Posted on September 27th, 2013
When Chelsea was 15 years old, she nearly died from a stroke caused by severe anorexia. She incorporated yoga into her recovery process and in her words, “I went from surviving to thriving; from living half a life to experiencing joy and freedom I never imagined possible.” She’s developed a program called Yoga for Eating Disorders™ based on her experience. Last month she raised over $45,000 to fund a project to bring her curriculum for free to treatment centers around the country and to do an evidence-based study on yoga’s effectiveness in treatment of eating disorders. Part of her fundraising effort was a 4-day yogic sit-in on a Santa Monica roof that she called #OccupyYouAreBeautiful. Read more about this powerful woman and her plan.
HOW HAS YOGA SAVED YOUR LIFE? (AND WHAT ROLE HAS OTM PLAYED IN YOUR JOURNEY?)
I walked into my first yoga class fresh off the battlefield of a nearly decade-long struggle with Anorexia Nervosa. I reluctantly tried yoga at the recommendation of my therapist because up until that point, nothing had worked. I’d relapsed over and over again — honestly, I was headed down a slow, passive-aggressive path to suicide. This is the hard truth about eating disorders: The “successful” anorexic is a dead anorexic, and this disease is fucking hard to recover from. Studies suggest that between 50-70% of people with anorexia relapse after treatment, and 20% will die prematurely from complications related to the disorder.
So the notion that yoga would help seemed laughable. And yet… it did. Yoga taught me skills that pharmaceuticals, talk therapy, and other traditional forms of treatment simply could not provide. I often say that yoga took me from “surviving to thriving” — it gave me the motivation and mental muscles to fight this disease. As a moving meditation, yoga taught me to recognize and respond to my body’s needs, calm my own nervous system, and cope healthfully with emotions I’d nearly killed myself trying to starve away.
OTM upped the ante on my yoga practice. When I walked into that first intensive… I was lost. I’d spent most of my teenage years in eating disorder treatment centers — I had no idea who I was, what I was “supposed” to do, or how to connect and collaborate with others. OTM helped me find my path, welcomed me into a community that became like family, and gave me the tools necessary to turn adversity into an opportunity for service.
Essentially, OTM taught me how to make meaning of my struggles and heartbreaks, rather than fall victim to them. The lessons OTM taught me have become integral to the programs I teach today and demonstrate how yoga can be used as a path to meaning, purpose, and identity beyond the confines of mental illness.
WHAT WERE YOU DOING ON THE ROOF??
Well, I had 7 days left in the crowd-funding campaign, had only raised $20K of my $50K goal, and just knew I couldn’t let it fail. One of the challenges of fundraising these days is that with so many people raising money for great causes, it’s difficult to create a sense of urgency around a campaign. So I figured hey… this yoga mat saved my life. I need to get the message out that it can save others’ lives too. And I need to reach people beyond the yoga community, because right now I’m just preaching to the choir.
And thus, the birth of an idea! Why not lay my mat down in a public space and do a sort of yogic sit-in? I certainly wasn’t going to go on a hunger strike to raise awareness about eating disorders (ha!), but I remembered the Occupy movement and figured community occupation might just do the trick. Then everything just came together… The “You Are Beautiful” mural was so emblematic of our mission and the building owner was kind enough to let me camp out on his roof. I knew that community participation and engagement would be key, so I got the technology together to live-stream the entire thing online 24/7 and invited friends and collaborators to come speak about their own struggles with food and body image issues.
Fortunately, some good people took notice! #OccupyYouAreBeautiful achieved far more than my original intention — not only did we raise our money, but we also created awareness, community, and support around this cause. And I am SO happy to be off the roof.
WHAT WILL YOU DO WITH THE FUNDS YOU’VE RAISED?
The funds will be used to fulfill a three-fold mission: (1) Offer Yoga for Eating Disorders at treatment centers around the country at no charge, (2) collect data for an evidence-based study on its effectiveness in treatment, and (3) do a series of pro-bono talks about eating disorder prevention at local schools in each city the program is offered.
More specifically, the money will be used to support travel, data collection, curriculum development, support staff, materials, and the development of a teacher training program. And we’re actually continuing to accept donations here (just be sure to put “For Yoga for Eating Disorders” in the “last name” box). For every $5,000 raised, we can offer the program at one additional treatment center.
TELL US ABOUT THE STUDY YOU’RE PLANNING TO DO.
We’re still in the early stages of designing the study (in collaboration with researchers at the Semel Institute for Neuroscience at UCLA), but overall we’ll be looking at whether the Yoga for Eating Disorders program improves several treatment outcomes — including relapse rates, length of inpatient treatment, and a variety of behavioral and cognitive symptoms.
Ultimately, I’m interested in building a much larger research program around this to shed light on the mechanisms through which yoga “works.” I think most of us would subjectively argue that yoga contributes to health and wellbeing, but without hard data… it’s really difficult to tease out which variables are contributing to success.
Is it yoga that’s helpful for people with mental health issues, or is there some other variable (breathing, meditation, community) embedded in the yoga practice that contributes to health? Can we design specific yoga-based interventions that strip away all the unhelpful stuff and provide a high “dose” of those variables that contribute to healing? These are the questions I think we should be pursuing as a yoga community — especially if we want to see yoga offered in hospitals, treatment centers, and other settings with “in-need” populations. It’s an exciting time, both for scientists and yoga practitioners. There’s a lot of territory to explore!