Yogas Role in Treating Addiction
Want to learn more about yoga and its role in aiding addiction recovery? Read on to get the low down.
The origins of yoga can be traced back to India over 5000 years ago. However, the history of yoga in the West is much shorter, with a span of around only 100 years. It is only in the past couple of decades that yoga has become much more popular in the West, with yoga studios springing up in every city and even in small towns. Yoga also now appeals to a more diverse range of people, this includes those recovering from addiction.
Because of yogas numerous benefits for the mind, body and soul, it has now found its way into many treatment centres, where it is said to help people in the formative stage of recovery. It has also found roots within the recovery community, with increasing numbers of people practicing yoga as part of their addiction recovery journey.
What is yoga?
Most people are aware that yoga involves getting into a series of poses during a class, and that it is a great way of boosting flexibility whilst losing a little weight. There is nothing wrong with that, but there is much more to yoga.
Yoga is about movement, but it also combines mindfulness and breathing to “calm down the fluctuations of the mind”. When these elements are added to yoga, it becomes a powerful tool to change ourselves. It is easy to see why yoga in addiction recovery has become so popular, as freedom from addiction can only be attained through radical change.
Whilst the yoga that this article discusses will be concentrated on the combination of movement, mindfulness and breathing, which is known as asana practice, there are also some other elements to traditional yoga. Here, briefly, are what they are:
- Karma yoga. Devoting yourself to selfless work, with no expectation of reward.
- Jnana yoga. Seperation of ego from the true self through intellectual knowledge and practical wisdom. Jnana involves taking in knowledge, thinking about that knowledge, and meditating.
- Raja yoga. The closest yoga to the Western understanding of yoga. It incoprorates asanas, breathing practices and meditation, with the ultimate goal of enlightenment.
- Bhakti yoga. Devoting yourself to God
Yoga in addiction recovery
Those of us in addiction recovery tend to be a little bit different from the general population. We may have old injuries from our using days. We often have trauma from before we began using, and many of us tend to be a little more sensitive than most. Yoga can help with all of these things, and do a bunch more besides.
Heals injuries and reduces pain
Coming into recovery, many of us will have put our minds and body’s through hell during active addiction. Taking drugs or drinking every day, staying awake for days at a time, not eating, not exercising and sustained intoxication, all take their toll on the body.
Years of taking substances can naturally numb the body and mind. Thus making it more difficult to feel where harm has been caused to the body until sobriety is found. It may only be once we get clean that we realise the full extent of the damage caused.
This is one of the reasons yoga can be very appealing to us. It can ease achy muscles by gently stretching them, lubricate joints with mindful movement, and even help organs to purge toxins (when twisting asanas are practiced).
These all reduce pain in the body, and whilst this is happening, yoga can alter our experience of pain through mindfulness. When we focus on our bodies without telling ourselves a story about the pain, we stop feeding into the pain. Naturally, it then lessens its intensity.
Improves general health
Yoga has heaps of health benefits. It strengthens the cardiovascular system, meaning that the heart will work more effectively, as it pumps oxygen-enriched blood around your body with more force.
Yoga can help reduce the severity of illnesses which are frequently experienced by those of us in addiction recovery. Autoimmune diseases, diabetes and IBS can all be quelled with a regular yoga practice.
It is also a great workout for the lungs. Yoga increases lung capacity and speeds up the process of the lungs healing. This is particularly helpful if you have been smoking substances or cigarettes.
Yoga helps to release trauma
It is pretty common for many of us in addiction recovery to have experienced trauma at some point in our lives. Severe trauma can lead to a constant state of heightened arousal and fear. This state is not healthy for anyone, let alone someone trying to stay away from substances.
Trauma may have been one of the elements that led you to taking substances and becoming trapped in a cycle of addiction. Similarly, you may have experienced trauma whilst in active addiction.
When trauma is not addressed in recovery, triggers can cause unmanageable emotions to surface. This can ultimately result in relapse. Yoga can help balance and restore the body and brain to a healthier state.
The practice of yoga can help to address trauma in a number of ways:
- Releases psoas muscle. Certain poses, like pigeon pose, runner’s lunge pose and mountain pose can all help release the psoas, a muscle where much of the trauma is stored in the body.
- Restores connection with the body. People who have had significant trauma can often become disconnected from their bodies, due to feeling unsafe. Yoga helps to restore this connection.
- Cools down nervous system. Yoga eases the nervous system, which tends to be highly-strung in people who have been affected by trauma.
If you have been affected by trauma, there are certain styles of yoga that can be more effective. Consider a “Trauma-Sensitive Yoga or Trauma Informed Yoga” class, which incorporates elements that are specifically designed for those who have been affected by trauma.
Yoga gets you out of your head
During recovery from addiction there is a tendency for us to get stuck in our heads. Repetitive and obsessive thinking often plays a part in many of our every day lives. This can become draining, and may ultimately lead to relapse.
Whilst talking about thoughts and feelings is usually a powerful way of release, yoga can also help. As yoga involves focusing on the body and the breath, its mindfulness element can assist us in getting out of our heads.
There are many different forms of exercise that involve mindfulness, that can also provide a perfect escape from obsessive thinking: swimming, walking, cycling and lifting weights can all achieve this.
