Yoga in Recovery

Yoga is known for its ability to reduce stress, but did you know that it can also help treat addiction? Several recent studies demonstrate that a regular yoga practice may help reduce addictive cravings. Yoga can provide a sense of fulfillment, well-being, and community. The meditation component of yoga together with its many physical benefits can make yoga the perfect addition to a comprehensive treatment program. The only way to know for sure is to give yoga a try and see for yourself. Here are six reasons why yoga might be exactly what your brain and body need during drug and alcohol recovery.

1. Reduce Cravings

The early stage of recovery is always the roughest period. Post-acute withdrawal syndrome from alcohol and drugs is never a pleasant experience. A little yoga can go a long way towards providing relief from cravings and calming a worried mind. Yoga induces a relaxing buzz similar to alcohol by increasing GABA.

GABA is an inhibitory neurotransmitter in the brain that’s responsible for turning down overactive brain chemistry. As your brain struggles to produce the neurotransmitters that alcohol used to provide, the neurotransmitter glutamate can become overactive. Increasing GABA with yoga can ease the compulsion to use.

2. Reduce Anxiety

Boosting GABA with yoga can do more than just reduce addictive cravings. According to a 2010 study published in the Journal of Alternative and Complementary Medicine, a single 60-minute session of yoga can boost GABA levels by as much as 27%. GABA is what anti-anxiety drugs like Xanax act on to treat symptoms. The “yoga glow” that devout yoga practitioners talk about is largely the result of elevated GABA in the brain. Yoga also releases feel-good endorphins that act on peripheral opiate receptors in the body.

3. Reduce Stress

People who frequently drink alcohol can have elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. In healthy individuals, cortisol is only released during emergencies as part of the ‘fight-or-flight’ response. People with anxiety, depression, and issues with alcohol addiction often have an overactive adrenal gland that produces too much cortisol. Chronically high cortisol levels can make anxiety and depression worse. When you’re stressed, you’re more likely to seek out drugs and alcohol as a way of escape. Studies show that yoga may act on the hypothalamus to reduce stress and lower cortisol production.

4. Yoga and Sleep

Difficulty sleeping can be one of the side effects of adjusting to sobriety. Over time, poor sleep can have a detrimental impact on mental health. Insomnia and other sleep disturbances can lead to worsening anxiety, depression, chronic fatigue, and a weakened immune system. All of these things can make you more likely to go out and use. Yoga is proven to improve sleep and treat insomnia. Studies show that four to eight weeks of daily yoga can significantly improve sleep.

5. Pain Reduction

Chronic pain in your back, knees, neck, and head can make a prime excuse to reach for a drink. Yoga can help reduce the temptation to return to using by reducing chronic pain. Chronic joint inflammation is made worse by high cortisol levels. The cortisol-lowering power of yoga can help address pain issues. One study found that six months of regular yoga practice greatly reduced pain in individuals with chronic lower back pain.

Yoga can not only reduce pain on-site but can also reduce your perception of pain. In other words, yoga can increase your pain tolerance. Yoga accomplishes this by increasing levels of gray matter in the brain. High levels of gray matter are associated with pain modulation.

6. Find A Sense Of Community

One of the most challenging aspects of recovering from drug and alcohol addiction is needing to find new groups of healthy people to socialize with. Attending a regular yoga class can help you meet like-minded individuals. People who are into yoga tend to put a heavy emphasis on emotional, spiritual, and physical health, all the things that you should be striving for in drug and alcohol recovery. The yoga community can be a great addition to the bonds you form in group counseling and A.A. programs. Just because you have an issue with addiction doesn’t mean that it has to define you. It’s healthiest to make new friends both in A.A. meetings and in non-recovery related settings like yoga classes.

Finding Which Type of Yoga Is Right For You

Not everyone wants the intensity of a 90-minute hot Hatha session, while others may not have the core strength or joint mobility necessary for the poses done in Vinyasa. Luckily there are a wide variety of yoga styles to choose from no matter what your ability level or health goals.

Yoga is part exercise, part breathwork, and part meditation. Yoga styles vary dramatically. Some styles, like Vinyasa, involve a lot of movement, or “flow.” This style is more focused on improving coordination, strengthening the core, and balancing the muscles while getting diverse movement to the joints.

Other styles, like Hatha, are more meditative. In Hatha yoga, practitioners hold the poses for extended lengths of time with a heavier focus on breathing. Fighting to hold poses forces practitioners to synchronize their breathing with their movement and trains the brain to be less reactionary.

Deciding what you want to accomplish with your yoga practice will help you decide which types of classes to take. Yoga studios often specialize in certain styles, while others offer a wide variety of classes. Some studios are decorated with an aesthetic that promotes relaxation. Others are more geared toward the physical fitness crowd that uses yoga to recover from weightlifting and CrossFit workouts. Many studios offer restorative yoga classes, which for many people are a great place to start. Restorative yoga focuses on holding light poses for several minutes at a time so that you can focus on meditation and breathing.

Yoga can help treat addiction by reducing cravings, stress, anxiety, and depression. One of the ways GABA does this is by boosting levels of the neurotransmitter GABA in the brain. Yoga can also help you sleep more soundly, a component of health that is often ignored. The yoga community can be a great way to expand your circle of health-conscious friends.

If you or someone you know needs help recovering from addiction, the Stonewall Institute Treatment Center is more than happy to answer any questions you may have. Call us today at 602-535 6468 or email us at

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