Yoga for Addiction Recovery, Part 1

Addiction is an issue that touches all our lives. Especially in New England which has been hit hard by the opioid epidemic, it is likely that most Mainers have either struggled with addiction or intimately know someone who has. At Jade, we partner with Crossroads, a treatment center for women in recovery by providing yoga instruction and acupuncture on site. Teaching yoga at Crossroads and taking part in the healing journeys of the women there is, by far, the best part of my job! Their courage and commitment inspired me to complete additional training in yoga for addiction with Jennie Tavares of Arcana Yoga.

So what does recovery from addiction mean and how can yoga help? This piece is Part I of a two-part series that answers this question.

To begin, recovery is best understood as a process of change wherein an individual takes steps to improve their health, their home, and to engage in activities that provide them with purpose and belonging in community (Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration SAMSHA). Regardless of our experience with addiction, this noble endeavor is what brings many of us to yoga in the first place. The transformations that occur on the mat and beyond are often what keep us coming back. 

One of the most important things I have learned is that substance use disorder fuels, and is fueled by, disconnection. With addiction, deep fractures are drawn between our mind and our body, our needs and our habits, our emotions and our actions, and in the relationships that we have to ourselves and to others. Yoga, on the other hand, is connection. By definition, yoga means union or ‘to yoke together.’ It is precisely yoga's focus on linking our awareness (mind) to the breath (energy) and to our holding patterns (in body and heart) through which we can begin to reestablish the connections that have been severed by trauma and addiction.

Recent findings in brain science support the work we do for addiction recovery on the yoga mat. In particular, there is much buzz about the role of the vagal nerve in treating substance use disorder. Originating in the brainstem, this 10th cranial nerve travels throughout the body regulating the major functions of our automatic nervous system including heart rate, respiration, digestion, and even how we process our experiences. The vagus nerve, is, in short, the command center for mind/body connection, much of which happens on a subconscious level. Low vagal tone means that an individual may be more susceptible to stressors, disease, and by extension, addiction. On the contrary, high vagal tone is associated with an ability to remain calm, balanced, and resilient in the face of stress and triggering stimuli. The practice of yoga provides ample opportunities for increasing one’s vagal tone and therefore helps mend the types of connections fractured by addiction. What is especially exciting is with yoga, our vagal tone can improve over time thus helping those with addiction respond to their triggers with more resilience. In short, a regular yoga practice can reduce the occurrence of the relapse response. 

The following are examples of breathwork (pranayama) and posture (asana) that I use in my classes to improve vagal tone and cultivate mind/body connection for those in recovery.

Alternate Nostril Breathing (Nadi Shodhana)

This balancing breathwork is best practiced in a seated position with a tall and easy spine though it can also be practiced standing. My favorite place to practice alternate nostril breathing just so happens to be in the shower.

  • Begin by taking a full breath in and releasing a slow breath out. Repeat until you feel your body start to settle down. 
  • Bring your right thumb to your right nostril and seal it. 
  • Take a deep and full breath in through the left nostril.
  • Seal the left nostril using the ring and pinky fingers of your right hand.
  • Release the thumb from the right nostril and slowly exhale.
  • Keeping the fingers pressed against the left nostril, take a deep and full breath in through the right.
  • Seal the right nostril with the thumb. 
  • Release the fingers from the left nostril and slowly exhale. (This completes one full round.)
  • Continue breathing in through the left, out through the right, in through the right, out through the left. 
  • When you have completed several rounds, release the hand and take several deep breaths through both nostrils at the same time.

Legs Up the Wall – (Viparita Karani) with the support of a bolster

This pose is a favorite in my classes. Viparita Karani is especially helpful in treating high blood pressure, restlessness, and insomnia which many students experience in their first week of treatment. I encourage folks to practice this pose before bedtime.

  • Place a bolster, thick blanket, or pillow against a wall.
  • Sit on your prop with your left hip and side against the wall. 
  • Slowly turn your body to your left and bring your legs up the wall.
  • Lower your back onto the floor with your lower back and buttocks resting on your prop. Adjust as needed for comfort. 
  • Scoot your buttocks as close to the wall as it can get.
  • Let your thigh bones be heavy as they simultaneously relax against the support of the wall and release downward toward the floor. 
  • Bring your attention to your breath and the rise and fall of your stomach.
  • In order to receive the full benefits of this pose, it is best to stay in Viparita Kirani for several rounds of breath, or roughly 5-10 minutes. 

Stay tuned for Part II where I will discuss in more depth how yoga is a natural companion to 12 step programs and how we can all serve as allies to those in recovery.