Yoga and Healing Addiction

“In retrospect, my addiction was a yearning of my soul, a quest to end the feeling of separation. Several times I insisted on going to India rather than treatment centers. On the way to LAX, I would smoke a doobie in the car and snort cocaine in the airplane bathroom. Once in India, I would just sit, and never need to get loaded. There I found my access to spirit.” Teresa taught Yoga while still struggling with addiction, and is currently a successful Yoga teacher who has helped numerous students out of denial and into recovery. Thousands like Teresa (name changed) regularly attend Yoga classes, either not realizing they have a problem with addiction, or not willing to admit to one. But their Yoga practice is creating an effect. Treatment specialists are taking notice and are incorporating Yoga and meditation into recovery programs. Yoga helps people with addictions increase self-awareness, enhance physical and mental stamina, detoxify the body, find a new social circle and connect to their inner spirituality.

According to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a significant reason for using is to deal with inner pain and anesthetize the self. Addiction specialists agree that people who are susceptible to the disease of addiction can become addicted to anything as a coping mechanism, a means of filling an inner void or chasing a spiritual yearning. Addiction can be focused on a substance, like alcohol, chemicals or food; or a behavior, like gambling, sex or relationships. Bill and Bob, the founders of AA, recognized the spiritual nature of addiction and saw that the antidote to the anesthesia comes from reconnecting with an individual’s higher power. This is where Yoga can be a superior tool for rehabilitation; a person’s relationship with their spirituality and higher power is integral to the 12 steps as well as Yoga’s eight-fold path.

Getting loaded didn’t connect Teresa to her spiritual self, it only caused further separation. Due to the intervention of family and friends who missed who she was before addiction took hold, she entered treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage. She also had had enough—of loneliness and her life falling apart around her.

Los Angeles-based intervention specialist Ed Storti finds many people enter treatment programs or embark on recovery through the intervention of family or friends, like Teresa, or through a crisis. The death of Jill’s mother—from alcoholism—created her crisis. Even though Jill (name changed) attended Yoga classes, she would go from the studio to the corner bar. “I had a good job, friends, I did Yoga, I couldn’t be an alcoholic.” For Jill, who grew up in an alcoholic family, alcohol was the solution for stress; in fact, she described it as the solution for everything. Jill was angry with her mother for not being available, but Jill subsequently realized that she was also angry with herself. “When my mother was gone, it was me that was not available; it left me suicidal, I knew I couldn’t continue.”

Now Jill utilizes the principles of Yoga and Ayurveda, along with AA’s 12 steps in her own recovery. In recovery, she explored the philosophical tradition of Yoga, and noticed parallels between the anonymous movement’s 12 steps and the eight-fold path of Yoga practice: in the emphasis on truth, meditation, surrender to a higher power and self-awareness.  Well known Los Angeles Yoga teacher Frank White also says that both were integral in his recovery, “AA saved my life; Yoga gave me a new way to go with it.”

The 12 steps include a “searching and fearless” personal inventory and the ongoing continuation of that inventory. By cultivating awareness of feelings while in a common posture like downward facing dog, self-awareness is developed. Allison Sackin, who teaches at Promises treatment center in Malibu, sees this as a benefit of Yoga. Attention that was directed outward in the addictive process becomes directed inward. Sackin says, “People with addictions are chasing something outside themselves; through Yoga, people are chasing something that’s already there.”

Yoga was the cornerstone of Superhealth, the country’s first alternative health center for the treatment of addictions in Tucson, Arizona. Begun when 3HO ashram staff fed heroin addicts, then took them in and offered recovery services based on Kundalini Yoga, strict diet, massage, acupuncture and acupressure and other holistic therapies. Pima County recognized the quality of their approach, providing funding and referrals. Superhealth earned the prestigious western medical accolade of accreditation from JCAHO, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations in 1978 and operated as a full-scale medical recovery center until 1990.

From the pioneering efforts of the Kundalini Yoga community, Yoga and meditation, along with other body-centered holistic therapies such as massage and acupuncture, are becoming progressively incorporated into mainstream treatment facilities. Storti says many people don’t know what Yoga is before entering recovery, but it is increasingly more common for Yoga and meditation to be integrated into treatment programs in hospitals, sober living houses and county treatment centers.  From the prominent Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage to programs in prisons, Yoga classes are presented as either electives or mandatory therapeutic experiences.

In the L.A. and Orange County-funded Southern California Alcohol and Drug Programs’ residential treatment centers, David Wells (Certified Ayurvedic Specialist and Yoga teacher) teaches compulsory Yoga classes to recovering drug and alcohol addicts. Wells utilizes techniques to calm the body and mind through gentle exercises, pranayama (breath techniques) and savasana (relaxation). Students report that Yoga is one of their favorite activities; new to most, Yoga helps them not only cope with stress, but change their state of consciousness in a manner that is not destructive to mind and body.

