Many people practice yoga not just for improving physical health, but also for its mental health benefits. This can be particularly useful for those battling drug and alcohol addictions. According to a survey by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC), 14.3 percent of Americans practice some form of yoga. Over the last decade, yoga has become mainstream, so classes are very accessible, and it is easier than ever for people to learn. If you or someone you know is overcoming an addiction to substances, yoga can be a valuable component of the recovery plan.
What Is Yoga?
Yoga is a form of exercise that originated in India over 5,000 years ago. It combines physical poses with breathing techniques. A yoga session can also involve meditation exercises and relaxation. The goal of yoga is to promote physical and mental well-being. You build strength and endurance by using your body to hold various poses. Yoga can also improve flexibility and concentration.
Yoga instructors perform various stretching exercises and poses during a yoga class or session. The poses are called asanas. Instructors might choose different asanas in different classes. The asanas all have names, and some are more difficult than others. Nearly every yoga class features relaxation periods after sets of challenging poses.
Yoga classes, videos, and tutorials are available for people of all levels. This includes beginners, intermediate instructors, and experts. If you have tight muscles, you might struggle with yoga at first. However, after practicing yoga for some time, you will develop more flexibility and strength.
Yoga is also good for the mind. An increasing number of mental health professionals are recommending yoga for their patients. When practicing yoga, you have to be mindful of your body. This helps with concentration and focus. In addition, the breathing techniques are very calming. This helps reduce stress and clear the mind, providing an opportunity for mental clarity. Many people use yoga therapy for drug and alcohol addiction recovery.
Types of Yoga
Knowing which style to practice is challenging if you’ve never practiced yoga. These are some of the most common forms of yoga that can be helpful for people dealing with substance use addiction recovery:
Hatha yoga is one of the classic forms of yoga. It involves breathwork, poses, and meditation. Hatha classes are slower than other yoga classes. Instructors hold the poses longer, so it involves a great deal of stretching. This is a good style of yoga to take if you are a beginner or want to build up your strength.
Vinyasa yoga involves doing a series of poses one after another. There is no deliberate break in between poses. It is often called ‘flow’ yoga. Vinyasa yoga classes usually feature different asanas every time. This means no two classes will be exactly the same. This is a good style for people who prefer fast-paced classes.
Bikram yoga is a relatively new form of yoga. Bikram Choudhury created this form of yoga in the 1970s. It is a form of hatha yoga practiced in a heated room. Each 90-minute class features the same 26 postures. The high temperatures allow you to sweat out toxins and improve circulation.
If you are craving structure in your life, then ashtanga yoga might be for you. Instructors start with a few primary poses and work on those until students have mastered them. The instructor gradually adds more poses when they determine the student is ready. Once the student masters the primary poses, they can move on to intermediate and advanced poses.
The word kundalini means “life force energy.” This style of yoga is based on the belief that energy gathers at the base of the spine. Kundalini poses are designed to activate and release this energy so that it flows through the body. A kundalini class features breathing techniques, poses, and meditation.
How Can Yoga Therapy Help with Substance Use Addiction Recovery?
Many addiction recovery centers now incorporate yoga into their treatment programs. This is because yoga can be very beneficial for people who are battling addiction. Yoga helps to reduce stress, making it easier to move forward on the path to recovery. It helps individuals be more mindful so they can identify destructive thoughts and behaviors. Yoga also provides a healthy outlet for dealing with negative emotions and triggers.
Neurological Benefits of Yoga
Many people practice yoga for physical health benefits. However, yoga is often recommended for those struggling with anxiety disorders. It’s an exercise program that can benefit the body and the mind. In fact, the mental health benefits may be more significant than the physical:
- Practicing yoga can enlarge the hippocampus region of the brain. The processing of memories partly occurs in the hippocampus. Patients struggling with Alzheimer’s disease often have atrophied or abnormal hippocampal structures.
- Yoga students and instructors frequently have signs of increased volume in the amygdala sections of their brains. The amygdala brain region is strongly involved in emotional regulation. Many drug addiction patients could strongly benefit from a neurological change like this.
- Doing yoga regularly may also expand or improve the brain’s prefrontal cortex. The prefrontal cortex is active when people make decisions, consider their options, plan, and perform multiple tasks at once. Some who struggle with drug addictions have issues with these specific cognitive abilities since the drugs can directly damage or influence the prefrontal cortex. It is possible that yoga could reverse some of those effects.
