ASSISTING RECOVERY IN EATING DISORDERS— Yoga and Developmental Movement Patterns

I teach Embodyoga@ as part of a program for the treatment of eating disorders. While Eating Disorders vary in their particulars they are all serious disturbances in the way we nourish ourselves. Eating disorders are coping mechanisms developed to control emotion, sensation and feeling and they have many adverse physical, psychological and social consequences. Eating disorders are complex sets of behaviors which often include co-morbidities such as anxiety, depression, trauma history, and body dysmorphic disorder. But at the root of all eating disorders is a dissociation from the body, a fundamental disconnect from our body-mind systems. The inability to nourish oneself is an inability to survive, a denial of the responsibility given to each of us with the great gift of the breath of life. Characteristics of dissociation include ignoring physiological signals from the body for hunger or satiation, or awareness of amounts of food that have been eaten.  Often present is a distorted perception of body image, body dysmorphic disorder, which can involve an obsession with “thinness”. irrational fear of weight gain, extreme efforts to manage weight or food intake, fixations on perceived physical flaws and a preoccupation with the unobtainable idealized bodies presented in the media.

These intense obsessions consume the lives of those suffering with eating disorders. Over time malnutrition contributes to impaired brain and organ function which can in turn affect perceptions. Over time the control required to maintain these behaviors causes not only isolation and disruption of relationships with family and community, but a fragmentation of the relationship to the Self.  Ultimately it is through our body that the universe has chosen to express itself. It is only through the body and mind working in integrated companionship that we can connect with our individual selves—and universal Self—and learn to understand our lives and our essential place in the world.

During the yoga group sessions I teach at the Behavioral Care facility I always lead clients through Developmental Movement Patterns that I have learned in my Embodyoga® Training Programs. These patterns are based primarily on the work of Bonnie Bainbridge Cohen of the School for Body-Mind-Centering®. Over the past five years I’ve seen first hand how these simple yet profound movements can ease the way toward the difficult yet essential journey of bringing the body into the treatment equation.

These Developmental Movement Patterns are the basic progression of movements we follow as we learn and grow in the first year of life. Each phase of development forms a neurological and neuro-cellular organizational template that supports how we function in the world.  The patterns layer one upon the other. As one pattern is incorporated into the body-mind, it provides the support for the next pattern of organization to develop. The circumstance of missing one or more of these neuro-cellular patterns in our personal development may limit our choices in regard to our personal patterns of behavior, thought, and movement. It is not until we actually DO a pattern and embody it that we can awaken these layers of intelligence, perception, and connectivity that are waiting to be freed.

Even if we have missed the developmental benefits of one or move of these essential templates of integration, it is entirely possible to go back as an adult and re-incorporate these patterns and essentially re-educate these neuro-cellular pathways. Following these patterns in a yoga practice may increase the potential for the re-connection of body-to-brain communication, allowing the unobstructed flow of life force which in turn increases the potential for health and whole body integration. What we have found, is that going back, tracing and establishing these neurological and neuro-cellular connections, helps so many of us to optimize our integration and to become more comfortable in our own skins.

Behavioral  addictions are similar to substance addictions in that the search for comfort is directed toward an external source. Eating disorder behaviors are an effort to bring the uncomfortable sensations of emotion and thoughts under control. Extremes of binging, binging and purging, or denying food, and obsessions with weighing, measuring, mirror checking  or excessive exercise are ways to distract oneself from the awareness of one’s life situations. Eating disorders reflect a strategic abandonment of the body and the Self. The body is perceived as something “other” than our Self and often an “object” of terror and confusion.

The profound importance of  Embodyoga® is that we learn that comfort (ananda) is actually and always found within the body.  Through these Developmental Movement Patterns a baseline for processing our world is established. Perceptual and motor processes are toned and our relationship to the world around us is put into perspective. The mind and the body learn, through movement and breath (prana), to work in active relationship and discernment. Inhabiting the body in this way allows us to process sensory information in useful ways supported by the inner movement of intelligence and prana. 

download-6Spinal Movement PatternThis is the earliest pattern.With spinal movements we discover the vertical axis of our bodies and also learn to differentiate front body from back body. These movements are Spinal Flexion (forward arc of the spine), Extension (backward arc), Lateral Flexion (side bend) and Rotation (twist). Examples of these early movements might be an infant curling into her mother to nurse, or a baby turning his head. In  yoga asana we can explore the patterns of Spinal Flexion & Extension in Cat & Cow stretches. The key to the effectiveness of these movements is finding the breath, finding the support of the navel center, elongating through head and reaching the tail as you go. Simple Side Bends and Twists in Tadasana will take us through Lateral Flexion and Rotation. Support for these movements is from the navel center but also from the fortifying comfort of each and every cell.  As I continue to explore all of these movement patterns with my clients I am working toward the primacy of full body, full cellular integration.

