Healing From My Eating Disorder in the Warmth of Hot Yoga

“Comparison is the thief of joy.” -Theodore Roosevelt

“Pay careful attention to your own work, for then you will get the satisfaction of a job well done, and won’t need to compare yourself to anyone else.” -Galatians 6:4

By Lisabeth Kaeser, Guest Contributor

I sat with my dietician reviewing my weekly food sheets that are getting to be a drain and a constant reminder that I am still working on recovery. My support team doesn’t seem to think that I am quite ready to fly solo, off into the sunset where my eating disorder could never find me. Looking at my exercise and activity level that I report at the top of each page, my dietitian asks pointedly: “Why in the world are you doing Hot Yoga?” I know she is doing her due diligence and covering all her bases with me, but the question catches me off guard.

We sit in an uncomfortable silence broken by her questioning my motives for the Hot Yoga. “You know this yoga expends energy, a lot of energy?” I am aware of this,” I answer, reminding her that I have been in the fitness industry for years. “This is why I do the hot yoga.”

When I wasn’t training my clients, I was constantly training for my next race or teaching another group fitness class. Pushing my body to work harder and go faster was something that I demanded of it daily. Like many of those with eating disorders, I tried to hide mine behind both teaching and training. Ah…the ultimate breeding grounds for the eating disorder to flourish. My self-discipline and self-denial were applauded, even envied. This fed the eating disorder when I couldn’t feed myself.

The fitness industry can be a very difficult and even dangerous arena to walk into day after day for any of us, but certainly for those with an eating disorder. In the gym, our bodies are exposed in curve hugging tights, or athletic shorts, tops and sports bras. We open ourselves to comparison, ego-feeding flattery, and criticism. This inevitably morphs into self-criticism. Surrounded by mirrors we pick ourselves apart and push our bodies, often beyond our limits to keep up with the person next to us. As a competitive athlete, this is necessary, but for most of the population the goal should be to move…just move our bodies.

We believe that we are somehow inherently weak of character purely because we can’t lift as much weight, do as many reps, or do more cardio than our fellow sweat-covered neighbor. In 30 years, I never once heard one person say what they loved about their body, just what they didn’t like. They wanted a certain butt, breasts that were bigger or smaller, thinner thighs, flatter stomachs, and just enough muscle, but not too much.

Why do we, as women, do this to ourselves? We become so fixated on the bodies that we forget to see the souls. We often lose track of our own souls as well.

As a teacher, this was my job! These people expected me to whip them into shape. If I didn’t “see dead people” by the end of my class I hadn’t done my job. So, the comparison moved beyond my body to how I taught. Was I entertaining enough, tough enough, strong enough? I mentally beat myself up as I continued to physically beat my body into submission, refusing to accept its limitations.

Comparing my body and of my teaching skills began to steal my joy, but I couldn’t let it seal my fate. I felt like a fraud and couldn’t continue to deceive people that somehow thin equated health and fitness. After years of comparing and pushing I needed a break.

I needed to do my “own work” in order to recover. This meant taking a step back to figure out how to find a balance between training my body to compete and loving it enough to accept its limitations.

So, yoga, yes yoga. In my case, it is hot yoga. I didn’t seek out the 100 plus degree heated room to work harder or burn more calories, it just happened to open it doors close to my home.

Walking into my first class I was, for the first time anonymous. I didn’t know a person in the room and they didn’t know me. Although I had done yoga before, it was always at my place of employment. There was some security in that place, but also eyes watching to see if I was as strong in someone else’s class as my own.

The challenge for me was going to be letting go and not comparing myself with my sweaty, and in this case very supple, flexible neighbor on the mat next to mine. “Great!” I thought, “My hamstrings are so tight from running. I can just get my hands on the floor, and I am standing next to contortionist with no connective tissue!” I wondered, if she were a performer in Cirque de Soleil?

“Breathe just breathe,” the instructor whispered. “Close your eyes and set your intention for the class.”  Breathe? Set an intention? I can do this, I thought to myself. I do this every week in my writing circle.

I forgot about Gumby on the mat beside mine. My intention was to listen to my body. I would stop when it said stop and go when it said go. I would challenge it while accepting its limitations.

Initially, I loved to hate yoga. Now, I simply love it. I love the warmth of the room embracing me as I am learning to embrace my body. This same acceptance of my body has opened me up to owning my strengths and limitations as a person.

There was a need for me to find my own way in a yoga class. For years I had steered away from yoga because some of its tenets seemed contradictory to my Christian belief system. Although it is not where I am able to practice yoga regularly, I attended a few classes at a Holy Yoga studio. I learned how to tune out what wasn’t helpful to me and tune into what was. As I enter into class, I invite the Holy Spirit to enter in with me, because I am tired of finding my identity in anorexia, my body, and my performance. I use the time to connect with The Holy Spirit, but others may connect with what feeds and centers their souls. It is in finding a spiritual connection, that we are free from the “shoulds” and expectations of our this big, scary world.

Having worked in the fitness industry for most of my life and being a competitive athlete that loves to compete, hot yoga is my refuge of warmth. We lift each other up, encourage forward progress, and celebrate our victories together. I no longer feel the need to teach or (always) compete to feel complete.

Lisabeth Kaeser has a unique perspective on suffering and recovery from an eating disorder in both adolescence and middle age. Her recovery reflects the need for those who suffer from eating disorders to find their identity in something besides their illness. She finds her identity in the love of Christ.

Lisabeth is the author of Eating by Faith: A Walk With God. My Eating Disorder From The Inside Out. She lives in Terrace Park, Ohio, with her husband, three dogs and one cat. Lisabeth is blessed to live in the same city as her two sons, a daughter-in-law and granddaughter.

When she isn’t writing or spending time with the Lord, she enjoys running, swimming, skiing or just sitting on the dock on Walloon Lake, Michigan or on her new found place on her yoga mat, setting her intentions, embracing her strengths, and accepting her limitations.

Lisabeth works with The Tri-State Eating Disorders Resource Team to raise awareness about eating disorders and speaks frequently to groups about her relapse, recovery and redemption. Connect with Lisabeth.