I Am my Body

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Healing Into Healthy Relationship

Imagine you’re in relationship with someone who is incredibly controlling, critical, and mean. This person ignores your most basic needs. This person doesn’t value your opinion. No matter what you do, you’re told you’re not good enough. This doesn’t sound like a relationship in which many would willingly participate. Imagine that, instead of this being a relationship between you and another person, it is one between you and your  own  body.  This is what it is like to have an eating disorder or a body image issue.

Now, imagine that you are the mediator in this complicated relationship, and your job is to support each party to communicate with each other. This is essentially my role as a clinical nutritionist and Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner. I’ve worked with individuals with all types of eating disorders and body image issues for more than 10 years through nutritional counseling and have been incorporating Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy into my practice for the last three years.

The National Eating Disorder Association estimates that in the US as many as 10 million women and 1 million men have been diagnosed with eating disorders such as anorexia, bulimia, and binge eating.[1] Eating disorders also have the highest mortality rate of any mental illness. [2]

The Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy group model is the ideal complement to nutritional and psychotherapeutic approaches for healing specific issues that characterize this population. The themed elements of a Phoenix Rising yoga class and the additional facilitation tools found in the group model fit perfectly within the current paradigm for eating disorder recovery. This creates a rich opportunity to explore the painful question for this population: Am I my body?

Creating a Safe Container

One prominent psychological feature of individuals with eating disorders is a sense that life is out of control. In addition, most individuals struggling with eating disorders have difficulty managing boundaries. This usually occurs as a result of experiences that have invaded, violated, or intruded upon these boundaries.

Gaining real-time experience with being in a safe environment is essential to the therapeutic dynamic for this population. The Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy model achieves this through the creation of a safe container in which the work takes place. Holding space is a Phoenix Rising phrase that is often used to describe how the safe container is created and maintained.

In more concrete terms, this space in a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy group is created and maintained in a two-fold fashion. First, the Phoenix Rising professional sets clear rules for the group. Some examples of these rules include strict confidentiality, respecting and speaking from one’s own experience, as well as limiting cross talk.

The second part involves the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy professional’s use of a well-honed skill set that supports the awareness on the part of participants of the unfolding of their unique and individual experiences. In a fundamental way, this allows for the validation of each participant’s experience.

Some specific elements of the Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy professional’s skill set that allow for this safe space to be held include practices like active listening and knowing how to use silence and pauses in such a way as to let participants know they can tolerate what initially may feel intolerable to them.

Being in Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy’s safe container also creates a tangible opportunity for the experience of containment to be internalized in the body of the participant.

One of the most effective techniques that supports this important process of internalization is known as coaching edge.[3] This part of Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy’s methodology focuses on letting the participant discover and explore the territory of that place in a pose that is not filled with too much sensation nor too little of it.

In a Phoenix Rising yoga class, for example, participants can be invited to become aware of and to play with their edges in a posture. Through this process, participants learn that an edge is not only physical but also mental and emotional (non-physical) and that there is a connection between the two. This awareness leads to powerful insights and understandings around the relationship between edges experienced on the yoga mat and those experienced in life. Such an approach to coaching edge always remains client-centered and offers real opportunity for participants to begin in a healthy way to sense and embody safety and control in a life that often feels anything but safe or in control.

Profound Presence [4]

One of the most common explanations of why those with eating disorders will choose such a negative coping mechanism over health is that it succeeds in disconnecting or detaching them from their bodies. This allows them to escape what lurks below the surface of their bodies. For many, this below-the-surface area is home to intolerable feelings, painful memories, and a sense of taking up too much space. As a default, many disordered individuals will engage in a dissociation process so that they don’t have to be present in their bodies. [5]

The Phoenix Rising process provides opportunity to heal through the perceived need to disconnect or run from the body and all that inhabits it. One of the primary intentions of each element of the Phoenix Rising process is to cultivate a profound presence or awareness. This becomes the gateway that supports a participant to choose to listen deeply to what is happening rather than to shut down around what is happening.

The aspect of receiving Phoenix Rising yoga while having one’s eyes closed further supports turning inward toward the body and dropping into an experience of inner listening. For this particular population, it also minimizes the competition between bodies and within bodies. For many, this amplification of body awareness through eyes closed is very challenging. Yet participants often report it results in stabilizing or even removing the element of competitiveness, which helps them move more deeply into themselves.

The use of simple, clear, open-ended Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy dialogue encourages participants to remain in the now of what is happening – the present moment as opposed to the past or the future. Even if what is happening now is critical self-talk, a painful feeling, or a ruminating thought, participants gain the understanding of the power of naming or noticing what is happening.

Then from that empowered place, they further realize they have a real choice to continue to explore what is happening or not. Being aware of the present moment in such an open and non-judgmental way can realistically give participants the strength to open a door onto the experience of living their lives in a more accepting manner. This then provides a springboard for real and authentic change in their lives.

