Yoga for Recovery from Addiction:
Benefits, Origins, and Effectiveness

Where Yoga Fits Into Addiction Recovery

If you or a loved one is struggling with drug or alcohol problems, formal treatment can help. Effective addiction treatment offers a variety of approaches for complete recovery.

Yoga is one way people struggling with addiction can recover. Yoga works best in substance use disorder treatment when combined with other forms of traditional and alternative treatments.

The traditional approaches to addiction treatment include:

  • Individual therapy
  • Group therapy
  • Family therapy
  • 12-step programs
  • Medication therapy

Yoga is an alternative therapy which includes the practice of mindfulness and relaxation. Some other alternative therapies include:

  • Art Therapy
  • Music Therapy
  • Nutritional Counseling

What is Yoga?

Origins of Yoga

In India some 5,000 years ago, yoga was developed as a way to stay well on a physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual level. Today, millions of people around the world use different aspects of yoga to improve their quality of life. Yoga helps improve fitness and reduces stress. Other areas that benefit from yoga include peace of mind, wellness, mental clarity, vitality, healing and spiritual growth.

Yogic Texts

Yoga is a system of techniques and guidelines for enriched living. The two best known books on yoga are the Yoga Sutras and the Bhagavad Gita. These texts explain the nature of higher awareness and fulfillment. They also detail a variety of methods for reaching those goals. Various obstacles that can block the way to those goals are also explained.

Teacher-Student Relationship in Yoga

It’s not easy to learn yoga from texts. That’s why yoga classes with teachers who guide students are so popular. Some of the subtleties of yoga can only be learned by person-to-person instruction. The emphasis on a teacher-student relationship is a time-honored tradition in yoga. The teacher helps the student develop a deeper understanding through personal experience.

Mindfulness Meditation and Yoga

Meditation is the 7th limb in yoga. The person meditates by concentrating the mind on an object or religious symbol. Yoga and meditation practiced together is a powerful combination. It strengthens the mind-body connection. It also improves health and well-being. Many yoga styles combine meditation with physical routines and controlled breathing.

Why Does Yoga Help Addiction Recovery?

On Chakras

At the heart of yoga are our chakra centers. The word chakra means spinning wheel. Yoga states that chakras are the centers of energy, feelings, thoughts and the physical body. Chakras govern the way we experience reality through our:

  • Desires or hostilities
  • Emotional reactions
  • Level of confidence
  • Level of fear
  • Physical symptoms

Problems arise when energy becomes blocked in a chakra. This blockage causes physical, mental or emotional imbalances. These imbalances then create symptoms such as fatigue, anxiety, poor digestion or pain.

Asanas are the many physical positions used in yoga. People practicing yoga use asanas to remove blockages, free up energy and revitalize imbalanced chakras.

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History of Yoga in Addiction Treatment

Jon Kabat-Zinn

The introduction to mindfulness in the United States is credited to Jon Kabat-Zinn. ​​​Kabat-Zinn was introduced to Buddhism when he was a college student. Later, in 1979, he started the Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. There he used the mindfulness techniques he knew from Buddhism. Kabat-Zinn later renamed his program the Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction (MBSR). At that time, he removed the Buddhist aspects of his program. He emphasized mindfulness as the psychological process that is still used today.

Lindsey Clennell

In 2007, filmmaker and yoga instructor Lindsey Clennell made and distributed a film called Addiction, Recovery and Yoga.​​​ The film had interviews with people who had serious addiction problems. The people in the film effectively used yoga and 12-step programs in their recovery.

Word of the film spread through the addiction treatment community. Mental health professionals began to refer their clients to Clennell’s yoga classes. As a result, yoga gained more and more acceptance as a valid complementary therapy for addiction recovery. Treatment centers began to incorporate yoga classes. Today, yoga is a popular part of addiction recovery programs across the United States.

How is Yoga Helpful in Addiction Recovery?

Traditional methods can help prevent relapse. But complementary therapies such as yoga and mindfulness meditation can help as well. Yoga and mindfulness meditation target stress-related thoughts and emotions.

Yoga has been shown to increase production of the “feel-good” chemical dopamine by up to 65%. This increase in dopamine can help lessen feelings of withdrawal and increase the likelihood of success in recovery. Yoga can help control behavioral urges such as cravings.

Integrated Yoga

Rather than use one specific form of yoga and mindfulness, most addiction recovery programs use an integrated approach. Integrated yoga practice includes exercise, meditation, and spiritual teachings.

Research shows that integrated yoga provides more physical, psychological and spiritual benefits. Stress hormone levels decreased by 31% in people who practiced integrative yoga compared to those who did yoga for exercise.

Yoga and Relaxation

Yoga helps people relax. It increases the ability to face situations in a relaxed state of mind. Yoga also helps people perform tasks more easily and effortlessly. These benefits help people in recovery deal with life situations and tasks more effectively, making relapse less likely.

Yoga helps encourage a person to stay in the present moment. It also helps to improve sensory awareness and enhances concentration. A major benefit of yoga is that it can also shift an individual’s concept and understanding of the self. A greater understanding of one’s self can help a person avoid future drug and alcohol misuse.

Yoga Combats Stress

Yoga also addresses the role stress plays in addiction. Stress involves a reaction that has negative emotions and unpleasant physical sensations. People feel distress, rapid heartbeat, muscle tension, raised blood pressure, and digestive issues.

