Yoga taught Laura Zinger to focus on how her body feels rather than how it looks.
When she was 14, Laura Zinger was diagnosed with hyperthyroidism—her thyroid gland was overactive, causing weight loss, restlessness, and anxiety. To treat the illness, an endocrinologist did radioactive iodine treatment, which shrinks, and eventually destroys, the gland. As a result, the doctor gave her a prescription for synthetic thyroid medication—along with a warning that haunted the skinny teenager for years.
“He said, ‘From here on out you won’t be able to eat as much as you’re used to or you'll gain weight,’” she recalls. “It completely freaked me out. Every time I ate something I’d think, ‘This is going to make me fat.’ I had no nutrition information, so I didn’t know how much food was healthy for me. So I started severely restricting my intake. That was the beginning of my battle with anorexia.”
For the next 12 years, she ate so little that many days she barely had the energy to get out of bed. “If you’re not consuming enough calories, your brain can’t function and your muscles have no source of fuel,” she says. “I started getting periodontal disease, too. My gums looked like zombie gums. I was basically murdering my body.”
Emotionally, the toll was as equally harsh. “My eating disorder started when I was so young I never learned to love myself or care about myself—and I was hugely critical of my body,” she says. “I didn’t think I was worth anything, and I struggled with terrible anxiety. Temperamentally, I’m super sensitive to stress, so I felt like I was on high alert all the time.”
She saw therapists off and on during high school and college and attended a support group that helped her gain insight into her disordered eating and develop strategies for how to get on top of it. “I saw a dietitian, and the meal plan she gave me was incredibly helpful,” she says. “But it was still a struggle. It would take me an hour to eat the Cheerios and peanut butter and banana I was supposed to have for breakfast.”
And nothing helped her cope with her anxiety—which included anxiety about eating and getting fat—until she started seeing a new therapist after college. “She recommended I try yoga,” Zinger recalls. “From the very first class I loved it. The approach was Forrest yoga, a physically challenging version that’s especially helpful for people with addictions and eating disorders, because it pushes you to tune into your body and your emotions—something I’d never done before.”
As she practiced, she learned that she carries stress in her hips and shoulders, and discovered how to use her breath to reduce her stress. “For as long as I can remember, my stress hormones have always run nonstop, like a hamster on a wheel, but yoga calms them down,” she says. On a deeper level, yoga helped shift her mind from an obsession with how her body looks to how it feels. “To this day, I only do yoga in studios with no mirrors, because it’s not healthy for me to get distracted by how I look.”
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Zinger says she’s been in recovery from her eating disorder for 14 years—and discovering yoga was the turning point that helped her begin to love and appreciate her body and treat it with respect. “I’ve never found anything that helps me as much as yoga,” she says. “I attend Iyengar yoga classes a few times a week now. I need to have a steady, consistent practice in order to have a healthy relationship with my body. It’s the cornerstone of my mental and physical health.”