Cools Down The Nervous System
Yoga can be a great way of cooling down the nervous system. In our fast-paced, stressful world, we can get caught up in endlessly doing things, without giving ourselves a chance to relax. This can lead to us being in the sympathetic nervous system most of the time.
The sympathetic nervous system is great for keeping us alert in times of danger, but when we spend too long in it we can become anxious, angry and agitated. In the long term it can make us sick.
Yoga helps us to move out of the sympathetic nervous system into the parasympthetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and digest” system. When we do this, our bodies and minds are at ease and the repair process in our body kicks in. Subsequently, we feel cool, calm and collected.
Spirituality is the cornerstone of many people’s programme of recovery. In addiction recovery, people often start trying to get in contact with their spiritual side. This may mean reading spiritual literature, it might involve praying, and it could involve committing to spiritual practices.
Many people practice yoga in addiction recovery as part of their spiritual practice. Yoga helps to effectively reduce ego, cleanse the body and mind, and helps to forge a closer relationship with a higher power.
These aspects of yoga are not likely to happen overnight. It usually takes dedicated practice of many years to reach some of the loftier goals of yoga. In the meantime, however, it is possible to experience altered states that some people liken to having a “spiritual experience”.
Gives better self-control
Self-control is something many of us will have been sorely lacking in life, especially when it came to drugs and alcohol. The very nature of addiction means that we lost control over the choice as to whether we used or not. Many of us will have lost control over our behaviours also, resulting in chaos and harm. Again, this is something yoga can help with in addiction recovery.
Yoga teaches discipline as well as self restraint. Whereas previously you may have been quick to lose your temper, yoga can make you less reactive and give you time to respond instead. These little difference may not seem like much, but they can make a world of difference to a person who is very reactive and runs on high emotions.
How yoga in addiction recovery works
When someone predisposed to addiction starts taking drugs or alcohol on a frequent basis, they develop a tolerance and dependence. Once this dependence forms, it can be difficult to break. They end up using more and more substances just to feel normal and to avoid withdrawal.
Over time, with repeated exposure to substances, changes in the brain occur. The way that pleasure and levels of anxiety are experienced, as well as problem solving capabilities, are altered. Most of these effects on the brain are reversible with abstinence, but, depending on how long substances were used for, it can take up to a few years.
There are many activities that you can do to help speed up the rate at which the brain recovers. Yoga is one of the most effective of these. As well as increasing overall health, its mindful properties help to restore the brain and create new pathways.
Best yoga poses in addiction recovery
All yoga poses are healthful for addiction recovery, however some are more so than others.
The following poses have been proven to be particularly effective in treating addiction and in enabling the recovery process:
1. Downward facing dog. This is the first pose that most people learn in yoga. Downward dog helps to release mental and physical tension, while loosening the muscles in your legs and back.
2. Low lunge. When we do a low lunge, it stretches the hip flexors, psoas and groin - these are all places where we store emotional trauma. If you feel discomfort, breath through it by focusing on your breath while inhaling and exhaling deeply.
3. Pigeon pose. This powerful pose can be a little too much for some people just starting yoga. If you have a bit of experience, pigeon can be an incredibly deep pose to help sooth the nervous system and let go of old thoughts and feelings.
Types of yoga that are good for addiction recovery
Certain types of yoga are more beneficial to addiction recovery than others:
1. Yin Yoga. This style of yoga is much slower than most, and involves one pose every two to five minutes. It is designed to help open up meridians in the body, which allow energy to flow across. Classes tend to have a theme that involves working on a certain part of the body or certain organ.
2. Hatha yoga. One of the oldest styles of yoga. In Hatha, you will be in poses for thirty seconds to one minute. This style of yoga is very grounding.
3. Vinyasa yoga. A fluid style where yogis move from pose to pose seamlessly, while using the breath. A high energy style that is great for people who have plenty of energy
4. Trauma-informed yoga. Helps people who have trauma get back in their bodies and release trauma. There are different types of yoga for trauma, but they usually involve slow poses, with no hands on adjustments, and well-lit rooms, to make sure that all participants feel safe.
Join Recoverlution and learn more about yoga
The benefits of yoga in addiction recovery are huge. So much so, that we have dedicated a whole section to this ancient art within our Wellness hub. Subscription to our Wellness hub content will give you unlimited access to classes delivered by a qualified yoga instructor.
You can also learn more about yoga from our Knowledge hub and connect with our Recoverlution Community for free
- Transcending trauma, how yoga heals https://yogainternational.com/article/view/transcending-trauma-how-yoga-heals
- The Benefits of Yoga for Trauma Treatment and Mind-Body Wellness https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/benefits-of-yoga-for-trauma-treatment-mind-body-wellness-0816175
- Trauma-Sensitive Yoga: Principles, Practice, and Research David Emerson; Ritu Sharma; Serena Chaudhry; Jenn Turner, Int J Yoga Therapy (2009) 19 (1): 123–128. https://meridian.allenpress.com/ijyt/article-abstract/19/1/123/138149/Trauma-Sensitive-Yoga-Principles-Practice-and?redirectedFrom=fulltext
- Taming the nervous system with yoga https://www.louisvilleyogajunction.com/taming-the-nervous-system-with-yoga
- Can Mindfulness Help Stop Substance Abuse?https://greatergood.berkeley.edu/article/item/can_mindfulness_help_stop_substance_abuse