A Young Woman's Journey To Recovery
Where do you turn when everything around you goes black? When death's embrace sounds more appealing than facing one more day, how do you find the strength to take one more breath? For Chelsea Roff, these questions came all too soon for a young teenage girl fighting to stay alive and doubting if it was even worth it. Fifteen years old and fifty-eight pounds, Chelsea suffered a stroke due to severe anorexia nervosa and was hospitalized. Child Protective Services placed her under the care of the state, and she spent eighteen months at the Children's Medical Center in Dallas, Texas taking small steps towards recovery. The staff helped Chelsea get back on her feet again, but it wasn't until she left the safety of the hopstial that the hard walk towards healing really began.
A fragile, shell-shocked seventeen-year-old girl with nowhere to go, trying to pick up the threads of a life that had dealt her so much pain. Anorexia had become Chelsea's way of coping with the world, and there was no way to know if she would be able to find another way. Several months later, she found herself in her first yoga class. She admits that initially her motives were pathological - she wanted a sneaky way to burn calories without raising the suspicions of her treatment team. But instead, it was that very class that shook her awake and showed her a new way to live.
Through yoga, Chelsea discovered a way to no longer just survive, but to live. Chelsea is now a nationally-recognized author, speaker, and founder of Yoga for Eating Disorders, a program that has been incorporated in yoga studios and treatment clinics around the nation. Yoga for Eating Disorders is a program designed to help patients cultivate a healthier relationship with their body through the practice and philosophy of yoga. View her campaign video here: Eat, Breathe, Thrive
We are so moved by Chelsea's story and strength and, you know us, we just had to ask her a few questions of our own:
KiraGrace: Your story is so inspiring! Could you tell our readers here at KiraGrace what was your 'aha' moment that changed your perspective and relationship with your body image?
Chelsea: Man, I wished healing had happened in one of those "Oprah Winfrey I’ve Discovered Myself" moments! But I don’t think there was a single ‘aha’. Going from anorexic to loving my body didn’t happen overnight, and I can’t remember any single pivotal, light-up-the-sky ah-ha moment. In fact, I think for the most part I was relatively unaware that my relationship with my body was changing at all. The ah-ha’s were slow, and subtle, and mostly beneath my awareness.
The more I practiced, the more I noticed that my relationship with my SELF was changing. Without me willing it so, yoga helped me become more kind, and accepting, and gentle with myself. I started to notice the sensations that came into awareness when I needed something (food, water, modification of a pose), and I learned to respond with compassion and awareness rather than forcefulness and spite. I realized that my body and self weren’t separate at all, and that mistreating my body would lead to more pain, and agony, and suffering for me in the long haul.
I also started to like who I was on the mat - I liked her grace, and her strength, and her confidence. In reality, I was discovering me, THROUGH MY BODY. I became more compassionate with my perceived faults and flaws. I started to take care of myself better (physically and emotionally). I started to respond to and nurture my body rather than punish it for its needs.
But it didn’t happen in an ah-ha moment… most of the time I had no idea transformation was happening!
KG: What inspired you to found Yoga for Eating Disorders? Did you just wake up one morning with the vision? Or was it a slower series of events that led you to its start?
Chelsea: Haha, no, definitely not. In fact, when I first started looking for ways to “give back” the LAST population I wanted to work with was people who struggle with eating disorders. I was terrified that being around them would flare up my past issues and bring back my own inner-demons. I was afraid they would remind me of moments in my life I desperately wanted to forget.
But your “purpose,” or “calling,” or whatever you want to call it has a funny way of throwing itself at you, over and over again, no matter how much you resist it. After I took my first teacher training, I started offering free classes in a juvenile detention centers… I just felt like I’d been given so much, and I needed to give something back as a way of honoring those who had been so generous with me.
And of course, despite how much I resisted it, the girls who I connected with most were struggling with negative body image. As I worked with them, teaching them the practices that had been given to me, I realized that I actually had a great deal of compassion — both for their struggles, and for my own. And because of my own experience with an eating disorder, I was really good at knowing how to support them.
