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Overcoming the Disease of Perfection with Yoga Therapy
There is a sense of perfection that today’s women feel they need to achieve 24 hours a day, 7 days a week. Dr. Amy Shah wrote “Women: Our Disease Is Perfection” for the Huffington Post, stating that the idea of perfection is responsible for higher rates of depression, anxiety, and other disorders than our male counterparts.
Our need to be “perfect” may lead to anxiety so intense that compulsive behaviors or addiction result. Women suffer twice as much from eating disorders (ED), develop addictions faster, and have a tougher time quitting addictive substances than men. In the case of quitting smoking, many women are more afraid of weight gain than lung cancer or heart disease, and EDs cause more deaths than any other mental illness. This is perceived perfection run amok.
Caroline McCarter is a yogi in Austin, Texas, who personally struggled with body image and an eating disorder. Her experiences inspired her to develop a therapeutic yoga approach to assist those suffering from ED and addiction. Even if you simply need to get rid of negative self-talk or calm an overwhelmed mind, Caroline’s individualized approach can help.
Here’s what Caroline has to say about how this all works:
SS: What’s the difference between yoga “classes” and yoga “therapy?”
CM: Yoga classes are group-fitness classes that provide strengthening, stretching, and relaxation depending on the type of class. Classes are good for people who are fairly healthy and need the support of a group environment. The education for a Yoga teacher is usually focused on anatomy, postural alignment, names of postures, and a dash of other concepts related to Yoga. Education of a Yoga therapist is much more in-depth of those same concepts, plus the understanding of common illnesses and how Yoga could help or hurt those with certain diagnoses.
Yoga Therapy is highly specialized for the individual. Partly physical and partly psychological, a therapist must be acutely aware of the client. This requires reading body language (in casual conversation as well as in movement), active listening, and asking the right questions. A good therapist can take your physical symptoms, goals, lifestyle, and personality to create a home practice that helps reduce pain and create more ease.
SS: You’ve trained in a number of yoga disciplines and techniques, including therapy for oncology and MS patients. Your practice caters frequently to people with eating disorders and drug or alcohol addiction. How did that come about?
CM: The focus on addiction and eating disorders originally comes from my own personal struggles with food and body image. Both issues have a common thread of obsessive thought and compulsive behaviors. When I first began to study Yoga, I saw the potential its teachings had for me and others like me. The ancient texts specifically address maladaptive thought patterns. Essentially, Yoga is one of the first types of cognitive science. A simple insight it provides is that we are caretakers of our bodies, rather than feeling helpless in them, or being the boss of them.
SS: Is there a common challenge for clients with eating disorders and addiction? And what goals do you set for them in their practices?
CM: A recovery challenge for those with addiction and eating disorders is the reluctance to accept and try a new way of thinking. Many people desire to be or think healthier…but when it comes to the action of pursuing breathing and meditation to quiet the ego mind that drives obsessive thinking and compulsion, our minds can become our enemy. Some examples of obtrusive thoughts during meditation:
“You aren’t doing enough!”
“You aren’t good enough to change!”
“How could just sitting quietly help me with this devastating disease?”
“I’m not strong enough!”
“Life was easier when I wasn’t struggling to recover.”
The pull of the compulsion and the pull of critical low-self-worth talk can be an obstacle to recovery. While goals differ for each individual, a common goal is having more ease and enjoyment in daily life. We work step by step on how to achieve that—whether through exercise programs, journaling, breathing, meditation, chanting, etc… Since each person takes differently to certain techniques, I utilize the ones that fit with them personally.
SS: Is there a different approach in working with someone battling anorexia versus bulimia? If so, why?
CM: When it comes down to eating-disorder recovery, it’s all about relationships with food and body. There can be added issues such as anxiety, depression, trauma, grief, etc… But with all eating disorders, the common denominator is food and body. The Yoga philosophies that I teach are the same for all eating-disorder diagnoses, although my approach will vary based on personality and motivation. Movement practices will differ for each individual since I keep structural issues in mind as well. For example, clients with anorexia need more bone-density based practices than someone with a binge-eating disorder. Also, it is common for me to leave movement out of our therapy for a few sessions until we feel confident together that movement will not lead to any body shaming.
SS: You have a CD “Chants for Practice” and are now working on a book! Can you share a bit about the book?
CM: My book is catered to all who are interested in practices for peace of mind. I am writing it as a workbook so the reader must participate in movement, breathing, meditation, and journaling exercises. It is my opinion that we must actively engage in order to create change, rather than reading alone.
SS: What are some techniques our readers can practice at home when they feel anxious about weight gain, weight loss, body image, or other perceived physical flaws?
CM: A technique that I use to soothe is to first label the voice that is speaking to you. Is it the “inner critic,” “perfectionist,” or “eating-disorder voice?” We all have voices and thought patterns that can have a negative or positive spin. Once you have identified the negative voice, try to imagine what a loving, friendly, compassionate voice would say instead. If is it hard to create that voice, imagine a five-year-old girl coming to you with body-shame talk. What would your response be? This is how we can create a voice for ourselves that is nurturing. A voice of the caretaker that is found inside of all of us, who can help create peace with your body.
Try this with the recognition that the negative voices only continue to help a yo-yo diet mentality, which reeks havoc on your metabolism and often results in shame and judgment.
SS: Do you have a favorite mantra or chant for women who want to improve their mental health?
CM: One of my favorite mantras is quite simple: “May I be peace” or “May I be at peace.” Sitting quietly, inhale mentally reciting “May I”, exhale mentally reciting “be peace.” Do the practice for about 5 minutes and see how it makes you feel.