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How Hot Yoga Helped Heal Me From My Eating Disorder

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It was freshman year in a religious imagination class when I was first introduced to the term, eudaimonia. Eudaimonia is a philosophical concept that means; one’s own personally defined excellence. When I was a freshman, this really stuck with me. Every time I took this professor’s class, he never failed to talk about eudaimonia. Every time we talked about eudaimonia, I would reflect on myself. I would ask myself, am I able to be excellent? Do I have the capabilities to be excellent at anything? If so, how am I excellent?

The example he often gave about eudaimonia is running track. He loves to run, but he has severe asthma and was told he wouldn’t be able to run. He was, and still is, determined to do everything in his power to be the best runner he can be. He started breaking records because of this determination. I can see it in his eyes; hear the passion in his voice, when he talks about running marathons. There is a type of drive, and a type of passion, that creates eudaimonia. Nobody can define what eudaimonia is for another person, only that individual can know.

Thinking back, I can say my eudaimonia at one point was my eating disorder. I lived my life defining my worth, my excellence, and who I was as a person to my relationship with gravity. In other words, how much I weighed defined my worth. I would do everything it took to lose weight, to ensure that I would weigh less than the day before, even if it meant putting my health at risk. I wanted to take up as little space as I possibly could. My body didn’t belong to me; at least it felt as though it wasn’t mine. It felt as though my body belonged to those who took advantage of it, who utilized my body without my discretion. Since my body did not belong to me, I wanted my body to not exist.

I lived a decent portion of my life taking laxatives, diet pills, over-exercising, restricting my intake and purging. I did everything I could to ensure I wouldn’t gain weight. I didn’t want to take up more space than I was worth. If the scale went up, I would punish myself. I hated myself so much, I wanted to take up as little space as possible.

Many people have misconceptions about eating disorders. They think it’s about the desire to be skinny. If this were about being skinny, I wouldn’t have pushed myself as far as I did. It’s about coping. It’s about taking up as little space as possible. It’s disappearing. It’s about emotions. It’s about getting my abusers out of me. It’s about being in a body that wasn’t mine to begin with. I felt like I didn’t belong in my body, and I couldn’t escape it.

I entered the world of recovery; at least I thought I did. I was eating meals, but they were still very restrictive and particular. I ate a lot of diet foods. Every diet food that is on the shelf, I’ve probably tried at some point and time, convincing myself I enjoyed it. I began to let some of the symptoms go, and because of that, I thought I was recovering. I thought, well, since I’m not purging and eating more, I’m better. I disregarded taking laxatives once in a while when I felt bloated, I excused it as “normal” behavior. I disregarded exercising too much, and excused it as being healthy. This wasn’t recovery. It was a path towards recovery, but it wasn’t recovery. I was still holding on to my eating disorder, because this was still my personally defined excellence. I couldn’t picture myself without my eating disorder.

Fast-forward a year later. I was enduring one of the toughest semesters of my college career. This wasn’t because of my eight-class course load. My grandmother was sick. We found out she had breast cancer, and she knew for quite sometime. She didn’t want to live anymore, so she kept it quiet. She decided to get treatment. This was great news for me. She had a port that she received her chemo through. She got a staph infection in the port, it spread rapidly to brain and she died. I lost one of the only stable adult figures I had growing up very suddenly, and I felt lost and broken. That death was hard on me, but it wasn’t the hardest thing I endured that semester.

One of the men that took away my body was her husband, my grandfather. He was by her side, and if I wanted to be there, I had to stand in the same room as him. I had to make conversation, small talk and pretend I was OK with it. I suddenly had to forgive my grandmother for standing by his side, because her time was running short, and I wasted too much time holding that grudge. I wished I could have taken away the elephant in the room. I wish I could have screamed. I wish I could have taken away the unbearable heaviness, but all I could do was stand there and pretend everything was normal. I just dealt with it. I had to deal with it multiple times that semester. I even started feeling bad for him. I was carrying around an immense amount of guilt that shouldn’t have been mine to carry to begin with — it didn’t make sense. It seemed as though most things weren’t making sense at this point. There was so much going on in and out of my head — it just felt like I was spinning.

That semester, I was enrolled in a Health, Stress and Coping class. I was learning about the physiological implications of stress and coping techniques. They all sounded great, but I never really did them. I had the hardest time meditating, and my eating disorder was my coping mechanism. That was my way of making things hurt less, making things feel more bearable and making the world feel less heavy. In this time, I wanted to take up as little space as possible again. My eating disorder appeared differently than previous times. I was either bingeing and purging or restricting. I took laxatives on the days I felt extra bloated. I didn’t lose a ton of weight, because it wasn’t about losing weight. I didn’t use behaviors every single day, just on the bad days, which were increasing as time went on. My relationship with food and my relationship with myself were extremely unhealthy. It got to the point where I couldn’t walk up the stairs without feeling light-headed. I was slowly beginning to fall back into it, and I kept that quiet. I didn’t let anyone in on the resurfacing of my eating disorder. It was my secret.

