By Carl Francis Penders - Contributing Writer
“You see I was born broken,” writes University at Buffalo Associate Professor Catherine Cook-Cottone on her Yoga Bag blog. “At least that’s the way I saw things when I was little. There was no other way to explain it. I think I was midway through the first grade when I realized I didn’t look like I was supposed to — like a prima ballerina.”
It’s a fate not uncommon among young women and girls. Lacking a ballerina’s body was further impressed upon her when for her younger, naturally pretty sister, who Cook-Cottone says was “born the way the media says you should look,” their mother bought two-piece bathing suits, while young Cathy required more coverage, and settled for one-piece swimwear.
Her inner world suffered further deflation the summer before freshman year in high school, while swimming and unable to maintain her balance on an inner tube. Her sister yelled, “Hold on tighter Cathy. It wouldn’t flip if you weren’t so fat.”
“At that moment, something in my brain clicked,” Cook-Cottone writes. “I’m going on a diet. I’m going to lose weight.”
She’d been on diets before, but this time she resolved that “things are going to be different.”
Though barely 10 pounds overweight, thus began Cook-Cottone’s decline into the world of eating disorders: “A scenario in which a young girl suddenly understands by way of comments or behaviors of others that she is too fat,” according to a work entitled "Anorexia Nervosa and the Body Uncanny: A Phenomenological Approach, Philosophy, Psychiatry, and Psychology," by Fredrik Svenaeus.
Encouraged by parental comments that included, “We really like how you’re slimming down,” and “We’re so proud of how you’re sticking to your diet,” armed with a calorie counting book, and limiting herself to 1,200 calories a day, Cook-Cottone quickly dropped 20 pounds. Instead of seeking her out to learn if her younger sister liked them, boys became interested in her, and friends commented on how good she looked.
“It feels good to see the results of your efforts,” Cook-Cottone tells me in her comfortable UB office. But those efforts became obsessive, her daily caloric intake dropped to 1,000, then 900. She was hanging around with people experiencing eating disorders and an unnatural drive for thinness, at one point going five days without eating. By winter she was dangerously underweight, and comments changed to "You don’t look good,” then, “You’re anorexic.”
Told that if her weight dropped below 89 pounds, 26 pounds below normal, she’d require hospitalization, Cook-Cottone kept her weight just over 90 pounds.
“Freshman year was when I was most involved in the disorder,” she said. “And it was horrifically uncomfortable to be that thin. You’re hungry all the time, exhausted, tired. Everything wears you out.”
Gradually, after medical and therapeutic consultation, with her family involved, she was able to escape anorexia, but always kept her weight under 110 pounds. She was athletic in high school, running cross country, and on the track and swim teams, but the dieting persisted, as she continually looked to lose 5 pounds. Her friends were similarly focused.
Through college and her early professional career, she remained overly concerned about the size and shape of her body, always intent on staying thin, exercising to burn calories, and making sure she ate the right foods.
Wanting to understand why people did what they did – "Why I did what I did” – compelled a young Cook-Cottone to major in psychology at Syracuse University’s Utica College. After earning a master’s degree at SUNY Oswego State in School Psychology, she earned her doctorate at the University at Buffalo in School and Counseling Psychology, where she studied eating disorders as her dissertation topic.
With a thought in her mind that “the greatest teachers are always students,” she writes on her blog, and despite the initial “I can’t do yoga, I can’t even touch my toes” resistance, Cook-Cottone, found herself at Delaware Avenue’s Himalayan Institute, prompted by one of her students, Linda Kane. Her first yoga class left her feeling “ the most relaxed I’ve felt without drinking red wine,” as yoga became the missing piece enabling her to be at ease in her body.
She started taking classes on occasion, eventually achieving 200-hour certification as a teacher through the Himalayan Institute, and the Baptiste Power Yoga Institute. Currently, she’s taking 500-hour teacher certification through the Himalayan Institute.
With Kane, now a Williamsville school counselor, they considered teaching yogic skills to middle school girls, thinking, “We could prevent eating disorders,” Cook-Cottone said.
Together, they formed a team, and a study was initiated in both the Williamsville school district and at Nichols School, incorporating yoga as part of a comprehensive program designed to enhance self-regulation, self-care, and emotional and physical awareness.
“We worked with 10-year-olds, in the fifth grade,” Cook-Cottone said. “Because we wanted to work with girls whose idea of what a woman should look like were not yet fully developed.”
