Moving Through Addiction
For Ana Forrest, yoga began as a form of poor man’s therapy. Sexually abused as a child, living in poverty, not having enough to eat, Forrest’s early life seemed a setup for addiction. In the beginning she turned to drugs, alcohol, and food—anything that could help her check out. At 18, her addiction was bulimia. She ate and ate and then purged. She got so skillful at controlling her body she could swallow backward—immediately vomiting her food back up.
Kicking drugs and alcohol was no easy feat, but once she put her mind to it, she quit cold turkey. However, overcoming her eating disorder was a different matter. She obviously couldn’t stop eating; food required that she face her addictive nature daily, instead of just the addiction itself. And face it she did, which demanded a whole different level of healing and maturing. “Bulimia, in a kind of perverse way, forced me to evolve—or die,” says Forrest.
How did she finally control her urge to purge? Her yoga. Sun Salutations, to be exact. This flowing sequence, done at the beginning of a yoga class to warm up the muscles, provided the kinetic focus she needed to take her mind off her food obsession. When the desire to binge threatened to control her, she’d do these poses until she felt calmer and the feeling of overwhelm subsided.
The Dictates of Abuse
Recovery programs often provide yoga classes for those who suffer eating disorders, in part because yoga calls for the ability to feel sensation—most anorexics, bulimics, and binge eaters are entrenched in some sort of gridlock of numbness and denial. At the heart of eating disorders beats a poignant contradiction, in which the need to feel and connect struggles with its shadow—the longing to disappear, protect, check out. “Eating disorders are so misnamed. They are only partially about eating,” says Kathryn Zerbe, MD, professor of psychiatry at Oregon Health and Science University and author of Beyond the Body Betrayed (W. W. Norton & Company, 2008). “People often use the binge-purge cycle to feel their bodies or put certain feelings to sleep.” When you can help the body learn to wake up and withstand the barrage of feelings, Zerbe says, the eating disorder often improves.
Most women (and increasingly men, too) turn to food in one way or another as a substitute for hard-to-stomach emotions. Others abandon themselves through exercise, alcohol, sex, or even compulsive shopping. All addictions dramatize the inner struggle of how we claim our identity and our right to exist. To live out loud, free of the muffler of debilitating obsession, we need to accept our current circumstances but also learn to recognize what’s at stake.
Forrest has since worked with thousands of people with eating disorders. Often, she says, a traumatic experience (such as sexual abuse) sets a person up for this behavior. “It’s not simply about wanting to be a small size,” says Forrest, “it is about self-esteem. Something happened to shatter that. Wanting to be thinner is the reaction to the abuse or trauma.” There is a lot of conditioning in the person that needs to change, Forrest says. Her advice: Rebel and rise above the dictates of the abuse.
Eating disorders were not so common in the 1970s, when Forrest battled her bulimia. In fact, she had never heard the word bulimia; she thought it was just her own bizarre behavior. Later a doctor examined her throat for ulcers in an attempt to diagnose why she was throwing up everything and ended the session by telling her to go to a therapist. She thought he was nuts. As other bulimics began to surface and tell their stories, she began to recognize her own.
Forrest, now a world-renowned yoga teacher and creator of Forrest Yoga, has mapped the trajectory of her own recovery in the following steps, which she shares below. Pair her advice with the Sun Salutations (below) that became the cornerstone of her 12-step program.
1. Breathe in new energy. “Deep breathing requires you to stay alert and present and not go into a trance,” Forrest says. Taking time to breathe deeply allows you to tune into your inner wisdom, the place in you that lives in the present. “Inhale the new energy you want in your life. Exhale the toxic gunk—old thinking, patterns, beliefs,” she says. Pranayama quickens the blood, increases your circulation, and makes you feel more alive. This helps you focus on something more compelling than food or addiction.
2. Start a love affair with healing. This step involves becoming responsible for and accountable to yourself—knowing that this is your own precious life and how you spend it is in your own hands. “Feeling love was very difficult for me,” Forrest says. “So what I set out to do was to love my students for the duration of the yoga class. That love gave me the spaciousness for their stuff—their addictions or pain or personal struggles. Then it occurred to me that I could turn that around and direct it to my own healing process. I was so patient with my students and knew how to nurture and guide them toward healing. It was a huge revelation to realize I could do that to myself.”
