There Is a Way Out: Healing Eating Disorders Through Yoga
By Chelsea Roff
I was walking down the condiment aisle in Whole Foods when I lost consciousness. I remember seeing stars in my peripheral visual field, then sensing what felt like a change of air pressure in the room. Then, everything went black, like I’d been swallowed up by a black hole. Nothingness. Emptiness. Lack of being.
I don’t remember anything of the weeks after. It’s a weird feeling, I must say, not remembering almost a month of your life. My doctor later told me that I’d had a minor stroke, that I was lucky to be alive.
I spent my sixteenth birthday in the cardiac unit of the hospital, where they fed me through a tube in my belly and monitored me around the clock to make sure my heart didn’t stop.
I don’t remember any of it. Probably a good thing.
The first thing I do remember is the wheelchair. It was cold and hard, and the bedsore on my tailbone throbbed against the seat. I remember the face of the therapist sitting across from me; I remember the tears in her eyes; I remember when she told me I couldn’t go home. I remember learning that Child Protective Services had removed me from my parents’ custody; that my mom wasn’t going to come rescue me. I can’t remember ever feeling so helpless in my life.
Most of all, I remember being done. I remember how desperately I wanted out of life, how certain I was that God wanted me to die, how much I hated the doctors and nurses for sabotaging my attempt. Eating disorders have a terrifying way of hijacking the brains of their victims—I was delusional, depressed, obsessive-compulsive, suicidal.
The ‘Chelsea’ I had once been was gone, and the skeleton that remained wanted out of life.
I spent the next eighteen months of my life in the hospital. The journey back to life was long and arduous—over a year of feeding tubes, psychiatric medications, physical therapy, and psychological counseling. When the day of my discharge finally came, I didn’t want to leave the hospital. The doctors and nurses had become my family. What had once felt like prison now felt like my home. While physically my body had almost completely recovered, my mind was still enrapt in the eating disorder. I didn’t trust myself to be on my own.
I also had no idea how to live in the real world. I hadn’t gone to a public high school. I was dependent on a piece of paper to tell me when and how much to eat. I was socially awkward, prone to panic attacks, plagued with obsessive-compulsive behaviors. I was certain I was doomed to relapse, just like my mother, and my friend Gina, and everyone else I knew who struggled with this disease.
But I didn’t have a choice. It was time to leave.
It was just a few months after I’d left the hospital when the therapist I was seeing suggested I try yoga. She was certain it would be good for me, and, suffice it to say, I didn’t agree. I thought yoga sounded too touchy-feeling, too new-agey, too gentle for my tastes. I didn’t want to “reconnect with my body”—I wanted to survive, and I was afraid that feeling my body might sabotage that. Disconnection was safe. Numbness was familiar. The only reason I finally went to yoga was to exercise, to burn away a body I felt was getting too big to tolerate.
That first yoga class changed my life. I didn’t know what it was about the practice, I just knew I wanted to go back—again, and again, and again. For the first time in years, I felt at home in my own skin. I felt strong and graceful, like I could trust my own body. In the months and years that followed, I think yoga slowly, subconsciously, rebuilt the neural pathways that connected brain to body and feeling to mind. The practice taught me how to sense hunger and fullness again, how to recognize and respond to my own needs, and how to cope with emotions I nearly killed myself trying to starve away.
The statistics around eating disorders in this country are discouraging. Nearly 24 million Americans suffer from eating disorders, and millions of others struggle with food and body image issues at a sub-clinical level. Eating disorders kill nearly half a million people every year—daughters, sisters, brothers, friends, and spouses. That’s not okay. Full recovery from this illness is difficult, but it’s absolutely possible. And I believe yoga can be an incredible tool in paving the way.
Over the past several years, I’ve built my life and career around helping others out of this illness in the same way my community helped me in my time of need. My experience has been that yoga equips individuals with skills that pharmaceuticals, talk therapy, and other traditional forms of treatment simply do not provide, which is why I developed a program called Yoga for Eating Disorders to teach sufferers practical tools for using yoga in their recovery. Specifically, the program teaches exercises for tuning into hunger and fullness signals, coping with difficult emotions, and learning to relate to the body as an ally rather than an enemy. Without those skills, I believe it’s nearly impossible to be successful in recovery.
Last month, I launched a campaign to raise $50,000 so I can offer Yoga for Eating Disorders to treatment centers around the country at no charge and collect data for an evidence-based study on its effectiveness in treatment.
With less than two weeks left in our campaign, I need your help. If you or someone you know has been touched by an eating disorder, please take a moment to donate to the campaign. Your contribution will help make yoga available to those who need it most and help us build a body of evidence so we can offer it in more clinical and mainstream settings.
Here is how you can help:
1. Donate. If you’re able to contribute, please don’t wait! Every dollar counts, and this project cannot happen unless YOU get behind it. Your donation is tax-deductible, and we have a number of wonderful perks (yoga mats, photo shoots, books, etc.) to thank you for your contribution.
2. Share. Post the link on Facebook and Twitter. Send a quick email to your friends and family. This is a community effort, and word of mouth goes a long way!
Image: Sarit Z Rogers of Sarit Photography
Chelsea Roff is a nationally-recognized author, speaker, and yoga instructor. Chelsea’s story of recovering from anorexia and a subsequent stroke was recently showcased by Sanjay Gupta on CNN. Her writing has been featured on the front page of CNN.com, and she writes regularly for Huffington Post, Yahoo Shine, Care2, and Yoga Journal. Prior to entering the world of journalism, Chelsea worked as a researcher in a Psychoneuroimmunology laboratory. As a student of neuroscience, she came to appreciate how stress affects mental, emotional, and social health, and how mind-body practices like yoga can improve the outcome of chronic illnesses like HIV/AIDS and cancer. She speaks regularly at recovery centers, universities, and professional organizations about eating disorder issues and supports leadership teams at yoga service organizations around the country to more effectively serve in-need populations.