Teen overcomes anorexia through yoga

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Maris Degener was diagnosed with anorexia at age 13

At age 16, she is healthy and has discovered her passion through yoga

CNN  — 

When people ask 16-year-old Maris Degener why she was hospitalized for three weeks at the age of 13, she sometimes tells them it was a “heart thing” or because of dehydration. The truth carries a deeper mental and physical pain: It was anorexia.

“I associate it with not knowing who I was or what I wanted to do,” Degener said. “I wasn’t the artsy kid or the sporty kid. I was just there and it spiraled into looking for perfection and control. The irony is that it almost took away my chance to live.”

Degener was a competitive swimmer for more than five years before being diagnosed. After her hospital stay ended, she was still on bed rest with strict orders from the doctor to avoid physical activity.

“For a while, that was my only motivation – to get better,” Degener wrote in her iReport. “My mind was sick, but I knew that the only thing that would keep me out of a wheelchair was getting my body stable and bringing it back from the brink.”

Knowing that Degener wanted some physical activity, her doctor suggested looking for gentler practices such as yoga. In her junior year of high school, she finally tried it and everything changed.

She attended a free class one Sunday at Just Be Yoga in her hometown of Walnut Creek, California. While Degener knew that the hospital had saved her life and forced her to sleep and eat, she hadn’t been able to find the mental healing that she needed within that “sterile segment of hell.”

“And then I found Just Be,” she wrote. “And I slowly fell in love with my cells again. I fell in love with the way movement felt in my body, the contraction of musculature, the breath circulating through my veins. I suddenly wanted nothing more than to feel what feeling alive felt like – to see if I could find that person I thought had died inside of me long before I got to know her.”

Determined not to return to the hospital, Degener explored her blossoming passion for yoga and became a regular at the studio. She begged her mother for a pass that covered 30 days of classes. Her mother agreed and drove her a half hour each way to attend classes.

Jenni Wendell, owner of Just Be, remembers the day that the quiet young teen handed her a letter before walking into a class.

Within the letter was Degener’s story in her own words. Wendell was both shocked and moved by her openness and eloquence. While Degener was in class, Wendell wrote a letter in response and shared the struggle she faced before discovering her own true calling through yoga.

“I had depression and anxiety, especially at work,” Wendell says. “I took time off and it turned out to be a gift. I realized that I was meant to help others and share what I had been through. I wrote Maris back and told her, ‘You’ve been through something awful, but you’re not a victim. You can get through this and inspire people. And you’re not alone.’”

‘You’re already a bright and shining light’

As Degener was extremely shy, she and Wendell continued to exchange letters. Wendell gave Degener a book that had changed her own life, “The Yamas & Niyamas: Exploring Yoga’s Ethical Practice.” Degener said the book inspired her, too, to see yoga as more than a hobby.

Wendell and her team at Just Be hired Degener to work at the front desk. It wasn’t long before Wendell could envision her teaching. Degener was offered a scholarship by the studio for a 200-hour training course to become certified as a yoga teacher.

“You’re already a bright and shining light and I want this to go to someone who can change lives,” Wendell told Degener.

At first, the certification training felt overwhelming to Degener. Wendell would see her studying flashcards during breaks, rather than socializing with her fellow students. But she began to open up and connect with others.

“I witnessed that the door cracked open a bit,” Wendell said. “This authentic view of who she is started to emerge. I think it was due to her feeling safe and part of the group.”

Degener has always been creative and enjoys writing, drawing and painting. Discovering yoga was like finding the “only kind of dance I can do,” she said.

“There is so much freedom in the creativity of yoga,” she said. “It’s not just a class. As a teacher, you’re combining the choreography, the music, the philosophy and the words. There’s an art to creating a successful class. I’m a type-A perfectionist, which is so often associated with anorexia. The biggest lesson for me in training to be a teacher was that there is no right or wrong – you find what fits you.”

‘I’m meant to live’

Degener has been writing about her experience through a personal blog, which has been cathartic. Now a high school senior, Degener is still teaching yoga classes and loading up on high-level classes to prepare for the next leg of the journey: college.

“Yoga gave me life again, a passion and a purpose,” she said. “I credit Jenni with turning my life around.” Degener said her mom, Sharon Degener, is her top supporter. Although her mom is more of a runner, she still attended a yoga retreat with Maris Degener to support her journey.

In her iReport, Degener admits that none of this has been easy.

“You won’t want to get better, not for a long time. You’ll think you’ll want to get better, and then get scared and won’t. You’ll try again, and again, and again. You’ll slip up, you’ll relapse, you’ll feel like a failure.

“But somewhere along the line, you find something, just one little thing, that makes getting back up again feel worth it. For me, it’s that little flutter my heart makes when I look around a room, either as a student or a teacher, and just feel like I could float on air from the energy in the room. That moment when you feel like you’re dancing on your mat. That moment where everything seems to fall into place.

“That’s why I’m here. That’s why I was jolted back into reality. Because I found who I am and who I want to be. I found the thing I want to stick around and be strong for. I found why everyone was so desperate to keep me alive.

“Because I’m meant to teach. And take. And balance. And fall down. And breathe. And sweat. And rest. And stretch. And melt. Because I’m meant to live – and I finally know what that means.”