Canvas for Change and Transformation

     Exploration through posture, the process of integration, and the discovery that takes place during the facilitation element of each group session allow for greater understanding of the different layers of participants’ inner experiences. This becomes fertile ground for occasions of deep insight, change, and transformation.

The disordered eating pattern is, in essence, a microcosm of how individuals in this population function in life. As such, the same forceful dynamics found in the relationship between food and body often exist in the other relationships of their lives.

As participants begin to authentically meet their own bodies through the practice of profound presence, they arrive at the liminal place where change can be experienced on the mat and then be effected in life.[6]

The yoga mat, in particular the Phoenix Rising yoga mat, is the place where participants can meet the relationship dynamics of their disorders face-to-face. This offers the opportunity to explore change first in the more contained experience found on the yoga mat. The liberating factor here is that these experiences carry the potential for lasting change and healing of the disordered patterns that invade all aspects of participants’ lives.

Inviting participants to explore through postures what it would be like to be with themselves in a new way fosters insight in an experiential way into what may seem impossible: a different relationship with their bodies. An example of one way to explore through posture includes asking participants to create a posture that reflects the current relationship with their bodies. After that posture has been explored through profound presence, participants find a different posture – one that reflects, instead, the relationship they may want with their bodies. This becomes a vehicle to support a new way of being, again in a safe, contained environment.

The Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy process of integration is a method of assimilating the experiences from a session. Crucial to the success of this integration process is the life connection aspect, which allows for the possibility that what happens on the mat may also be happening in daily  life.

Participants from this population often find that the life connection is directly related to issues surrounding eating and body image. During integration, participants also have opportunity to receive self-guidance without interference from the eating disorder. With this self-guidance in hand, participants generate their own action steps to put their self-guidance into practice. Frequently action steps relate to decreasing eating disorder behaviors in very manageable and concrete ways or taking specific steps toward body acceptance.

Finding a participant’s authentic voice, separate from the eating disorder, and letting that voice be heard are critical to recovery. The Phoenix Rising facilitation circle is a safe, contained space that allows for both validation and affirmation of participants’ experiences from each group session. Through the process of witness as expressed through unconditional positive regard, the facilitator holds the space for each participant to be heard and to be listened to, not just by others in the group but by themselves as well. They gain experiential understanding that their authentic voice is not the same as the voice of their eating disorder. Additionally, they learn to shift trust from the voice of their eating disorder to that of their authentic voice.

Am I my body? It’s the question we started with at the beginning of this article. It’s also the question that can seem frightening or too big to look at for many women and men with eating and body image issues.

The aspects of a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy group session naturally provide individuals struggling with eating disorders and body image issues a safe and effective way to truly meet themselves on the yoga mat. Exploring experience in this way and then communicating it through expression and words are not only crucial to treatment but support transitioning from recovery to healing. It’s also a way that supports participants in gaining an experiential understanding of a healthy relationship with their body. It’s a way that leads back to that formerly too big question. This time, however, the answer comes from a place of health, clarity, and authenticity. This time, the answer rings out: Yes, I am my body.

 

1. Crowther et al., 1992; Fairburn et al., 1993; Gordon, 1990; Hoek, 1995; Shisslak et al., 1995.

2. Attia E (2010). Anorexia nervosa: current status and future directions. Annual Review of Medicine, 61(1), 425–35.

3. Coaching edge is a process that supports a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy client to find a place in a posture of sustainable sensation where underlying meanings can be explored through focused awareness.

4. Unconditional positive regard, a phrase found in Rogerian theory, refers to a particular way to listen to a client: one that replaces judgment with openness. Carl Roger’s theory influenced Michael Lee as he developed Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy. Due to the physical intimacy that a client experiences during a Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy session, Lee found Roger’s phrase to be too distant. As such, Lee began using the phrases loving presence and profound presence to describe the type of unconditional positive regard a Phoenix Rising practitioner models.

5. Everill, Walker, Macdonald (1995). Dissociation in bulimic and non-eating-disordered women. International Journal of Eating Disorders, 17(2), 127-134.

6. Elissa Cobb, The Forgotten Body: A Way of Knowing and Understanding Self, (Satya House Publications), 157.

 

About the Author

Maria Sorbara Mora

Maria Sorbara Mora is a registered dietitian, Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy practitioner, Phoenix Rising registered yoga teacher, and certified Phoenix Rising group facilitator. She founded Body Connection, LLC, a nutrition and yoga practice in New York City devoted to eating disorder treatment, and The Center For Connection, the only yoga studio in New York City that provides yoga therapy, both individual and group sessions, for those with eating and body image issues. Maria has treated eating disordered individuals for over 10 years and has empowered her patients to heal symptoms through body awareness.

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