In these early movement templates, we are approaching autonomic nervous system. In yoga we learn that flexion postures stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system and relate to the exhaling phase of the breath. Extension postures and the inhaling phase of the breath stimulate the sympathetic nervous system.In yoga practice we integrate breath and movement seamlessly. The coordination of movement with the breath serves to create an increased state of balance in body and mind. When we practice these same movements in Embodyoga® we also include what we call The Fluid Patterns. The fluid patterns are layers of movement within, from the cellular respiration to the largest musculoskeletal movement. What we find is that by introducing the body’s inherent fluidity—as a conscious reality—into simple movements we enhance their effectiveness. These simple movements offer profound organization for sensing and feeling the integration of body and mind Those who may feel dissociated from their bodies can find a doorway back in, to increasing comfort, ease, and maybe even self acceptance.

In my experience a critical component is releasing effort, and then the breath—the prana—will find its way.  A reliance on extreme controlling behaviors is a hallmark of eating disorders. So learning to notice the wisdom of the body is a necessary component for a radical appreciation of the BODY AS IT IS. The client can learn that we don’t have to control the breath because we are, in fact, breathing. With only awareness as our guide we can allow more breath into the body and soften into the flow of prana as it seeps into and between each cell. While in a forward bend a student can choose to experience the sensation of a muscle stretching or contracting. Or while standing in Tadasana one can learn to appreciate the constant negotiation and communication between our skeletal system and our muscles in their combined effort to keep us upright. Each time a client notices a simple sensation he or she is learning that we can trust the body. Through repetition of patterns one learns that the feeling or sensation has a beginning, middle and end so there is no need to control or suppress it.  The sensation will pass. Each positive reinforcement allows more trust of the body as it is and as the means of comfort and support we need to live our lives.

Homologous Movement Pattern images-2The Homologous Pattern is when we initiate movement with both arms or both legs together, or differentiate the upper and lower parts of the body. For example an infant discovers the the world around her by pushing up on her forearms. In a yoga practice simultaneously inhaling both arms overhead is a great way to organize around this pattern. A simple low Cobra Pose or  Utkatasana also brings this pattern strongly and effectively into play.  The key aspects are to coordinate with the breath, move upper limbs and lower limbs at the same time, organize around center support, yield into earth, reach the tail, and feel how all cells are working together.  With each pattern we are building on previous patterns, so spinal supports will apply here as well. With homologous movement we work with the idea of coming into relationship with the world around us and discovering our unique and essential place in that world.

download-2Homolateral Movement Pattern Homolateral movement is when the arm  and leg on the same side of the body are flexing or extending together. An effective way to explore this pattern is to start in Constructive Rest Pose (on the back, knees bent, feet to the floor, arms next to the body). Inhale and reach the right arm and the right leg out along the floor and exhale them back to their starting position. Repeat on the left side and continue for several rounds. This is an important pattern for re-establishing communication from body to brain. In the Homolateral Pattern the direction of communication is from right body to right brain, and left body to left brain. So often we think that our brain signals the body to move. And of course that can be true. But the opposite is also true. The body has its own intelligence and is perfectly capable of using it to initiate movement. This pattern turns the brain centered model upside-down. This “bottom up” therapeutic model is particularly useful in opening channels of communication from body to brain for signals like hunger, satiation, thirst etc.  It has been my experience that this pattern has a calming effect and can help an anxious or restless client settle into a quieter state.  Each Movement Pattern can be practiced in any relationship to gravity and each has its merits..

images-3Contralateral Movement Pattern Contralateral movement emphasizes the diagonal reach of the body as we extend or flex opposite limbs (left arm-right leg) simultaneously. A baby moves contra-laterally as he scoots along the floor and reaches for a favorite toy. This is the most complex pattern and the one found in many yoga postures. Movement crosses the midline of the body and the brain integrates. In  other words the right brain communicates with the left body, the left brain communicates with right body and the two halves of the brain engage simultaneously. Explore this pattern from hands and knees as you inhale and extend the right arm and left leg out from center and exhale them back to the floor. Repeat with left arm and right leg.  The Contralateral Movement Pattern supports complex ideas and gets us ready to explore the world, to stand and walk and process complicated thoughts and behaviors. During the exploration of each Development Movement Pattern we notice changes in the breath. It is also useful to notice and feel the ease or relative difficulty of each pattern for you and keep at it until it is an embodied pathway.

Practicing  Developmental Movement organizational templates as we use them in Embodyoga®, may assist those who have had a disruption in their developmental movement patterns.  As adults we can find hinderances to our ability to nourish, nurture and thrive. We get stuck in behaviors and patterns of thought that are not useful or healthy. Eating disorders are never a food problem. They are problems of awareness, serious disturbances in our perception of Self. By exploring these patterns in a yoga practice we can begin to find the wisdom of each cell and the deep comfort inherent in the body.  Through integration of these neuro-cellular pathways we learn to come into healthy relationship with the  intelligence of the body-mind system as we explore the possibilities of a meaningful relationship with the world and community around us. And most importantly one may come to value, as I do, the body-mind-spirit  as the complex miracle of manifestation of the conscious intelligence of the universe.

To know more about Katherine Tancredi, Senior Embodyoga® Teacher, E-RYT 500, visit her web site.

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