Yoga; my 13th step in recovery from food addiction and self-abuse

I remember thinking ‘just one,’ I will just eat one. I was halfway through a second tin of cookies when I realized I could not stop. I was so scared. At the time I had a very high-profile job and my only fear was, ‘What would everyone think if I got fat?’ I had recently not been able to bring myself to purging, so there I was in my car, crying and continuing to eat. I vividly recall returning home so full that I was sick and went to sleep crying.

The first memory I have of my obsession with food is when I was just 5 years old. I would steal cookies from a tin that was kept in our freezer. After stashing a few in a corner, I would wait until I could quietly sit alone and eat in peace. Sweets soothed me. By the time I was in elementary school, I was dieting to make up for my binging. I remember pretending to eat, sitting alone and passing the time before I would have to walk back to school. By high school, my regimen was diet pills and rigorous exercise.

The feeling of being ‘in control’ and of staying at an acceptable weight, while still being able to eat and binge, allowed me to maintain the outer appearance I thought I needed. I did not trust that life had much more to offer. Sad as it now seems, what I most looked forward to was locking myself in my apartment and eating till I was so full I could do little more than sleep. Putting myself in this food coma seemed to me the only way to escape from my pain. The pain of living in a large chaotic family and feeling that I was always ignored. The pain of feeling invisible, and of needing so much more than what my chaotic family was capable of giving to me.

Over the next 20 years, I played with food and exercise in more ways then I care to remember. My counting calories and obsessing over my weight, overeating and binging was never-ending. They kept me busy enough that I did not have time to ask deeper or bigger questions, like ‘what am I doing to myself’, ‘why am I so unhappy’, etc. I just accepted the fact that I needed to control my eating and my weight, keep up my appearance, and in turn, keep the outside world from knowing just how sad and lonely I felt.

I will forever remember that fateful day when I was uncontrollably eating cookies in my car, as the day when my world came crashing in. The next day, I asked for help. I looked up someone I knew in AA and called them to find a meeting for Overeaters Anonymous, and I went. That day. I worked that program as if my life depended on it, because actually it did. As they say, “It works, if you work it.” Steadily, but not without the extreme discomfort of discovering many of the feelings I was stuffing, a truer version of me emerged.

Then, about 2 years after starting the 12-step program, a friend who was also a 12-stepper asked if I was interested in taking a yoga class. My first reaction was ‘Not really’! I am not flexible, yoga is too slow, not my thing, …  Interestingly, I had been working on trying to be open-minded enough to say, ‘yes’ occasionally. I went, hesitantly, to that yoga class and many, many others that followed.

What was it about yoga that took me into a deeper healing from food and self-abuse? Here are some of the bigger ‘aha moments’ from my first few years of practice.

  1. First, I learned to lay on my mat at the end of practice and relax my body and my mind. Although honestly, for the first six months, I had various excuses as to why I needed to leave before Svasana. Thank god for the patience of my teacher.
  2. Prior to yoga, I had no idea that my breath was so shallow. My stomach never moved.Learning to breathe deeply was life-changing when it came to slowing down my mind and relaxing my body.
  3. Yoga was also the first place I connected to my physical self and my thought life. Not pushing myself to extremes, as I did on a treadmill or stair machine, but actually working as one, body and mind, with kindness rather than aggression.
  4. In yoga, I learned that my practice was better when I ate better. I was no longer actively abusing food, yet practicing yoga made me want to take care of my physical self. I was conscious of making decisions about food that were healthy just so I could show up feeling present. I wanted to feel well. This was major recovery.
  5. Balance, focus, flow, & patience were all foreign words to my type A personality and career. As I practiced more, the practice spilled into my life outside of class. More of a surprise was my new-found ability to start letting go of control. I did not fall apart as I had always imagined I would.
  6. Through practicing yoga, I began to have a real understanding of not competing with others, and my first few classes compared to today are nothing short of miraculous. Because the more I practiced, the more it became about me, and that focus shifted my entire life. I turned inward to find answers there, instead of trying to be someone I thought I should be. I discovered a more authentic self, and started down the path to loving who I am.
  7. Yoga was actually my first real hobby as an adult. It was not for money or gain. There were no goals. I did it because I wanted to and I enjoyed it.
  8. And finally, the greatest gift that yoga brought to me – yoga opened my mind. At first, I listened to readings or spiritual quotes with little interest or understanding. I was still pretty shut down. Over time, I found I enjoyed the teachers that brought more to the practice than just yoga movements. I started reading texts and being introduced to some pretty amazing ideas and beliefs, both on and off my mat. Ideas that at one time I would have dismissed completely, were the beginning of a lifelong pursuit of finding what I really believed about myself and ‘who I am.’

I remember that day in the car like it was yesterday. Looking back, I am not sure there would have been any other way to reach me. Without OA, I might never have taken the chance to try yoga. Without yoga, I don’t know if I would still be in recovery today. I now ask really big questions of myself like, ‘Why am I feeling this way?  ‘What would make me happy?’ ‘What can I change?’ The list goes on. This journey feels like the one I was searching for and would not have found without my yoga mat. I am now ‘in my life’, no longer an image that I was maintaining to impress others.

Recovery, was definitely “not easy” but, I can say in hindsight that, “I am grateful.” Grateful that I had an eating disorder and grateful that there was a way out. I can also say I would not trade my journey for one thousand ‘normal’ lives, because I would not be here writing this nor would I have ever recovered the person I was intended to be. NAMASTE.