“Stinkin’ thinkin’.” I remember hearing that phrase for the first time from a friend who was in a couple of different 12-Step groups. The saying points to something also understood in many spiritual circles, that the thinking mind—the part of us that lives in words and tries to figure things out—often gets us into more trouble than it gets us out of. The great religious traditions all advise us to let go of the scheming and anxiety of thought to discover a deeper way of perceiving. In Buddhism, they call the mind that gets us into trouble “monkey mind,” because like a monkey it’s running here, there and everywhere, grabbing any shiny object with hands and feet.
Because of the problems of overreliance on the thinking mind, many spiritual systems recommend we bypass this part of us when it gets distorted and turn to the wisdom of the body instead. Not only is the body the place where a lot of the trauma that leads to addiction gets stored, it’s also the place where our “original programming” or “default settings” still reside. Like a computer whose software has become corrupted, our human systems can also be “rebooted” by returning our attention to older caches that were not contaminated.
I’ve written here before about using the body as a way to move into recovery, through walking meditation, hiking, and the martial arts, and I’ve also mentioned Yoga. This time I want to take a closer look at this remarkable system, and what researchers, Yoga practitioners and people in recovery have discovered about how it can help overcome addiction.
As americanaddictioncenters.org says in an article on “Using Yoga in Recovery.”
Coming from the Sanskrit work yuj, which is interpreted to mean “union,” yoga is an ancient technique designed to bring mind and body closer together with the use of exercise, meditation, and breathing….While yoga is not a religion, it can be spiritual as individuals may experience spiritual growth through practicing yoga regularly.
There are many different types of Yoga, including Jnana, Bhakti, Karma and Kundalini Yoga, to name a few. Each of these emphasizes a different aspect, such as wisdom, devotion, work, and energy—all of which is to say Yoga is a complete system of development, designed to awaken our full capacity for action, love, creativity and understanding.
How far one takes the practice of Yoga is an individual choice. For those in recovery, it is worth noting there is a growing body of evidence that Yoga can offer real help in overcoming addiction. As the article cited above continues,
Yoga is one of the new adjunct treatment approaches that has achieved rave reviews for its benefits. Amazingly, using Yoga in addiction recovery is not only effective but it’s also easier on the wallet. The benefits of Yoga for recovering addicts is something that every recovery program should know about.
Increasingly, Yoga is being included as a part of many drug addiction recovery programs as an effective way of supplementing traditional treatment, including 12-Step programs. As Yoga Journal online observed in an article by Stacie Stukin called “Yoga for Addiction Recovery,” “These days it’s difficult to find any private rehabilitation facility that doesn’t offer some form of yoga or mind-body awareness programming.” And she makes an important point when she says, “The goal is to give addicts the skills they need to learn in order to tolerate the uncomfortable feelings and sensations that can lead to relapses.”
Yoga has been found to be helpful in preventing relapse, reducing withdrawal symptoms and cravings, and giving those who build Yoga into their regular routine a healthy outlet for redirecting their energies and coping with stress.
Sat Bir Khalsa, director of the Kundalini Research Institute and an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School observes, “When people take substances, they’re seeking a certain experience, whether it’s escapist or transcendental or just wanting a different psychological state, to get away from whatever is making them unhappy.” Khalsa, who wrote a study on a small pilot program in India using Yoga as its primary means of substance-abuse intervention, says that “Yoga is an alternative, a positive way to generate a change in consciousness that, instead of providing an escape, empowers people with the ability to access a peaceful, restorative inner state that integrates mind, body, and spirit.”
One small pilot study in 2007 reported in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine suggests Yoga may be effective in changing brain chemistry. Tests done on volunteers doing Yoga showed increased levels of GABA, a neurotransmitter in the brain that acts as a “kind of natural tranquilizer.” Low levels of GABA have been linked to depression and anxiety, states linked to addiction.
