Yoga: Good for Addicts and the Rest of Us
There has been a lot of debate about yoga. Is it just good exercise or does it have an impact on the brain that can be used as part of a therapeutic program for treating disorders like addiction? Recent research suggests that yoga acts on the brain very much like meditation and when used in conjunction with meditation, can have important physiological and psychological effects.
Yoga can be a meditative practice. Traditionally in the West, at the end of a yoga class, there is a meditation period in which individuals sit or lie on the floor and work on centering their minds. Beyond that, as the yoga practitioner moves through the various poses, the focus is always on the breath. Breathing in and out in a rhythm and at particular places in each pose is a practice in mindfulness. Focusing on the breath is meditative, the same practice one might use while sitting in a chair, only in the case of yoga, put to movement.
Another important aspect of yoga used in addiction treatment, but which has applications for all of us, is focusing on the concept of non-judgment. Addicts are constantly being told that they are lacking – that they don’t do their jobs well, are terrible parents, inattentive, self-serving, thieves or criminals, lacking in morals and all-around rotten folks. Some of those judgments might actually be true; addicts can behave very, very badly. That doesn’t mean that they are at their core, bad people, which is how most addicts view themselves. In yoga, because it is so difficult for most of us to get into the poses, we are faced with meeting ourselves where we are. Yoga teaches patience and self-compassion. It teaches that we are people struggling to do the best we can and that each improvement is a small triumph. We feel our bodies fully and completely, inside and out, and learn that to feel better, we must treat ourselves better. Although this is not an aspect of yoga that is heavily researched, it is one of the more valuable reasons for using yoga in an addiction treatment center, and for practicing yoga even if you don’t have an addiction problem.
From an evidence-based perspective, there are many reasons to practice yoga, in and out of a treatment setting. Perhaps most important, the focus on breathing and breath-work in yoga helps to balance the nervous system. This brings an overall sense of calm and well-being as the nervous system is regulated through the breath-work. Yoga is also beneficial for the treatment and symptom relief of psychiatric disorders, such as depression and anxiety, which commonly co-occur with addiction. Yoga improves outcomes in treatment settings when combined with psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy. It has been proven to work well as a means of helping individuals deal with physical and emotional pain, which can be an important tool for those with addictions to prescription painkillers and issues with chronic pain management.
It should be noted that there is some debate among scholars about which types of yoga have the greatest impact on the brain. There is no definitive answer. Perhaps it is best to start at the beginning, with restorative practices or something like the Iyengar style, which uses props to help individuals get into poses. It is the practice of meditation and breath-work that is the most important area of focus, rather than the type of yoga.