- Some of the neurological changes that yoga can cause have been correlated with improved scores on emotional regulation and cognitive exercises. Some people with emotional regulation problems turn to drugs for help, so these improvements may make them less likely to rely on drugs for the same benefits. Addiction can also negatively impact a person’s emotional regulation abilities, so yoga may help a person restore the balance disrupted by chemical addiction.
- Yoga significantly helps individuals manage emotional stress, which could directly impart these mental health benefits. However, stress management has plenty of additional psychological and physical health benefits of its own. Addiction (and recovery) causes stress. People sometimes try to relieve stress by using drugs. Managing stress can help individuals at all points along the path to recovery.
- Aerobic forms of exercise are known for having cognitive, psychological, and physical benefits. Something as simple as walking can make the hippocampus of the brain bigger. This may also be the case for anaerobic forms of exercise like yoga, illustrating the importance of the link between a person’s psychological and physical health—a literal mind/body connection.
Physical Benefits of Yoga
People who are battling addiction can also benefit from the physical aspects of yoga. As the body grows stronger, you will feel better inside and out. You may gain confidence and feel more in control of your life. There is a great deal of scientific research on the physical benefits of yoga. For instance:
- Regular yoga practice can decrease blood pressure. A study by a team at the University of Connecticut showed that people with hypertension who practiced yoga saw significant decreases in blood pressure. The decreases were the largest for people who practiced yoga with a focus on relaxation and breathing techniques. Drug use and withdrawal can cause blood pressure levels to spike. Yoga can be a good way to combat drug-induced hypertension.
- Like any physical activity, yoga gets the body moving and the blood flowing. Both the physical poses and the breathwork in yoga help improve circulation. This is important for former drug users because long-term drug use can affect the cardiovascular system. When the blood is flowing properly, it pumps nutrients and oxygen to other parts of the body. If the system isn’t working as it should, it can lead to heart failure, strokes, and organ failure.
- Withdrawal symptoms can be very painful. The body is going through changes, and this can manifest in physical symptoms such as headaches and muscle aches. Yoga may help. There are a number of studies that suggest yoga can reduce various types of pain. These include lower back pain, neck pain, and arthritis. One study even shows that yoga can decrease the intensity and frequency of headaches.
- Yoga helps to normalize several bodily functions. The poses activate various internal parts of the body. For example, twisting yoga poses can massage the intestines to help with digestion. Some poses kick the endocrine system into gear so that the body is producing the hormones it needs to function properly.
- Everyone has two nervous systems: the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems. The sympathetic nervous system is also known as the ‘fight-or-flight’ system. It responds to stress by putting out the cortisol hormone. The parasympathetic is the opposite. It puts out a relaxation response that lowers your heart rate, breathing rate, and cortisol levels. Yoga stimulates the parasympathetic system, making it easier for your body to respond to stressors.
The Body and Mind Are Not Separate
Many people speak as if the body is just a vessel for the mind. People still say that psychological problems are “all in someone’s head.” It is a popular belief today and has been for a long time.
The brain is biological and just like any other organ. The substances that people ingest all affect the brain. Many factors can influence the blood flow that reaches the brain. The damaging effects of psychological stress on the body are very well-documented. There is no real controversy about whether stress is bad for a person, even if that stress is purely psychological.
Yoga can lower an elevated heart rate and high blood pressure levels. It is also very helpful for reducing psychological stress. Those sets of benefits may be separate, but there’s also likely a connection between the two.
Stress can cause blood pressure and cardiovascular health problems. It is also responsible for direct and indirect psychological problems. The aerobic exercise that helps the whole body helps the brain, stimulating improved intellectual and cognitive responses.
A person’s psychological health and physical health are intertwined. Practices that help a person psychologically also help physically since there is no true separation. In yoga therapy for substance use addiction recovery, patients have experienced incredible breakthroughs along their journey to sobriety.
How to Incorporate Yoga Therapy Into Your Addiction Recovery Plan
One of the most appealing aspects of yoga is that you can learn and practice it on your own. Multiple websites and videos online will walk you through various yoga poses. They can also teach you breathing techniques and meditation exercises.
However, working with a yoga instructor at first is always beneficial. A yoga instructor can show you the poses and correct your form. Poor form can lead to injuries, so perfecting your form is important. An instructor can also suggest different types of yoga to suit your personality and lifestyle.
If you want to get the maximum benefits from yoga, you need to practice often. Set aside a specific time each day or every other day to practice. This could be in the morning as a healthy way to start your day or in the evening before bed. Try taking classes a few days a week. The more you practice, the stronger you’ll feel. You may also feel calmer and more in control.