In America today, the word “yoga” is loaded with images of health-oriented people in stretching positions.
This conception of yoga as a physical exercise alone makes yoga seem like an end in itself, but it is not. Yoga derives from the Sanskrit word for “union,” as in the union of the physical self with a higher self or higher power. Yoga, in the Eastern tradition which it stems from, is a guide for living an enlightened life. Yoga postures, known as “asanas,” comprise only one branch of yoga in its fuller sense.

About Yoga

Yoga has existed for centuries, and while there is no one author, the truth-seeker Patanjali consolidated the wisdom of yoga into a body of work known as yoga sutras. Patanjali’s sutras break down yoga into eight branches, also called limbs or paths. Each of the branches of yoga is designed to complement and support the practitioner on the path to greater self-awareness and self-compassion. The experience of greater self-compassion in turn leads to a feeling of greater connection to others. In this way, the practice of yoga depends on the individual, but it benefits all of humanity.

The Eight Branches of Yoga

The eight branches of yoga are as follows:

  • Bhakti yoga: devotion to a higher power
  • Karma yoga: selfless service
  • Guru yoga: dedication to a self-realized master
  • Mantra yoga: repetition of sound to help calm the mind for connection to the self

  • Hatha yoga: yoga poses that help still the mind for connection with the self
  • Raja yoga: the philosophy of all yoga branches taken together
  • Jnana yoga: the wisdom to realize everything is one with the universe
  • Tantra yoga: the activation of dormant energy in the body

In addition, “pranayama” or breath work, is an integral component of yoga. Stress, tension and poor habits can create energetic obstacles in the body and, as a result, breathing can become shallow or restrictive. Breath work techniques are designed to improve the flow of breath throughout the entire body. There are many techniques, but all involve the practitioner being mindful of his breath. A main benefit of breath work is that it can energize, relax, and even help to heal the practitioner.

Breath work can occur on its own as a standalone practice, but it is often part of the practice of yoga poses and/or a seated meditation. Each yoga instructor or yoga studio determines the features of the practice. For instance, a yoga class may begin with breath work, then flow into the physical yoga postures, and end with a meditation. Doing the yoga postures helps to create stillness and restfulness in the body in preparation for the meditation. Although yoga postures can be physically demanding, some instructors will advise that the real work is the meditation because it is usually far easier for one to move his body than to still his mind.

As the Huffington Post reports, yoga in America has become a $27 billion business with more than 20 million practitioners, and it continues to grow. Yoga has experienced a meteoric rise to popularity. For instance, in 1971, there were only three yoga studios in Brooklyn, New York. Today, yoga studios are nearly as common in Brooklyn as traffic lights. The popularity of yoga has led some practitioners of the eight branches of yoga to question if the entire philosophy is being corrupted by the commercial focus on its physical aspects alone.

Although most Americans may not practice yoga in the eight branch tradition espoused by accomplished yogis like Patanjali, that doesn’t mean it is not beneficial as a singular physical practice. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, research supports that yoga poses can have the following benefits:

· Improve quality of life · Help to reduce depression
· Reduce of stress · Treat insomnia
· Lower heart rate and blood pressure ·  Improve strength and flexibility
· Help to relieve anxiety · Reduce low-back pain

As reported in National Geographic in 2014, the then largest study of yoga looked at the impact of yoga postures on the reduction of inflammation in the body. The study found that yoga can reduce inflammation, which is the body’s way of reacting to injury. Inflammation has been associated with numerous chronic diseases, including arthritis, diabetes, heart disease and fatigue in recovering cancer survivors. By reducing inflammation, yoga gets to the very root of chronic illnesses and promotes an overall improved state of physical and mental health.

In addition to a reduction in inflammation, Mayo Clinic notes that numerous studies have found that yoga can reduce stress and anxiety. Student feedback also supports this finding.

The benefits of yoga are so well established that they have become a matter of common public knowledge, but there are risks associated with yoga exercises. Postures can exasperate existing injuries and, in some cases, even cause physical harm. Since yoga injuries can occur, it is always advisable to discuss any existing injuries with the instructor and get advice about which postures to avoid or approach more safely. To help avoid injuries, yoga instructors often advise students to breathe into the positions, set them up mindfully, and always have compassion for oneself.

Yoga in Recovery

Although yoga was not specifically developed with drug recovery in mind, it makes good sense that the benefits of yoga dovetail perfectly with the needs of a recovering person. Sat Bir Khalsa, an assistant professor at Harvard Medical School and director of the Kundalini Research Institute, points out that drug abuse is most often about finding an escape from an unbearable or undesirable reality. Yoga provides an alternative to this unhealthy escapism. Rather than avoid reality, yoga teaches practitioners strategies to actively engage and accept reality – tough realities included. Whereas drug abuse is an entirely disempowering process, yoga is a restorative process that empowers the individual from within.

The extensive benefits of yoga aside, it is important to make clear that yoga is a complementary form of therapy that is intended to supplement traditional drug rehab services, not replace them. Research shows that recovering substance abusers require multidisciplinary treatment services that address both the biological and psychological aspects of substance abuse. For this reason, the main components of traditional drug rehab are detox, medication-assisted maintenance treatment (in certain cases), individual and group psychotherapy, and group recovery meetings. The extensive array of primary rehab services may lead one to ask: Where does yoga fit into the rubric of drug treatment?

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After detox, a recovering person begins the abstinence maintenance phase of drug rehab treatment. Once a recovering person is stabilized (i.e., drug-free, well nourished, hydrated and well-rested) she may join any yoga classes on offer at an outpatient or residential rehab program. After graduation from a drug rehab program, the aftercare process begins. Recovering persons often engage a patchwork of services to create an informal aftercare program for themselves. In the recovering community, there is a general consensus that yoga can help to avoid a relapse. But why has yoga become an integral part of drug recovery?

As the informational site The Fix discusses, drug abuse drives a huge wedge between a person’s body and spirit. An addicted person focuses an inordinate amount of attention on maintaining the addiction, at expense of the rest of the needs of the body, mind, and spirit. Yoga, which is again about connecting to oneself, can help to re-establish a healthy connection between the body, mind and spirit. The stillness that the physical practice of yoga brings (including postures, breath work, and meditation) can help a recovering person to become conscious of their old behavioral patterns and become self-empowered to change them. The improved breathing associated with yoga can help a recovering person to continue to detox the lungs, circulatory system, and nervous system.

Yoga students generally organize their practice around one or more approaches (such as Bikram yoga, Ashtanga yoga, or Iyengar yoga). A network of yoga practitioners has developed Yoga of Recovery to bring recovering substance abusers together. The group offers courses and retreats all across the US. The group is open to anyone but advertises itself as an especially good match for anyone in a 12-Step program or in recovery from any form of destructive behavior.

In a similar vein, British comedian, actor and activist Russell Brand is very public about how yoga has helped him to maintain abstinence after being addicted to heroin, alcohol and sex. As part of his gratitude for the transformation yoga has helped to bring about in his life (Brand is now more than 10 years sober), he now reportedly teaches yoga.

Find Recovery Help

The main lodge at Black Bear LodgeAt Black Bear Lodge, our expert treatment team includes addiction specialists, mental health clinicians and a host of wellness professionals certified in their respective fields, such as yoga instruction. We provide our patients with the most current, evidence-based drug rehab services and accompany this programming with complementary therapy, such as yoga, experiential therapy and art therapy. Our goal is not only to treat addiction but also to embrace the full spectrum of our patients’ needs. For this reason, holistic treatments like yoga are an integral part of the recovery programs at Black Bear Lodge.