Namaste: Yoga in Recovery
"Namaste" -- we hear this and automatically think of Zen gardens, yoga, and memes like 'namastay in bed', or now days, 'namastay home', but in all seriousness, the benefits of yoga are immense, especially for those of us in recovery. Yoga is an activity that can be done individually or socially and can pretty much be practiced anywhere. Many treatment programs offer groups focused on meditation and yoga. Groups are held in peaceful rooms or even in refreshing locations, such as the beach, creating environments that set the scene for healing and relaxation. So, with all of the hype surrounding yoga and recovery in the media and in treatment centers lately, it all begs the question: what even is yoga and how can it help with my recovery?
Yoga is an alternative coping mechanism. It is a positive way to generate a change in consciousness that empowers us with the ability to access a peaceful, restorative inner state that integrates mind, body, and spirit rather than providing an unhealthy escape like our addiction. Yoga promotes well-being and helps with stress, so many people turn to it as a healthy centering mechanism in recovery promoting overall mental wellness. In terms of common ailments that come with detox such as anxiety, stress, and depression, yoga is invaluable in helping stay calm and grounded. How? Well, the chronically high levels of hormones that accompany those negative feelings are toxic to the body and central nervous system, and we know yoga can help reduce or balance the stress hormones in the body because on a psychological level, yoga can help you cultivate mindfulness as you shift awareness to the sensations, thoughts, and emotions that accompany a given pose or exercise. It makes sense that as a healthy start, if you're less stressed, you may not be so quick to seek substances to cope. Yoga provides a healthier alternative while also providing a preventative method..
Physically, it helps with flexibility, strength, and balance. It is known to benefit chronic pain and ailments such as back pain, arthritis, asthma, heart disease, insomnia and MS. The importance of developing a positive relationship with a physical sensation is one reason that the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage, California, has offered yoga as part of its fitness regime for more than 10 years. "Addiction takes a person out of their body and prevents them from connecting to who they are physically and feeling what their body is telling them," says Jennifer Dewey, Betty Ford's fitness manager. In fact, the importance of physical health and its impact on recovery and healing overall is something that has been discussed in the community for some time. The Big Book, written by the founders of Alcoholics Anonymous to explain the 12 steps of recovery, also emphasizes that the physical body is as important as its emotions. It reads, "But we are sure that our bodies were sickened as well ... in our belief, any picture of the alcoholic which leaves out this physical factor is incomplete." This whole-body approach to recovery is something that resonates with former addicts like Vytas Baskauskas, who teaches Power Yoga in Santa Monica, California. While he attributes his sobriety to the 12-step program and the camaraderie it provides, he admits that it isn't always successful in providing tools to address bodily discomforts and issues. He explains, "A lot of people come to AA to get sober, and yet they're still riddled with physical maladies and imbalances." Baskauskas, who has been sober for 10 years, experienced such firsthand. The 12-step program introduced him to a spiritual way of life, but it didn't offer a way to relieve the back pain that had plagued him for almost five years after quitting heroin. He came to yoga a skeptic, but once he hit the the mat, he says, the pain began to dissipate changing his perspective: "Yoga was challenging, and it opened my mind and my body. It enlivened places that had been dead for so long, and as I worked my body, I found a refuge, some relief from feeling like a prisoner of my own thoughts ... when you're an addict, you often have a hole in your life, and by filling it with the philosophy of yoga, God—whatever you want to call it—that's a high too. But it's a high that won't kill your relationships, hurt your family, or your body" (YogaJournal).
Yoga is a set of physical, mental and spiritual disciplines intended to help improve mood and sense of well-being. The activity uses body postures, breathing modulations and meditation techniques to promote physical strength, relaxation and spirituality. Some people use yoga to manage their anxiety and depression, disorders that commonly occur alongside addiction. The lessons taught through yoga and mindfulness practices target areas in the brain affected by addiction. A small 2007 pilot study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, funded in part by a grant from the National Institute on Drug Abuse, demonstrated that yoga may be able to change brain chemistry. The study concluded that yoga sessions resulted in increased levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain; low levels of GABA are associated with anxiety and depression, conditions often considered to underlie addiction (DrugRehab).
For people in recovery, managing mental and physical conditions is imperative to preventing a relapse. Yoga participants in a recovery program shared that "practicing yoga is the right decision for my recovery; it makes me feel good about myself, and since so much of my addiction had to do with feeling 'less than,' it gives me the extra strength I need to be self-reliant, get to meetings, and stay sober." Once someone gets sober, the next step is staying sober. G. Alan Marlatt has spent a lot of his career looking at relapses among those in recovery as the director of the Addictive Behaviors Research Center at the University of Washington. He has been studying the benefits of meditation in treating addiction for 30 years. A longtime meditator himself, Marlatt has published studies demonstrating that vipassana meditation (or mindfulness) can be effective at helping addicts to curtail substance abuse—especially those for whom the traditional 12-step program does not resonate. Research has indicated that yoga and other mindfulness techniques can be used in conjunction with traditional, evidence-based treatment to help people overcome mental illness and substance use disorders (YogaJournal).
So, during this difficult time, and during the ongoing challenges that we may face in recovery, untangling yourself from the grip of addiction can seem impossible, but yoga is one healthy activity that can benefit you both mentally and physically. Namaste ... sober!
Disclaimer: Beachview aims to improve the quality of life for people struggling with a substance use or mental health disorder with fact-based content about the nature of behavioral health conditions, treatment options and their related outcomes. The information we provide is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis or treatment. It should not be used in place of the advice of your physician or other qualified healthcare provider. Yoga is not a cure; it is a recreational activity that is not for everyone. Always consult medical professionals and practice safe, healthy, and balanced measures.
Research Credit to Yoga Journal and DrugRehab