Embodied yoga practice – what is it, and how can it help to support your eating disorder recovery?

Embodied yoga practice connects the mind with the body to help build self-awareness. 

It helps you to experience yourself in the moment. 

It strengthens your connection with yourself, making you more attuned, gently allowing you to feel, experience, and trust in what your body is telling you.

In this post, we speak with Jacqui Finnigan, a registered psychologist with the Health and Care Professions Council (HCPC), and a chartered psychologist with the British Psychological Society (BPS). 

Jacqui is committed to mind-body wellness, with a passion for yoga and meditation. Jacqui is currently studying to become a qualified embodied yoga practitioner and talks to us about the importance of embodied practice in eating disorder recovery.

Why is embodied yoga practice important as part of eating disorder recovery?

For someone struggling with an eating disorder, the idea of being attuned to your body and allowing yourself to feel and connect, can be an incredibly scary prospect. 

Day-by-day, you try to follow a strict rule book when it comes to eating. When these rules are broken, it feels devastating and emotionally overwhelming. Whether through restriction or bingeing, your eating disorder takes you away from your feelings to a place outside of your body. It provides a way to cope with uncomfortable feelings and emotions.

Embodied yoga practice allows you to begin to get used to what it’s like to feel in your unique body. It offers a gentle way of starting to connect with and trust your body again. It teaches you it’s ok to feel, and that, if you allow yourself to feel, nothing dangerous will happen. 

In fact, preliminary research suggests that yoga may be effective in decreasing risk factors, and increasing protective factors, for people struggling with an eating disorder.

How can embodied yoga practice help to support eating disorder recovery?

Recovery from an eating disorder is treated with a ‘layered’ approach. You’ll normally have a ‘health circle’ made up of a support team around you. This could include your GP, your therapist, and a dietician, for example. 

Your therapist can build embodied practice into this layered approach as part of your journey towards healing and wellness. It’s not as effective as a standalone treatment, but can impact recovery when part of a holistic approach to your eating disorder recovery, complementing your cognitive therapy. 

The observation of how you feel in your body is called interoception. It involves relearning how to sense and feel your body from the inside. Good interoceptive awareness is linked with the ability to regulate our feelings and to fend off anxiety and depression. 

As an example, hunger arises from signals sent from inside the body, and recovery means learning to trust that you feel physically hungry, rather than telling yourself that eating is unnecessary.  

Interestingly, a study (Peat and Muehlenkamp 2011) found those lower on introspective ability were more likely to experience higher levels of body dissatisfaction. The more you’re in tune with your body, the higher your chances of reducing the dissatisfaction you feel.

What’s the difference between yoga and embodied yoga?

Yoga is a somatic practice, which means ‘of the body’. However, it’s often not practised this way. Instead there’s often an overfocus on achieving impressive poses for Instagram.

To practice in an embodied way, you ‘feel’ the movement, rather than following instructions on how to move and achieve set poses. 

It’s also important to recognise there are different types of yoga.

Ashtanga yoga, for example, is a dynamic practice that focuses on muscle training and physical strength. Whereas Vinyasa yoga is more focused on the breath.

Those struggling with an eating disorder often practice Ashtanga yoga intensely, with a desire for perfection from an aesthetic perspective, therefore failing to benefit from a somatic experience. Embodied yoga, on the other hand, turns this on its head by focusing on how the movement makes you feel from the inside out.

What happens during embodied yoga practice?

At first, embodied practice can be uncomfortable; even being aware of your breath can be triggering for someone struggling with an eating disorder. Because of this, we recommend it’s approached gradually to avoid being flooded with emotion. 

Embodied yoga encourages you to take gentle steps to reconnect with how your body feels when you move it in a certain way. It helps you to recognise what your body is telling you it needs when you experience certain feelings.

We’re fortunate to have therapists at Altum Health who are trained in embodied practice. We always begin with what feels comfortable and gradually build from there. 

For example, we might start with something really simple such as slowly circling your shoulder forwards and noticing how it feels. We might then circle the shoulder backwards and pause to connect with how you’re feeling in your body.

When should you embark on embodied yoga practice?

Initially, for someone struggling with an eating disorder, a 1:1 embodied yoga class, or trying embodied practice as part of your therapy is recommended. 

Embodied practice is best when you’re not feeling super anxious as this is likely to leave you overwhelmed with emotion. 

To begin with, try embodied yoga practice when you feel slightly anxious. It’s good to get used to the feeling of anxiety in the body and be curious about it. 

Perhaps you notice a tightness in your jaw, or your heart beating faster, or your leg tapping. Your therapist or teacher will help you to breathe into it, to understand what it’s like to be in this feeling, and to help you regulate these feelings.

Allow yourself to feel

Some people are more ‘left brain hemisphere focussed’, which is detail oriented and responsible for planning and organising. Embodied practice taps into your ‘right brain’. That is, the part that has capacity for empathy and sensory feelings. 

Embodied practice can help to unlock more of the right-side of the brain to help you to feel more balanced and better able to cope with the difficult emotions your eating disorder shields you from.

Our licensed, professional therapists specialise in the treatment of eating disorders. Please contact us to book a consultation to find out how we can help.

Take care,

Jacqui Finnigan



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