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Mindfulness, Yoga and Addiction Recovery

In addition to receiving treatment from trained professionals, clients suffering from addiction and substance abuse disorders have the potential to elevate the results of their recovery on their own. Current research reveals that mindfulness, yoga, and addiction are a tripod of brain-altering behaviors. Research published in the journal Complementary Therapies in Medicine, Volume 21, Issue 3, indicates that current scientific evidence points to the clinical promise of yoga and mindfulness as complementary therapies for addiction. It is also clear that maintaining a daily yoga practice and practicing basic yoga postures direct individuals’ focus inward and leads people to care about their personal health as a result. Just as AA encourages participants to recognize a greater power than themselves, yoga also inspires spiritual aspects and self-awareness in the world. Many current theoretical models suggest that the skills, insights, and self-awareness learned through yoga and mindfulness practice can target multiple psychological, neural, physiological, and behavioral processes implicated in both addiction and relapse.

Mindfulness for Addiction Recovery

Other clinical trials and experimental laboratory studies on smoking, alcohol dependence, and illicit substance use also support the clinical effectiveness and hypothesized mechanisms of action underlying mindfulness-based interventions for treating addiction. Mindfulness originates in ancient Buddhist philosophy, and mindfulness meditation practices, such as gentle Hatha yoga and mindful breathing, are increasingly integrated into secular health care settings in modern medicine.

In The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga, Dr. James Grove, a psychiatrist at Massachusetts General Hospital and Associate Clinical Professor at the Harvard Medical School, explores the connection between mindfulness, yoga, and addiction. The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga mentions the symptoms in the rubric for Recovery: HALT. HALT is a reminder for patients to avoid letting themselves get too Hungry, Lonely, Angry, or Tired. The combination of yoga and mindfulness during recovery addresses and handles all the symptoms of HALT from another angle.

Most mindfulness programs for substance abuse start slow and simple with guided seated meditations, then transition to deepened practices and provide skills to continue with mindfulness on an individual basis. Dr. James Grove, writing in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga, notes how this programming has been shown through various studies over the years to be even more effective than twelve-step programs and psychoeducation in lowering the risk of relapse and having fewer days of substance use or drinking at both six months and a year later. On the same note, Grove also illuminates how yoga was observed as just as effective as group psychotherapy over six months in reducing drug abuse in clients attending a meth maintenance program.

Mindfulness and Smoking Cessation

Further research is needed to fully understand why yoga has been useful for people who are recovering from alcohol and opiate dependence. Research into people looking to quit smoking is further developed. For example, clients start to make a habit of taking a deep centering breath rather than a drag of a cigarette. A successful study also supported the benefit of mindfulness for smokers. The brain imaging study observed that addicted smokers who were trained to fully observe images of smoking in a mindful manner demonstrated fewer cravings in their brain activity compared to those who did not have this training.

Meditation: A Compliment to Treatment

person practicing yogaSince only select studies have been carried out on the precise mechanism of yoga in treating or decreasing addiction, health departments across the nation are beginning to propose a conceptual model to inform future studies on outcomes and possible incorporation into treatment. As treatment providers look into adjusting treatment protocols for specific addictions, more research is needed to fully understand what types of yoga and meditation practices are the most effective interventions for what types of addicts and under what settings.

Despite the limited conclusive research about what practices work best for which addiction, there is strong support for the incorporation of mindfulness and yoga in addiction treatment. Overall, the newest findings continuously support yoga and mindfulness as accessible and advantageous complementary therapies for preventing, treating, and managing addictive behaviors.

SKY Yoga & Substance Abuse

Despite the low number of such studies, the studies are of high quality. A study referenced in The Harvard Medical School Guide to Yoga found that a specialized set of breathing exercises called Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY) helped people who had completed one week of detox for alcohol abuse. SKY uses three types of seated breathing skills led by a teacher:

  1. Victorious breath, a slow deep breathing
  2. Bellows breath, a forced inhalation, and exhalation for twelve to fifteen minutes
  3. Cyclical breathing, a series of slow, medium and fast cycles for thirty minutes

These exercises were followed by twenty minutes of yoga nidra, a deep relaxation state. Researchers from this study found that people who practiced breathing exercises every other day had significantly fewer depressive symptoms and decreased stress hormones after just two weeks. Another interesting study in support of how yoga and mindfulness interacted with addition was conducted in a men’s prison. The study participants had all been diagnosed with substance abuse disorders, and after engaging in six weeks of intensive Sudarshan Kriya Yoga breathing for twenty to twenty-five minutes every day, showed overall improved general function, reduced anxiety levels and boosted well-being compared to a group that only focused on their natural breath for the same amount of time.

Mental Health Benefits of Yoga and Mindfulness

Yoga and mindfulness does not only help the pronounced symptoms of substance abuse such as cravings, impulsivity, negative affect, and intensified reactions to stress, but helps manage patients’ mental health, as well. It is widely acknowledged that physical exercise helps heart health and regulates blood pressure, and is often recommended by most primary care physicians to decrease anxiety and depression. Anxiety and depression are, more often than not, triggers for relapse, and so, by managing these aspects of a client’s mental health, the physical component of the yoga practice can help promote sobriety. In addition, the mindfulness, self-awareness, and personal control components of yoga practice allow patients to develop coping skills when depression, anxiety, or other mental health issues arise.

Benefits of Meditation for Addiction

In sum, here is a consolidated version of the five supported ways in which mindfulness and yoga practices aid in addiction recovery:

  1. Reduced stress and anxiety
  2. Improved attention and awareness
  3. Reduced cravings
  4. Improved mood
  5. Adoption of a non-judgemental attitude

These practices alter a patient’s reaction to anxiety and their initial reactions to stressful situations. Patients are taught through intentional practice that there is no need to immediately react. With mindfulness, patients observe and experience their emotions. Not only are patients able to observe and identify their emotions, but they have the non-judgmental mind space to understand and unpack their patterns of behavior. Most important in addiction treatment, patients can identify when they are falling into patterns of behavior which are their usual triggers for relapse and substance abuse. The practices of yoga, meditation, and mindfulness are centered in self-reflection; addicts have a space to identify and understand their uncomfortable feelings without feeling the need to immediately react or escape them through drug use.

From a dedicated and consistent yoga and meditative practice, patients develop compassion for themselves and can allow themselves to live in the present moment without being burdened by past patterns or concerned about the perceptions and expectations of others.

Boardwalk Recovery Center offers a wide variety of experiential therapies, including meditation, mindfulness, breathwork, and others designed to help patients acknowledge their issues and enhance quality of life. Contact us to learn more about our therapeutic modalities and how our comprehensive programs can help you achieve long term recovery.

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