How can yoga help with addiction?

This month sees the launch of two major campaigns urging us to give up alcohol for a month, Cancer Researches Dryathlon and Alcohol Changes Dry January.
Many people are unaware just how much alcohol they consume and how much they use it  as a crutch to get through life so this is a good way for people to re-evaluate their relationship with alcohol and improve their health.
Did you know that yoga is now commonplace in addiction recovery treatment?

What is addiction?
Addiction is a disease in which it is difficult to control the use of drugs either impulsively or regularly even when there are harmful or negative consequences.
At present we don’t know why some people become addicted whilst others don’t but there are some factors which pre-dispose some more than others.
Ethnicity, gender, socio-economic factors, abuse and mental health are all factors as well as age.  Young people who start taking drugs when the brain is still developing are more likely to become addicts.
Increased or regular drug use can make changes in the brain which make it difficult to resist the urge to take further drugs.  These changes can be long term which is why people can be free from drugs for many years but then relapse.  Addiction is not curable but is treatable and when someone relapses (or even feels that they are about to) this simply means the treatment needs to be adjusted or changed.
Some people think that addicts are people of low moral values or mentally weak but this is simply not true.  Addiction is a complex disease and the changes that are made in the brain are what make it difficult for people to quit.
How does someone quit drugs?
You need to seek professional help, there are many addiction treatment centres and addicts may try many and it can often take years before finding a treatment that works.  Depending on the severity of the addiction and the drugs involved some may need to spend time in a residential centre to detox.
After the initial detox, long term management is needed.  This can be a structured day program at a rehabilitation centre, regular psychotherapy, group therapy, AA/NA/CA (alcohol/narcotics/cocaine anonymous) and often a combination of some or all of these. 
Replacing a bad habit with a good one.
When it comes to recovery from substance abuse stress is one of the key factors in relapse.
Stress caused by external factors such as poor home or professional life, broken or strained relationships, the stress of hiding an addiction from work and loved ones.
From years of personal neglect, physical illness, discomfort and pain often go hand in hand with addiction and substance misuse.  Tension, pain or discomfort in the body creates tension in the mind which often creates more tension and perceived pain in the body.
So we can see that there is stress caused by not only the physical symptoms of withdrawal but from the emotional coupled with poor emotion regulation skills and emotional reactivity.
There are many emotions associated with addiction, anger, guilt, shame, fear and loneliness.
Stress increases muscle tension, increases heart rate and blood pressure and also causes gastrointestinal distress.
How can yoga help?
Regarding addiction Yogic philosophy teaches us that there is a cycle between Vritti’s (habitual motions of thoughts of the ego and attachment such as I want, I need etc.) and Samskaras (latent impressions).
We may take a drink which we enjoy and then a latent impression is created (samskara), this gives rise to thoughts (vrittis) about how pleasant drinking is so we drink more which creates deeper latent impressions (we can liken this to the chemical changes which science tells us occur in the brain) and so the cycle goes on and on.
Yoga helps break the cycle of vritti – samskara.
In fact in the Yoga Sutras (the oldest and definitive text on Yogic philosophy) Patanjali begins: “Yogas chitta vritti ni rodha,” translated as “Yoga is the neutralization of the vortices of feeling.” Or more simply put, to quieten the mind.
Yoga not only helps us to reduce the physical and mental symptoms of stress but also gives us the ability to regulate our emotional responses, i.e. to observe feelings without having to react to them.  So when cravings occur we can objectively look at the feelings that come up and make a rational decision on how best to react, or not. To light that cigarette or open that bottle of wine or pick up a book, call a friend, eat something healthy or go for a walk. Yoga has been successfully used as part of treatment recovery programs for many years now.
Yoga allows us to reconnect with ourselves on every level, the mind-body-emotional disconnection that addicts suffer can be directly healed or resolved with yogic practices.
Jan Gerber, director of Paracelsus Recovery (, the world’s leading private luxury rehab based in London and Zurich, says “We have considered Yoga as an integral part of our treatment approach for addiction since the very beginning. We have been one of the first treatment providers doing so and are pleased to see that more and more providers offer Yoga as part of their treatment programs. The general health benefits of regular Yoga practice are well proven; Yoga as a complementing element for addiction and mental health treatment is powerful and invaluable”.
What does Science tell us about Yoga?
There are a plethora of studies available which back up yoga’s efficacy for assisting in addiction recovery.  We know for example that yoga increases Gaba, a neurotransmitter which is reduced in mood and anxiety disorders and also regulates muscle tone.  There are many studies that indicate that yoga increases the neurotransmitters melatonin, serotonin and dopamine which are linked to wakefulness, feeling good, reward, memory and nocioception (sensation of pain).  Yoga has also been shown to decrease the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol.  Yogic breathing practices have been shown to regulate noradrenaline, too much of which acts as a stressor and too little makes us sluggish.  According to Michael Melnychuk the lead author of the report by Trinity College Dublin “There is a sweet spot of noradrenaline in which our emotions, thinking and memory are much clearer”.
Yoga also aids neuroplasticity, the ability for the brain to adapt and change, by increasing BDNF which helps the brain cells to function and grow new neurons.
Yoga is a tool for transformation of the mind, everything we do in yoga is moving towards that goal.  I don’t know whether yoga can undo the changes that addiction makes in the brain but it can definitely help us overcome and manage them.  
Addicts seek to change their consciousness through their behaviour but the rewards are short lived and harmful.  Yoga gives us the ability to change our consciousness long term in a safe, fulfilling and positive way.
To experience for yourself how yoga can help, come to my yoga for stress workshop at triyoga Camden on January the 25th19.45-21.45 or my weekly yoga for stress class at Triyoga Camden every Wednesday 14.15-15.30 or better still book in with me for a yoga therapy session between 5-9pm also at Triyoga Camden on Wednesdays where we’ll work together to build a bespoke yoga practice to help you reach your goal whatever that may be.
Along with my weekly triyoga yoga for stress class I also teach a weekly restorative yoga for mental health class for the NHS and work with the world’s leading luxury private rehab Paracelsus Recovery as a yoga therapist and myofascial release massage therapist. 
Try this simple technique the next time you feel a craving.
Nadi Shodana –alternate nostril breathing.
According to yogic philosophy Nadis are the body’s energy channels and Shodana means cleansing.
This breathing technique is said to cleanse the nadis and bring balance to the left and right hemispheres of the brain. It is good to do when faced with any kind of stress, when you cannot make your mind up on some important issue or to calm the body and mind before a long meditation or yoga practice.
Note: to balance the nervous system make the inhale and exhale equal, to help initiate a deeper relaxation response make the exhale longer than the inhale. When practicing any yogic breathing techniques the breath should always be steady and easy, don’t force it, you’re looking always for a satisfying breath.
Before you begin make sure you are sitting comfortably with the spine straight. Close your eyes and take a moment to notice how you’re feeling physically, mentally, energetically and emotionally.
Take the thumb and ring finger of your right hand to the bridge of your nose, follow it down until you come just off the cartilage.
Inhale through both nostrils
1.      Gently close your right nostril with your thumb and exhale through the left.
2.      Inhale through the left nostril
3.      Gently close the left nostril with the ring (or little) finger and exhale through the right.
4.      Inhale through the right nostril, repeat from step 1 for up to 3 minutes and finish by exhaling through the left nostril.
See how you feel now.

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