More than 20.4 million people in the United States practice yoga on a regular basis as of 2012, up from about 15.8 million in 2008. Stress relief and overall health were cited among the top five reasons for yoga practice, and for people in recovery from drug and alcohol dependence, both of these are top priorities.
Yoga is commonly cited as an excellent resource for newly recovered addicts in treatment and for those who have been living in recovery from substance abuse and dependence for years. According to the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence, Inc. (NCADD), the benefits of regular yoga practice on the ability to remain sober include:
- Increased positive body awareness
- The opportunity to connect with the breath and the body
- The opportunity to be still, mindful, and in the moment
- Increased self-compassion
- Increased ability to manage stress
- Detoxification of the body
Additionally, for people who are new to recovery, yoga can provide structure and challenge to fill an empty day, and for those who have years of sobriety under their belt and a full schedule, a yoga session can offer the respite necessary to continually rejuvenate and rededicate to a life defined by balance and wellness. In fact, there are even a number of yoga apps (e.g., Yoga Studio, Hatha Yoga: Your Portable Yoga Studio, Daily Yoga, and others) available for download to smartphones and tablets that offer busy practitioners the opportunity to practice whenever and wherever they choose.  In every stage of recovery, a yoga practice can enhance the practitioner’s ability to avoid relapse and continually grow stronger in sobriety.
Enhancing the Mind-Body Connection
Yoga is unique in that it provides muscular fitness benefits while improving mindfulness and focus through breath control, physical poses and postures, and meditation. According to a report published in the International Journal of Yoga Therapy, there are four principles that inform the healing nature of yoga as a regular practice. These include:
- The human body is holistic in nature. The human body is holistic in nature and as such, no one aspect of the body can be separated from another. That is, if one body system or function is impacted, then all systems are impacted.
- The needs of each individual are unique. Everyone is different with different needs that can be addressed through yogic practice; thus, every person’s practice and experience with yoga should be tailored to meet those unique needs.
- Yoga is empowering to the individual. Through yoga practice, practitioners are empowered to become autonomous in recovery by becoming their own healer. Healing is initiated from within as opposed to an outside source; thus, practitioners are continually engaged as their own agent for positive growth and change.
- State of mind plays a critical role in yogic healing. The state of mind of practitioners deeply impact their experience; thus, if the practitioner is positive and mindful during practice, healing may be more rapid, but if the practitioner is negative and disengaged, healing will be slower.
Through regular yoga practice, people in recovery practice accountability in yet another forum of their lives, and for those who are dedicated, the benefits are evidenced both during the yoga session and through long-term positive change.
Decreased Inflammation Response
One recent study found that women who practiced yoga regularly had lower blood levels of cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) as compared to women of the same weight and age who did not practice yoga. Additionally, the female yoga practitioners in the study exhibited smaller increases in IL-6 after experiencing a stressful event as compared to non-practitioners.
Cytokine interleukin-6 (IL-6) is an inflammatory protein that is linked to stress and aging; thus, the study demonstrates that there is a lesser physical response to stress among those who practice yoga regularly – a physical response that may potentially increase the risk of stroke, arthritis, heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and other devastating disorders.
Another study published in the Journal of Oncology demonstrated that breast cancer survivors who practiced yoga experienced increased vitality as compared to non-yoga-practicing participants; the more the participant practiced yoga, the larger the change. Additionally, this study demonstrated a decrease in IL-6 among yoga practitioners as well.
Decreased inflammation response and increased vitality – both of these add up to an increased ability to manage acute stressors when they arise, which is a valuable asset to people in recovery from addiction working to avoid relapse in everyday life.
Regular practice of yoga has been shown to decrease the experience of a range of mental health symptoms, including anxiety and depression. Some studies have shown that yoga practitioners experienced an increase in levels of serotonin, a “feel good” chemical, as well as a decrease in levels of monoamine oxidase, an enzyme responsible for breaking down cortisol and neurotransmitters.
Though there are a number of pharmacological treatment options for anxiety and depression that have proven to be effective, many patients opt to depend less on these medications and more on the benefits provided by yoga practice and other holistic treatment interventions. Because it is common for those who struggle with substance abuse and addiction to simultaneously struggle with a co-occurring mental health disorder, the mood management benefits of yoga practice in decreasing depression and anxiety further increase the practitioner’s ability to thrive in recovery and avoid relapse. ,,
Increased Quality of Life
Perhaps one of the greatest benefits of yoga to people in active recovery is the improved quality of life experienced by practitioners. Yoga brings increased physical health, mental health, and spiritual wellness, coupled with decreased anxiety, stress, depression, and pain. In addition, it brings a decreased inflammation response, as well as an increased ability to relax, fall asleep, and stay asleep. There are few downsides as long as poses are performed safely. In fact, the more one practices yoga, the more benefits the practitioner can experience. When utilized in addition to traditional therapies, alternative treatments, and detox when needed, a yoga practice can improve the ability to stay sober and avoid relapse for the long-term.
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