Yoga’s Role in Addiction Recovery
Yoga can play a key role in addiction recovery. However, it is often misunderstood; it is often underexplored, which leaves us with many avenues for growth cut off.
Yoga is an ancient Indian practice. Though parts of the Eastern world have followed its teaching for 5 millennia or more, we in the West have only really experienced it for around a century, with it truly gaining popularity in the latter half of the twentieth century and the first couple of decades of the 21st.
Every gym runs yoga sessions. You can find yoga studios in every major city in the UK. Online tutorials and practices are rife. However, yoga goes past simple fitness.
For reasons we’ll get into shortly, it has fast become a balm and tool for addiction recovery; many rehabilitation centres have begun to include regular yoga practice in their programmes.
Yoga, which is a physical, mental and spiritual practice, originated in India. The first codified texts were laid down by the sage Patanjali in his Yoga Sutras around 400 C.E, though it significantly predates this as an oral tradition. As above, yoga is thought to have existed for over 5000 years.
Yoga was traditionally taught from master to student on a one-to-one basis. However, in the West we mostly see it taught through group classes, often with several dozen students in any given session. Indeed, popular YouTube yoga classes can rack up well over a million views.
But what do we mean by the word ‘yoga’, and how can it help you in your addiction recovery?
‘Yoga’ itself comes from the Sanskrit root word yuj. Depending on your translation, this can mean ‘to unite’, ‘to yoke’, or something similar. Think of it as a coming together. It aims to bring your mind, body and spirit in line, uniting them. You could also see it as a coming together of the individual self and universal consciousness as we open ourselves up to the world.
In this regard, yoga invites us to defuse thoughts and behaviours driven by ego. Rather, it inspires spiritual awakening and a sense of unity with the wider world.
Yoga and addiction
Addiction itself is perhaps as multifaceted as yoga. This can make yoga very useful in addiction recovery – it can speak to all elements of the self as you walk the path of recovery.
Addiction sits at the intersection of many elements. These include the psychological, physiological and genetic, as well as multiple social circumstances.
For example, those from a lower socioeconomic status background are likelier to suffer from addiction. This includes those on lower incomes, from lower income areas, with lower levels of education. However, a socioeconomic status only tells a small part of the story.
Those who suffer from certain environmental influences can be likelier to struggle with addiction. These include sexual, physical or emotional trauma and abuse. Seeing peers and loved ones suffer from addiction also increases risk, as does access to addictive substances more generally.
Yoga cannot deal with much of this. There is no overcoming socio-political causes with it. Yoga is a personal journey, so will generally be more relevant to personal factors underpinning addiction. This makes it a great tool for recovery and for intervention.
Mindfulness interventions and yoga in addiction recovery
Interventions based around mindfulness have been found to be very effective in addiction recovery. This includes yoga, of course, the positivity of which is gathering increasing scientific support for its power in treating addiction.
However, it is unlikely to work on its own. You would be best off using yoga in concert with other, perhaps more traditional methods for addiction recovery and treatment.
In large part, yoga’s efficacy in recovery comes from some of the mental and cognitive benefits it can bring. It can have a positive impact on the way you think, on your mood, and it can even alter the very structure of your brain.
Cognition and yoga in addiction recovery
Alcohol and drug abuse over time will lead to alterations in the brain. In particular, those pathways related to impulse control and pleasure, to decision making, and to emotional regulation are changed.
You can also alter your homeostatic balance using yoga. Chronic brain overstimulation – as you will experience under substance addiction – will force your brain to a new point allostasis. This is a point of balance, your ‘home ground’, so to speak. In turn, this can change and warp perceptions.
Coming back to a neutral place will form a large part of addiction recovery. You will need to transition your brain back to its intended functioning. Thereafter, following a period of abstinence, staying away from addictive drugs or behaviours, your brain will begin to heal itself.
However, this is hard to do. It is painful. It is a hurdle that will often prove too much, leading to relapse. There will be a lot of physical and emotional withdrawal to cope with. This can include symptoms like increased stress and anxiety, insomnia, fatigue, and depression and low mood.
This is where yoga can come into play. It can help you to heal your mind. It can also help to make the process easier, or at least more manageable.
Yoga and stress management
Yoga can help to modulate the stress response we all experience, but which is more acute in recovering addicts, especially in the early days. It can help you to better regulate adrenaline and cortisol, the stress hormones. One study showed that it can also increase the levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. GABA is a chemical used in the brain to help manage stress and anxiety.
In fact, there is a link between regular yoga practice and volume in the areas of the brain associated with self-awareness, self-healing, and stress regulation. There has also been a link found between substantial improvements in perceived stress and decreased state and trait anxiety levels in those who practice yoga.
In short, yoga can make it easier for you to relax, it can improve your mood, and can make relapse far less likely. It can help you to self-regulate in a way that addiction typically inhibits. You can pursue positive change, eschewing the escapism and crutch of addictive behaviour for a restorative, inner world of integration between mind, body and spirit.
Yoga as a coping mechanism
There are a lot of emotional consequences associated with recovery. Yoga can also help to ease a lot of this trauma, helping you to cope with the stress and suffering that addiction brings.
Yoga represents a holistic route to wellness and health. It takes a full mind, body and spirit approach to improving your wellbeing. The physical considerations we all must deal with as we go into any kind of exercise are met. However, so are the mental and emotional ones. It tunes you into yourself even as it soothes and relaxes you.
In this way, it can help you to deal very ably with any of the upset and hurt that underpins your addiction. Yoga can help to address some of the physical and/or mental grief that led to your addiction in the first place, as well as any that arises on your journey to recovery.
Yoga as a skills source
If your recovery is to be successful, you need to learn how to live well. If you are to stay away from relapse and live your best life, as free as possible from addictive substances and behaviour, you need to learn how to accept and endure the painful feelings and circumstances that can bring about relapse.
Yoga can give you many of the tools and skills you need to bring this about. As above, it is a way of becoming more in tune with our bodies. It can teach you how to regulate your breathing patterns to diminish stress and pain. It can show you how to observe your thoughts and approach them calmly. More than anything, regular practice can give you a healthy routine in which you are surrounded by positive practice and people.
There are many skills you will need to learn as you recover from addiction. Yoga is a great source for many of them.
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