The Meadows in Arizona is a residential program that has gained national attention for its treatment of a broad range of addictions and conditions including sex and love addictions, codependency, alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addictions, and eating disorders, as well as trauma and other psychological conditions. Body-centered therapies have been increasingly incorporated over the past 15 years; first acupuncture, then tai chi, and now Yoga. Yoga instructor and acupuncturist Andre Zitcer, L.Ac is a full member of the treatment team. He attends team meetings where patients’ recovery programs are planned and works at both the Meadows and Melody House, the associated after-care treatment program. In Zitcer’s experience, people with addictions are often unaware of their bodies. Through concentrating on physical sensation in Yoga, and expanding the breath, Zitcer finds students become more present to and aware of their experience of body, mind, and emotions, even when it is uncomfortable.

Annalisa Cunningham, in Healing Addiction with Yoga, asserts: “Most people in recovery have a history of degrading their bodies.” Yoga offers the means to counteract this, and heal body and mind. Cunningham elucidates several benefits of Yoga practice for those in recovery including: decreased stress levels, reduction of fatigue through savasana (relaxation), increased physical strength and flexibility, and the flushing and removal of toxins through “activating and stimulating circulation, digestion and elimination.” Sackin incorporates poses such as Kundalini sets utilizing arm movements that target the lymph nodes underneath the arms and around the chest to stimulate the lymphatic system and enhance the body’s natural systems of detoxification.

Unsurprisingly, Yoga advances the spiritual quest that AA finds integral to recovery. David is a staff member at SHARE!, a clearinghouse and center for self-help and recovery groups, and in recovery himself. David insists, “The answer to addiction comes from a spiritual life.” When in recovery, and exploring the 12 steps, taking inventory is an “internal housecleaning” and “the passport to a new spirituality.”

Located in Culver City, SHARE!, begun by director Ruth Holman 11 years ago, is a program funded by the California Department of Mental Health. SHARE! hosts more than 70 groups every week to support people in recovery or seeking self-discovery, groups that are not only spiritual but psychological. SHARE! staff delineate the difference between spirituality and religion; people of any religious tradition can participate in both 12 step programs and Yoga.

Although the road from addiction to recovery has components of a spiritual quest with spiritual answers, addiction is a physical disease. The craving an addict experiences for a substance or behavior is intensely physical, and for many, the addiction serves as their coping mechanism. Gary Fisher, Director of the prestigious Cirque Lodge treatment center in Utah, describes this craving not as a choice, but something the addict feels “with every fiber of their being,” particularly under stress, “stress induces craving and craving induces using.” In order to help people discover new coping strategies, and methods for reducing stress, Yoga is incorporated into the Cirque Lodge experiential program. Other programs nationwide, including the renowned Betty Ford Center, utilize Yoga for stress reduction.

Cirque’s participants benefit from Yoga, stating it enhances “the cultivation of courage and the ability to endure, as well as the positive practice of focus and concentration.” The courage and endurance found in Yoga can help people face cravings. Jill feels the “30 seconds of willpower” provided by Yoga allows her to handle the obsession one hour at a time. Ana Forrest, owner of the Forrest Yoga Circle in Santa Monica, also discovered endurance in the practice: “I used Sun Salutations as my 12 step program. Every time I wanted to use I did Suns. Sometimes I did Suns all night.”  Both willpower and stress-reduction improve people’s ability to face cravings, or avoid them in the first place. Gary insists, “Relapse starts well before a person takes their next drink, or engages in their addictive behavior,” as the person struggles, under stress, at risk of succumbing to the old familiar coping mechanisms of engaging in addictive behaviors. With solid, healthy coping mechanisms, people are less likely to use.

Yet another benefit of Yoga relates to sangha (the company of a spiritual community or group of like-minded people). People in recovery find they must cultivate a new social circle. Meetings, 12 step programs and self-help groups, like those at SHARE, provide community and a social outlet. For many people Yoga classes fulfill these needs.  Even if people in recovery didn’t begin attending Yoga classes to help “get through” addictions, they find a new social group and activity that didn’t center on drugs, being at bars or being alone.

Storti cautions against the process of trading one addiction for another – a process with which many recovering addicts are familiar. An addiction to alcohol can be commonly traded for another substance or behavior, continuing the vicious cycle as the person searches for something to fill their inner emptiness. Zitcer has seen people return home to become obsessive about their Yoga practice; therefore, he feels it is important to combine Yoga with therapy or recovery groups.

Teresa, now that she is sober, believes her Yoga practice and teaching: “has liberated the essence which allows me to be a clear creative channel for cosmic consciousness, guidance, knowing and teaching.”

About the Author

Felicia M. Tomasko is a writer, Yoga teacher, and Ayurvedic practitioner in Santa Barbara. She is editor-in-chief of LA Yoga magazine.

Source: Reprinted from LA Yoga magazine:  January/February 2005 Volume 4/Number 1

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