Approximately 5% of the U.S. population struggles with some form of substance addiction or alcohol dependency. That’s nearly 25 million Americans dealing with the physical, emotional, and financial consequences of their addiction, with countless friends, family members, and society at large faced with an epidemic public health challenge.
The fact that almost half of those who enter a recovery program with the best of intentions will ultimately relapse into alcohol or drug abuse points to the need for a wide-angle consideration of the treatment options presented to addicts.
Western medicine’s approach to the challenges of addiction control and behavioral modification traditionally includes medically-assisted protocols, periods of abstinent detoxification, cognitive behavioral counseling, and various psychotherapeutic treatments and counseling. While this manifold approach has proved effective for the majority of addicts and alcoholics, it requires individualized, long-term patient follow-up to prevent relapse.
That reality has motivated the medical community to look for additional therapeutic models beyond the traditional course of treatment and to embrace adjunct therapies focusing on the mind-body connection. Addiction recovery involves retraining one’s memory and emotional reactions to find reward and relief without resorting to addictive drugs. Counseling addresses the retraining of the cognitive processes to help regulate the emotional brain. The use of Yoga applies the interaction of both cognitive and physical training to help regulate the emotional brain. These practices have been in use for thousands of years.
When alcohol or drugs are habitually and excessively consumed, the brain’s neural pathways are affected. The synapses controlling emotions, feeling pleasure or pain, and modulating behavior are interrupted or altered, leading to significant changes of brain chemistry. Once the alcohol or drugs are eliminated from the body for a period of time, the brain can actually recover and heal itself.
But because the use of drugs and alcohol is commonly driven by negative emotional factors of fear, anxiety, and perceived lack of self-worth, stepping aside from the palliative effects of drinking and drugs is often an insurmountable hurdle.
Where stress and anxiety are factors, the individual can experience genuinely negative physical responses. Increased heart rate, high blood pressure, increased body temperature, shortness of breath, intense cravings, depression, and a sense of panic are all stress responses the addict often “manages” with drugs or alcohol.
Today’s growing acceptance of the mind-body connection and of the benefits of “mindfulness” as experienced through the practice of meditation and yoga may point to an alternative path of relief from anxiety, stress, and addictive behaviors that destroy lives with alcohol and drug abuse.
According to Recovery Road Medical Center Therapeutic Yoga Practitioner Rachel Wilkins—trained as a professional instructor trainer at White Lotus Foundation and a disciple of Shiva Rea’s pranavinyasa principles of living yoga—“yoga is a powerful tool in the road to recovery because it is a sustainable wellness-based approach to dealing with uncomfortable, isolating, triggering feelings that in the past might have led to relapse.”
Recent studies—while by no means conclusive–indicate the efficacy of yoga as a means of modulating stress responses and balancing the body’s cortisol and adrenaline (stress hormones) levels. Medical journals today commonly cite research revealing increased levels of gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) produced by the brain as a “natural tranquilizer” byproduct of yoga practice. These findings support the notion that yoga has a genuine potential for improving addiction recovery outcomes and should be considered by recovery professionals and brought to the attention of their clients.
While these scientific studies do not empirically establish the specific benefits of yoga in treating or preventing addiction, 80% of yoga practitioners surveyed in a recent National Health Interview Study experienced significantly reduced levels of stress when following a regular yoga routine, and reported a number of other perceived benefits, including:
- Increased physical strength and stamina
- Increased consciousness and self-awareness
- Improved dietary habits
- Rising self-confidence, improved self-image
- Relief from pain symptoms
- Improved sleep patterns
- Increased energy, reduction in fatigue
- Emotional healing and awareness; letting go
“Western medicine” has historically approached addiction treatment from a paradigm of cognitive behavioral therapy designed to guide and support people in adopting new patterns of behavior and then enforcing consistency over time.
The practice of yoga, however, offers the individual additional tools in breaking the cycle of addiction through a “body-mind” spiritual practices and the development of a renewed sense of well-being. As Rachel Wilkins describes the benefits of yoga therapy at Santa Barbara’s Recovery Road Medical Center, she emphasizes “a somatic awareness of sensations in the body where we physically store trauma,” guiding clients to release, “come back to yourself, and feel fully embodied” to heal at their own pace.
At Recovery Road Medical Center in Santa Barbara, staff yoga instructor Rachel Wilkins works closely with the medical team to guide clients in “a deep churning and peeling back of layers” to actively confront the anxiety and pain underlying addiction behaviors.
Recovery from addiction is a journey down a serpentine path filled with twists and turns, dead ends, and new beginnings. To paraphrase the legendary spiritual teacher Buddha, “There is only one misstep on the path to awakening, and that is to stop.”
For many, this is a path worth exploring.
To begin your personal journey toward healing and recovery, and to learn more about how yoga may be your path to lasting sobriety, start the conversation with a call to Rachel or to any of our Recovery Road team members at (805) 962-7800.