Those girls, in many way, were my best teachers - they showed me I had value and worth. People often say you have to love yourself before anyone else can love you… I think that's bullshit. In my experience, it happens the other way around. Loving and being loved by others can help you learn to love yourself. When I worked with those girls, I KNEW I had something to offer, because they brought it out in me. I think volunteering often does that - service helps us make meaning of heartbreaking experiences, and discover the gifts we have to offer the world.
I think the best things in life are often born out of necessity — they needed something more than just yoga, and I needed to create something more than my sob story. Last year, I decided I wanted to put my time into that effort full-time. So I quit my job and raised $50,000 on IndieGoGo, and here we are. Less than a year later, Eat Breathe Thrive is running in three treatment centers, over a dozen studios, and we’re working on doing an evidence based study on its effectiveness in treatment.
KG: We really see how yoga has been able to help you find healing physcially as well as emotionally. We definitely see a need for your kind of treatment program in mainstream recovery practices for people who suffer from all sorts of ailments, like depression and anxiety for example. Do you see your program taking on this kind of development in the future?
Chelsea: You know, one of my clients came up to me after class and said: “Chelsea, do you have any idea how helpful this would be for people with phobias? I’m not having panic attacks anymore! You should do a program like this for people with anxiety.”
I think this program is helpful for people with all sorts of mental health challenges (not just food and body image issues), but I’ve learned that you have to focus and channel your energy if you want to do something WELL. I used to have a teacher that would tell me, ‘Chelsea, if you dig holes everywhere you go, you’re never going to build a well.’ At least for now, disordered eating and negative body image is the focus of Eat Breathe Thrive.
KG: Where do you see yourself in the next 10 years?
Chelsea: From a very personal place, the most important vision I’m calling in over the next decade is a family and a home. My family of origin has mostly broken up, and I’m learning that you need a great deal of grounding and support to do this work in the world. I’ve gotten pretty good at creating “home” wherever I go, but I long for a home and family of my own.
As for Eat Breathe Thrive, I think we will continue to grow organically and sustainably over the next decade. Our goal over the next three years is to offer the program in 25 treatment centers, 50 yoga studios, and train at least 100 teachers, and thanks to The Give Back Yoga Foundation I think we'll probably surpass that goal. I’m considering enrolling in a PhD program next year so that I have more academic support to conduct the evidence-based study. That’s about as far ahead as I can see right now… I’d like to write a book someday, but I’m on the road too much to do any high quality writing now!
KG: If you feel comfortable answering, we would love to know if your mother has found healing through your foundation, yoga, or another form of recovery?
Chelsea: No. Unfortunately, in 2009, my mother was diagnosed with Wernicke-Korsakoff’s Syndrome, a form of alcohol induced dementia. It’s irreversible and left her with the cognitive capacities of an eight-year-old. I took custody of her for a brief time when she first got sick, and when I moved out to California my aunt took power of attorney. She lives in a home for people with mental disabilities in Texas, and I see her a couple times a year.
Much of the work I do today is a tribute to her -- both the challenges she faced, the successes she had, and the life she lost. Often we ONLY hear the miracle stories - people triumphing over challenge, conquering illnesses, becoming a better person because of adversity. Those are the stories we want to hear about, but not every one comes out of their challenges with a neat little bow wrapped around the top. In fact, many people lose their lives to mental illness. I am grateful every day to be happy, and healthy, free. I hope no one else ever has to lose their life to this terrible disease.
Give Back Yoga Foundation and Off The Matt into the World teamed up with Yoga for Eating Disorders this past Feburary for two amazing training weekends in Boulder and Denver. These tranings equipped participants with practical tools to overcome eating disorders and body image issues through yoga. They also provided yoga teachers and mental health practitioners with a deeper understanding and skill-set for supporting their clients in need.
Off the Mat, Into the World™ is a non-profit organization using yoga’s values of awareness, sustainability and service to empower activism from a grassroots level. Off the Mat uses an innovative toolkit to train, connect and guide new leaders to discover their purpose and create conscious social change. We are honored to announce a renewal of our partnership with Off the Mat, Into the World™. The goal of this partnership is to support Off the Mat, Into the World by donating 100% of the profits from the sales of the Warrior Yoga T-Back Tank from the KiraGrace Warrior Yoga Collection.