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The Yoga Journal reports that in 2008, 6.9 percent of American adults practice yoga. Some of these people use yoga as a form of exercise, allowing them to tone muscle. Others consider yoga an integral part of their recovery program for a physical ailment, improving cardiovascular health or flexibility. And others use the practice for socialization purposes, relying on their teachers and the members of their class for support and validation. While you might never have thought of yourself as a yogi (one who practices yoga), you might be surprised to learn that it could play an integral part in your recovery from addiction and substance abuse. In fact, many addiction treatment facilities use yoga as a complementary therapy to augment the more traditional tools used to combat addiction. Read on to find out why yoga is included, and how it might help you.

*The 8 Steps of Classical Yoga

A scholar named Patanhali, writing in the 1st or 2nd century, compiled the prevalent yoga theories and practices of his time in the Yoga Sutras. This text forms the foundation for many types of modern yoga, and the ideas in this text are often taught before, during and after yoga classes. Many of them have direct links to addiction treatment. For example, according to this theory, there are eight important parts of yoga:

  1. Yama:  Refraining from violence, stealing, casual sex, lying or hoarding
  2. Niyama:  Purity, contentment, remembrance and study
  3. Asana:  Physical exercises
  4. Pranayama:  Breathing techniques
  5. Pratyahara:  Preparing for meditation
  6. Dharana:  Concentration
  7. Dhyana:  Meditation
  8. Samadhi:  Realization of the essential nature of the self

By learning and mastering these steps, you might learn more about how to calm your mind, keep your body healthy and keep a relapse from occurring.

Source: The American Yoga Association

Meditation in Motion

It’s unclear why yoga was created, or even what it was designed to do when it was created. It is clear, however, that people have been practicing yoga for a very, very long time. During that time, some teachers have emphasized specific parts of yoga, while others have added their own spin on the ancient practice, emphasizing the portions they thought were important. These tiny changes, passed down and expanded upon by the next generation of teachers, grew larger and larger. Now, there are well over a hundred different schools of yoga, each with their own emphasis.

While different schools of yoga might use different exercises or they might emphasize different types of thinking, most yoga practices encourage students to perform a series of ritualized movements while they breathe deeply. The breaths serve to focus the mind, and students who perfect these breaths are able to contort their bodies in ways they would have never thought possible previously. Yoga is often referred to as “meditation in motion,” as students are encouraged to stay in the moment, emptying their minds of all concerns and cares, as they move their bodies through these movements.

Yoga classes are often structured by skill level, with beginning students taking on basic poses with a significant amount of help and instruction and more advanced students taking on more difficult poses with a bit less help from a teacher. In both beginning and advanced classes, yoga students perform their exercises on small, padded mats. This is typically the only piece of equipment required in a yoga class. All other work is done with muscles, mind and breathing. Most yoga classes are run by one teacher who moves through the class, asking students to take on various poses. The teacher helps students to refine the poses through touch and oral instruction. The teacher also helps to teach students the finer points of meditation and may encourage students to drink cups of tea after class and listen to more information about yoga theory.

*Staying Safe in Yoga

While yoga is considered safe for many people, there are some things you can do to stay safe in a yoga class:

  • Get clearance from your doctor. Some medical conditions can make it difficult for you to participate fully in yoga.
  • Tell your teacher about your injuries, if any.
  • Take a class appropriate for your skill level. If you’ve taken yoga before, an intermediate or advanced class might be appropriate for you. But if not, stick with beginner courses.
  • Wear clothing that allows you to move freely. Baggy, binding clothing might cause you to trip or injure yourself.
  • Warm up with stretches before you begin.
  • Ask questions about poses you don’t understand.
  • Don’t force your body into painful positions. Know your limits.
  • Drink plenty of water.

