How Yoga Can Help with Addiction Recovery
Anyone who's ever breathed and bent their way through a yoga class knows the practice can reduce stress. And anyone who's ever been a substance abuser knows stress can be a major factor in using and abusing. It's good news, then, that a growing number of yoga classes are geared to recovering addicts; often a blend of 12-step meeting and easy-flow stretching session, they put one more tool in the addict's recovery kit.
Amanda DeLeo's class at Studio 34, called Yoga for Recovery, always starts with a sharing circle. This afternoon a toned young woman with her hair in Afro puffs reads from a book of meditations for recovering addicts, and everyone is asked to say a few words, about either the reading or how they're feeling today. The welder cracks jokes about faith; the grandma says she's "just grateful to be in the company of people in recovery." Then DeLeo, who has special training in adapting yoga for those recovering from addiction or trauma, leads the group through 30 minutes of modified postures: a standing cat-cow, in which they flex and arch their backs; a low lunge; some gentle twists. On her hands and knees with her opposite arm and leg extended, she says, "This helps develop your interoception, which is just a fancy word for listening to your body. And that can help with impulse control—something everyone in this room could probably use more of." The class exhales in laughter.
"Yoga is a way of coping with stress at a fundamental level that changes both your stress response and your perception of it," says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies the psychophysiological mechanisms underlying yoga and meditation. "Yoga also leads to increased awareness of what feels good and what doesn't. The more you tune in to this, the more likely you are to gravitate toward healthy behaviors and away from unhealthy ones."
There's no scientific evidence that yoga on its own can help an addict stay off drugs or alcohol, but studies suggest that it can complement cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) programs. Both yoga and MBRP emphasize healthy coping skills, acceptance of difficult emotions, and tolerance for discomfort—all of which can replace the need to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. In a 2017 pilot study out of UCLA, when adults who were addicted to cocaine or methamphetamines participated in an eight-week MBRP program that included some yoga practice, they experienced less substance use and showed improvements in the severity of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric symptoms.
However, even though recovery yoga is becoming more popular, not everyone lives within a quick drive of a class or has time to attend regularly.
DeLeo's Sunday afternoon session is donation based and has doubled in size over the past year. DeLeo herself credits yoga—along with AA and psychotherapy—with helping her get and stay sober. "Learning to notice the way my breath shifts in times of stress has helped me feel more in control and become less likely to let my feelings determine my behavior," she says. She ends today's class with the Serenity Prayer. As everyone is rolling up their mat, a 33-year-old recovering alcoholic, his Philadelphia Eagles T-shirt stretched over his broad chest, turns toward her. "That felt so good," he says. "I was almost in tears."