woman on yoga matThe most progressive treatment for drug and alcohol addiction addresses the whole person, not just the disease. Most effective continuance of care plans include holistic modalities that help the goal to improve an individual’s mind, body, and spirit.

A regular yoga practice is one of the most popular ways to foster this internal connection. Statistics from 2016 indicate approximately 37 million people do yoga in the United States.

The medical community continues to acknowledge the many benefits associated with yoga. The American Osteopathic Association highlights the following:

  • Improved sleep
  • Relief from chronic stress
  • Enhanced mood through natural dopamine release
  • Heightened concentration
  • Ease of anxiety
  • Relaxed mind
  • Enhanced connection with breath
  • Less pain and fatigue
  • Increased range of motion and flexibility
  • Reduced inflammation

For someone in recovery, therapeutic movement such as yoga also calms the nervous system, reducing the “flight or fight” response. Not only does this induce a better state of calm, it also helps curb impulsive behavior—a critical component for preventing relapses.

Through a yogic practice of controlled breath and deliberate movement, an individual can also develop better awareness of the present moment. This awareness encourages a release of the past and reduces anticipation of the future. In the present, it’s easier to accept how things are, who you are, and why both matter.

Yoga Assists Natural Brain Chemistry
Research supports the theory that people who struggle with drug or alcohol abuse suffer from a brain disease. Neurotransmitters are “tricked” into a false state by the artificial substances.

For example, when you’re affected by mental, emotional, or physical stress, your brain activates corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF). CRF controls the sympathetic nervous system—”flight or fight”—and behavioral responses. CRF is a great natural relief in short bursts, but it may be forced by the chemical effects of drugs or alcohol into a heightened level, intensifying cravings.

Yoga prompts the parasympathetic nervous system—”rest and digest”—to respond more readily. This balancing measure encourages the brain to efficiently regulate CRF.

Another vital neurotransmitter is gaba-aminobutyric acid, or GABA. Connected to your brain’s reward center, GABA encourages brighter moods and decreased anxiety. An individual suffering from substance abuse, particularly alcoholism, receives a false chemical effect similar to GABA, triggering the brain’s reward mechanism. This compounds the need for substances, no matter what consequences occur as a result of overuse.

Clinical trials involving alternative techniques for addiction recovery indicate a focus on controlled movement and breath is one method to further counteract unnatural stimulation of the brain. In this instance, results from these trials suggest yoga resets GABA levels to a more organic response to relieve anxiety and improve mood. Furthermore, a variety of studies show that exercises such as yoga, running, biking, and swimming improve serotonin production and encourage a more natural release of it.

In addition, recent theories in addiction treatment suggest a combination of therapy and exercise may help prevent relapses and promote lifetime wellness.

How Yoga Helps You “Urge Surf”
There’s a concept in recovery programs that teaches people to “urge surf.” This when you feel a craving coming on and acknowledge it, perhaps even ride that wave, but not act on it.

Another important factor of yoga is how it helps you create a more mindful life. This doesn’t mean you have to isolate yourself from the world and sit on a mountaintop. Mindfulness as a practice for people in recovery allows for space in the present moment to see the fine line between action and reaction, gain control over impulsiveness, and recognize triggers and deal with them.

Whether or not you use the urge surf method, you can apply the following techniques associated with yoga to be more mindful of why your recovery and wellbeing has value.

  • Stay open hearted. Many people consider the space on their yoga mats to be a safe haven—a place where they can treat themselves with compassion, release expectations, and recognize their full potential.
  • Breathe. Too often, we forget the power of deliberate inhalation and exhalation. But remember: there’s a reason why you’re encouraged to take 10 deep breaths when you’re upset. Focused breathing calms your nervous system.
  • Move without judgment. Through yoga practice, you experience joys and challenges, just like life. Some poses may be easy for you—others require you to progress more gradually. You can open up to each experience in the present moment with curiosity, not doubt or criticism.
Choosing a Yoga Practice
As you venture into a new life without addiction, your treatment plan may involve a variety of modalities and activities designed to help you accomplish meaningful goals.

The style of yoga you experience during treatment may be a great start, but when you return to daily life outside of your treatment facility, seek a qualified yoga instructor to continue your practice. There are many approaches and disciplines, each offering specific benefits.

  • If you feel a 12-step approach may help you manage a new path in life more effectively, consider Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, created by Nikki Myers after her troubles with addiction.
  • For someone healing from trauma or PTSD, a specialized approach called Trauma Sensitive Yoga may allow you regain “a sense of empowerment, especially for people who may have felt choiceless and powerless.”
  • The Viniyoga, developed by Gary Kraftsow, adapts yoga practice to the “condition, needs, and interests of each individual” with specific focus on personal ritual, meditation, breath, function, and repetition.
  • The practice of yin yoga creates an atmosphere of passive release, which may be the remedy for someone dealing with severe body aches and the proverbial “monkey mind.”

To learn more about what discipline may appeal to you, review this short list provided by Yoga Journal, and don’t be afraid to be a “yoga tourist” for a while in your community. You’ll meet people focused on positive wellness and learn what styles resonate with you the most.

By Tracey L. Kelley

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