You can break free of harmful mindsets, come into better alignment with a medically-indicated diet, and just be a little more content with yourself and your life through working with a yoga therapist. This article gives you an overview of yoga therapy and the nutrition-related conditions where science and practice suggests it can be helpful. May you find a nugget or two. – Annie
In 1993 I went to my very first yoga class at a gym in Cambridge, MA. My days were desk-bound, working at the Department of Public Health (DPH) in Boston directing the state’s Osteoporosis Prevention Program. That program was a national model of how to prevent a chronic condition by influencing a group when it matters – for girls, the late teen years and women during menopause and beyond.
Recently I’d had a painful romantic breakup, and was on my own for the first time ever. I was a lapsed Catholic, seeking spirit and community. I fell hard for both the yoga class and later, the instructor. The instructor is a different story for another day.
Nearly thirty years and a fistful of teaching certifications later, I remain a fan of what yoga skillfully delivered can do for those who struggle with nutrition-related medical issues. Happily, the science and our understanding of yoga and its nature-based sister science of Ayurveda are expanding rapidly.
Those early life experiments showed me that specific types of yoga done in particular ways, mindful eating and other meditative and breathing exercises – can lead to predictable outcomes – a lot like what the early yogis described. It can be helpful for those interested in taking an interior route to the dynamic rebalance of life, and particularly when life gets juicy – healing from discomfort of body or mind. Conditions resulting from lifestyle choices (imperfect diet, inadequate movement, other unhelpful choices) are a natural target of yoga therapy.
It’s time to go deeper.
There’s an opportunity for the world of clinical nutrition to use yoga as more than a fitness option, but as an adjunct skill for integrated change, physical rebalance and overall well-being. Yoga is being skillfully tailored to a great variety of medical and life conditions, and clinical nutrition practice can benefit from those advances. If you are a dietitian or clinical nutritionist, you may well be already using yogic understanding in your practice.
What is Yoga Therapy?
Yoga is more than poses and it’s different from calisthenics. It is a comprehensive psycho-spiritual-physiologic & philosophical system that involves improving relationships – with yourself, with others, and with the world itself.
Yoga movement is mindful, and integrates with the rhythm of your breathing while being lovingly observed by your attentive, focused mind. All three – body, breath, mental focus – are engaged in order for it to be yoga. So, your whole being – your body, energy system (as breath and attention), and your mind are all dancing together. That’s union, one literal translation of the word yoga.
In addition to movement and postures (Asana in Sanskrit, an ancient language of India) yoga has a philosophical framework. An overview is described in a text called the Yoga Sutras, written by the sage Patanjali, and featuring the eight limbs of yoga practice. There are many many ancient texts describing different aspects of yoga and Ayurveda, but the Yoga Sutra is an excellent place to begin.
Yoga philosophy is less moral overlay, and more an experiential observational science. That is, practitioners noticed that if you do yoga in this way by the guidelines outlined in the Yoga Sutra, over time predictable things happen (the final limb of yoga is called Samadhi, meaning absorption, bliss or enlightenment).
Here is a brief description of the eight limbed path of yoga according to Patanjali. I’ve included additional detail of the first two limbs, which are wonderful flexible guides to lifestyle choices. Yoga therapy for nutrition-related conditions begins with these first two limbs.
Patanjali’s eight-limbed path of yoga:
1) Universal restraints (Yamas):
…controls or restraints of attitude or behavior, primarily in community or relationship. These include:
- Non-violence, compassion: (Ahimsa)
- Truthfulness: (Satya)
- Non-stealing: (Asteya)
- Chastity or control of the life force: (Brahmacharya)
- Greedlessness or charity: (Aparigraha)
2) Observances (Niyamas):
…awarenesses and attitudes primarily concerned with the individual. These include:
- Purity, cleanliness: (Saucha)
- Contentment: (Santosa)
- Asceticism, simplicity, passion: (Tapas)
- Self-study, self-inquiry, philosophical study: (Svadhyaya)
- Devotion to God (Isvara Pranidhana)
The remaining limbs of yoga according to Patanjali are:
3) Postures (Asana):
…literally “seat” and describes the physical practice of yoga postures.
4) Rhythmic control of energy flow (Pranayama):
Directing energy and breath.
5) Freedom from senses (Pratyahara):
…inward focusing and withdrawal of the senses.
6) Concentration (Dharana):
7) Meditation (Dhyana):
…adopting a focused yet expansive consciousness.
8) Super-consciousness (Samadhi):
…absorption into or union with bliss consciousness or enlightenment.
