Yoga therapy is a set of principles; it’s a group of mindfulness activities. Clients often find that the gentle exercises and relaxation techniques relieve stress while in drug detox programs and after. There is a growing body of scientific evidence suggesting yoga, like adventure therapy, as a complementary treatment helps addicts navigate the difficult journey toward sobriety.
A Brief Snapshot of Yoga’s History
The original family of yoga types originated in India as an integral part of Hindu worship and spiritual renewal. Modern yoga therapy seen in rehabilitation centers around the world continues to evolve as researchers discover more physical and mental health benefits for people who struggle with chronic health conditions and drug addiction.
Traditional elements included:
- Postures to keep the body physically strong and fit
- Following moral and ethical guidelines within the Hindu religion
- Chanting mantras to keep the mind focused and control respiration depth and rate
- Meditating to calm the mind
- Adopting a spiritual philosophy/guiding principle
- Learning guided by gurus (leaders)
Today, yoga therapy program designers and instructors, especially in Western cultures, often modify the original elements to accommodate non-Hindu participants. Rather than practicing these exercises as a means to connect with a higher power, many people find that yoga helps them identify individual strengths, and see the ultimate goal as gaining freedom from all pain and suffering – physical, emotional, mental and spiritual.
Evidence-Based Benefits of Yoga Therapy
1. Redefine Pain Management
Like the ancient yogis who praised the physical benefits of practicing yoga, today, people report drug detox programs that incorporate alternative therapy help them manage pain better. After a few weeks, many people find they no longer experience daily pain and inflammation.
Science supports these reports. Numerous studies document the pain-relieving benefits of a few weeks of yoga for people living with chronic pain.
- A 1998 randomized study of traditional treatments for carpal tunnel syndrome versus yoga regimens found therapeutic yoga provided greater pain reduction and increased grip strength than wearing a wrist brace.
- Another NCBI peer-reviewed study (2005) explored the benefits of Iyengar for patients suffering from severe osteoarthritis and other medical conditions that made more vigorous exercise impossible. The researchers found Iyengar regimens an effective nonpharmacologic intervention for knee pain.
While both of these trials were small, there is an abundance of information that confirms mindfulness activities lower pain perception levels, improve body function and increase mobility, as a stand-alone therapy, or in conjunction with substance abuse and other mental health modalities.
Therapeutic treatments that reduce drug dependency and pain levels, help addicts gradually regain lost strength and muscle tone so they can live vital, self-sufficient lives again.
2. Improve Lung Function
A 2016 article published in Medicine exposed the importance of identifying (and treating) underlying chronic medical diseases and mental disorders in rehab settings. Researchers analyzing the metadata discovered that “Patients with bipolar disorder and those with asthma have significantly increased comorbidity rates.”
This surprising connection means that a comprehensive medical and mental assessment must preclude entrance into individualized drug detox programs. Without the thorough workup, clinicians could misdiagnose excited utterances as a symptom of bipolar disorder anxiety and miss asthma attacks.
Armed with this information, treatment facilities may recommend patients with this dual-diagnosis participate in specific yogic therapies.
In studying the benefits of yoga therapy for asthma sufferers, researchers discovered:
- While more research is needed to fully under the benefits of pranayama (yogic exercises) for asthmatic and non-asthma sufferers, intentional breathing improves inspiration rate and volume.
- An extended and pronounced OOOOOOO . . . MMM enables lower respiratory tract emptying better than normal Omkara chanting.
- Any breathing exercise that supports more productive expiration is helpful for people with asthma.
While this scientific research focuses on asthma control, the medical community has known for decades that controlling breathing patterns is an effective biofeedback mechanism that lowers blood pressure. It is easy to reach the conclusion that improving lung function will empower people going through a stressful life event, such as entering a recovery program, to control blood pressure, and develop stronger, healthier lungs.
Many yogis today teach TM based on Dr. Herbert Benson’s The Relaxation Response, first published in the early 1970’s.
3. Strengthen the Heart Muscle With Yoga
According to the American Heart Association, “Cocaine, amphetamines, and ecstasy all have adverse effects on the cardiovascular system.” Both legal and illegal drugs classified as amphetamines are habit forming.
People who ingest cocaine in any of its forms put their heart at risk because users:
- Are 30-35 percent more likely to develop aortic stiffening
- Have higher systolic blood pressure values (an average of 8mm Hg higher)
- Have a significantly higher risk of the heart’s left ventricle wall thickening
While there isn’t enough empirical data at this point which shows a yoga therapy program combined with a non 12 step rehab plan reverses all heart damage caused by prolonged cocaine abuse, there are studies that prove mindfulness activities strengthen heart muscles.
Yoga is a powerful, heart-strengthening complement to any physical fitness program. A strong heart supplies oxygen-rich blood to muscles, tissues and vital organs, improving physical strength and endurance. Drug rehab participants who access a variety of complementary therapies such as adventure therapy, art, dance, music, and visualization/guided imagery develop life skills they use every day during recovery and beyond.
4. Develop Healthy Eating Habits
Part of the cycle of addiction is that people with drug dependencies focus on feeding their addiction, not fueling their bodies. Many people considering entering one of the drug detox programs arrive not with long-term poor nutritional backgrounds. Some live with maladaptive eating behaviors. Some don’t have enough money to both eat right and feed their drug habit, so they choose the latter.
