Why Yoga Is a Powerful Tool in Recovery

Substance use disorder is an ever-increasing national and worldwide problem. A recent study showed that nearly 27 million people on the planet suffer from alcohol and drug problems, including both illegal and legal drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes. Over the last century, tobacco use in particular has claimed more than 100 million lives, with millions still smoking each year. Relapse rates are equally shocking—as high as 80 to 95 percent over a 12-month period.

These are humbling statistics that healthcare providers, legislators, and individuals are faced with addressing, as we collectively navigate the challenges of addiction. Yoga and meditation, with their stress-reducing effects and ability to provide people with tools for self-regulation and self-management, are potentially useful practices to navigate the painful and often deadly waters of addiction.

Why Yoga and Mindfulness Might Help

With the growing amount of research on yoga and meditation, scientists have begun to articulate theories on why these practices might specifically help people in recovery from addictive substances. The documented benefits of meditation dovetail nicely with the challenges of addiction.

Basically, addiction has two components: the physiological and mental cravings for a substance, and the ability of the individual to tolerate, rather than acting on, those sensations. Meditation and yoga have the potential to provide relief from both of these factors, by offering tools to down-regulate the stress response system and by increasing our capacity to observe our experiences with a greater sense of equanimity.

Studies on Yoga and Meditation for Addiction

These mechanisms of potential change may underlie the growing amount of research showing that mindfulness meditation and yoga have the potential to support abstinence and reduce relapse. A study of 168 adults with substance use disorders found that a mindfulness-based intervention, compared to a non-intervention control group, showed significantly lower rates of substance use at the two-month follow-up.

Another study, following 88 smokers, found that eight sessions of mindfulness training, delivered twice per week over four weeks, resulted in greater reductions in cigarette use than the American Lung Association’s Freedom from Smoking Program. These improved rates of abstinence were found to hold steady even 17 weeks after the program ended. In another study, a Kundalini yoga intervention helped eight men who had recently undergone alcohol detoxification to better manage their symptoms.

A study exploring the benefits of Kripalu Yoga on women with both PTSD and substance use found a non-significant trend in the reduction of substance use. Researchers hyphothesized that the small sample size of the study may have contributed to the lack of statistical significance and further research could help determine if and how, yoga might benefit this more specialized population.

Are Yoga and Meditation Enough?

The last study highlights some of the complications in the understanding of substance abuse and mind-body practices. While, overall, research shows promising outcomes for the role of mindfulness meditation and yoga in the support of addiction recovery, we must tread carefully. It is not uncommon for substance use to be a cover for other mental-health conditions, such as PTSD, borderline personality disorder, or bipolar disorder. There will likely be situations in which yoga and meditation are not enough to reduce or prevent substance use, at least in early sobriety. In many studies, participants had been or currently were in other kinds of treatment—from inpatient treatment to outpatient therapy. In addition, all the of the interventions included a group experience—participants were in a group with others, committed to attending the group each week and gaining support from the group and facilitators. It is impossible for researchers to determine how much this, in and of itself, contributed to the positive outcomes.

However, there is certainly preliminary evidence to show that yoga and meditation are potentially supportive for recovery, and can provide essential tools for tolerating cravings and reducing relapse triggers.

Three Things to Consider When Exploring Yoga and Meditation for Recovery

If you would like to try yoga or meditation to support your recovery, or are working with people in recovery who might be interested in these practices, here are three things to keep in mind.

  1. Find a practice group that is specifically designed for those in recovery. There are a growing number of groups or organizations in the meditation community that offer sessions targeted toward recovery—such as Refuge Recovery or Dharma and Recovery. Even if you can’t find a group specifically for addiction, don’t go it alone. Practicing in a group, talking with a trained professional, and getting outside support is very important when it comes to sustaining recovery.
  2. Practice the art of riding the wave. One of the most powerful mindfulness tools for recovery is the skill of “riding the wave,” or “urge surfing.” In other words: noticing when a craving is happening, being with it, but not acting on it. Wisdom is knowing when you have the skill to ride the wave on your own, as well as knowing when the cravings are becoming too intense and it’s time to reach out for help. Each time you ride the wave, you strengthen the muscle of abstinence and build mastery.
  3. Find a yoga practice you enjoy, and do it regularly. Research shows that yoga helps to activate the relaxation response, In fact, yoga has been shown to increase GABA, a neurotransmitter that also gets released with alcohol consumption. Instead of reaching for a drink, you can truly reach for your mat and get much the same effect in terms of relaxation, without the hangover. Find a yoga style you enjoy, and get on the mat as much as you can. Research also shows that, the more you practice, the greater the increase in GABA.

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© Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health. All rights reserved. To request permission to reprint, please e-mail editor@kripalu.org.

Angela Wilson, LMHC, RYT 500, is a Kripalu faculty member who has conducted research and written about the intersection between yoga, Western psychology, and science.

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