Yoga practice is integrative by nature. It is a whole-life practice encompassing physical, mental, energetic, soul and spiritual aspects of life. So, it provides a personal integrated context for self-examination of any problem in life. A weekly general yoga class, skillfully taught, and a brief daily morning movement and meditation practice most mornings can provide nearly anyone with resilience benefits. Yoga therapy is distinct in several key ways.
Yoga therapy is the use of evidence-based yoga for a specific health aim.
Examples include to help you change eating habits to reflect a recent medical diagnosis, increase movement safely after an injury, or help to manage your inflammatory back pain. There is a growing collection of literature on both the mechanisms of how yoga does what it does, and also the use of yoga for particular medical or life conditions. So, the yoga therapist today uses yoga that draws from both the thousands of years of wisdom tradition, and current Western science to inform her work.
Can taking a well-taught weekly yoga class give you a therapeutic benefit? Absolutely! If you can’t find an accessible general class, or if you need more personal adaptation there is personal yoga therapy.
So, a yoga therapist is operating more clinically – more specifically – and more personally than your average weekly yoga class teacher. A yoga therapist may prescribe collections of postures, breathing exercises, and relaxation techniques to suit your personal health and medical needs. Yoga comprises a wide range of mind/body practices, from postural and breathing exercises to deep relaxation and meditation. Yoga therapy tailors these practices and exercises to your medical and life needs.
How Do Diet and Yoga Mix?
The yoga-diet interface comes straight from the first two limbs of yoga described in the Yoga Sutras; restraints (Yamas) and observances (Niyamas). These two limbs provide a flexible guideline for living. Those who were raised in almost any spiritual tradition will find these tenets hauntingly familiar.
Let’s take non-violence or compassion (Ahimsa), the first restraint (Yama), and apply it to diet. Because non-violence with regard to food and eating means something a little different to each of us, your answer to what it means takes a bit of introspection. Here’s an exercise to help you do that.
Self-compassion (Ahimsa) Self-inquiry
You’ll need a quiet place to sit or lie down, where you won’t be disturbed for about ten minutes and something to write with and on, like pencil and paper.
Make your space comfortable (with a blanket or cushions), maybe light a candle or smudge the space with sage and/or put on some soft music. Take a minute to settle into this comfy spot you’ve made. Breathe and relax. Take a moment to think about your own food choices as well as your thoughts about your food choices.
Breathe and relax.
Can you become aware of how you are compassionate with yourself in terms of both your choices, and what you think about your choices? Can you become aware of how you are compassionate – how you treat yourself well – with food and how you view your food choices & their results – on your body, your health, your family?
Take a few moments to note down the ways you are compassionate with yourself. How do you treat yourself with love, peace, kindness with regard to food and how you think about food?
Breathe and relax. Now, take a moment to think about the ways you are not so compassionate with your food choices and how you view them.
Breathe and relax.
Please know that we by nature have a certain amount of storminess within. It’s normal. We think and do things that seem self-destructive. Do you under-eat or overeat often, deny your body’s messages for food or water, or stress eat rather than integrate the inevitable strong emotions that pop up in your life? Do you listen to the latest media on what, when or how to eat rather than the messages of your own body? How much time do you spend wishing your body were different? Breathe and relax. Take your time and please hold yourself kindly as you examine these uncomfortable possibilities.
Take a few moments to write about what came to you. Remember there is no need to fix things – in fact – jumping in to fix things may interfere with taking in the lessons, and fully integrating the experience – instead, notice, breath, relax, and feel. Take note of how your body feels as you unpack your awareness.
Each of the restraints (Yamas) and observances (Niyamas) can be explored in this way. One exercise I share with students is to practice each of the yamas and niyamas fully for a day, with the intention of finding out what each of them mean for you.
The flexibility of a concept like non-violence or compassion allows for each practitioner to find relevance, as non-violence – in diet, for example – for some means forgoing all animal foods (following a vegan diet) – while for others it means non-restrictive eating.
Is There a Yoga Diet?
Why, yes there is. There is a concept in yoga that focuses on qualities or characteristics (Gunas). There are three characteristics, including purity-clarity (Sattva), mobility-activity (Rajas) and restraining-obstructive (Tamas).
Different foods have these characteristics, and the yogis suggest that we take a primarily pure-clear (Sattvic) diet, which is a light diet rich in vegetables, appropriate whole grains and spices, and avoid too many heavy (Tamasic) foods, which are energy rich and devoid of nutrients or life.
What is Ayurveda?
Ayurveda is often called a sister science of yoga, and is its medical and healing system. It is as complex as Western nutritional medicine, so a brief paragraph does not do it justice. I think of Ayurveda as the original mind-body-spirit integrated medicine developed thousands of years ago. Its foundational principles describe an elegant nature-based mind-body-spirit integrated system that makes intuitive sense.
