Facing addiction head on can be one of the hardest things a person goes through in life. Addiction can, and often does, kill. Therefore, treatment is serious; however, it does not all need to be hard work, sometimes it can be useful to get into a flow state to allow the subconscious to talk and heal. This article highlights another tool, yoga, which can be used in conjunction with a support system to battle addiction. Current theoretical models indicate that yogic practices develop the skills, self-awareness and insights in a practitioner which affect several physiological, psychological neural and behavioural processes which can trigger addiction and relapse.1
Yoga is a natural method of achieving abstinence quickly.2 It does so through aiding and accelerating other methods of treatment such as therapy and detoxification. Yoga can be used to release pains from detox as well as release pent up tension from years of stress. This healing effect of yoga on addiction has been found through research. A study with alcohol dependent patients found that those treated with yoga as well as standard treatment had greater reductions in depression, anxiety, and cortisol levels, the stress hormone, than those who only received standard treatment.3 The reduction in these three factors means a lower likelihood of relapse. This information is vital to promote further research into the relationship between addiction and yoga to gain a better understanding of treatment for addiction.
A qualitative study looked at the experiences of yoga teachers working in addiction recovery centres and a literature review of existing yoga and meditation programs in addiction recovery centres.4 A triangulation was used to find one primary conclusion- the importance of Kriya yoga. Kriya yoga, also known as yoga of action, has three main elements: a commitment to regular practice, dedicating time to reflect on how the process is affecting the practitioner’s life and having faith in the yoga process. It was found to be best used as a complementary therapy to standard treatment. Entwined with the idea of Kriya yoga is the yoga teacher-student relationship and the yoga community developed through the group commitment to practice. This research adds to the literature that yoga practice is a valuable tool in the recovery from addiction.
Yoga is traditionally taught one to one, to ensure a robust and unique learning experience. As this is not always possible, each yoga class should be adapted for those who are in it. Even more importantly is that the yoga teacher working with those with addiction issues knows about what addiction their students are struggling with and where they are in their journey of recovery. This is vital to avoid certain triggers and tailor a class to suit their needs at that time. For this, the yoga teacher must have excellent listening skills and have a welcoming and non-judgmental presence, so the students feel comfortable talking about their needs from the class.
For those who are not experiencing physical side effects of addiction, group classes can be a beautiful experience of learning to trust others in a non-judgmental environment. Faster paced vinyasa practices are a fantastic way to bring the mind into the present and connect the mind with body, which is vital for those who are in a period of intense self-reflection, as is the case with recovery. However, slower paced Yin classes, where asanas are held for longer periods of time, are also valuable to release long held tension which often lead to break throughs in other kinds of therapy. For example, yogic tradition states that the hips store what are usually seen as “negative” emotions. A hip opening position in a yin class is designed to affect deep into the fascia which often leads to feeling emotional in the moment and lighter the next day. Therefore, a useful class for those without physical ailments from addiction would be to have a fast paced easy to follow vinyasa flow to avoid triggering the negative self-talk. Followed by a slower paced stretching yin style section to release tension. Then finish the class with savasana (corpse pose) to begin the student’s journey into meditation.
Someone who is going through a detox from substances will have more physical restrictions. Therefore, an ideal yoga class for them would be slow-paced. Focusing on stretching and releasing tension, with a strong focus on the breath and how it feels in the body- to begin a journey to respecting and loving their body. Some people experience psychosis during detoxification. Meditative practices have been shown to provoke or worsen psychosis.4 Therefore, meditative practices should be avoided at this time, instead focusing on the breath and sensations in the body.
This article has briefly touched on the researched benefits of practicing yoga alongside recovering from addiction. It is low-cost, easily accessible, and enjoyable making it a valuable tool from day one of recovery through to preventing relapse decades later. It is best for those who are newly recovering from addiction to at least have their first session one to one with a yoga teacher who has experience working with mental health and who keeps up to date with research on yoga and mental health to avoid causing any harm to the practitioner’s when they are their most fragile, instead helping them accelerate their physical and mental recovery in a loving and enjoyable way.
1 Khanna, S., Greeson, J. M. (2013) A narrative review of yoga and mindfulness as complementary therapies for addiction. Complementary Therapies in Medicine. Volume 21, Issue 3. Pages 244-252. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.ctim.2013.01.008
2 Sharma, K. & Shukla, V. (1988) Rehabilitation of drug-addicted persons: the experience of the Nav-Chetna Center in India. United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime. Accessed on 29th July 2021: https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1988-01-01_1_page005.html
3 Achar, Vedamurthachar & Janakiramaiah, Nimmagadda & Hegde, Jayaram & Shetty, Taranath & Kumaraswamy, Subbakrishna & Sureshbabu, S & Gangadhar, Bn. (2006). Antidepressant efficacy and hormonal effects of Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) in alcohol dependent individuals. Journal of affective disorders. 94. 249-53. 10.1016/j.jad.2006.04.025.
4 Griffiths, M. Teaching yoga in addiction recovery a social work perspective. (2007). University of Melbourne. Accessed on 30th July 2021: https://core.ac.uk/download/pdf/15618128.pdf
5 Sharma, K. & Shukla, V. (1988) Rehabilitation of drug-addicted persons: the experience of the Nav-Chetna Center in India. United Nations Office On Drugs and Crime. Accessed on 29th July 2021: https://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/data-and-analysis/bulletin/bulletin_1988-01-01_1_page005.html