Yoga and Recovery

Stemming from Hindu practices, yoga is considered a holistic exercise that involves controlling one’s breathing and meditating while maintaining specific positions that challenge a variety of muscles in the body.

The Huffington Post reports 8.7 percent of the American population practices yoga, a statistic that seems to only be on the rise having jumped from 15.8 million people in 2008 to 20.4 million just four years later in 2012.

Types of Yoga

There are more than 20 different types of yoga; however, the seven types detailed here are the most commonly practiced forms. Anusara yoga is practiced to draw the inner good out of one’s body through basic physical yoga practices. This is a good method for beginners to try their hand at, even though it’s only been around since the late 1990s. Ashtanga yoga involves specific positions linked to your breathing pattern. It is more aerobic in nature and pretty demanding – not for the novice yoga practitioner. Bikram yoga is often regarded as the most physically intense form and centers on a 26-position sequence. Hot yoga is much the same as the Bikram method; the room is heated to a high temperature for a more intense experience, but a variety of yoga positions may be utilized other than the strict sequence associated with Bikram yoga.

Iyengar yoga is focused on perfecting individual poses and often incorporates props into the practice to hone alignment. This form won’t get you moving as much, so it’s a great option for someone with an injury or health problems that may limit physical activity. Restorative yoga uses props, too, but for the purpose of making positioning easier. It is a great option for yogi newcomers, as well.

Last on the list is vinyasa yoga, which is a good choice for those who get bored easily with exercise routines. Vinyasa changes it up regularly and uses fluid movements between poses to make the experience a little more relaxing and less rigid, and it often incorporates music into the practice. Other forms of yoga include:

  • Yin yoga
  • Kripalu yoga
  • Power yoga
  • Sivananda yoga
  • Prenatal yoga
  • Hatha yoga
  • Jivamukti yoga
  • Kundalini yoga
  • Viniyoga

The Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration reports 22.7 million people needed substance abuse treatment in 2013 and fewer than three million people received it. In 2012, the number in need was higher, at 23.1 million, per the National Institute on Drug Abuse. Some professionals in the treatment industry believe there may be a correlation between the decreasing number of those who need treatment and the increase in exercise practices that focus on both the mind and body.

Yoga as a Treatment Protocol

Simply put, yoga is a form of exercise that not only gets the heart rate up and helps to clear the mind, but it’s also an exercise practice that is often easier to start and commit to across the board, because many individuals go into treatment with low levels of physical activity and exercise. The Journal of Mental Health and Physical Activity reports 71 percent of substance abuse patients in one study were not engaged in any sort of exercise regimen when they entered treatment. Even the addict who never exercises can find beginner yoga practices to be simple to engage in, rather than more difficult boot camp-like practices that some facilities promote. For some addicts, making the commitment to exercise every day has been more beneficial and rewarding than attempts to commit to structured remedies, like the 12-Step program.

The Mind-Body Connection

The majority of all treatment facilities now offer more mind-based approaches to exercise, such as yoga and Pilates. Leaders in the field have found that adding mindful-based exercises like yoga to a treatment regime may also boost the likelihood that patients pay more attention to their overall health. Recovering addicts find their minds getting clearer and bodies toning up, making them more committed to maintaining those benefits post treatment. This kind of thinking and dedication can only help the addicted patient after treatment when they’re trying to stay clean and sober.

Yoga focuses on bringing the body and mind together in a strong unity against outside forces of negativity. The Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine published a pilot study in 2007 touting the efficacy of yoga in increasing gamma-aminobutyric acid levels in the brain; the study compared a yoga-practicing group to a group that spent time reading instead. As it turned out, the yoga group saw a 27 percent increase in GABA levels. The claim is that exercise can increase the chances of sobriety and reduce cravings for drugs and alcohol, and the research backs it up.

Reduced Cravings

The Journal of Drug and Alcohol Dependence published a study in 2008 in which lab rats were given the ability to self-administer cocaine, and only one group of rats had access to an exercise wheel in their cage. On average, the exercising rats self-administered cocaine only 11 times at approximately 3 mg doses, whereas sedentary rats did 16 times at 4.5 mg doses. This data supports the theory that exercise inhibits sensitivity toward the reinforcing effects of cocaine that make users want to use again and again. Interestingly, this remained true whether the doses were low or high.

