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Does Body Image Always Have to be the “Last Thing to Go”?



Monte Nido Assistant Clinical Director Jessyka Young, LMHC explores the use of yoga therapy in eating disorder treatment in this week’s blog post. She explains how yoga can help clients to listen to and become attuned to the signals and needs of their bodies.

“Body image is the last thing to go”. This statement seems to be an old adage in eating disorder treatment and recovery. I know that I am guilty of telling countless clients this.

Since becoming a yoga therapist, I’ve found myself questioning whether body image has to be the last thing to go, or whether there are ways to give clients a different perspective and appreciation of their bodies while they are in treatment. If we can change our thoughts about food, why can’t we change our thoughts about our body?

I’ve had the fortunate opportunity to do yoga therapy sessions with clients in our PHP and IOP program at Monte Nido San Diego. The yoga therapy I am trained in is called Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. It is a trauma-informed, client-centered modality that uses the body as a tool for increased awareness. In my experience, the body can be a direct gateway to one’s true self or soul. I’ve had a client refer to our sessions as individualized “Body and Soul”, a group I have run at Monte Nido for over three years and which many clients say is particularly effective in connecting to a deeper, healthier “Soul Self”.

Another client wrote to me about our yoga therapy sessions, “I have never really listened to my body, in fact I tried my hardest not to. But you gave me the space and opportunity to do that.”

Bessel van der Kolk, MD writes in The Body Keeps the Score, “One of the clearest lessons from contemporary neuroscience is that our sense of ourselves is anchored in a vital connection with our bodies.” In eating disorder treatment, clients have accustomed themselves to not listening to their bodies’ messages and cues. What if, instead of waiting for the recovery process to deliver body acceptance, there were a way to actively work on rebuilding the connection?

Interoceptive awareness, the signaling and perception of internal bodily sensations, is often defective in those suffering from eating disorders. Yoga is a great way to help increase interoceptive awareness and aid in the healing process. Just as we use exposure work to challenge our clients’ distorted thoughts about food, I believe body work can be a form of exposure work; exposing clients to the reality of their body in the present moment, the physical sensations, emotions, thoughts, and memories. Yoga therapy is a mindful, nonjudgmental approach to body awareness, allowing clients to gain a new perspective of their body in order to integrate all parts of themselves.

To give you a taste of what yoga therapy is like, here is a short activity:

Ask yourself the question, “What do I need to do today?”

Allow your answer to come to mind naturally, and just go with the first thing that pops into your head.

Close your eyes and take 3 deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Inhale and raise your arms up over your head, exhale swinging your arms down, and fold forward, letting your head and arms hang heavy. Repeat this 2-3 more times.

Come up to stand and start twisting side to side, allowing your arms to hang heavy, as if they were wrapping around your body with each twist. Do this several times at whatever speed feels right for your body.

Roll your shoulders, backwards and forwards a few times.

Scrunch them up towards your ears on an inhale, and let them drop on an exhale. Repeat this 2-3 times.

Then take your hands and rub them together, creating some friction. When you start to feel some heat, place your hands anywhere on your body that is calling to you (i.e. your face, neck, heart).

Keep your hands wherever they landed and take another 2-3 deep breaths, in through your nose and out through your mouth.

Ask yourself the question again, “What do I need to do today?”

Notice if the answer has changed, or the intention.

What happens when you listen to your body for the answer?

I believe the body holds an incredible amount of wisdom, and that by working directly with it we get to extract and develop that wisdom to be used as a tool for healing. I am grateful to work for a company that incorporates yoga into its programming, and I hope to continue the conversation and exploration of how yoga can help our clients heal.

“Yoga teaches us how to be “in” our body, use our body, and take care of our body with understanding, awareness and acceptance.”

– Carolyn Costin, Yoga and Eating Disorders: Ancient Healing for Modern Illness.


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