The Impact of Yoga in Recovery

Today, the word yoga conjures up images of fit people stretching into contortionist-type poses, but that’s the extreme end of the spectrum of this healthful practice. In America, the practice of yoga has been plied out of the context of its Eastern origins. In the East, yoga is one component part of a much larger framework that is dedicated to teaching people how to live peacefully and in close communion with the universe.

The great thing about yoga is that it is elastic enough to have different meanings in different places. The American conceptualization and practice of yoga, mainly as a form of exercise, self-healing, and relaxation, is helping many Americans, and that’s the true spirit of yoga.

As the practice of yoga grows, there is subsequently a greater awareness of the health benefits it offers. To understand how popular yoga really is in America, consider the following facts and statistics:

  • In the US, approximately 36.7 million Americans adults (15 percent) practice yoga.
  • Approximately 28 percent of Americans have tried yoga at least once in their lifetime.
  • A reported 80 million Americans (34 percent) planned to practice yoga at some point in the next year.
  • At present, approximately 10 million American males are practicing yoga, which is up from 4 million in 2012.
  • Of the group who practices yoga, 75 percent also participate in other forms of exercise, such as group sports, running, bodybuilding, and cycling.

These findings reveal that Americans who practice yoga are among the most fitness-oriented. As one good habit typically begets other good habits, starting a yoga practice can open a door into a healthier way of life overall.

The benefits of yoga are not physical alone. A research study conducted in Science Daily found that yoga leads to a greater improvement in mood and decreased anxiety compared to the other forms of exercise that were studied.

Bringing Yoga into Recovery

In view of the popularity of yoga and scientific research supporting its positive effects on health, it is no surprise that it is being absorbed into different communities. Yoga is now practiced in senior citizen communities, prisons, workplaces, and drug rehab centers. According to an illuminating article on yoga therapy and drug recovery in Social Work Today, yoga is one of the most effective client-based forms of therapy in practice.

The term yoga therapy refers to the application of yoga in a clinical setting. Yoga therapy can occur during participation in a rehab program (inpatient or outpatient) and during the aftercare process.

Many psychiatrists, social workers, mental health workers, and other professionals engaged in the treatment of addiction agree that yoga therapy can complement the main pillars of drug treatment (medications, as necessary, and therapy).

  • American Family Physician states that yoga is a valid form of treatment for depression and anxiety, which are mental health conditions that co-occur with or underlie drug abuse.
  • Studies show that yoga increases the levels of GABA (gamma-aminobutyric acid) in the brain. In the drug treatment context, this finding is important because many individuals who experience depression, anxiety, stress, or drug abuse often have lowered levels of GABA in their brains.
  • Behaviorally, yoga can teach individuals the discipline necessary to successfully engage in a long-term 12-Step program.
  • Yoga is always accessible. The practice of yoga is particularly empowering for individuals in recovery because it does not rely on support from any external factors. All a person needs to do yoga is motivation and a small amount of space.
  • Yoga supports overall health, which in turn supports recovery. Research demonstrates that yoga improves the functioning of the nervous system, lymphatic network, and immune system.

Another main benefit of yoga is its relationship to neuroplasticity. Research shows that the brain relies on neuroplasticity in order to more easily and quickly engage in certain repetitive behaviors. Stated simply, yoga can interrupt those brain patterns that are set up to make a person keep doing drugs. An interesting layer to this phenomenon is that a person can have insights, such as that drug abuse is dangerous and destructive, yet still engage in drug use behaviors. Insight, in short, does not necessarily change neural pathways that support drug use. Therapy typically works with the mind but yoga involves both the mind and the body. Since yoga acts on the body and mind, it can actually change a recovering person’s neuroplasticity by merging insights from yoga with healthy body behaviors.

Yoga as an Aftercare Practice

The following are some of the most common forms of aftercare:

  • Ongoing participation in an outpatient program
  • Residence in a sober living home
  • Continuing group therapy, individual therapy, counseling, and/or psychiatric appointments, as applicable
  • Participating in random but ongoing drug testing
  • Attending 12-Step meetings or other mutual-aid meetings, such as those sponsored by the non-faith-based SMART Recovery group

There is universal agreement among addiction treatment professionals that the drug recovery process does not end after completion of a structured inpatient or outpatient rehab program. Aftercare is usually the longest phase of recovery; in fact, it can last a lifetime.

Aftercare is not a defined program. It is composed of different services and activities that are supportive of recovery. Aftercare has two main goals: to help a recovering person avoid relapse and to provide the skills needed to build a healthy body, mind, and lifestyle.

These aftercare strategies, it should be noted, depend on external factors. That fact doesn’t undermine the aftercare process, but it is also helpful for a recovering person to do things that are independent from others. Yoga is by its nature a self-involved process. As mentioned, the practice of yoga can help a person to develop healthy habits, such as better nutritional health. Yoga, in short, can help people to take greater care of themselves.

Yoga, as part of an aftercare plan, can occur in different settings. A recovering person may have a blended practice where they do yoga at home (with or without the aid of a video or audio recording) and in a studio setting with other practitioners. Doing yoga in a group setting opens the door to workshop opportunities and retreats.

There are numerous reputable yoga schools that offer workshops and retreats. The Yoga Alliance provides information on schools that are part of its network. There is no official accreditation process for yoga schools but a Yoga Alliance accreditation is considered a stamp of approval within the yoga teacher community.

Many yoga schools are aware of the positive impact that yoga can have on individuals in recovery from addiction.

Though yoga classes are offered, some schools will also run workshops to educate students about how to bring the principles of yoga into their everyday lives.

For example, the well-respected Jivamukti yoga school in New York City provides a foundational workshop on healing addiction through wellness efforts. The workshop’s philosophical starting point is that addiction is a means of coping with trauma. The Jivamukti approach spiritualizes the discussion of addiction, which is seen as causing a “soul loss,” which in turn leaves a person without their core truth and makes them serve their addictions rather than their higher purpose. The workshop teaches students how to use plants, herbs, and yoga to break the cycle of addiction, reconnect with their soul, and develop a healthy body that can receive the healing powers of nature.

Some individuals in recovery may become so receptive to the benefits of yoga that they decide to become yoga teachers. As CNN reports, popular Los Angeles yoga instructor Vinnie Marino started using drugs in high school. He always had the motivation to exercise, but could never fully commit to a steady regimen because of his ongoing drug abuse. He eventually fell into practicing yoga, which organically led to him teaching yoga. The practice of yoga helped Marino to create a lifestyle so incompatible with drug abuse that using drugs just stopped making sense to him. This insight is a true reflection of the power of yoga. It can build up a person’s body and psyche to a point where healthy living does not involve too great of an effort.

For individuals who are planning on going to rehab, in rehab, or have started the aftercare process, living a drug-free life may seem like a big challenge. This is the exact reason why a solid and effective aftercare process is helpful. Yoga, as well as education about its principles, can potentially bring about changes in a recovering person’s mind and body that can make living a drug-free life become second nature.

Yoga is a practice. Dramatic change may not come overnight, nor should it. Yoga supports a gradual but profound shift in a person. Ongoing recovery gives a person distance from substance abuse and enough time for healthy new behaviors and thoughts to take place. When yoga enters the stream of recovery, it can help to guide people away from the drug abuse of their past.

About The Contributor

Editorial Staff
Editorial Staff

Editorial Staff, American Addiction Centers

The editorial staff of Greenhouse Treatment Center is comprised of addiction content experts from American Addiction Centers. Our editors and medical reviewers have over a decade of cumulative experience in medical content editing and have reviewed... Read More

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