My Health, Stress and Coping professor is someone who I trust. She knew the things I was dealing with at that time, and always offered an ear and support. She’s the one I ran to when my mother overdosed, she’s the one I ran to when my grandmother died, she’s the one I ran to when my head was spinning from everything else that was going on. She walked into class one day and gave us all these cards. They were cards for this place, Jenkintown Hot Yoga. I looked at it and thought, “Hm, sounds interesting.” I didn’t know much about yoga or hot yoga. I took a few yoga classes in college because it is a requirement to graduate at my school. She talked very highly of it and recommended that we all go at some point. I put it on my mental list of things to do with the awareness I may or may never get to it. I put the card in my backpack, and to this day, I still don’t where it is. Throughout the semester, she often referred to her studio and practice.

To this day, she doesn’t know the extent of what my eating disorder was at that time. At that time, I didn’t even know the extent of what it was. She knew it was popping up. I don’t really know how, but I know she knew something was up, because she would ask often, “When was the last time you ate?” I never really answered the question. I don’t want to call it a relapse, because I don’t know if that is what it was. I just know I was struggling and hated myself with everything I had in me. I was holding onto it with dear life, I didn’t want to let it go. I didn’t want to feel. I wanted to continue being numb. I’d show up at her office often that semester. Almost every time I went, she’d ask if I had tried hot yoga yet. Each time, I would say, “No, not yet. It’s on my list of things to do.” I didn’t go.

That semester ended, and the spring semester of senior year had begun. I still didn’t go to a hot yoga class, and from time to time, she’d ask if I had gone and recommend I go. I didn’t think things could get worse, but somehow, they did. My eating disorder was there, but I wasn’t engaging in as many behaviors as fall semester. In my head, I was still the girl with an eating disorder instead of the girl who had an eating disorder. It was almost my identity. I didn’t really know who I was without that it.

It was the first Friday of March and the first day of spring break. I impulsively decided to try out that hot yoga class. I thought, “What is there to lose by trying it?” My friend Marissa loves yoga and has always wanted to try bikram yoga, so she tagged along. I sent a message to that professor saying, “I’m going to hot yoga tonight.” She was extremely excited that I was going. I was terrified. I didn’t know what to expect. I actually almost turned the car around at one point.

I walked into the studio very rigid and was running late. I am never late for anything, so I was pretty pissed I was late for this. The studio was beautiful, and it was hard to be mad at myself while observing everything around me. After signing in, I took a deep breath and walked into the hot room. I took the class and really enjoyed it. I even signed up for the two-weeks of unlimited classes they offer the newbies at the studio. I went to Colorado the following week to visit a friend, and didn’t go back during the two weeks of unlimited classes.

The week after the two weeks unlimited ended, another bombshell hit my life. My professor and I were chatting about it amongst other small talk and she said, “We’re going to a hot yoga class.” I knew I liked the first class I took, so I was all for going again. When I went into the studio, and some of the people remembered my name. This may not seem like much, but I believed I was easily forgettable. I believed I was nothing really worth remembering, so when they remembered my name, it threw me off. I went into the class and tried to blend in as much as possible, I tried to take up as little space as I possibly could. As much as I tried to be invisible, I wasn’t. I received corrections, but also was told I was doing OK, I wasn’t invisible, and suddenly I wasn’t trying to disappear. I was trying to be present.

I left that class feeling very different from when I went in. The things my professor was saying about hot yoga suddenly made a ton of sense. I went back to my dorm and immediately told my roommate about my experience. I had nothing but amazing things to say about this practice and that studio. She became intrigued, and decided to come try it out with me. She’s heard of this studio before, because a different professor at my school also goes to Jenkintown Hot Yoga, and frequently talks about it. Therefore, she already had an interest in going and came with me. She fell in love, and particularly loved the lavender towel at the end. She signed up for the two weeks unlimited classes, and unlike me, she took full advantage of it. She went back to the school and told a bunch of other students about it, who came back with us. I bought a five-class card and went through it within a week. I then signed up for an unlimited month of classes. This was the best decision I could have made for myself.

