Of the many ways that we limit ourselves, addiction can be the saddest and most frustrating. It is one thing to be in the throes of a degenerative disease or virus. It is a whole other to know that we are basically killing ourselves because of our choices or inability to make choices.
But the flip side of this challenge is that if we can harm ourselves, we can heal ourselves. Addiction can be treated from the inside out. While it is always helpful to have support from qualified professionals when confronting an illness, with addiction we also need to support ourselves to find our ways back to health.
Whether we are addicted to a substance, like alcohol, recreational drugs, or sugar, or to a behavior, like sexual deviancy, gambling, compulsive shopping, or Internet use, we can help ourselves heal with the support of yoga. Here are some of the ways that yoga can help people with addiction find clarity, calm, and health.
Nervous System Balance
Addiction is closely related to the nervous system, both affecting our hormonal balance and being affected by our stress levels. Stress throws our systems out of balance, causing more production of the detrimental hormones adrenaline and cortisol. This hormonal release stimulates the nervous system into fight-or-flight mode, that stressed state where it seems impossible to think straight. Feeling stress can trigger an addiction, making it that much harder to not return to the favored substance for a moment of relief. Unfortunately, giving in to our addictions, be they substance or behavioral, just intensifies the nervous system imbalance. When we are in the throes of a substance, it calms us at first, but then triggers an even bigger stress response, making us want more of the substance or behavior. The downward spiral of addiction is that each time we give in and then the adrenaline surge comes and goes, we need more of the substance or behavior for the same amount of relief the next time. Addicted bodies become dependent on the substance to feel normal, that is, to have a moment of relief.
Yoga helps balance all of that. Yoga practice helps pacify the sympathetic nervous system, calming that fight-or-flight response. Practice regulates the production of cortisol and adrenaline and increases production of oxytocin, helping us feel more relaxed and at ease.
Pausing the Hamster Wheel
Yoga is a practice of space. We look for the physical space inside of our bodies, breathing and extending to release tension and stuckness. We open to mental clarity by looking for the space between thoughts. In nearly everyone the mind runs and runs. In addicts this hamster wheel of continuous, repetitive thoughts is exhausting, causing them to seek relief in the familiar substance or behavior. But when immersed in yoga practice, there is literally breathing room. This space creates pauses between stimuli and reactions, even off the mat. Instead of just reaching for a substance whenever they are triggered, people who practice yoga are more likely to be able to pause and evaluate their situations and true needs, and then choose an appropriate response that is healthier for their bodies and minds.
Finding the Inner Richness
Along the same lines, it can be really hard for people coping with addiction to feel like they have enough. Addiction, at its core, is connected to a sense of poverty. There is not enough love, not enough peace, not enough joy, not enough pleasure. People working with addiction are trying to fill that hole, find that missing something. The constant inner noise of thinking about a substance, or trying to not think about a substance, is distracting and exhausting. With yoga, we are given a taste of something beyond craving, beyond poverty and the idea of not-enough. We get a taste of quiet richness, of what it might be like feel plentiful within ourselves, to feel full in the emptiness.
Healing the Brain
On a physiological level, yoga may be able to help people with addiction by changing brain chemistry. Yoga practice supports the production of serotonin and dopamine, neurotransmitters associated with positivity and health. It has also been clinically shown to boost production of GABA, which is associated with relieving anxiety and depression, two of the heralds of addiction.
Being In the Body
As previously mentioned, addiction is in great part a disease of escape. We use a substance or behavior to get away from our lives, our minds, our bodies, and experience a moment of false happiness. And for many people with addictions, the body becomes a hostile and terrifying place. As their brain chemicals, nervous systems, and metabolisms are all out of whack, it can feel like their bodies are only places of pain and craving.
Yoga teaches appreciation, acceptance, and even love of ones body. Instead of trying to run away from our physical sensations, the practice gives us an opportunity to be deeply in them. Yoga helps us reconnect with who we truly are as embodied beings. To feel everything, the pain and craving, but also the pleasure and energy, without reacting or suffering. It retrains us to listen to the physical cues from the body, helping us make more mindful choices about what we put in and do to our bodies. The more you learn to love something, the harder it becomes to devalue or abuse it.
Processing the Past
Some addictions are created by trauma, as a kind of coping mechanism for experiences that are too terrible to bear. Trauma can also be stored in our cells memory, to be triggered later into an addictive reaction. The stretching and deep breathing of yoga practice helps to clear trauma out of our cellular memory. If you have ever had an emotional release in a deep hip opener, you have experienced this first hand. As we release physical tension and stagnation, we also release emotional and energetic imprints of past experiences that might otherwise contribute to addiction.
Accepting the Challenges
Recovering from addiction is a day-by-day, moment-by-moment struggle to make healthy choices against mental habit and a physiological sense of need. Addicts have gotten used to running from challenges, using any means necessary to keep from dealing with reality, or feeling like they do not have the resources to meet life as it is. Yoga helps us pay attention to the moment, to observe and acknowledge cravings and the seemingly insurmountable urge to relapse without giving in, to look at our lives and frailty and challenges with more curiosity and acceptance. To observe life and our feelings about it, and then to let go without having to fight reality or numb ourselves against it. To become comfortable with discomfort, without instantly seeking chemical relief from the conditions of life.
Strength and Courage
Yoga strengthens us physically, mentally, and emotionally. When we are stronger in our bodies we are more likely to have the determination and resolve necessary to say no to what harms us. Yoga helps us cultivate what Bren Brown refers to as shame resilience, the ability to experience moments of inadequacy, guilt, failure and other challenges without shaming ourselves and shutting down. Yoga helps us cultivate courage, the ability to be authentic and vulnerable, to try and try again until we realize its been a day since we gave into our addiction, then a week, then a year, then a decade or more.
Seeing the Beauty of the Simple
Addiction is often a quest for excitement. The things to which we become addicted help us feel more alive and ecstatic than our normal activities. The highs and lows of addiction take us to the extremes of life, and some people become as attached to that roller coaster as to the substance or behavior itself.
Yoga helps us feel the joy of the ordinary, the entire world that exists in a single breath. By teaching us to be more present in our bodies in each moment, yoga helps us appreciate how beautiful each simple moment of life actually is, however unexciting it might seem on the surface.
Loving Your Whole Self
Addiction is often a product of a lack of self-love. We dislike or are ashamed of some part of ourselves, and so turn to something external to provide a momentary feeling of pleasure, something that looks like love. Some recovering addicts have the described the sensations they feel while using as akin to being in love, with all the giddiness that entails. Of course that can seem more exciting than sobriety if you are used to hating yourself or feeling unenthusiastic about life in general.
But yoga helps us love all the parts of ourselves, the shiny and shadowy. When we can love our entire selves, especially the parts that are broken or less-than-ideal, we come closer to wholeness. This wholeness is the best defense against addiction. Loving ourselves fully is key for making healthy, life-affirming choices in every moment.
Addiction affects people from all walks of life all over the world. Whether it is a substance or a behavior, when in the throes of addiction people give away their personal power, as well as control of their hormones and neurotransmitters. While many people need external support such as a 12 step program, and there is no replacement for professional help from a qualified therapist, we can and do need to help ourselves. Yoga helps us cultivate a safe space of clarity, acceptance, courage, and self-love. It is often said that addicts have to take it one day at a time to recover. Yoga helps us be more fully alive and aware in each of those days, bringing us home to ourselves.