Source: The American Academy of Orthopaedic Surgeons

Yoga and Addiction

Many addiction therapy programs include exercise. After years of abusing substances, you might have weight issues that you need to address, or you might find that simply moving your muscles helps you to relax and feel stronger. Both of these sensations could be useful as you heal and learn how to live without substance abuse. But, people who believe in the power of yoga believe that the practice has benefits that move beyond the physical. Yoga, they say, can help you to learn more about living in the present, and this could help you to control destructive urges.

Yoga practitioners attempt to learn more about mindfulness. The idea is to learn how to stay in the moment with a calm, observant mind. Instead of reacting to situations with fear or emotion, a yogi learns how to see a situation as a temporary, fleeting moment that is neither good nor bad. It simply is. A mindfulness stance allows yogis to take on postures they might avoid through fear, but it can also help yogis to begin to approach the world as a peaceful place to be endured, rather than judged. It is this ability of yoga to bring about peace and mindfulness that makes it an attractive part of an addiction treatment program. When you’re able to simply look at a situation impassively without reacting with emotion or reflex, you might be able to avoid relapses to addiction. You might also feel significantly lower amounts of stress, and this could also be helpful in your recovery process. Stress can lead you to numb your mind with substances. Yoga techniques might help you to solve your stress without substance abuse.

The metal health benefits of yoga have been documented in several studies. For example, a study published in the Asian Journal of Psychiatry found that yoga was superior to no treatment for both depression and anxiety. Similarly, a study published in the journal Evaluation and Program Planning found that women in substance abuse treatment programs were able to increase their coping responses and lower their stress levels through yoga. As these small studies suggest, people might be able to learn more about meditation and natural ways to reduce stress through yoga, and these lessons could help them have an improved sense of overall mental health. It’s easy to see why people in recovery from addiction would find this so appealing.

Yoga might also give you something to look forward to in your addiction treatment program. As you learn new poses and feel your body getting stronger, you might feel better about yourself, and you might find the challenges of yoga classes inspiring. You might also come to enjoy the yoga classes themselves, which might encourage you to stay enrolled in your treatment program instead of dropping out of the program altogether. These are very personal benefits that might never show up in an addiction study, but they could be incredibly important to you.

*Continuing With Yoga

When your addiction treatment program ends, you may find that you’d still like to participate in a yoga program in your community. There might be hundreds of classes available, so finding the right class might mean interviewing a series of teachers. Consider asking these questions from the Mayo Clinic:

  • How long have you been teaching yoga?
  • Have you worked with students in addiction recovery in the past?
  • Can I watch a class before I sign up?
  • Do I need to bring any equipment for the class?
  • What mental health benefits do you stress in your class?
  • How much does each class cost?

Must I Participate?

Most addiction treatment programs will allow you to customize the methods you use in your recovery process. If the idea of participating in yoga makes you uncomfortable, it’s likely that you’ll be allowed to skip the therapy sessions. But, if you’ve never tried yoga before and you’re not sure if you’d like it or not, it might be beneficial to at least give one class a try. You may find that you enjoy yoga, and that you benefit more than you ever thought possible. It could be something you learn about in your addiction program and then continue using throughout the rest of your life.

It’s important to note, however, that yoga shouldn’t be used as a replacement for other forms of therapy. Your medications, talk therapy sessions and support group meetings all form the basis of your addiction recovery program, and these science-based programs that are backed up with years of research provide you with real help you might not be able to find in any other way. Yoga can enhance these programs, allowing you to examine problems in new ways, but yoga should never be used to replace these programs altogether.

*Hatha Yoga Exercises

Explaining what yoga is and what it might do can be interesting, but describing a few yoga poses might help you to truly understand what you’ll be expected to do in a yoga class. This pose, known as full yoga breath, might begin and complete your classes:

  • Sit on the floor with your legs folded and shoulders back.
  • Inhale as deeply as you can.
  • Allow your belly to expand as you inhale.
  • Exhale slowly.
  • Feel your belly flatten and your lungs empty.
  • Continue for 5 minutes.

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