Yoga and Recovery

Is Yoga Good for Recovery for a Person With Addictions?

Addiction is a powerful and complex problem that many struggles to overcome. Yoga, with its holistic disciplines and focus on self-awareness and resilience can provide several highly effective therapies to assist recovery. Understanding individual needs and the ways that yoga can help in meeting them is an important first step. In this blog article, let us understand “Is yoga good for recovery”.

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Yoga Is a Force for Good

Yoga quiets the troubled mind. It’s soothing for the troubled spirit and body too. It stands to reason that such a source of well-being is going to help those recovering from addiction, but many people don’t see how this works in practice and are not sure what to do about it. Just hoping to replace darkness with light would be to oversimplify. That well-known prayer comes to mind (often wrongly attributed to St Francis):

“Where there is hatred, let me bring love. Where there is despair, let me bring hope”

But addiction is too complex for such a simple solution.

is yoga good for recovery

Addiction Is Not That Simple

Addiction has as many facets as a disco ball, almost all of them negative. Characteristic feelings of despair, anxiety, anger, self-hatred, shame, and stress translate into self-defeating actions such as physical self-harm, isolation, lethargy, escapism, impulsiveness, and mood swings. Yoga, on the other hand, offers plenty of positives: peace, calm, balance, control, and self-respect are all acquired through a regime of discipline that connects the mind, the body, and the spirit in a highly therapeutic manner.

Understanding Is Key

The more we understand addiction, the easier it becomes to avoid the dangers and focus on the aspects that are relevant to us. Similarly, understanding yoga means that we can identify ways in which it will help our recovery. And lastly, of course, understanding ourselves helps us to identify the things we can change – our defects of character most notably.

Mind, Body, and Spirit Together

Addiction is a mental, physical, and spiritual disease, and yoga works on the mind, body, and spirit too, using techniques that are designed to benefit the holistic individual. Thoughts, actions, and feelings are all interconnected in our daily lives. Thus, yoga disciplines that build muscular strength, balance, and flexibility lead to self-awareness, clear thinking, and resilience.

These work together to impact positively on our self-esteem, our sense of meaning, and our emotional health generally. This is not just theory, research indicates the power of yoga to help people with self-discovery and change: ”the evidence is showing that yoga really helps change people at every level.”(Health Psychologist and Yoga Instructor at Stanford University, Kelly McGonigal, Ph.D.)

Yoga and Psychosomatic Therapy

A 2012 USA report on the effectiveness of yoga in psychosomatic therapy concluded that there were detectable beneficial effects of yoga intervention at all aspects of the holistic person – mind(cognition), spirit (emotions), and body (physiology and actual physique), as summarised in the table below:

Level of Action and Observed Effects of Yoga Interventions

AspectSpecific effectsUnspecific effects
CognitionContemplative states; Mindfulness; Self-identity; Self-efficacy; Beliefs; ExpectationsControl of attentional networks
EmotionsEmotional control/regulationQuality of Life
PhysiologyVagal afferent activity; Heart rate/Respiratory; Relaxation response/Stress reductionSocial contacts

Physical body

The physical flexibility, Fitness/EnduranceHealthy lifestyle
(Taken from ‘Effects of Yoga on Mental and Physical Health: A Short Summary of Reviews’, National Library of Medicine 2012).

Biochemical Effects of Yoga on the Body

Results of a number of studies indicate that yoga-based activities have a beneficial influence on mental health generally. A 2020 BMJ report concluded that: “Yoga was perceived to have a positive impact on physical and mental health conditions and was linked to positive health behaviors.” Over the past fifty years, many studies have reported that yoga-based interventions decrease stress symptoms by influencing the body’s reaction to situations that produce stress – anxiety or trauma, for example.

These would normally present as increases in blood pressure, and increased production of chemicals such as cytokines (protein), cortisol and adrenalin (hormones), and serotonin (neurotransmitter). The outcome of stress and the overproduction of such substances can often be extremes of activity and mood swings. The introduction of yoga practices influences these psychological and chemical reactions to stress, resulting in better mood regulation and a general sense of emotional balance.

