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Recovery from addiction of any kind requires a holistic and multi-layered approach. Beyond abstaining from the substance or behavior which is causing harm, many other steps will need to be taken to support a strong and sustainable recovery. Essential elements of the path to recovery from addiction include: psychological counseling and behavior modification; appropriate physical activity along with adequate rest and nutrition; the establishment of ethical guidelines for navigating daily life; guidance in the repair of damaged relationships and the establishment of healthy new ones; connection with (and steady support from) abstaining peers along with guidance from mentors and sponsors; and daily practices which support the realization of truth, hope and trust. In this post, I hope to share some of the ways that a yoga practice can support recovery, within and beyond the walls of rehabilitation centers.
Yoga is a sanskrit word that is typically translated to mean "union". Union of the body, mind and spirit. Union of intention and action. Union of the lower self and the Higher Self. Union of dark and light, sun and moon, surface and shadow. The path of yoga as outlined in the Yoga Sutras begins with ethical practices: the Yamas (or restraints of behaviors that relate to others) and Niyamas (or observances, which relate to personal practices). From the outset, the yogi is asked to practice the following restraints under all circumstances: Ahimsa (non-harming / non-violence), Satya (honesty / truth-telling), Asteya (non-stealing / non-hoarding), Brahmacarya (celibacy / focusing one's energies on spiritual pursuits), Aparigraha (non-grasping / non-clinging). And while that's already a tall order, it's only the first step on the yogic path. Next comes the commitment to observing the following practices in the intrapersonal realm: Sauca (cleanliness of body, space and mind), Santosha (contentment with what is), Tapas (discipline, austerity or heat), Svadhyaya (self-study and study of spiritual texts), and Isvarapranidhana (surrender to God). When these commitments have been established, the yogi is ready to begin the practice of Asana ("steady seat", the practice of the physical poses). The physical practice of yoga serves to prepare the body and mind for clarity, steadiness, meditation and ultimately union with God/ Higher Power/ the Divine/ Grace.
These initial ethical steps on the yogic path can be related to the 12 Steps of Recovery with relative ease:
Step 1: Admitting powerlessness over the addictive substance or behavior relates to Satya / Truth
Step 2: Belief that a Power greater than oneself can restore sanity is an expression of hope and relates to
Isvarapranidhana / Surrender
Step 3: Making a decision to surrender will and life to Grace/ God/ the Divine IS Ishvarapranidhana / Surrender
Step 4: Making a searching and fearless moral inventory relates to Svadhyaya / Self-Study, and takes courage and discipline, which is Tapas
Step 5: Admitting wrongs to self, God and another establishes integrity and is the ground of Satya / Truth
Step 6: Readiness to have God remove the lower expressions of ourselves requires willingness and relates again to Surrender
Step 7: Humbly asking for this assistance requires humility and relates to Surrender
Step 8: Making a list of those harmed relates to Svadhyaya / Self-Study, and the willingness to make amends relates to Surrender
Step 9: The making of amends is about forgiveness, and requires Satya / Honesty/ Truth-Telling
Step 10: Ongoing personal inventory is a practice of Svadhyaya / Self-Study, and admission of wrongs is Satya / Honesty
Step 11: Seeking contact with God and surrendering to God's will for us relates to Ishvarapranidhana / Surrender
Step 12: Continued practice of all principles and service to others relates to Tapas / Discipline and Ahimsa / Non-harming
Theoretically and philosophically, yogic practice and 12-Step Recovery are in alignment and can absolutely support one another in residential treatment programs and at home in daily life, over years and decades. How else might yoga support recovery?
An addicted brain tends to be an unfocused, impulsive, and easily distracted one. The nervous system of an addict tends to be lacking resilience, unable to regulate itself, unable to truly rest, and unable to sync with the nervous systems of others to create harmony and connection. These factors contribute to separation and isolation, erratic emotions, inability to study and learn, and an inability to consider and serve the true needs of self and others, often resulting in choices and actions that create further separation and strife. Yoga practice can support the long-term health and recovery of the mind by offering a daily discipline and focus. Additionally, there is evidence to suggest that regular practice of meditation can increase grey matter and cortical thickness in the brain while increasing frontal cortex and amygdala activation. While still being studied, yoga shows promise of benefit for executive function. Yoga is also proving to be useful as a treatment for depression, a mood disorder that commonly co-occurs with addiction. Yoga practice can help to regulate blood pressure and increase GABA activity, which can be especially useful for those recovering from alcohol addiction. Because yoga and meditation work to increase parasympathetic activity and decrease sympathetic nervous system activity, both can help the nervous system develop resiliency, the ability to fluctuate according to the demands of the moment and then return to a place of balance.
