Yoga was once thought of as a fringe activity, a form of contortionism for new-age types, but now, along with running and vegetables, it’s emblematic of a healthy lifestyle. Anyone serious about making a serious lifestyle change suspects it will somehow involve doing yoga in some beautiful location, followed by a green smoothie. In short, yoga has almost become cliche. And there’s a good reason for that: it works.
Although yoga is best known for its difficult positions, called asanas, those are only part of the practice. Yoga also involves breathing exercises, called pranayama, and meditation. A yoga practice comprising these three elements is indeed part of a healthy lifestyle and it could be a valuable part of holistic addiction treatment. Here are some of the ways yoga can improve addiction recovery.
Yoga practice is a keystone habit.
A keystone habit is a habit that automatically creates other positive changes without your having to try. One of the most powerful keystone habits is exercise. When you take up a regular yoga practice, you get the benefits of the exercise including lower blood pressure, lower resting heart rate, increased strength, flexibility, and balance, and greater ability to maintain a healthy weight.
You’re also likely to notice you automatically improve other habits as well. You’ll probably sleep better and more, assuming you don’t already sleep too much. You’ll start eating better too, because you’ll soon realize that eating junk food before your practice makes you feel sick. If you attend a regular class, it will also help you keep a more regular schedule, which lowers anxiety and makes healthy behaviors more automatic. That’s three major lifestyle improvements–better sleep, healthier diet, and more regular schedule–in addition to the considerable benefits of yoga itself.
Yoga helps you stay present.
Every aspect of yoga emphasizes keeping your attention on the present moment. Meditation does this most explicitly. The challenge of meditation is to be aware of when your mind wanders off and gently bring it back to the present. However, presence of mind is just as important in the asanas and pranayama. When performing the asanas, you constantly have to adjust your balance and posture. A slight lapse in concentration can make you fall over or come out of the pose. Asanas promote an intense awareness of what your body is doing. Pranayama involves specific ways of breathing and often counting as well. It requires practice and attention.
Perhaps most importantly, the asanas are excellent practice for staying with unpleasant feelings. Many asanas are challenging because they force you to stretch, twist, balance, or otherwise exert yourself in unfamiliar ways. Holding a pose is often uncomfortable. Practicing being with that discomfort and accepting it rather than turning away is extremely beneficial for anyone struggling with addiction. Addiction is often characterized by avoidant behavior, or wanting to escape unpleasant feelings. Riding out cravings is especially challenging for people in recovery. Staying mentally present in a pose despite its discomfort is good practice for that.
Yoga helps you relax.
It shouldn’t be surprising that meditation or the deep breathing exercises in pranayama can help you relax, but asanas probably don’t strike you as the most relaxing activity. You have to stretch some muscles, relax others, and keep your balance, all while perhaps feeling a bit silly. However, asanas are actually excellent for relaxation. Stretching is essentially a practice in relaxation. You have to learn to let your muscles relax on a deep level. When you become more flexible, your muscles don’t actually stretch very much; they just contract less. So the flexibility from performing the asanas can bring a deeper sense of relaxation.
Also, most people are capable of relaxing when they aren’t under stress. The real challenge is to relax when your instinct is to be tense. Learning to relax into a pose, even if you don’t feel like it is good practice for all those times in life when it’s better to stay calm. If you can relax despite feeling physical discomfort, then you are able to relax a little more in other uncomfortable situations.
Yoga connects you to others.
Exercise classes in general are a good way to make friends. You see the same people regularly, you help each other improve, and you share the same ordeal several times a week. It’s only natural that you will develop some friendships. Unlike friendships that developed around drugs or alcohol, friendships that develop around yoga or other forms of exercise have a positive foundation. You are all trying to make yourselves better and bonding over a healthy activity. You notice when someone doesn’t show up to class. That sense of belonging motivates you to keep going.
Yoga is also a good way to connect when you travel or move to a new place. It is basically a worldwide phenomenon now. Many practices are fairly standardized and even if they are a little different, you can usually catch up pretty quickly. People with little else in common can often connect over a yoga practice.
Yoga improves confidence.
Most people who try yoga for the first time are humbled by the experience. You have to move your body in ways that had never occured to you before. Unless you have a background in dance or gymnastics, even a beginner class might be slightly demoralizing. However, most people also improve quickly with regular practice. It doesn’t take very long to touch your toes or hold a crow stand. A good yoga teacher will show you how to gradually progress poses to make them more challenging. Every time you can get into a new pose, or hold an old one without wobbling, you can see the results from your consistent efforts. Each one is a small demonstration that you can exert control over your body and your life.
Yoga helps you accept yourself.
As noted above, starting a yoga practice is usually a humbling experience. A good teacher will emphasize that wherever you are in a pose is fine. The only thing that matters is that you are challenging yourself. Yoga also shows you in an obvious physical way that everyone has different abilities. Some people are more flexible, some people are stronger, and some people have better balance. Everyone will struggle with some aspect of yoga. Everyone is constructed differently so not everyone is physically capable of doing every asana. Improvement requires starting where you are and acknowledging your limitations. A good teacher will emphasize that not only are we all different, but each individual is different on different days. You just have to work with what you have on a given day.
If you or someone you love is struggling with addiction or mental illness, The Dawn Medical Rehab and Wellness center can help. We use holistic methods, including yoga, as part of our addiction and wellness programs. We are one of Thailand’s most respected addiction treatment and wellness centers. We use established, research-backed treatment modalities such as CBT and MBCT, as well as cutting-edge treatment modalities to provide personalized care to treat addiction, depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, personality disorders, PTSD, and executive burnout. See our contact page to reach us by phone or email.