Using yoga as a tool in substance abuse prevention and treatment programs isn’t a new idea, but it has built momentum over the last several years. Addiction recovery and yoga have formally integrated into at least one 12-step model, the Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, or Y12SR.
Most modern human beings are addicted to or dependent on something, whether it is alcohol, drugs, or other destructive behaviors or emotions. Addiction can be described as uncontrollable dependence, often stemming from trauma, neglect, lack, low self-worth or other dis-ease. Yoga could be considered the antithesis of these things, and many people find that a regular asana and/or mediation practice helps these things begin to melt away.
The Y12SR program believes “the issues live in the tissues,” and uses yoga as a way to help people reconnect with their bodies while working on breaking their addictive patterns. Students are led through meditative sequences that focus on bringing attention inward, to the breath, emotions and body sensations. Although this is typical of many yoga classes, many people who struggle with addiction have disassociated from their bodies to some extent. Participants work on healing the body as well as the mind, yet still receive the peer support that is crucial to the 12-step design. All Y12SR classes are held either before or after a more traditional 12-step sharing circle, and instructors are trained in both yoga and 12-step methodology.
Many other instructors echo the idea that the “reside of imprints” in the tissues can’t always be talked away, and there is mounting evidence pointing to the efficacy of physically working out past pain or trauma with yoga rather than through traditional talk therapy alone. Yoga International recently wrote a lengthy article on How Yoga Heals that addresses this very topic. As yoga helps soothe the “fight or flight” response of the autonomic nervous system, people begin to notice and relax areas of tension they didn’t even realize were there, and that can’t be eased simply through recounting stories.
There is also evidence that yoga helps to regulate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is involved in relaxation, but also helps us dissociate during times of extreme trauma or physical stress to lessen the impact of pain. It is possible to get stuck in this disassociated state and feel removed from the body. For those with addictions, they create this state of separation through their substance of choice. Regular yoga practice helps to reintegrate with the physical experience in a way that is safe and supportive.
While Y12SR isn’t yet offered everywhere, there are many other programs integrating yoga. The Addiction Recovery Guide has a page dedicated to yoga resources for addiction recovery. These include recommendations on finding live and online courses, movies and even links to research on the efficacy of yoga as a holistic treatment option.
Addiction often arises as people attempt to fill a need or numb a pain, and instead find solutions that provide quick, although temporary, relief. When a better solution isn’t found, this answer is revisited until it quickly becomes a crutch, habit or full blown addiction. Learning to pause to take a breath, moving into a simple posture or quick stretch, or heading to a class or 12-step meeting can support people breaking these self-destructive cycles.