Addiction rehab facilities all over the United States have begun incorporating yoga practice into their treatment regimens as more evidence emerges that this ancient form of meditation can be beneficial for recovering addicts. Although most experts agree yoga alone can’t help most addicts recover, many have found it to be a useful complement to traditional addiction treatments.
Yoga practice helps recovering addicts forge a mind-body connection and cultivate patience, tolerance and self-control. Yoga can enhance feelings of calm and well-being, reduce drug and alcohol cravings and provide a valuable spiritual outlet. Through yoga classes and retreats, many addictsthat offers the possibility of healthy friendships and relationships to replace those the addict left behind when he or she entered recovery.
Rein in the Chaos
Of the many challenges recovering addicts face, one of the biggest is gaining control over the chaos of their inner world. Addicts typically use drugs and alcohol to hide from difficult emotions, and when they get sober, those emotions come back in full force.
The recovering addict may feel him or herself at the mercy of strong emotions fear, panic, anger, guilt, shame over which he or she has little control. The addict has spent months, years or even decades reacting in a knee-jerk fashion to his or her emotions, and learning to control one’s thoughts, feelings and actions is a crucial component of recovery.
Yoga teaches this by forcing recovering addicts to remain present with uncomfortable sensations and thoughts. Many yoga poses are uncomfortable and difficult, so practitioners must learn patience and tolerance. To express most poses properly, practitioners must remain aware and present in the moment, mindful of their movements and the sensations in their bodies. In this way, yoga practice helps build the mind-body connection most addicts lack. Yoga’s underlying philosophy gives recovering addicts a path to the spiritual that isn’t overbearing or oppressive and doesn’t require a full-on religious conversion.
Through yoga, recovering addicts can learn to view cravings and urges as thoughts that do not require action rather than irrepressible physical needs. Through yoga poses and breathing practices, recovering addicts learn they do not need to be at the mercy of their emotions; instead, they can quietly observe their feelings until they pass. Instilling this sense of control goes a long way toward helping recovering addicts achieve sensations of peace and well-being they may have never felt before.
There’s some evidence to suggest that yoga helps physiologically repair the part of the brain involved in addictive behaviors. Stanford University associate professor of behavioral science and psychiatry, Roy King, Ph.D .and M.D., believes yoga and meditationin the part of the brain associated with motivations and desires.
Dopamine, the neurotransmitter responsible for feelings of reward and pleasure, has been implicated in addiction because using drugs and alcohol causes a surge of dopamine in the brain. When an addict compulsively uses substances, he or she is actually chasing that dopamine surge. By inhibiting dopamine activity in the part of the brain connected to motivation, yoga can calm cravings and even ease the unpleasant emotional states that, for many recovering addicts, trigger relapse.
Most addicts must leave behind their old social groups when they enter recovery. That’s because old friends and lovers often continue in their own unhealthy addictive behaviors, and it’s next to impossible for a recovering addict to stay in recovery while surrounded by friends who not only keep abusing substances, but may fail to support their newly sober friend’s recovery and may actively encourage the person to use again.
When an addict enters recovery, he or she must find a new community populated by people who support and encourage his or her recovery efforts. Yoga classes and retreats provide recovering addicts the chance to meet new friends. They offer a safe and supportive environment for emotional expression. Yoga teachers tend to be strong, peaceful people who create, in their classes, a respite from stress and anxiety where recovering addicts can see firsthand what a person who has conquered his or her demons looks like.
Yoga practice can make an excellent complement to traditional addiction treatments. Yoga teaches recovering addicts how to cope with difficult sensations and emotions, how to remain present in the moment and how to cultivate their spirituality. The practice of yoga may even help heal the physical changes addiction causes in the brain. Perhaps most important, yoga offers a sense of community that many addicts struggle to find, especially in early recovery.
Image by Joel Nilsson from Wikimedia Commons.
About the Author: Contributing blogger Alicia Dunham has been in recovery for over 10 years. She does yoga every day.