“Yoga is a way of coping with stress at a fundamental level that changes both your stress response and your perception of it,” says Sat Bir Singh Khalsa, PhD, an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School who studies the psychophysiological mechanisms underlying yoga and meditation. “Yoga also leads to increased awareness of what feels good and what doesn’t. The more you tune in to this, the more likely you are to gravitate toward healthy behaviors and away from unhealthy ones.”
When someone abuses drugs or alcohol regularly, some of the pathways in the brain are altered, and the pathways related to feeling pleasure, regulating emotions, making sound decisions, and controlling impulses may be negatively affected. After a period of time without the influence of drugs or alcohol, brain chemistry and circuitry can heal and rebuild itself. Yoga may be able to help with this as well.
One of the great things about yoga is that it doesn’t require expensive equipment or a special location; it can be practiced pretty much anywhere at any time as needed. Coming from the Sanskrit work yuj, which is interpreted to mean “union,” yoga is an ancient technique designed to bring mind and body closer together with the use of exercise, meditation, and breathing.
The practice of yoga may actually help to balance some parts of the brain and body that are impacted by drug abuse in a natural way. In addition to the physical aspects of yoga, there are also many emotional benefits as well. When practicing yoga, people are attuned to their bodies, learn to regulate their breathing, and to really listen to their bodies. This can create a self-awareness of how things may make a person feel a certain way in a nonjudgmental fashion.
Recent studies suggest that Yoga can help individuals that suffer from Drug Addiction and Mental health disorders. A 2014 study published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine examined the effect of yoga alongside rehab in treating alcohol dependence. In the trial, 18 people battling alcohol dependence in Sweden received traditional treatment or traditional treatment plus yoga. The results showed that the greatest reduction in drinking occurred among the group that incorporated yoga into treatment. Yoga can also help people deal with mental health disorders, which can co-occur with addiction. For example, people suffering from post-traumatic stress disorder have a greater risk than the general population for engaging in substance use.
A 2014 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine found that specialized yoga therapy may help people with PTSD reduce drug and alcohol use. The practice also promoted interest in evidence-based therapies, such as cognitive behavioral therapy.
Researchers measured the effect of yoga on substance use behaviors in women with symptoms of PTSD. The yoga intervention consisted of 12 Kripalu-based Hatha sessions of 75 minutes each. Researchers modified some poses and incorporated trauma-sensitive yoga techniques, which use nonthreatening language and eschew physical contact. One month after the clinical trial, nearly 70 percent of yoga participants said their PTSD symptoms were less noticeable. Conversely, more than 90 percent of a control group who took assessments in place of yoga were more cognizant of their symptoms.
“For people suffering from mental illness, yoga gives them a greater sense of self-awareness and acceptance,” said Geri Topfer, founder and president of Kula for Karma. “It is an effective tool that helps to rewire the brain and avoid any type of relapsing or mental illness.”
Recent studies suggest that Yoga can complement cognitive-behavioral therapy and mindfulness-based relapse prevention (MBRP) programs. Both yoga and MBRP emphasize healthy coping skills, acceptance of difficult emotions, and tolerance for discomfort—all of which can replace the need to self-medicate with drugs and alcohol. In a 2017 pilot study out of UCLA, when adults who were addicted to cocaine or methamphetamine’s participated in an eight-week MBRP program that included some yoga practice, they experienced less substance use and showed improvements in the severity of depression, anxiety, and other psychiatric symptoms.
If You or a Loved one is Struggling With Drug or Alcohol Addiction