Maris Degener on Eating Disorders and Yoga

Maris Degener is a yoga teacher, a writer, and a survivor. She is the star of the Netflix documentary, I Am Maris. In the short film, Maris recalls her experience of anxiety, depression, and anorexia nervosa—and how she found healing and self-acceptance through a devoted yoga practice, authentic testimony, and creativity.

In this interview, Maris share her perspective on yoga, and how it has healed her relationship with her body, mind, and spirit.

Briefly tell us about your story and how yoga was your saving grace.

When I was 14, I was diagnosed with anorexia nervosa and hospitalized for a period of time. When I came out on the other side, my body was on the road to healing, but I felt like my mind and spirit still had a long way to go. Although I'd been in therapy for years, I was struggling to access my emotions in a way that would allow me to fully utilize that resource. When I found yoga, it came with a great number of benefits: a mentor in the form of my teacher, Jenni; a community that held a safe space for me to confront buried emotions; and a philosophy for life that gave me tangible ways to find the peace I was seeking. Studying yoga, and experiencing its potential for magic firsthand, I knew I wanted to share this practice with others. Now, I get to teach yoga and connect to my greatest passion every single day.

How did writing a blog help you on your healing journey?

Writing has always been a way that I express myself creatively and emotionally. A big part of healing from my eating disorder was allowing myself to shed the image of perfection I'd tried to project for so long. By writing a blog about the things I didn't have answers to yet, and sharing the most "imperfect" parts of my life, I found a form of empowerment I didn't know lay on the other side of abandoning perfectionism.

In yoga, I found a mentor, in the form of my teacher; a community that held a safe space for me to confront buried emotions; and a philosophy that gave me tangible ways to find the peace I was seeking.

What inspired you to create a documentary (I am Maris) about your journey?

I didn't create one! The wonderful filmmaker Laura Van Zee Taylor did. She approached me about making a film, and I agreed on the terms that it be minimally triggering, not exploitative, and absolutely not romanticizing eating disorders.

What does yoga mean to you?

Yoga is a union of opposites: the light and the dark, the challenging and the easy, the happiness and the pain. To me, yoga is embracing all elements of life, and the paradoxical nature of being human. What comes out of that, to me, is greater compassion for both ourselves and others.

What strategies do you use to help you with preventing relapse in your eating disorder?

I still talk to the (amazing) therapist I've seen since I was 13 regularly. I think professional help is really key to recovery, and I hope I can play a small role in destigmatizing that idea. Meditation, yoga, connection to my community, time in nature, painting, and journaling help fill in the gaps and give me the opportunity to practice what I learn in therapy.

To me, yoga is embracing all elements of life, and the paradoxical nature of being human.

How do you feel about being a young yoga teacher? How do others feel about it in your classes—or is age just a number?

Ha! I don't think I'm that young of a yoga teacher anymore. As soon as I turned twenty this year, I thought, "I'm not the teenage yoga teacher anymore!" And, as 200-hour trainings become more popular, I think there's quite a few 20-something yoga teachers out there (which is wonderful).

However, I know that, in the grand scheme of things, I'm young, and I haven't been in the game nearly as long as other teachers. I think I'm able to connect on a more personal level with a new generation of folks who need yoga more than ever; people of my age and younger are experiencing a troubling political climate, more screen time than ever before, and increasing pressures of perfectionism in a world that can feel stacked against them. I teach at my university, and I feel like my students more open to hearing what I have to say about coping in this wild world because I’m in the same boat as them.

How do you apply the yogic principles into your daily life?

I try my best to learn from my mistakes and listen to my needs. I think it all really boils down to that.

What advice would you give to someone who is trying to overcome an eating disorder?

You are not broken. You are whole and complete exactly as you are. The healing you deserve is not meant to "fix" you; it is meant to allow you to see the beauty that already exists. You are ready and worthy, in this exact moment, of freedom from your eating disorder.

You are ready and worthy, in this exact moment, of freedom from your eating disorder.

What does body positivity mean to you? How has your relationship with your body and mind changed over the years?

Body positivity is a social movement meant to uplift marginalized bodies.

The body standards we have been raised to believe as truth have been (quite literally) sold to us, or constructed to oppress marginalized members of our society. The people who are telling us that body hair is unsightly are the ones selling us razors and shaving cream. The people telling us wrinkles are ugly are the ones selling us anti-aging cream. The people telling us being "chubby" is unacceptable are the ones selling "detox tea." There are entire corporations and industries that are founded upon and profit from creating and maintaining our insecurities. We're trained every single day—through the media we consume and the messages propagated by those around us—to compare our worth to that of others. Marginalized folks, such as people of color or people who identify as being disabled, are oppressed through the dissemination of these beauty standards.

Because of all of this...body positivity means to me, in a word, freedom.

The body standards we have been raised to believe as truth have been (quite literally) sold to us, or constructed to oppress marginalized members of our society.

What do you think is most important to focus on when overcoming disordered eating?

I think it's important to take it one bite at a time. Milestones can happen a few minutes apart or months apart. Progress is slow, steady, and not linear: allow yourself to be imperfect throughout it all.

What are you taking in university, and what are your attracted to in your studies and future goals?

I study psychology and do research on restorative justice/the criminal justice system. In the future, I would like to write a book, likely one that synthesizes yoga, body image, and social justice.

What is your favorite yoga pose and why?

Right now, handstands. It's a pose I've been working on for years, and to watch the slow progression over time has been incredibly rewarding. And they remind me of the importance of play. :)

Milestones can happen a few minutes apart or months apart. Progress is slow, steady, and not linear: allow yourself to be imperfect throughout it all.