It has also been demonstrated that the rhythmic breathing exercises that are part of Yoga help curb craving for nicotine. Since Yoga and meditation enhance connectivity between areas of the brain, their practitioners “achieve a sort of cerebral balance that the brains of substance abusers do not have,” according to addictionresource.com. Their report also confirms that overall, a combination of “the various physical and mental techniques involved in the different forms of yoga has been shown to have the most positive effects”.
From Addiction to Teaching Yoga
Many former addicts who have found help and healing through Yoga combined with traditional paths to recovery, including some who have become Yoga teachers themselves, agree with this approach.
Vytas Baskauskas is one. He teaches Power Yoga in Santa Monica, California, and talks about his journey from heroin addiction and the limits of the 12-Step approach. “A lot of people come to AA to get sober, and yet they’re still riddled with physical maladies and imbalances,” he notes. While AA helped him get sober and introduced him to spirituality, it didn’t do anything for the back pain that developed and hounded him for five years after he got clean. Yoga did:
“Yoga was challenging, and it opened my mind and my body. It enlivened places that had been dead for so long, and as I worked my body, I found a refuge, some relief from feeling like a prisoner of my own thoughts.”
The persistent back pain dissolved and left Baskauskas with a more expansive view of his life and potential.
Sat Bir Khalsa adds, “Yoga is very effective at regulating the stress hormones cortisol and adrenaline…. It makes sense that if you’re less stressed, you may not be so quick to seek substances to cope.”
One former addict, Melissa D’Angelo, agrees. She says that when she begins to feel anxiety, the best thing she can do is one of her Yoga asanas:
At work, if I’m stressed, I’ll literally go into the bathroom and do Downward Dog….Yoga is definitely a tool that keeps me on the right path. As soon as I get on the mat, I am able to tap into something inside me that nothing else can touch. Not therapy, not the steps. It allows me to be me.
Yoga Journal featured an article on those who went from addiction to recovery with the help of Yoga and became teachers. They talked about how Yoga was effective in treating addictions. Tommy Rosen, a Kundalini Yoga teacher, addiction expert and the author of Recovery 2.0: Move Beyond Addiction and Upgrade Your Life, discusses his gambling addiction: “Through risking money on games of chance we are able to create an inner chemistry that rivals the euphoric power of almost any drug.” Constant sitting at gaming tables led to serious problems with his spine, which Yoga was able to help. Rosen also says, “I naturally turned to the yoga teacher community because so many of us have had and overcome these types of struggles.”
Rosen’s partner, Kia Miller, dealt with a different addiction, bulimia, during a successful modeling career. She also found Yoga helpful:
When faced with uncomfortable emotions and situations I would disassociate and throw up. At photo shoots I felt a quiet desperation….My yoga practice became my refuge and sanctuary….The most powerful transformation happened some years later while doing a strong navel set in a Kundalini yoga class. I got a glimpse of myself beyond the masks that I experienced life through….I felt an inner presence and a strong sense of who I am, rather than who others thought I should be. This was the beginning of true healing and an ability to live from my own sense of self.
Nikki Myers, a Yoga therapist and somatic expert, founded CITYOGA School of Yoga and Health in Indianapolis, Indiana, and leads Yoga of 12-Step Recovery. Having recovered from substance addiction, Myers now leads workshops that address codependence and Yoga. She says, “Codependence is the disease that manifests when we lose ourselves,” and makes a powerful assertion:
It has been said that codependence is not only the most common addiction, but it is also the root from which all other addictive behavior arises….codependency is often expressed as the need to control or be controlled, approval seeking, or confrontation avoidance. At its heart, codependency is about our search for our true selves.
In her workshops, Myers uses “the tools of Yoga” to examine the roots of codependency and the personal habit patterns that distort thinking and behavior. She notes that the training is especially ideal for families that have been impacted by addiction, and for those in the helping professions. (The workshops are hosted at various Yoga studios nationally and internationally. Check out her website, y12sr.com, for information.)
