Yoga—once a sort of fringe practice—has gone mainstream. Not only that, but it has attracted scientific attention and it’s increasingly being incorporated into treatment for mental health and substance use issues. According to the National Institutes of Health, yoga does, in fact, provide many tangible benefits to practitioners.
These benefits include reducing chronic stress, improving mental health, relieving symptoms of depression, improving sleep, reducing chronic neck and lower-back pain, and promoting healthier eating habits. There is nothing mystical about these benefits, as they are comparable to other forms of exercise. However, yoga does have a number of features that make it especially good for supporting mental wellness and addiction recovery overall.
Breath is a key element of yoga practice. Every form of exercise involves breathing, but breathing is a very intentional component of yoga practice. Breathing is used in several different ways in yoga. Typically, you are supposed to maintain slow, even breaths on the inhale and exhale.
This is often much harder than it sounds. If you are in a position that is slightly difficult to hold, you can practice remaining calm despite physical distress. Breathing is also often matched to movement. This simultaneously makes the movement more challenging and your breathing more deliberate.
Yoga also includes specific breathing exercises called pranayama. There are a variety of different pranayama exercises intended to achieve different effects. A basic pranayama pattern is to breathe in for four seconds and breathe out for eight seconds.
Research shows that this pattern of breathing stimulates the vagus nerve and reduces heart rate. This may be one way that yoga helps reduce chronic stress. Other patterns have been shown to improve heart rate variability—a measure of how well your heart responds to changing demands—and pulmonary-cardio synchronization, which creates a greater sense of wellbeing.
If you’re even vaguely familiar with yoga, you might know how it helps develop a strong core: the muscles around your abdomen and lower back that keep you upright. This is important for several reasons. As noted above, research shows that yoga can help with chronic pain in the lower back and neck.
Chronic pain is often a complicating factor in addiction recovery, especially from opioids, so non-chemical ways of managing pain are often helpful in recovery. Yoga appears to reduce chronic back pain in two ways: by improving flexibility in tight hamstrings and hip flexors, and by strengthening the core muscles that stabilize the back.
Core engagement may also benefit your mental health. Researchers have discovered that the areas of our brain related to emotions and the areas related to movement are a lot more connected than we thought. The connections to the core muscles are especially numerous, perhaps because the core comprises a lot of different muscles close to the spinal cord.
The practical result is that engaging your core, as you do in yoga, improves your mood on a basic physiological level. As an extra bonus, you continue to get a boost even when you’re not exercising. When you have a stronger core, you also have better posture, which is also implicated in this neural feedback loop.
It makes sense when you consider how you might slouch when you’re tired or in a bad mood. On the other hand, having a better posture sends more positive signals from your motor cortex.
Any kind of exercise will improve your mental health and your recovery but at least one large study suggests you get the most out of your exercise when it’s social. A study of more than a million adults found that people who exercised regularly had fewer bad mental health days each month and that the best exercise for mental health seemed to be team sports.
The social aspect is thought to reduce stress and increase engagement. However, it’s likely that you don’t actually have to play on a team to enjoy the social benefits of exercise. The best way to learn yoga is by taking classes from experienced teachers. If you regularly attend the same yoga class with the same people, you are likely to make friends and have a greater sense of connection.
Yoga is also excellent for improving your body awareness. Yoga requires balance, flexibility, strength, and coordination. Yoga also relies on proprioception, which is the ability to feel how your body is oriented in space. As discussed above, yoga also teaches you to be more aware and deliberate about your breathing and forces you to engage your core.
This improved body awareness can help in recovery in a number of different ways. The first is just practical. Several substances, including opioids and benzodiazepines, can impair your coordination and balance with long-term use and make you more prone to accidents and falls.
For a younger person, falls or accidents are not typically a big deal but as you age, a fall or accident can be serious. Yoga helps you remember where your feet are and how to stay above them. The body awareness you get from yoga also helps in more subtle ways.
We often don’t realize how closely our physical and mental states are connected. You may be aware, for example, that your heart rate increases and your jaw gets tense when you’re anxious. However, you may not be aware of the full extent to which your emotions affect your body and vice versa.
Yoga helps you become more aware of this connection on your mat and throughout the day. It’s one more tool you can use to manage challenging emotions.
When you’re recovering from addiction, the right exercise is whatever works for you. There are some features of yoga that make it especially well suited for addiction recovery but you’ll never know if it’s for you until you try it for yourself.
At Enlightened Solutions, we know that recovery from addiction is about healing the mind, body, and spirit. We use a variety of holistic methods including yoga and meditation to promote wellness, connection, and purpose. We believe recovery from addiction should be a process of increasing joy. To learn more, call us today at (833) 801-5483.