Can yoga help combat eating disorders?

Elizabeth Pope was an 11-year-old living in Tokyo when she realized she had an eating disorder. Her symptoms included not just vomiting, but also going for periods without eating and restricting herself from certain foods and then bingeing on them.

But it wasn't until she went through a traumatic divorce at the age of 26 that she began to "fix the ways that I abused my body." For her, that meant getting into yoga.

The practice of yoga has become increasingly popular across all walks of life in the U.S. in the last decade. Pope's own mother got interested in it by watching PBS programs on the subject, but it was only during her time of crisis that Elizabeth herself got into it. She says that yoga helped her to recognize she had a problem and to "begin to deal with it in increments." And studies are showing that she is not alone; yoga has been shown to have tremendous potential for helping people who have issues with food.

According to the National Eating Disorders Association, as many as 10 million females and 1 to 2 million males in the U.S. are fighting an eating disorder such as anorexia or bulimia. The condition affects people generally when they're young, but depending on what they do to treat the problem, can go on for decades.

In the case of Joy Tapper, think many decades. The 70-year-old former Tampa Merrill Lynch adviser said she carried her bulimia with her from the time she was 15 up until a few months ago, when she began doing yoga for the first time, partly because she was bored.

She says yoga has been transformative, and that's why she's actively trying to get the word out about an event happening at Curtis Hixon Park on Sunday, April 10 at 6 p.m., when three local yoga studios are sponsoring an hour-long session specifically for those who suffer or have suffered from an eating disorder, and are willing to participate in yoga as a method of dealing with the problem. The event is also being promoted by the USF Hope House for Eating Disorders, located on quiet Cleveland Street in Hyde Park, just a few blocks away from the bustle of SoHo.

The House was established in 2007 by Pauline Powers, who also directs the USF Center for Eating and Weight Disorders. More recently, says Communications & Marketing Officer Diane Juranko, the Hope House has initiated an Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) because "we learned that the patients are a little sicker than what was originally anticipated."

The USF Hope House provides extensive outreach and supportive intervention groups at no cost. With eating disorders appearing in children as young as 10 or 11, Dr. Powers has also been giving a healthy body presentation to students at a private school in Tampa, and Hope House officials are scheduled to meet with Hillsborough County guidance counselors and psychologists about a potential partnership with the school district.

According to a recent study published in the Archives of General Psychiatry, although most teens do seek mental health treatment to help contend with the issue, a more effective approach would be to educate them before they need the help.

"Prevention in any kind of health care situation is always the key," says Juranko. "All of our advertisements and marketing people make the perfect female body skinny and everything. If we can just get the young girls to realize that that's not real, that's airbrushed — they tweak all of it, everything we see in the magazines and on TV — and just get them to understand, it's okay to be yourself. And feel good about yourself in your own skin."

But is yoga the answer?

There seems to growing empirical evidence that it can be.

A 2005 study from the Psychology of Women Quarterly says that people who practice yoga "reported less self-objectification, greater satisfaction with physical appearance, and fewer disordered eating attitudes compared to non-yoga practitioners." The study also said that "yoga practice is associated with greater body awareness and responsiveness... which in turn are associated with lower levels of trait self-objectification, greater body satisfaction, and lesser disordered eating attitudes."

Jennifer Daubenmier, an assistant professor with the Osher Center for Integrative Medicine at University of California San Francisco, wrote the study. In an email, Daubenmier wrote that the current research on yoga as a treatment for eating disorders is "encouraging," but she stresses that "rigorous studies... in controlled trials are needed to explore if yoga is really an effective treatment for eating disorders."

Lisa Jamison is a physical trainer and strength and conditioning coach. She says her eating disorder manifested itself when she went away to college, where she strived not to gain "The Freshman 5" or "Freshman 15," referring to added weight. She ended up losing so much weight that she started passing out in classes and had to leave school.

She said that years ago her friends considered her the "go-to" person on the subject of eating disorders because she talked about it so much, leading some to question whether she really suffered from the condition at all, due to the ingrained notion that sufferers can't, and don't, talk about what they're going through. She says yoga is one factor that's helped her deal with eating issues, allowing her to access a spiritual connection within herself.

Elizabeth Pope, who teaches yoga at the Happy Buddha YOGA Lounge in downtown Tampa, says that after the Day of Hope on April 10 she intends to host a short series of classes at Happy Buddha so there's follow-up for people who attend the event, "and they know they can continue to talk about it."

Meanwhile, officials from the USF Hope House for Eating Disorders will be traveling to Washington D.C. the following day to lobby members of Congress to support the Federal Response to Eliminate Eating Disorders (FREED) Act, sponsored by Senate Democrats Tom Harkin from Iowa, and Amy Klobuchar and Minnesota Al Franken from Minnesota.

The bill calls for improving the prevention, screening, diagnosis and treatment of eating disorders, while also expanding federal research and improving the reporting and tracking of the number of American with such disorders.

Can yoga make a difference for people in the Tampa Bay area? "We all have different experiences," says Joy Tapper, "but that doesn't matter. What really matters is that we can give some kind of hope to people that, no, you don't have to suffer for all those years; no, it doesn't have to be in private; no, there are people who will help you and a place to go."

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