Relapse involves feeling withdrawal symptoms, such as cravings and distress, causing stress which can lead to relapse. Yoga targets mindless thoughts, emotions and behaviors such as cravings by improving mindfulness.

What Happens in Addiction Recovery During a Typical Yoga Session?

A typical yoga class in treatment includes basic, gentle movements and light stretching. The teacher ensures each movement has the physical safety and respect for the body for each student. Pose modifications are available for  beginning students. Students are coached on staying with the movement as it’s happening.

Students are also asked to observe the physical sensations of moving and stretching. They are encouraged to notice thoughts and judgments about their bodies.  Since many recovery from addiction often includes physical limitations, yoga techniques of all skill levels are encouraged.

Myths About Yoga for Addiction Recovery

Contrary to some opinions, yoga is not a religion or set of beliefs, but rather it is a set of techniques. For some, the 8th limb of yoga is enlightenment to a divine power or God. For others, it is simply self-realization. Yoga is non-sectarian. Many who practice yoga find the physical and mental improvements strengthen their relationship to God or the Divine.

Most people associate yoga with only postures, breathing and meditation. There is a lot more to it, as there are eight limbs of yoga:

  1. Yamas (ethical disciplines)
  2. Niyamas (personal observances)
  3. Asana (body postures)
  4. Pranayama (breath exercises and control)
  5. Pratyahara (control of the five senses)
  6. Dharana (focusing or attention)
  7. Dhyana (meditation)
  8. Samadhi (self-realization or enlightenment)

One of the beautiful aspects of yoga is that you don’t have to be anything to do it. You do not have to be flexible, balanced, strong, skinny, or young. You can be anything and still get the benefits of yoga and meditation. All you need to do is practice, because practice makes perfect. Asana yoga and meditation has modifications and mantras for all levels.

Practicing Yoga After Treatment For Addiction

Attend Local Classes

Yoga is a popular form of staying healthy in the United States. As a result, many yoga studios exist across the country. Find a yoga studio that you feel comfortable with and sign up for classes at your skill level.

If you’re not sure where to start, talk to several yoga teachers about what you’re looking for. Ask them what types of yoga and meditation they offer. Talk about your progress with yoga and how you can fit into their classes. Let the teacher know about the benefits of yoga you are seeking to achieve.

Find a Yoga Buddy

When you are accountable to someone else to do yoga together, you’re less likely to skip it. Find a yoga buddy and practice together.

Practice “Mindfulness Minutes” Wherever You Are

You can practice short “mindfulness minutes” throughout the day. Set a timer for one minute. Most cellphones have timers. During this minute, focus all attention on your breathing and nothing else.

Your eyes can be open or closed. If you become lost in thought, let go of the thought. Then gently bring back your attention to your breaths. Mindfulness minutes can be a great way to relieve the start of stress or aggravation.

Stay in the Present Moment

Running on autopilot is a coping mechanism you may use to coast through a workday. You go through the motions, but is that really living? You can integrate your yoga and meditation into your everyday life by consciously being present in the moment.

Focus on what’s in the here and now. Be aware of the task you’re performing. Be aware of what is going on in your mind. Give whatever you’re doing your full attention. Your mind may wander, but being mindful helps you snap it back to the present. Whatever you are doing, keep your mind on the moment.

Take Virtual Classes

If there are no convenient yoga studios nearby or in-person classes aren’t your thing, you can stream yoga classes from the internet. YouTube is a great resource for free yoga and meditation classes. If you have a streaming service box like Roku or Amazon Fire, you can find tons of channels that feature yoga. Some services are paid and some are free.

If you have limited or no internet access, yoga DVDs may be found at your local library. Your library may even have the DVD player available for rent. Get the DVD player, set it up and play the discs. DVD discs can be a great resource for yoga and meditation practice.

Get the Right Yoga Equipment

Once you have chosen a yoga program, you should have a good idea about the equipment and supplies you will need. Generally, yoga equipment and supplies include:

  • Yoga mat
  • Yoga pants/attire
  • Floor space
  • Water
  • Towel

Optional supplies can include:

  • Heart rate monitor
  • Yoga grip block (help balance and stabilize your body as you move)
  • Foam roller (helps you balance or release muscles more easily than a yoga block)

What you’ll need will depend on your yoga program. Rescheduling your workout because you don’t have everything can affect your motivation, so it’s helpful to prepare beforehand. Also, when you have the right equipment, you maximize the benefits of yoga.

Remind Yourself to Stay Mindful

It takes time to become mindful, so practice it even after treatment. Gradually, it will become second nature. You can set a silent vibration alarm on your phone at regular times to remind you to stay in the moment. When it vibrates and pulls you into the moment, use it as an opportunity to focus all of your thoughts on the present moment.

Benefits of Yoga for Long-Term Recovery

Yoga can help you stay sober as you attend meetings and work your recovery. Yoga is highly compatible with 12-step programs and other outpatient treatment.
Yoga can also help you release negative energy using movements. You’ll develop a sense of achievement that increases your self-esteem. You’ll develop a stronger, healthier body, making a stronger, healthier mind possible.
Controlled breathing helps you gain control over thoughts and emotions. You can develop a spiritual kinship through meditation. Your self-discipline increases so you can avoid impulsive, harmful actions. The practice also occupies time, lessening temptations to return to use.
When you combine yoga with other therapies such as support groups, counseling and a healthy diet, it can be quite valuable in helping treat addiction to drugs and alcohol.
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