I began to heal in ways that I didn’t think was possible, and I credit it all to that studio. I wasn’t at war with myself every second of the day anymore. I began to not fight with myself to eat and to keep it down. When I would go to hot yoga, I wanted my body to be in the best shape it could be, and to do that, I needed to eat. Eating began to be nourishing my body, not punishing it. I began to feel connected to myself.

I didn’t know this at first, but I was letting go of the rigid parts of my eating disorder. That was something seeing a dietitian or therapist never did. The thing I once called my eudaimonia was quickly slipping away, and I was actually okay with it. I started to find myself and who I was, I wasn’t just the girl with an eating disorder. I was catching glimpses of myself, and sometimes kind of liked what I saw. I was able to look at my body and not want to make it disappear- I wanted it stronger. I feel like I’m apart of my body again. I began to become aware of what was happening in it — I felt hungry for the first time in months after a class. This studio, this practice, gave me my body back.

One of the instructors once said, “Try and stay on your mat today.” For whatever reason, this really stuck with me. Everything that was happening outside of those walls didn’t matter in that room. That room became a space where I could let it go. For 90 minutes, my job was to try and stay on my mat. I would find when I let the outside world in, my balance would be thrown off entirely, or I would hold back from completely going into the postures. I was (and still am) learning to be with myself and stay on my mat. In being with myself, is where the healing began for me. My eating disorder was no longer my identity. I started learning what healthy coping looked like. This is where I learned what my eudaimonia is. It is not shrinking or disappearing- it’s being as present as possible, it’s doing the best that I can do that day in the hot room, it’s everything but shrinking.

One day, I came back from class. I was feeling inadequate, worthless, and defeated. I walked to my doorstep and there was a package. It was from my grandfather. He had been reaching out and going out of his way to ensure I knew he was trying to get in contact with me. I felt my heart rate spike and felt it fall into my chest all at the same time. I wanted that part of me to disappear. Instead of responding by attempting to make myself disappear and attempt to get him out of me, I brought the package inside and set it on my dining room table. I went to bed, and knew I had to go to a hot yoga class first thing the next morning. He didn’t deserve to take my body away from me again.

I woke up the next morning (which happens to be this morning), and felt heavy. I didn’t want to exist. I got up anyway and drove myself to the studio, the one place I can find sanity these days. Every class, I try to give it everything I can give that day. It was an off day, I had trouble balancing, I was easily distracted by my sweat, and by the heat. No matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t stay on my mat. My hearing became muffled. I ignored it, and kept pushing through hoping it would return eventually. We got to the floor series, and as I stared at the ceiling things were going blurry. I still couldn’t hear and I felt my heart rate spike quickly. I sat up, looked at the instructor and said, “I can’t hear.” I tried to hold it together, but I broke down sobbing instead. I actually had to be brought out of the room to just let myself cry. Looking back, the fluid in my ears wasn’t what I was crying over, it was everything else. Granted, not hearing was terrifying, but that wasn’t the only thing I was scared of. After calming down, I went back into the room, feeling humiliated. I knew I wanted to finish the class. Once the class ended, I wanted to run out of there as quickly as I could because I was to embarrassed to look anyone in the eye — I didn’t want people to see my hurt, because that hurt had surfaced. People stopped me, and showed genuine concern asking how I was. They weren’t judging me for crying. It was probably the safest place I could be during that time.

I got to my car and cried again. In fact, today has been a day full of tears. I don’t like to cry, but I also know crying isn’t a bad thing. I’m not running to numb those emotions out, I’m feeling them full force. I’m not used to that yet. This means I’m feeling. This means I’m connected to my body and myself, and if I didn’t go to that class, I don’t think I would be.

My own personally defined excellence is finding excellence within me, and I accomplish that through my practice of yoga. My eudaimonia isn’t just the practice of hot yoga — it’s everything that comes with it. Every time I walk into that room, I give it everything I can, wanting to better my practice, wanting to better myself. I am learning that my best is going to look different everyday. I am learning to accept myself for whatever I am that day and convincing myself that is good enough. I am healing. Healing comes in waves, some days it’s wonderful, other days, it;s crying on a yoga mat. I am learning to cope on the days healing isn’t so great. Jenkintown Hot Yoga gave me my body back, it gave me my sense of self-back, it gave me sanity back and it gave me my health back, which quite literally saved my life. It gave me everything I thought I couldn’t find again back. I feel like I am living life again. I feel my passion coming back. These things belong to me, they do not belong to anyone else, and they’re finally back. This was achieved through eudaimonia, and this shows how powerful eudaimonia is. It is powerful beyond measure.

If you or someone you know is struggling with an eating disorder, you can call the National Eating Disorders Association Helpline at 1-800-931-2237.

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Thinkstock photo via fizkes

Originally published: August 11, 2017
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