themselves. Examples include:

  • Negative self-talk: “You’re disgusting; how could you eat that? You have no self-control!”
  • Isolation and separation: Avoiding social events and being socially connected.
  • Negative behaviors: Binge eating, acts of self-punishment or self-harm.

Learning the principles of the yamas and niyamas can provide an emotional structure to lean on during the BED recovery process while determining how to find one’s own balance. We combine these principles with a yoga therapy asana practice (yoga postures), which is distinctive from restorative or therapeutic yoga—the specifics of which I’ll discuss in a future blog post. Until then, be kind to yourself. Namaste!

Marissa Sappho, LCSW, BCD, CEDS, is the Co-Founder & Director of Clinical Services at Aurora Behavioral Health, a comprehensive yoga-based eating disorder treatment center in New York City. It is the first such center in the area specializing in the treatment of Binge Eating Disorder. In addition to overseeing the Clinical Programs at Aurora, Marissa maintains a full time patient caseload. Marissa is a passionate educator, holding the title of Adjunct Professor at New York University in their graduate school of social work, as well as being Faculty and Supervisor at the Center for the Study of Anorexia and Bulimia (CSAB) where she also serves on the Advisory Board and the Executive Committee. Her work includes direct teaching experience as well as program and curriculum development for psychoanalytic training institutes and outpatient clinical services.