A yoga therapy program complements sound nutritional education, supporting improved physical and mental health. With a mindful approach, patients are encouraged to focus on their meals intently as they inhale the aroma of each food, savor the taste and memorize the appearance. By paying attention to the feelings, sensations, and thoughts each bite delivers, people can refocus their aversion, or obsession, to certain food groups.
Some smaller studies that explored mindfulness techniques as an alternative approach to weight-loss, glycemic control and eating disorder management conclude that “teaching patients how to tap into and act on intrinsic [rewards] (e.g. enjoying healthy eating, not overeating, and self-compassion) . . . is a promising new direction in improving individuals’ relationship with food.”
A research project designed and administered by Debra Safer, MD (of Stanford University) and Kristin von Ranson, Ph.D. (of University of Calgary) monitored 60 patients with binge eating disorders. They published their results in Volume 51, Issue 11 of Behaviour Research and Therapy, and their findings are summarized in this online article posted by the National Institute for the Clinical Application of Behavioral Medicine.
The key takeaways from the summary are that:
- The participants given Dialectical Behavior Therapy (mindfulness) instruction reported a significant increase in binge abstinence compared to the control group
- Study subjects reported significant improvements in quality of life
- Abstinence rates declined slightly (from 40 percent to 30 percent) at the six-month follow assessment
DBT applications in many areas, including substance abuse, continue to expand with positive results. Mindfulness, an integral part of yoga practices, in conjunction with nutritional counseling and consistent, high-quality aftercare offers the promise of a healthy post-addiction lifestyle.
5. Enhance Sleep Quality
Along with healthy eating and an excellent physical fitness program, getting adequate restorative sleep is essential for the body, mind, and spirit. Many of the 1 in 10 Americans over the age of 12 who have a drug addiction, also have issues with sleep disorders. The relationship between sleep patterns and substance abuse is circular. Addicts who cannot sleep may become addicted to medication prescribed to treat sleep disorders, such as insomnia, while in rehab. Detox cleans them up, but then they have another drug-dependency to manage.
Sleep disorders and addiction to other drugs is common, too. For example, in a small cross-sectional study conducted at the Alcohol and Drug Recovery Center (ADRC) at Cleveland Clinic, Cleveland, Ohio, researchers found more than half (53 percent) of the volunteers exhibited symptoms associated with sleep apnea. Sixty-six percent admitted to using multiple drugs and/or alcohol and one other drug. And, almost half (46 percent) admitted self-medicating for sleep problems.
Also worth mentioning, is a 2014 SAMHSA warning about Ambien and other medications containing zolpidem. Data showed that one-third of all ER visits in 2011 related to zolpidem reactions were directly tied to overmedicating. The agency created a DATA SHEET to inform and educate medical providers about the dangers of zolpidem, and adverse reactions seen when taken alone or with prescribed, OTC and illicit drugs.
“Even when taking the recommended dose of zolpidem, some patients find restful sleep difficult to achieve. When sleep does not come easily or is interrupted, patients may take more of their zolpidem medication than is prescribed. This may occur even though the medication guides for each zolpidem product mentioned above contain clear instructions to the patient to take the product exactly as prescribed. ” SAMHSA
Their data sheet further revealed that:
“Nearly half (47 percent) of zolpidem-related ED visits involving overmedication resulted in either a hospital admission or transfer in 2010, 26 percent of which were admissions to a critical or intensive care unit.”
Because helping recovering addicts attain restful sleep without medication is desirable, non 12 step rehab models tend to look for non-toxic alternatives to promote healthy sleep patterns.
Scientific studies confirm following yogic disciplines yields many positive physical and mental health benefits, including restorative sleep.
One group of older Americans who participated in an intervention that included the four elements listed below fell asleep faster, stayed asleep longer and reported “feelings of being well rested” upon waking in the morning.
Positive improvements were reported throughout the study, at one week, three months and six months via a self-assessment survey.
Yogi elements include:
- Relaxation techniques
- Voluntary regulated breathing exercises
- Lectures on yoga philosophy
Another study monitored 30 “healthy men between the ages of 25 and 35,” to determine how Hatha yoga and Omkar meditation would impact sleep over a three-month course of therapy. Study administrators concluded, “yoga practices increase melatonin secretion, which may be responsible for better sleep and an improved sense of well-being.”
Treatment facilities considering nonpharmacologic sleep aids may be encouraged to incorporate yoga principles into their detox programs, based on the success seen in other patient group studies.
6. Elevate the Mood
One of the hardest parts of the addiction recovery journey is coming to terms with bad decisions, and ultimately forgiving yourself for past mistakes. Yoga provides a channel for getting in touch with yourself, on a deeply personal basis.
The following quote comes from Yoga International and sums up how intentional thought gives people the ability to move forward, toward a more pleasant, more enjoyable existence. Yin principles teach it is possible to acknowledge negativity without reacting to it.
“If we can recognize that we are not our anger—that we are just identifying in that moment with the state of anger—then we can co-exist with our anger, and kindness can emerge.”
It can be enormously empowering to realize anger, frustration, and other negative emotions don’t have to define who a person is. Yin elements help people differentiate between fleeting feelings and core values, which elevates the mood and relieves stress for many people.
Non 12 step rehab is more about treating the whole person, not the addiction. By leveraging adventure therapy, relaxation techniques and education tools to build life-skills, the rehab experience becomes the first step toward a confident, happier life.