Ayurveda honors the rhythms of nature, the earth and life. Your schedule of sleeping and rising, eating, moving and even learning have a peak rhythm based on who you are, where you live, the season, and time of day.
How Does Ayurveda Fit Into Yoga Therapy?
A driving principle in Ayurveda is to find balance of the five elements (earth, water, fire, air and ether) of which all matter is composed. So, an Ayurvedic diet uses the taste, temperature and characteristics of food that reveal a dominant element to aid in rebalancing. Generally, like increases like (ex, spicy food on a warm day will make you even warmer) and opposites balance (cool food on a hot day will cool you off).
Western clinical science has been finding, over the past decade or two, that much of what Ayurvedic practitioners have suggested for thousands of years actually has Western scientific validity. The sorting, testing, validating and adapting process of Ayurveda to our Western modern life is going on right now.
How can Yoga Therapy benefit Nutrition-related Conditions?
With recent scientific advances into nutritional psychiatry, digestive health and genetics, it seems every health condition is a nutrition-related condition. Certainly the chronic conditions – those that take years to develop – are prime targets for lifestyle medicine, including yoga therapy. What you eat profoundly impacts every aspect of your life.
That said, there are some particular life events and medical conditions where blending yoga with integrative clinical nutrition have been shown to be especially helpful.
Health conditions that respond to nutrition and to yoga therapy:
Every gut imbalance is a mind-body issue. In Ayurveda, the first thing you might do to improve digestion is to eat in a calm and pleasant environment. Eating mindfully, chewing adequately, moving and breathing to support digestion have been only recently considered in modern nutrition yet can transform your digestion. Using these yogic principles along with Western integrative protocols and medically indicated diets can rebalance many a digestive system out of whack.
Mindful eating is a meditative practice that has done nothing less than transform the way I am many integrative nutritionists do what we do. If you’re interested in beginning this profound eating practice (for those who want to eat well…but don’t), I’ve developed a mini-course to help you get started.
Emotional Eating and Eating Disorders:
Stress, anxiety and wildly unhealthful Western beauty ideals have created an epidemic of body self-hatred and deeply disordered eating patterns in women and men of all ages. Diet culture is everywhere and hard to escape. The truth is that you have a natural weight and shape, and beauty comes in every shape, size, color, age and variety. Your intrinsic value as a human is NOT connected to your body size. Every person has value. Learning to manage stress through life rather than food, and learning how to feed, and how to love your healthy body as it is can help you heal these deeply destructive, and at times downright deadly issues.
Diabetes, Heart Disease, and other ‘Syndrome X’ conditions. Yoga therapy can help you move safely if you don’t move very much. It helps cultivate a kind and gentle mindset toward stress and your own body. It can help you open your heart and it supports realistic behavior change. It helps reduce stress. Combining yoga, and mindful meditation with Western medically indicated diets and strategies for these “X” conditions can be wildly successful. I’ve seen it – over and over and over again.
Much of my writing and teaching over the past couple decades have focused on how to heal body and mind from metabolic issues combined with emotional eating. My first book, Every Bite Is Divine, focuses on my own struggle with weight and eating, and is a foundational text for much of the work I do.
Our Western diet is creates lots of inflammation. Inflammation combined with stress have made pain and inflammatory conditions like osteoporosis, arthritis and even complex conditions like fibromyalgia yet another epidemic largely preventable. My beautiful colleague Kathie Swift and I have been working together on integrating movement, nutrition and imagination – the mindset around pain – into a collection called Freedom from Pain. To see people come to us hurting, and leaving with a smile – is so satisfying!
The inflammation, fear and treatments of cancer can be really hard on the body, and the level of uncertainty this particular diagnosis brings can be nearly unbearable. Yoga to the rescue. I have a friend-colleague who has developed a program combining nutrition and yoga therapy for cancer diagnoses.
Nutrition and movement are central to a healthy aging process, but it’s not easy. Keeping an eye on injury prevention, learning to work at your own pace and to create a way of eating that truly supports the increased nutrient demand (and waning energy needs) of aging is tricky. But, we’re doing it every day.
If there’s one time in a woman’s life where she eats well and learns to use the incredible power of her own breath and specific gentle movement to address her well-being, it’s while she is growing a new human inside. These are a natural combination of yoga and nutrition counseling and support.
This is really just the beginning of what a thoughtfully designed therapeutic yoga program can do. For each of these therapeutic areas, there are yoga therapists, and well-trained integrative licensed nutritionists that can help you navigate lifelong health and well-being.
If you or someone you love is interested in working in this with way, check out Truly Nourished, a high-impact personal program that blends nutrition clinical science with the wisdom of yoga and meditation.