Topic Tuesday: Movement
“Yoga and Movement in Recovery” (By: Valerie Martin, LCSW, RYT)
A quick note on word choice: In this article I use the term “movement” instead of the more commonly-used “exercise,” which can be a loaded word in recovery, often associated with painful or disordered thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.
Each recovering person’s relationship with movement is unique, influenced by many factors including their family/community’s behaviors or expectations; history with sports, dance, and related activities; and how it may have been entangled in their ED. Especially considering the latter, it’s often necessary to explore and heal your relationship with movement as part of the recovery process.
Whether you would describe this relationship as avoidant, excessive, compulsive, rigid/obligatory, or “normal” (didn’t we decide “normal” is just a setting on the washing machine?), it’s important to know that it is absolutely possible to recover in this area just as you can in your relationship with food and body image. I’ve worked with men and women who reach a point in recovery where they say, “I never would have thought I’d be able to actually enjoy (walking/yoga/fill in the blank), but I really do.”
Yoga as a Healing Practice
Because of its integrated focus of mind, body, and spirit, yoga is often one of the most useful tools for healing the relationship with movement. Another linguistic note here — “spirit” doesn’t imply religion, as you don’t need to subscribe to any particular religion or beliefs to connect with a sense of deep awareness and presence in yoga.
Sometimes in early recovery, my clients can’t stand yoga. The idea of being fully present in the body is the opposite of what their ED has helped them do — numb and disconnect. This is often related to trauma. Or, they might say “I love yoga!” but what they love is the super intense hot power yoga where the instructors talk about all the calories they’re sweating out. (Cringe emoji!)
For the first group, I am careful to not push them into yoga, which is counter-productive to the goal of self-empowerment that is so important for their healing. Yoga should be invitational. Often as they start to progress along their recovery path, they become gradually more open and interested in trying it.
For the latter folks, experiencing a different type of yoga (slower, more gentler, not focused on “working out”) can feel excruciating at first. It might seem like a “waste of time,” or give them that crawling-out-of-your-skin anxious feeling. I used to be one of those people who was so eager to roll up my mat and leave about 30 seconds into savasana (final resting pose). As I started being more comfortable slowing down and just making room for the anxiety to be there, I eventually grew to love savasana and even slower restorative classes.
One thing I love about Renewed is the BalancED Yoga program, which currently offers a free weekly yoga class in Nashville. With BalancED, you can be assured that the yoga will be in alignment with recovery principles and the instructor aware of the unique challenges of ED recovery including potential triggers. If you’re unable to come to the BalancED class or want to find additional classes to attend at a studio, make sure to allow yourself to be “picky” when it comes to choosing a class and instructor. Also, if classes feel intimidating, know that online videos (like Gaia.com, a Netflix-style subscription service) or private yoga lessons with a qualified instructor are great options, too.
“What if yoga is just not my thing?”
It’s also important to honor the many beautiful differences among us — one being that we gravitate toward different types of movement. Even as you progress along on your recovery path, you may just not enjoy yoga, and that’s okay! Finding movement that you do enjoy, and that’s compatible with your recovery, is important — our bodies were not designed to sit 16 hours a day and sleep for the rest.
I encourage clients to try a variety of activities to find a way of moving that fits for them. For some, it may be as simple as walking outside, or gentle swimming at the Y. Others may want to get adventurous with climbing or kayaking, get back into an old favorite sport like a recreational kickball or softball team, or try something eclectic like an aerial silks, hooping, 5 Rhythms, or belly dancing classes. And some may genuinely enjoy moving on the elliptical while catching up on a favorite TV show.
Movement as an Integrated Part of Recovery
Whatever you’re interested in, remember that in early recovery it’s important to talk with your team about movement that is healthy and appropriate for your current needs. And just as us therapists and dietitians like to say “It is about the food but it’s not about the food,” exploring with your team the deeper feelings, beliefs, and past experiences that impact your relationship with movement will be essential to disentangle it from any of that “old stuff” that’s no longer serving you.
About the Author
Valerie Martin (LCSW, RYT, CSAT Candidate) is a therapist and yoga instructor in Nashville, Tennessee. She works primarily with trauma, eating disorders, relationship issues, anxiety and depression. Valerie’s therapeutic approach is one of mind + body integration, using EMDR, yoga (including trauma-sensitive yoga), Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT), somatic (body-based), and experiential techniques. She has presented at numerous behavioral health conferences, primarily in the field of eating disorder treatment. You can find Valerine online at www.wonderwelltherapy.com and reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org or 979.255.9948.