Similar studies have produced agreeable results. In one report published in the Journal of Pathophysiology, non-exercising lab rats sought more morphine than exercising rats. Researchers gathered that the exercising rats craved less morphine due to exercise stimulating and activating the endogenous opioid system in the rats’ brains.

Exercise has other effects on the brain as well, including positive effects on monoamines like norepinephrine, serotonin and dopamine. Drugs and alcohol release dopamine, creating the euphoric high that substance abusers experience, and over time, the brain becomes dependent on the drug to elicit these feelings, thus requiring more of the drug over time. When this happens, the user has developed a tolerance to the substance. There is also significant evidence that low levels of GABA and oxytocin play strong roles in the development of addiction, too.


There is also a mindfulness component to practicing yoga that cannot be ignored. Yoga can help practitioners harness self-awareness, a key element missing from many addict’s lives as they cave to impulsive urges to use time and again. Yoga also aids in improving concentration abilities, as well as easing anxiety and the issues that stem from it, like sleep troubles and irritability. The relaxing side effects of yoga can help addicts to calm issues that come directly from substance abuse, too.

Last but not least, many people find a spiritual connection in practicing yoga that they feel strengthens them and helps them endure the battle against substance dependence. Yoga can also aid in preventing relapse from occurring, something that affects some 40 to 60 percent of all substance users, NIDA reports.

Who Can Benefit from Yoga?

Yoga is highly beneficial to individuals struggling with issues of drug and alcohol addiction. If you think that may be you, consider the following symptoms of addiction:

  • You have developed a tolerance to the substance.
  • You have difficulty stopping or cutting back on drug/alcohol use.
  • When you do stop using, you start experiencing withdrawal symptoms like nausea, depression, and anxiety.
  • Even though you’re aware of the issues your substance abuse is causing, you keep using.
  • You avoid social activities you used to enjoy because you would rather be using, either alone or with other substance abusers.
  • Most of your time is spent using or thinking about when you will next.
  • You are always concerned about making sure you have an adequate supply of drugs or alcohol on hand.

Many who suffer from mental health issues also stand to benefit from practicing yoga. Helpguide reports more than half of all drug addicts — 53 percent to be exact — are also battling a severe mental health disorder, as are 37 percent of alcoholics. Stress is another big factor in the delicate balance of addiction and relapse. A large number of addicts relapse every year due to unforeseen stressors and an inability to cope with them.

Yoga can prove to be a fantastic coping mechanism that significantly impacts cortisol — the hormone that increases in our bodies as a response to stress. A Duke University review reports integrative yoga — yoga coupled with mindfulness meditation during addiction treatment — decreased cortisol levels by 31 percent in practitioners versus those who practiced basic yoga merely as a form of exercise.

How Does Yoga Increase the Chances of Sobriety?

Psychologically, it may very well help substance abusers to have positive things to focus on, too. Many professional treatment facilities promote the idea of replacing an unhealthy addiction with a positive one. In cases of substance abuse, alcoholics and drug addicts are encouraged to delve into exercise, like yoga, when they experience cravings or get the urge to use again.

One of the greatest chances any addict has for reaching and maintaining sobriety lies with satisfying the needs that are at the foundation of these urges. When an addict feels the need to use drugs or drink, what he really wants is to satisfy a bigger need, such as masking the symptoms of a mental illness or dealing with guilt or other emotions. Substance abuse is almost always a coping mechanism of some sort.

What many addicts fail to realize is that there are alternative ways to satisfy those needs in the interim while learning to manage them correctly. On the road to recovery, many substance abusers will need therapy and medication to deal with the emotions that have previously triggered them to fall into a pattern of drug and alcohol abuse. This road may be a lengthy one with bumps along the way, but by substituting exercise in the place of booze and drugs, you can retrain your body and mind to feel fulfilled and satisfied without the given substance.

Today, professional rehab facilities understand the need and demand for a holistic array of alternative and complementary treatment options. Yoga is one of these options. To learn more on the many ways yoga can help you during treatment, reach out to us today via our toll-free number.

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