Then there is Annalisa Cunningham. She says that those who live with and care for someone struggling with addiction can also benefit from Yoga. She resumed her Yoga practice after her marriage to an alcoholic fell apart, going on to get a master’s degree in counseling and working with addicts. Cunningham has designed Yoga classes that bring the 12-Steps into the studio and wrote Healing Addiction with Yoga. She contributed a series of eight basic asanas that she feels are helpful for people in recovery to Stacie Stukin’s Yoga Journal article.
Annalisa Cunningham’s Asanas for Recovery
Each asana gives its Sanskrit title, an English translation, a brief description of how to do it, some of the benefits, and an affirmation. You can see them with simple sketches of each pose in the article cited above, or go online for videos or images of the postures. Or better yet, find a qualified teacher and ask them to show you!
The eight asanas are as follows:
- Vajrasana (Sitting Mountain), variation
- Balasana (Child’s Pose)
- Paschimottanasana (Seated Forward Bend)
- Baddha Konasana (Butterfly)
- Viparita Karani (Legs-up-the-Wall Pose)
- Apanasana (Little Boat Hugging Knees)
- Jathara Parivartanasana (Knee-Hug Spinal Twist)
- Savasana (Corpse Pose)
If you decide to try Yoga as a support to recovery, or if you’re a seasoned Yogi and want to take it to the next level, you might want to check out some of the retreats designed for Yoga and Recovery. While there are exotic and expensive ones overseas, there are also some great ones closer to home, in the U.S. and Canada. Here are just a few, again courtesy of Yoga Journal:
1-Mindfully Recovering Retreat – Quebec, Canada
This three- or seven-day retreat is part of a year-long Mindfully Recovering program “aimed at breaking addictive cycles,” sponsored by Gaia Wellness, held on 55 wooded acres in Quebec’s Gatineau Hills. There are daily Yoga classes, counseling, art and outdoor activities, and healthy eating. It offers follow-up through social media chats and in-person and virtual meet-ups. It was founded by Yoga teacher, Reiki healer and meditation coach Billie Lynn Hillis. From $695 – Contact gaiawellnessretreat.com
2-She Recovers R&R Retreats – Stockbridge, Massachusetts
She Recovers is an online support group and female wellness brand that partnered with Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. Led by the mother-daughter team behind the brand, Dawn Nickel and Taryn Strong, She Recovers leads a variety of recovery-themed retreats throughout the year, at Kripalu and elsewhere. Contact sherecovers.com
3-Break Free of Addictions in Windom, Texas
Windom is the site of Siddhayatan Tirth (pilgrimage site) and Spiritual Retreat, a traditional Yoga ashram on 200 acres. It is the center of activities for Asharya Shree Yogeesh, regarded by his followers as a living enlightened master. Yogeesh’s Purnam Yoga combines breath-work with asanas to cleanse the total system. “Rooms and food are kept simple and light, and groups get capped at 10 people, allowing guides to tailor yoga and mantra classes for each guest’s specific addiction and needs.” Retreats are ongoing, with at least one each month. From $450 – Contact siddhayatanretreat.org
On retreat you get to concentrate on recovery for a focused period. And you have the support of teachers, staff and participants and the inspiration of beautiful, natural settings. Retreats are not meant to be a substitute for treatment or individual Yoga practice. Most retreats require that participants with a history of substance abuse be sober at least a few months before attending.
Maybe this is too simple a way of looking at it, but it seems to me that addiction is about believing and feeling we’re on the outside, looking in—and the inside is where the fun and good stuff are. We try using our addiction of choice to give ourselves the sense of being on the inside. The trap is that it works—sort of, temporarily. But it wears off, so we need more, creating the cycle of addiction.
So how do spirituality, yoga and meditation help? They show us that the place we’ve been craving so desperately is actually inside us. We were ripped off by a world that downloads into our nervous systems the notion that we’re empty, nothing, without whatever it is that somebody wants to sell us, literally or figuratively. Healthy spirituality does this, not in the brittle, ego-driven ways that those who put on a mask of confidence and competence adopt, but in an easy, natural way that doesn’t demand endless pats on the back or seventy-five new “Likes” on our Facebook page. It puts us back in the driver’s seat of our lives. Where we belong.