Yoga and Sleeping Patterns According to the US-based Sleep Foundation, over 55% of yoga practitioners report improved sleep, and over 85% report reduced stress. People in recovery often struggle to re-establish a healthy sleep pattern that their past addictive behaviour has disturbed. The relaxing but gentle disciplines of yoga, especially breathing techniques, have been especially helpful.

Ways That Yoga Can Help You to Sleep Better Include:

  • Yoga increases melatonin levels. Melatonin is known as the ‘sleep hormone. Although there is no guarantee that an increased level will improve sleep, regular yoga-induced increases are likely to improve the body’s circadian rhythms and general wellness. A 2004 article in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine (New York) concluded: “these yoga practices can be used as psychophysiological stimuli to increase endogenous secretion of melatonin, which in turn, might be responsible for an increased sense of well-being.”
  • Deep breathing techniques when practised regularly are good for oxygen levels as well as relaxing the body. This leads to an enhanced sleeping experience.
  • The exercise element of yoga, when combined with other normal exercise patterns of yoga helps the body to rest and recover from acceptable levels of tiredness.
  • The meditation aspects of yoga help people to cope with negative feelings and reduce stress generally.
  • Yoga relaxes us by working on the vagus nerve at the heart of our nervous system. Stimulating this nerve especially improves basic bodily functions such as the metabolism of food which lead eventually to improved sleep patterns.

Yoga as a Substitute for Medication

With so much evidence of the therapeutic power of yoga, it’s not surprising that doctors are increasingly turning to it as a substitute for medication. This is increasingly happening in cases of anxiety, panic attacks, and depression. Sometimes the two treatments are used in conjunction. In certain cases, yoga can be prescribed by doctors on the NHS.

Yoga and Spirituality

Although many people focus on the exercise and position aspects of yoga for the benefit of physical health alone, the perfecting of posture is in fact secondary to its spiritual aspects. Spiritual peace and clarity of mind are of primary importance. Mindfulness, self-examination, and the removal of damaging desires and expectations are all found along the yogic path of spiritual progress just as they are in 12 Step recovery programmes.

Regular yoga sessions in recovery from addiction are an alternative way of looking at the spiritual side of the 12 Steps – one that many newcomers who struggle with the 12 Steps, especially Steps 2 and 3, find helpful. A 2021 American study of the relationship between spirituality and yoga concluded that: “yoga practice seems to be positively associated with spirituality.

This association concerns various aspects of spirituality, such as spiritual aspirations, a search for insight/wisdom, an integrative worldview, a sense of meaning and peace, faith, hope, compassion, and happiness within. To harness the potential spiritual benefits of yoga, the regular practice appears to be essential. Yoga practitioners seem to have both physical and spiritual motives for practising.”

Facing Our Fears With Yoga

Facing our fears may seem daunting but yoga shows us that fear can be a choice. Through mindfulness, we learn to live in the present. A lot of fear and anxiety is to do with the future which may or may not ever happen. With yoga, we become aware of our fears and how they drag us out of the present into the unknowable future. As ancient philosopher Plato put it: “Courage is knowing what not to fear”

Combining this with an awareness of ourselves and the effects that fear has on our bodies helps us manage such feelings appropriately. Yoga techniques of breathing and relaxation help us to revert to a state of calm and bring us back to the present reality.

Spiritual Growth

Both yoga and 12-step programmes have spiritual growth as a goal. Progress not perfection is always the mantra for matters spiritual. As in so many situations, revisiting the Serenity Prayer gives us further insights:

God grants me the serenity, to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference. (Reinhold Niebuhr).

If we think about the keywords in that famous sentence – God, serenity, acceptance, change, courage, and wisdom – we can see how much they apply not just to recovering addicts, but to yoga followers as well. There is more than one path to a happy recovery.

Treatment Considerations

At CATCH Recovery we fully recognize the help that yoga can give to people in recovery. We offer regular yoga sessions as a part of our residential treatment programme.

If you would like to know more about this or discuss any aspect of addiction recovery, please give us a call: 020 4579 7629

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