3. Create doable steps. Forrest says because she couldn’t tolerate failure, she needed to create steps that would allow her to succeed. Don’t try to stop the binge/purge behavior all at once, she says, just do it a little at a time. Change can be terrifying, especially when you identify closely with your addiction, so taking small steps will help you feel less overwhelmed. Doable steps are just that, doable, no matter how far along you are in your healing process.
4. Be consistent. Consistency gave Forrest the key to success. “Even though I hated that word, it was important for me to put routine into my life. I would eat at the same time each day. I would do yoga at the same time each day, even if it was only for a few minutes. Not just a few times a week. Daily,” she says.
5. Honor your small successes. Cultivate actions that build pride rather than shame, Forrest says, and reward yourself lavishly for your small triumphs. Replace compulsion with celebration, and become generous with self-approval. Catch the behavior as you are doing it, then stop and take a number of deep breaths (say 10) to reset, counting your breaths out loud. Congratulate yourself for noticing the behavior—no judgments, no beating yourself up for slipping. Ask yourself what would be the most healing step at this moment. Then do it.
6. Stay conscious. To get better, Forrest says, you need to become fully aware of what you are doing. “I had to feel the danger of each trigger fully—the trance, the fridge, the store, the restaurant,” she says. Assess the damage as honestly as you can without judging yourself. Ask yourself if your actions brighten or dim your spirit. “My first step was to stay conscious,” Forrest says. Being present throughout the process, no matter how painful, plants the seeds of change.
7. Stop the purging. Make your mantra “No purging no matter what.” That includes using enemas or laxatives. And stop punishing yourself. Look for signs of your destructive behavior in other parts of your life. Forrest calls this “hunting and stalking” the addiction. “The punishment I did to myself wasn’t so much the binging and purging, it was my internal dialogue,” Forrest remembers. “I spoke so cruelly to myself. We tell ourselves all the time that we are speaking the truth—the raw, honest, cruel truth—but actually we are only speaking partial truths in order to wound ourselves. This is the addictive pattern of self-mutilation.” How do you stop? Do something special for yourself, something that doesn’t involve food. “I did one kind action for myself every day. Sometimes it was a foot rub or a soothing, comforting, healing belly rub.”
8. Set up an external measurement. Be patient with yourself. It will take time to discern when you are hungry and when you are not. What helped Forrest figure out normal portion sizes was to set up an external measurement. One plate of food, no less and no more, worked until she had developed the internal cues for satiety. She also abides by the no-junk-food rule, which loosely translates into choosing foods that are fresh, wholesome, and nutritious.
9. Feel gratitude for your food. “I learned to pray over my food from the Native Americans,” says Forrest. “I look at my plate, and I get that whatever it was died so I could eat it. I thank it for its sacrifice and pledge not to waste its life force.” Take in the food respectfully. A feeling of gratitude allows you to tap into the life force that food provides—and sustains.
10. Eat with mindfulness. “Like the Zen saying, ‘When I eat, I eat,’” says Forrest. Concentrate all your energy on the taste of the food, which means no TV, no reading, and minimal conversation. Chew each bite thoroughly so the food can be better absorbed. Take three conscious breaths between bites, she says, and focus on savoring the experience of swallowing. Don’t eat if you feel angry, sad, or emotionally “hot.” Do yoga or some kind of exercise instead, because you won’t be able to digest, and you won’t be able to control the urge to purge.
11. Do something healing after you eat. “After eating is when the craziness comes up for me,” Forrest says. “A part of me still wants to purge. What helps me is to do one healing thing after eating. I ask myself what’s the most nurturing thing I can do right now—take a nap, massage my feet, take a walk outside, sit quietly—and then I honor the answer.”
12. Move through the emotions to process them. When the struggle to binge begins, take some deep breaths; get out of your head and into your body. Walk around the block till the cravings subside (they tend to come in 20-minute cycles). Forrest created her own 12-step program—Sun Salutations. “I could go through a series of suns until the craving and craziness passed,” she says. “At the end, not only did I make it through—which helped my self-esteem—but I got physically stronger. I got the sense that I could beat this addiction.”