The research was defended in April by Emily Keddie in her dissertation, “Eating Disorders and Anxiety in a Middle School: A Yoga and Mindfulness-Based Primary Prevention Program.” Keddie wrote that she found the girls reported less body dissatisfaction and a reduced drive for thinness.
The Cook-Cottone team also conducted research through a Western New York eating disorder clinic. Twenty four females, ages 14 to 35 , completed the Yoga and Wellness Group sessions consisting of a mind and body component, running for two hours once a week, over an eight-week period.
Cook-Cottone, Kane and Meredith Beck published their findings in a ”Manualized-Group Treatment of Eating Disorders: Attunement in Mind, Body, and Relationship.” Participants again reported less desire to be thinner, reduced concern about dieting, less fear of gaining weight, and less dissatisfaction with body size and shape.
As a UB professor, Cook-Cottone sees eating disorder clients through her private practice, Snyder Psychological Services, and presents Bringing Yoga to Your School workshops to school administrators and counselors. Citing a need for more area trained professionals, in June she began a program supervising licensed mental health counselors to assist people with eating disorders.
Not one to keep her passion to herself, or even strictly local, Cook-Cottone sprung into another project after a Cleveland workshop, where she met Paige Elenson, co-founder of the Africa Yoga Project, a program to empower African youth through yoga.
Cook-Cottone compiled a team and started another study. With help from Baron Baptiste’s Art of Assisting, Lululemon, and contributions at a Buffalo Yoga Jam, $46,000.00 was raised, enabling her and her eight-member team to travel to Kenya in July 2013. They conducted research and later reported positive results similar to their domestic studies.
As the first to use and study yoga as a prevention tool, it was inevitable that Cook-Cottone’s work was noticed by researchers, including Sat Bir Khalsa of Harvard Medical School and Penn State University’s Mark Greenberg, a developer of Providing Alternative Thinking Strategies (PATHS) in the College of Health and Human Development. Both were organizers of Kripalu’s Yoga in the Schools Symposium, and initiated Cook-Cottone’s invitation to present her findings at this first-ever event earlier this year.
The conference at Kripalu, North America’s largest center for yoga and holistic health, was held in April in Stockbridge, Mass.
Cook-Cottone said she was “honored and excited, especially since this was the first one.” And her Kripalu presentation – a lecture on yoga "dosage" – conveyed the obvious enthusiasm that’s enabled her to be a leader in her field.
“Yoga brings you back to your real, internal, representational self,” she said. Speaking to school superintendents, administrators, teachers and yoga practitioners, she called for a “minimal therapeutic dosage, necessary to create change.”
How long do students practice? How many classes per month are they given? And do teachers practice while they teach? These were topics she stressed while calling for control and measurement, which will allow a “better understanding of the key mechanisms of change.”
The author of numerous, published research papers, and co-author of two books – "Healthy Eating in Schools," and "Girls Growing in Wellness and Balance: Yoga and Life Skills to Empower," and a 6 a.m. yoga teacher at Power Yoga – Cook-Cottone teaches courses on The Mindful Therapist and Yoga for Health and Healing at UB.
Meanwhile, here are tips for parents who might wonder if a child or other loved one may have an eating disorder, and what it takes to be an early morning yoga instructor:
Warning signs of a potential eating disorder
- Overly concerned with food, calories and portion size
- Compulsive, excessive or emotional eating
- Rapid or continual weight loss
- Hiding weight loss by wearing baggy clothes
- Loss of menstrual cycle
- Decline in grades, shift in friends
- Irritability and mood swings
What to do if you suspect your child has an eating disorder
- Consult a physician. Women's & Children’s Hospital has a clinic, headed by Dr. Dalinda Condino, who can be reached by clicking here or calling 878-7015.
- Assemble a team consisting of a medical doctor, mental health professional and nutritionist trained in eating disorders.
What it takes to be A 6 a.m. yogi
- Go to bed at a decent hour, somewhere between 8 and 11 p.m.
- Be in touch with your dark, lazy side, also known as "The Sleeper," who arises and convinces you it’s OK to miss class.
- Have a prepared response for The Sleeper, like, “You are super seductive with your cuddly blanket, and heat. But I promised 20 people I’d be at 6 a.m. yoga. I posted it on Facebook, Instragram, tweeted, and Snap Chatted it."
- Be mentally strong, knowing if you go to 6 a.m. yoga, you’ll feel great, you’ll have set your day’s intention for love and good will, and your heart will be open.
- Have a special, warm place for your yoga clothes. You might consider sleeping in them, or keeping them under your covers.
- Know you won’t be alone. Others will be there honoring your efforts.