Whether due to trauma which contributed to addictive behavior or to the physically disastrous process of addiction itself, anyone entering recovery is dealing with some level of disconnection from the body, or disembodiment. Beyond the basic fact that our immediate physical needs are expressed to us through the sensations of the body, we as humans lose a great deal when we begin habitually disconnecting from our physical selves:
"When we are not at home in our body, we divest ourselves of our somatic reality. Because the body is the only place where we can have access to our feelings and thoughts, ignoring our body affords us some distance from the content of our inner world. We may unconsciously believe that leaving the body is one way of leaving all those onerous feelings and thoughts behind. Unfortunately, in disassociating from what may be painful, we also disassociate from what may be pleasurable. Even if we do pay attention to our bodies, this attention may be steeped in negativity...or we may ignore or deflect the feelings that arise from the body. All of these strategies not only distance us from our most immediate reality, our physical body, they distance us from life itself. When we begin to live in the body again, we discover that we have an internal environment as rich as that of any country and in a constant state of flux and change." - Donna Farhi, from Bringing Yoga to Life
Yoga helps those in recovery begin to form or re-establish a relationship with their physical bodies, in ways that are safe and often pleasant, at a pace that allows a great deal of choice and autonomy. Through grounding exercises, practitioners can come to know themselves to be connected and supported. In stimulating and energizing poses, they can feel increased circulation, expanded lung capacity, and their own capacity to to express strength. In cooling and calming poses, they can begin to see how to quiet the mind and body, and to see that doing so can happen quickly. With breath awareness practices, they can begin to notice the fluctuations in their natural breathing rhythm that indicate emotional distress when it arises. They may also learn how to use the breath more skillfully, to create relaxation and ease when they need to. Over time, they begin to learn how to direct both their breath and their intention to support steadiness and calm, even when life's inevitable stressors arise.
“Agency is the technical term for the feeling of being in charge of your life: knowing where you stand, knowing that you have a say in what happens to you, knowing that you have some ability to shape your circumstances…Agency starts with interoception, our awareness of our subtle sensory, body-based feelings: the greater that awareness, the greater our potential to control our lives. Knowing what we feel is the first step to knowing why we feel that way. If we are aware of the constant changes in our inner and outer environment, we can mobilize to manage them.”
– Bessel Van Der Kolk, M.D. from The Body Keeps the Score
Practice in a rehabilitation center typically occurs in a group setting, and may begin with a check-in, setting an intention for the day's practice, and a brief meditation. Throughout class, students will be guided to notice the responses of their bodies, minds and breath as they create and hold various poses with the body. Over and over, students are given the opportunity to notice how their actions, thoughts and intentions influence how they feel. They may begin to notice how they react to strong challenge, how they talk to themselves internally when trying something new, how much they think about the opinions or reactions of others. In recovery, there is a mantra which says "what other people think of me is none of my business", and the internally focused practice of yoga supports learning this in an embodied way. Balance poses offer an opportunity for practitioners to see how they think about themselves and speak to themselves when they're doing something unskillfully. Mindfulness practice helps us to acknowledge honestly what is happening, while doing so with kindness. In a yoga practice, we commit our attention and efforts fully to what we're doing, and when it's done, we let it go completely. This is also a useful skill for many people to practice in recovery, since rumination, obsessive or circular thinking are habits frequently present in the newly sober. And the presence and shared efforts of the group can begin to show practitioners how like others they are, supporting a sense of belonging and worthiness. Over time, this practice of looking deeply, seeing clearly, and accepting what is found enables practitioners to begin to trust themselves, to become trustworthy, and begin to see where others and the world itself are also worthy of trust. With these skills, proper boundaries can be formed and maintained, needs and desires can be skillfully expressed, and the sense that one has what's needed to navigate the world can begin to grow strong.
“We cannot live in a world that is interpreted for us by others. An interpreted world is not a hope. Part of the terror is to take back our own listening. To use our own voice. To see our own light.” - Hildegard of Bingen
While I do not believe that yoga is appropriate as the only tool to support those in recovery from addiction, I see it as a strong addition to recovery programs that include medical oversight, psychological counseling, behavior modification and relational skills training. As research into the effects of yoga continues, I anticipate we'll have even more to say about the positive impact yoga can have on those who suffer from addiction. In the meantime, I'm grateful to be able to share this practice with those embarking on the journey of recovery at Willow Springs Recovery Center. It is an honor to teach every student who comes, and a privilege to learn from each.
May all beings be happy. May all beings be healthy.
May all beings be safe. May all be free from suffering.
Dana Wyss Healing Arts
Breathe deeply, practice often, be well.