Of course, sometimes going it alone doesn’t work. You then need to reach out for help. “There is usually some deep-seated part of you that needs healing and you may need help to get to it,” Forrest says. Make your therapist, massage therapist, and yoga teacher part of your healing team. When you’re going through your stuff, it can be bewildering, she says. “If a therapist has experience in this area, she’ll know the terrain and can help guide you through.”
Ana Forrest is a worldwide pioneer in yoga and emotional healing. Her approach is unique and powerful, drawing on her vast life experiences and more than 30 years of teaching. For more information, go to www.forrestyoga.com.
Simple Steps for Powerful Healing
Doing yoga every day will give you something more compelling to focus on than food or obsessions.
Eat sitting down and with mindfulness.
Stroke your skin on your forearm with a feather and feel the gentle sensation.
Do Sun Salutes to your favorite, upbeat music.
Practice the concept of “fresh start.” When you blow it, notice without judgment and start over.
Breathe deeply, emphasizing the inhale to increase energy and build life force.
Avoid TV, reading, and too much chatter at meals.
Sun Salutations: A 12-Step Plan
Ana Forrest, a pioneer in yoga and emotional healing, guides us through her 12-pose sun salutation, designed to warm up the muscles and build core strength.
1. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
Stand with your legs together, big toes touching, and heels slightly apart. Distribute your weight evenly between the front of your feet and your heels. Tighten your knees by pulling your thigh muscles up. Gently tuck your tailbone, lift your chest, and bring your hands together in prayer position (Namaste) at your chest. Keep your toes active and shoulders back away from your ears.
2. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
From Tadasana, lift your arms up and reach back, keeping the shoulders down. Tuck your tailbone, and push the pubic bone forward. Press through your heels, and lift your rib cage evenly away from your pelvis, taking care not to jut your lower front ribs out. Keep the lower spine as long as possible. Without compressing the back of your neck, look up at your thumbs.
3. Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
From Urdhva Hastasana, exhale as you sweep your arms out to the sides, and bending from your hip joints, come into a forward bend with a straight back. Release your head, keeping your neck long. Press the feet firmly and actively into the floor and raise your sitz bones to the ceiling.
4. Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
From Uttanasana, bend your knees and step your right leg back into a lunge. Drop your right knee to the floor. Sink your hips toward the front heel. Keeping the front heel flat on the floor, lift ribs up and arms overhead. Spread fingers wide, and tuck your tailbone.
5. Plank (Preparation for Chaturanga)
From Anjaneyasana, exhale your arms to the floor (on either side of your left foot). Holding the breath, step the left foot back to meet the right. Keep shoulders down and squeeze ankles toward one another. Move directly into the next pose.
6. Yoga Push-up (Chaturanga Dandasana)
From Plank Pose, exhale and lower the whole body to the floor, keeping the elbows in toward the body and pushed back toward the feet. Pull the shoulders away from the neck and floor. Relax head and neck toward the floor. Modification: Lower the knees first and then the rest of the body.
7. Cobra (Bhujangasana)
From Chaturanga, press your thighs and pubic bone into the floor. With hands under shoulders, inhale and lift the torso up. Squeeze your ankles together, and roll your shoulder blades down away from your ears. Push the ribs and chest forward.
8. Downward-Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svanasana)
From Bhujangasana, roll the torso back down to the floor and move into Downward-Facing Dog, pressing down on the web between your thumbs and forefingers. Keep the chest open and active and your shoulders away from your ears as you raise your buttocks into the air and your thighs back.
9. Low Lunge (Anjaneyasana)
From Adho Mukha Svanasana, exhale as you bring your right leg in between your hands into a lunge. Drop your left knee to the floor and sink your hips toward your front heel. Keep your front foot firmly planted on the ground.
10. Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
From Anjaneyasana, step your left leg to meet your right in a standing-forward bend. Release the head, and keep your neck long. Keep your legs straight and your feet active.
11. Upward Salute (Urdhva Hastasana)
From Uttanasana, lift your arms out to the sides and up. Reach back, keeping the shoulders down. Tuck your tailbone, and push the pubic bone forward. Keep the lower spine as long as possible. Without compressing the back of your neck, look up at your thumbs.
12. Mountain Pose (Tadasana)
From Urdhva Hastasana, return to Tadasana with hands in prayer position.