How Yoga Helps Me See and Be the ChangeFebruary 23, 2022
2022 marks twenty years of the National Eating Disorders Association (NEDA) working to raise awareness and make change. That is almost as long as I have lived with my eating disorder, an invisible, unspoken disability. It is cause for celebration, especially for a light-skinned, brown, queer settler on the lands of the Anishinaabe, including the Mississaugas of the Credit, Haudenosaunee, and Huron-wendat (Wyandot). Change matters more when your experience generally goes unseen.
Twenty years into this work and I still don’t see myself reflected in the general media around the ever-evolving eating disorders field. But I can see the change that has begun. I am hopeful that through my personal and community healing, and our collective culture shifting and advocacy, in 20 years from now, I might see myself included.
As a yoga therapist, and narrative medicine facilitator the lenses through which I see change might be different from yours. My yoga practice gives me more than pretty asanas (ah-suh-nuhs) or shapes that I can make when my body agrees to play along. Through the first two limbs of the practice, it gives me the yamas (y-ah-m-ahz) and niyamas (nee-yuh-muhs). These ethical practises guide how I treat myself, and others. They also ensure I can both see and be the change that I need in the world.
The niyamas play out in many ways in my life. You might apply some of these and observe how they shift your explicit and implicit bias, helping you see yourself and the world in a more accepting, inclusive way. I use them to challenge systemic and structural forms of exclusion including white supremacy and the impacts of colonisation that indicate bodies like mine are less desirable or valuable.
The niyama of Śaucha (shau-cha) grounds my practice and is useful when I’m working as a narrative medicine facilitator since it includes taking responsibility for all of my words, including the ones I say to, or about myself. Deliberately practising this includes pausing to see the impact of those words.
Santosa (sun-tosh-ah) is another key aspect. You might see it defined as contentment, acceptance, or optimism. For me this practice is more about pausing and being honest with myself about what I’m avoiding and exploring how I can better acknowledge and integrate it so that I can see things as they really are – not how I want them to be, or wish they were.
Through my narrative medicine work I continue to use svādhyāya (svahd-YAH-yah) or self-study supported by a culturally appropriate philosophical or sacred text. While I will often use poetry or memoir, I deliberately select stories that help me see more clearly as they support a healthier body image. They often do this by including language around the intrinsic value of the body, and of the self beyond the physical form.
I admit to struggling most with īśvarapranidhāna or the art of surrendering to a greater universal power. With practice, I have found this a useful way to release my need for control – which often triggers my eating disorder. Instead, this practice helps me access a sense of relaxation which gives me the space to play with new ways of seeing. The final niyama, tapas (tuh-pus) gives me the discipline to maintain my practice of daily rituals that are slowly rebuilding neural pathways and helping me re-establish a healthier relationship with my body, breath, and mind.
Where the niyamas change how I see the world, the yamas shape my being in it. They support raising awareness, healing in community, and advocating for systemic and structural change.
Ahimsa (uh-h-ih-mm-s-aa) is the one you’re probably familiar with. Did you know it can mean including people with intersectional identities and their communities at all phases of recovery including information gathering, care, and support? In my practice, that looks like taking the statement “nothing about us without us”, to heart. It means actively working to remove systemic and structural barriers rooted in institutional practises, policies, traditions, and values that limit access.
This ties in with satya (s-uh-t-y-uh) or truthfulness, especially around research and data collection, where people who look like me have generally been left out. Being the change means helping build a data pool about eating disorders in traditionally underrepresented communities to shift policies, procedures and decisions that have been made without an awareness of the full truth of the current state.
Asteya (Uh-s-t-ai-y-uh) or responsibility appears in my practice as I advocate to and work with policy makers to re-shape how they see care seekers, and how they engage to support more effective advocacy and access to care. I take the responsibility of using my privileges and platforms to amplify the stories, including those that come forth in narrative medicine practice, so they can inform cultural change.
Bhramacharya (brah-muh-chahr-yuh) may have been explained to you as celibacy. More broadly, it means the deliberate use of energy. This practice is one of my favourites because I deliberately use my energy to deepen my understanding and shape collective understanding of what inclusive eating disorder recovery can look like. This helps shift culture to include a thoughtful, nuanced approach that takes the complexity of intersectionality and identity markers into account when considering eating disorders.
Aparigraha (a-paree-graha) or generosity is probably the most important yama. I interpret it as deliberately making space and working within my individual beliefs and systems to include underrepresented people and communities. This grounds the act of being the change I want to see in the world.
Yoga offers each of us more than making shapes or breathing mindfully. I hope that you’ll think about weaving in some of these foundational aspects of the practice, so that twenty years from now, we can celebrate a truly inclusive systemic and structural approach to eating disorder recovery. If you have questions about how to start, please reach out.
Niya Bajaj is an award-winning mentor, philanthropist, yoga therapist and narrative medicine facilitator. She has spent her career helping high performing humans achieve their goals by working with each of them as a whole person, taking the experience of body, breath, and mind into account to build healthier systems and structures. As a queer woman of colour, she brings her interdisciplinary insights to her research, practice, and the organizations she leads and advises. Connect with Niya at https://holisticyogatherapy.ca/ or on Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/holisticyogatherapist/