Can Yoga Help During Recovery?

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The National Institutes of Health (NIH) report that one in 10 Americans, ages 12 and older, struggles with an addiction. This condition is understood as a chronic illness of the brain, involving a complex relationship between genetics, family history, environment, and mental health. For many people, addiction is triggered when the person struggles with a mental health issue, like depression, anxiety, or bipolar disorder, and finds that they begin to self-medicate with a substance. This could begin as abuse of prescription medications, like opioids or benzodiazepines, or it could be a nonmedical substance like alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, or cocaine.

With so many people in the US struggling with substance abuse, treatment programs are increasingly important. Rehabilitation programs involve psychotherapy, and small, monitored doses of psychiatric medications when appropriate. The point of detox, therapy, and ongoing treatment is to reduce the risk of relapse, but statistically, between 40 percent and 60 percent of those who undergo addiction treatment relapse at least once, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA). While relapse is not considered a failure, it can put a strain on the body and mind, and the social stigma associated with relapse can lead an individual into further substance abuse.

In order to give those overcoming addiction the best chance to avoid relapse, and re-enter treatment as soon as possible if relapse occurs, rehabilitation programs offer a variety of treatment options. The more types of treatment a person has available, the more they can tailor their recovery to their own needs. While traditional therapy is the backbone of addiction treatment, other complementary therapies can augment the healing process.

Yoga therapy is a growing field that combines yoga postures and exercise with mindfulness techniques, complementary medicine, and, in many cases, psychotherapy. For thousands of people across the country, yoga therapy is a beneficial treatment that reinforces medical treatment for a variety of conditions. Increasingly, yoga therapy is included as part of rehabilitation programs to overcome addiction and substance abuse.

How Yoga Helps Mental Health Treatment

People who participate in yoga therapy most often do so in one-on-one sessions, although smaller support groups may also integrate yoga therapy into sessions. Over 36 million Americans, 18 years old or older, have practiced yoga at some point in their lives, and 34 percent of American adults say they will practice yoga within the next year. The practice itself, outside a therapy setting, increases physical strength and flexibility, and improves self-esteem and mental health. It is a form of exercise that supplements other types of exercise, such as more vigorous aerobic activity. Since so many Americans participate in a yoga practice in some way, it is unsurprising that it has migrated into a therapeutic setting.

While other forms of therapy, especially those used in addiction treatment, focus on developing support systems outside the self, the practice of yoga focuses on internal self-reliance and self-esteem. In an article on yoga therapy, Social Work Today notes that external sources of support, such as friends and family, may not be consistently reliable, which can trigger relapse in those under stress. In contrast, yoga therapy focuses on detaching one’s emotions and reactions from the experience of suffering, which can help the person better understand the causes of stress that might otherwise lead to relapse.

Yoga therapy also has the benefit of giving the participants tools to practice on their own. Rather than relying on weekly group meetings or therapy sessions, yoga therapy involves developing a regular yoga practice at home.

A 2006 study published in Psychology of Addictive Behaviors found that radical acceptance – the acknowledgement of mental processes including stress and cravings – can help overcome impulses to fulfill these desires. While traditional 12-Step treatment involves consistent denial of these impulses, radical acceptance as part of yoga therapy teaches participants to acknowledge and accept these impulses as part of the self, while simultaneously not feeding the desire. The study followed up with former prisoners who had participated in a yoga therapy program and found that those who completed the program reportedly consumed eight drinks a week on average. The group that did not participate in the program, however, reported 27 drinks per week, on average. Addiction to crack cocaine also improved; those who participated in yoga therapy in prison used the drug one time every 10 days on average, while those who did not participate used the drug one out of every five days.

An article in Elephant Journal, a yoga and spirituality magazine, discusses the benefits of yoga for overcoming drug addiction. One program specifically emphasizes yoga therapy as a way to develop mental skills and self-reliance by focusing on:

  • Self-discipline through daily, structured yoga practice
  • Presence in the moment, including coexisting with a painful past
  • Self-confidence and self-worth through learning that low self-esteem is part of a stress reaction
  • Compassion toward others, by participating in community and charity without expecting anything in return

Who Teaches Yoga Therapy?

As complementary medicine, and yoga therapy in particular, becomes more popular in medical settings, certification programs are on the rise. The International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT) offers an accredited certification program, which is becoming the standard for yoga therapists in the US. Yoga therapy training and meditation programs can receive certification through IAYT, and therapists trained in this practice have access to better resources about standardized practices and scientific research into the field.

Many people in the medical field pursue supplementary training in yoga therapy, while some people become yoga therapists first. Those seeking help from yoga therapists should look for additional qualifications that improve the therapist’s understanding of their clients’ conditions. For people in rehabilitation programs, or people who run rehabilitation programs, it is important to find a yoga therapist who understands the mental and physical stress addiction can cause.

The types of yoga used in therapy can vary. They may include practices like:

  • Hatha yoga, which combines prolonged inhalation and exhalation with maintaining postures
  • Asanas, or the flow between postures, such as the sun salutation sequence
  • Pranayama, or breath control
  • Mindfulness, or the focus on the present moment, including impulses, cravings, stress, and emotional reactions

Who Benefits in Rehab Settings?

The practice of yoga is being more thoroughly studied by scientists to understand how it affects the brain’s neuroplasticity. Traditional psychotherapy involves focusing on the mind; yoga, however, combines mental and physical practice, which can help to change the individual’s overall reaction to stress. For example, a 2007 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, and partly by NIDA, found that yoga practice increased the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. For people who struggle with addiction to benzodiazepines, which are designed to release GABA to improve stress response, the practice of yoga can help to stabilize mood, relieve anxiety, and reduce cravings for drugs like Xanax or Klonopin. Improved mood can also reduce cravings for other CNS depressants like alcohol or opiates.

People who struggle with anxiety and depression, which are two mood disorders that contribute to many substance abuse problems, can reduce the amount of stress hormones in their body through breathing practices. An article on the Harvard University website notes that after three weeks of yoga-related breath practices, 75 percent of participants reported feeling less depressed, compared to 60 percent of the control group. Levels of cortisol and corticotropin, two hormones involved in the body’s stress response, also dropped in the yoga breathing group but not in the control group.

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Putting Yoga into Practice in Recovery

The combination of mood elevation, physical awareness, and self-discipline can strengthen the mind and body. In concert with other forms of treatment offered in a rehabilitation program, yoga therapy can greatly help those working to overcome addiction or substance abuse problems. By reducing the body’s stress response and helping to regulate neurotransmitters, this form of meditative exercise aids people in finding mental and spiritual stability. When working with individual therapists and in group therapy to understand and overcome addiction, the practice of yoga can ease the transition from substance abuse to a healthy, sober life.