Yoga might not be the first thing that springs to mind when you think of useful tools for recovering from substance abuse. Generally, recovery groups, therapy sessions, and books are what people first turn to as resources to fight active addiction. However, research shows that yoga can have real benefits for those in recovery and support their efforts to maintain sobriety.
Holly Whitaker discovered yoga before she entered addiction recovery and then realized how well yoga served her sobriety. On her blog, HipSobriety.com, Whitaker talks about how yoga strengthened her recovery: “As my practice deepened, I found myself having near religious experiences on the mat – moments of severe bliss and surrender, moments of connection to something beyond my small finite self, and many many moments spent processing grief and trauma, the years of abuse and neglect literally coming undone as I finally allowed them to become undone. I was evolving in these classes and I couldn’t get enough.”
Whitaker identifies a number of ways in which yoga helped to make her sobriety more solid. These include:
- Replacing the artificial high of drugs with a natural high from working out
- Leading to better emotional regulation
- Providing a sense of community (especially for people who don’t find what they need in recovery groups)
- Leading to better control over thought processes
- Acting as a healthy coping mechanism that is readily available
- Helping with insomnia
Dr. James Groves, a psychiatrist who wrote about the power of yoga to help people in recovery, lists additional benefits that yoga can offer to a person seeking to get or stay sober:
- Reduced stress and anxiety – which can be relapse triggers
- Improved awareness – making a person more in touch with their own feelings
- Reduced cravings – by offering the brain natural ways to create the “feel good” chemicals it has gotten use to obtaining via substance use
- Improved mood – decreasing the odds of feelings that lead to relapse
- Development of a judgement-free attitude – people with a history of addiction tend to be especially judgmental of themselves, which is not helpful to recovery
How Does it Work?
According to an article published by Social Work Today, yoga works because it is so different from other approaches that are commonly used to treat addiction. Therapy, 12-step groups and other modalities rely heavily on words and the ability to express and receive ideas verbally, which may not be the most effective method for every person at all times.
Yoga bypasses the need for language by utilizing breathing exercises, physical stances, exercises, mindfulness, and concentration, so the thought processes required are quite different from other tools used for treatment.
Types of Yoga
If you’re new to yoga, you may not realize that there are a number of different practices and styles of yoga. The yoga that is popular for exercise around the world today was built on centuries-old spiritual practices from India, but many modern practitioners aren’t necessarily aligned with the religious aspect of yoga. Typically, yoga done for exercise includes a combination of physical movements, breathing exercises, and meditation.
Some yoga curricula today focus on trauma and on combining yoga with 12-step programs. Because trauma is an underlying issue for many people with substance use disorder, yoga that focuses on trauma can help a person address the issues that underlie their addiction. In addition, using yoga in combination with the 12 steps can help a person in recovery strengthen their sobriety.
Oprah Magazine ran a feature on one yoga class that integrates recovery concepts. The class replaces mantras with recovery talk, sharing circles, and readings relevant to recovery. By helping people to develop better coping skills, sit with difficult emotions, and tolerate discomfort, groups like this build on the tools provided by therapy, 12-step groups, and treatment programs.
Safe Harbor Recovery Center uses yoga and other modalities to build a whole-person recovery plan customized to the individual needs and goals of each client.