Beyond the scope of shapes, asanas, and what we often observe on social media– a surface-level exploration of a powerfully healing practice– wherein asanas (yoga postures) are just a piece of a much larger, and more delicious, pie. Yoga offers a philosophy by which to live: guiding values and ethics anyone can use to attune their life, and ultimately, their healing journey in recovering from addiction.
In the scope of yoga for addiction recovery, the basis of such a practice on a scientific level is centered on resetting and reprogramming the nervous system. It also helps at rewiring the brain and facing trauma with care, compassion, and greater-self awareness. Yoga for addiction recovery supports a recovering addict in facing the trauma that is at the root of their addiction, rather than continuing to numb or avoid it with drugs, alcohol, or other addictive behaviors.
From a philosophical standpoint, yoga offers 8 sutras (translated as “limbs”), or aspects, of the philosophical system. A set of principles and precepts encourage living from a place within oneself, rather than scattered outside oneself, as is often a challenge for those seeking escape through substance abuse.
The 8 sutras of yoga consist of:
- personal ethics (yamas),
- social ethics (niyamas),
- asana (postures),
- pranayama (breath and energy),
- awareness of the use of the senses (pratyahara),
- concentration/meditation (Dharana),
- and deeper levels of dissolution of the self and present moment awareness (dhyana and samadhi).
Each of these offers an entire world of exploration into the way one can heal disease. While a deeper exploration of each limb of yoga is beyond the scope of this article, we will focus primarily on asana and pranayama – posture and breathwork.
How Yoga Affects an Addicted Mind
In a physical sense, addiction to a substance or to an emotional state creates a chemical dependency. This is where greater and greater levels of the substance or emotion are required to elicit the same desired response. The chemical dependency floods the nervous system, encouraging a constant state of dissociation, as well as a continual production of stress hormones.
Yoga asanas have been scientifically studied and the research proves that they actually strengthen the tone of the vagus nerve. The vagus nerve in the body is responsible for stress response, parasympathetic rest & digest mode, resiliency, relationships with others and self, and emotional regulation. Ancient Yogis developed a system to live longer and more resilient lives and the practice today offers the same for those in recovery. Yoga strengthens the mind-body connection, through the effect of each asana and work with the breath.
Yoga for Addiction Recovery: Helpful Asanas (Yoga Poses)
Different asanas encourage different states of energy and emotion. Some asanas offer quiet, grounding, and a sense of going within oneself. Child’s Pose, or Balasana, for instance, is a very simple posture that encourages quieting of the mind, deepening of the breath, and shutting out of external stimuli.
In child’s pose, a practitioner sits with knees bent, hips towards the heels, and arms extended out in front of them on the ground, head resting down on the ma. The front body is resting, facing the ground as well. When in a child’s pose, one is met with darkness (eyes often closed), stillness, and breath.
What is offered here on a deeper level is a space of presence, witnessing thoughts, emotions, and sensations. A similar space can be experienced in Savasana, or corpse pose. This is a pose of surrender, lying on the back, arms out to either side, palms facing up, feet relaxed, eyes closed. Corpse pose offers a space to simply breathe, feel the sensations in the body, and witness what arises. It has been shown to decrease levels of stress and anxiety– to cultivate a deeper sense of calm and self-awareness.
Other postures are energizing, such as backbends and sequences like sun salutations. Depending on what is needed for a recovering addict, yoga offers a posture to bring the body back into homeostasis and encourage a particular state of being.
Breathing Through Past Trauma
As trauma is often the root of addiction and trauma is stored in the physical body, yoga also offers a safe space to release emotional tension held in the body. When this release happens, it makes space for healing. In essence, yoga encourages going within, rather than avoiding thoughts or traumatic experiences. Breath is a pathway to fully feel, honor, and recognize moments. Without facing the traumas that led to addiction or addictive behavior, it can be impossible to move out of the addictive loop without the risk of relapsing.
Turning to an exploration of the breath, or pranayama, one is offered another tool or pathway to regulate and reprogram the nervous system. Simple deep belly breathing brings the body back to a state of homeostasis. More specific practices of pranayama, including alternate nostril breathing (Nadhi shodhana), a breath of fire (bhastrika), cooling breath (Shitali), and victorious breath (Ujjayi) offer more focused and specialized outcomes.
For instance, Nadhi Shodhana regulates and balances the left and right hemispheres of the brain, which are often disrupted after traumatic experiences or substance abuse. Bhastrika is beneficial to individuals experiencing depression or anxiety, to rekindle their energy and promote a deepening of the breath to enhance their flow of vital energy. Shitali breath is specifically useful for moving through emotions such as anger and frustration, or moving through an addictive urge.
Guidance in Yoga Practice for Recovery
As with any healing modality or practice, it is extremely useful to have a teacher or guide, especially in cases of trauma, healing, and addiction recovery. Practicing yoga in a class or group setting offers the support and container of a group, an instructor to hold an uplifting atmosphere, and a neutral territory to explore one’s experiences.
Practicing with a recovery-specific group can also be especially beneficial, as one may feel less alone in their experience and therefore more connected to others and ultimately themselves. A class or group practice offers a powerful place to be witnessed, a space to feel safe, heard, held, and seen.
An instructor can support the healing process by offering poses and sequences that are relevant to those healing from addiction, and creating an appropriate energetic container with classes that are focused on honesty, acceptance, courage, integrity, humility, self-awareness, and relationships. Practicing yoga offers an opportunity to be present with discomfort, find the simplicity of breath, and ultimately cultivate a deeper relationship with oneself in a way that is healing and supported.
Is Yoga for Me?
At its root, addiction is a desire to control, block trauma, and avoid feeling or reliving an experience. Ultimately, this is a protective “coping” mechanism that may be useful in the short term when an experience is too extreme or powerful to face at the time. However, over time– if not addressed– can lead to dependency on a substance, and emotional numbing.
What yoga offers is a tool kit and safe space to reprogram and regulate the mind, body and nervous system out of a state of fight or flight, and back into a state of parasympathetic equilibrium.
There are also nationwide 12-Step specific yoga classes through Y12SR (Yoga for 12 Step Recovery).
It’s important to note, other means of recovery will likely be required to successfully overcome drug and alcohol addiction. Yoga can be an amazing healing modality for anyone of any body type, from all walks of life– including recovering addicts. But we don’t assume yoga is the “cure-all” for ending substance abuse. If you’re interested in learning more about yoga for addiction recovery as a helpful tool, go for it! However, we advise always seeking helpful recovery professionals along the way in your personal sobriety journey.
If you or a loved one needs help, call us at 949-625-4019.