The stigma, fear and degradation associated with our cultural depictions of addiction may make getting curious about our own behaviors unpalatable. It’s important to understand that our addictions don’t make us bad, wrong, or unintelligent. In fact, there was a certain brilliance to the choices we made along the way. Of course that’s not to say we shouldn’t explore the behaviors that cause us to feel shame and regret and that we know are not good for us. Doing so can lead to insight, understanding and self-knowledge—all of which are necessary to bring about a move toward change.
I define addiction as the cyclical or repetitive reliance on substances, behaviors, and coping mechanisms to navigate, self-medicate, avoid, or manipulate our feelings, moods, stress, joys, sorrows, etc. Most of us develop addictive behaviors because we are following a basic, and valid, instinct to soothe pain, to survive in the best way we know how. We choose our coping mechanisms, in the face of pain, vulnerability or fear, because we aren’t yet able, experienced or poised enough to do it another way. But, over time, our once strategic choices can become addictive, over-used behaviors that end up harming us, or others, and compromising our health.
Since our reactions to life stimuli powerfully affect our physiology, we can experience a sense of helplessness when our minds and bodies are triggered by pain or fear. Understandably, we reach for substances or coping mechanisms to create a shift in our physiology, to bring relief or soothing and to feel that we’re in control. Yet, our attempts to “control” this swell by numbing, de-escalating, or diverting it, is only temporary. Inevitably, the substance or coping mechanism gains power over us.
Yoga therapy recognizes that addiction reveals our common humanity. This is both humbling and empowering: we aren’t so flawed and broken as we might have thought. And, we can do something about it; we can become agents in our own recoveries. Yoga provides a different kind of intervention – a powerful way to adjust our physiology (heart rate, brain chemistry, mood, and impulses), rewire our brains, learn essential life skills, intervene on craving and habit, discover community in new ways, and develop compassion, for ourselves and others.
10 ways yoga therapy can help with recovery:
#1 Decreasing helplessness: Yoga decreases feelings of helplessness in the face of addiction. It interrupts our triggered brain by powerfully, quickly, and effectively shifting our physiology to a brain state in which we can actually breathe, think, relieve our pain, and re-inspire our courage. We’ll make better short- and long-term choices. We’ll regain our sense of personal leadership.
#2 Getting in the GAP: Yoga teaches us the life skill of Getting in the GAP: the sliver of presence between thought and reactivity. We get Grounded in the tangible here and now and wield our Attention toward what is occurring with our senses, in the Present moment. Because sense experiences are high-speed processed from the thalamus to the limbic brain, we are vulnerable to our triggered brain’s reactive bias to NOT be in the present moment. Reactive thoughts take over to keep us safe, to protect us from threat, real or perceived. Our survival instinct may make us act impulsively. As we get Grounded and pay Attention to an anchor in the present moment, we find ourselves becoming Present. Being present becomes a safe harbor.
#3 Getting Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable: Yoga also teaches us how to Get Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable, rather than trying to escape our feelings or circumstances. Yoga poses teach us to find ease, back off, soften, or breathe into discomfort. Yoga also helps us to get comfortable feeling the unexpected discomfort of contentment or hopefulness, feelings that can be frightening if our baseline has been pain, anxiety, or fear. Since yoga shifts our physiology toward a nervous system that promotes ease, clarity, and compassion, learning to feel comfortable with these states is an important element in recovery.
#4 Releasing physical—and mental—tension: As yoga releases the physical tensions of our muscles, we are also able to release the held mental tensions and body impressions that have accumulated over a lifetime. This creates the possibility of moving and thinking in new ways! New postural habits create new mental habits too.
#5 Breathing for sanity: The breathing practices of yoga are quick, effective, and discreet ways to shift out of craving, compulsion, and anxiety into satiation, contentment, and courage. This is not just effective in the moment, but builds to become our new foundation. We will eventually crave sanity (clarity, confidence, cohesiveness) over insanity (repeating painful behaviors and hoping for different outcomes).
#6 Building a resilient brain: Yoga soothes our limbic brain, re-wires us for greater resilience, and increases our access to innate compassion. Yoga does this by training our neo-cortex with mindfulness (Getting in the GAP) while regulating our reptilian brain through breath and movement (learning Getting Comfortable Feeling Uncomfortable).
#7 Moving from Love Not Shame: Yoga trains us to think differently by considering perspectives based on our innate wholeness not our brokenness. Moving from Love Not Shame is an essential life skill for overcoming addiction, as we learn about the power of shame to isolate, disempower or overwhelm us. Yoga teaches Moving from Love not Shame as a foundation from which to navigate our recovery and our lives, to act from self-kindness and self-respect, and to stabilize in a fundamental stance of not self-abandoning: a commitment to not shaming, harming, or condemning ourselves; nor isolating, numbing, or punishing ourselves.
#8 Increasing Personal Buoyancy: Yoga teaches us to prioritize our Personal Buoyancy, to promote our resilience and our ability to surf the waves of life. Committing to the fundamentals of health, such as hydration, blood sugar balance, right-brain activities, exercise, and deep rest, we learn the art of self-nurturing discipline, a discipline steeped in self-kindness and respect for our body intelligence. This repairs the impacts of addiction on the body, and nourishes our ability to care for ourselves. We increase our strength, fortitude, self-accountability, and courage for the journey of recovery.
#9 Safely expressing emotions: The movements of yoga help us to safely express frustration, despair, anger, poignancy, sorrow or overwhelm. We express these emotions in the body while turning toward our shared humanity (we aren’t the only ones who experience difficult emotions) with greater compassion and self-acceptance.
#10 Creating a new community: Creating a new community: With yoga’s rise in popularity, the numbers of people practicing it have increased exponentially. In fact, yoga is used as a core therapy at many holistic treatment centers that offer rehab programs focusing on total wellness. Many are turning to yoga to help with addictions, compulsions, anxiety, PTSD, or depression. A new community is being created — a sober, courageous, spiritual, authentic community, of which we are now a part.
This article was originally published on AddictionTreatment.org on September 29, 2015.