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Yoga and Recovery

Yoga Therapy

The field of yoga therapy in clinical settings, ultimately teaching people to attend to direct experiences to be free from suffering is rapidly growing. Doctors, psychologists, psychiatrists, psychotherapists, social workers, and other clinicians are embracing the healing powers of yoga therapy in clinical practice to treat everything from depression to food addiction to autism.

In 2010, American Family Physician published an article by Saeed and colleagues recognizing yoga as a legitimate treatment for depression and anxiety. More recent studies have shown that yoga increases the levels of the neurotransmitter gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA) in the brain. This is significant because people who are suffering from stress, anxiety, depression, and substance abuse are all found to have low levels of GABA. Yoga therapy can treat this, regardless of which came first and what is causing the addiction: the underlying condition or the hijacked brain.

Yoga and Recovery

“Yoga treats the biology and the psychology of an addict,” said New York City addiction psychotherapist Mary Margaret Fredeiick, PhD, in an interview with Yoga Journal. “Addicts are profoundly out of control internally. They have knee-jerk panic reactions and tempers. The will and determination that yoga requires help people regain control over their body and their mind.” 

A regular yoga practice also helps people develop the discipline needed to succeed in 12-step programs, which often are used as the primary method of treatment for many substance users. The mindfulness practices taught in yoga therapy along with the slow, controlled breathing are tools to help curb impulse control, which is something that all substance abusers struggle with.

“Yoga can be done by anyone, anytime, anywhere, making it extremely cost-effective for prisons, schools, 12-step programs, and even individuals,” says Stacey Sperling, a registered yoga teacher with the nonprofit organization Street Yoga. Street Yoga brings yoga to underserviced populations such as foster youth, substance abusers, and the homeless.

It also empowers clients, providing them with real-world tools that they can use anytime, anywhere on their own. This is because yoga (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) are readily accessible when a therapist or sponsor isn’t. 

People begin to learn the difference between pain and discomfort. To sit with discomfort instead of running from it as they experience different asanas. They are able to fully control their experiences, modifying poses in ways that feel good to them and stopping when yoga poses begin to hurts.

Yoga takes advantage of the brain’s neuroplasticity, which is often the same characteristic that makes change so difficult. Depression, anxiety, stress, and other negative emotions activate the body’s nervous system in addition to emotional regions of the brain. 

The body eventually settles into these patterns, and even if the mind has insight, the body will continue to activate these physiological patterns unless this insight is embodied-literally. While traditional therapies work only with the mind, yoga therapy works with the mind and body simultaneously, allowing for the embodiment of insights. 

The effect of yoga therapy on neuroplasticity becomes even more important when the mind-body connection is further explored. Yoga therapy also can have a positive effect on the lymphatic network, nervous system, and the immune system, all of which work together to play a role in emotional well-being and overall health. 

-April Dawn Ricchuito, DD, MSW, is a New York City-based writer and integrative practitioner who combines traditional evidence-based therapies with ancient practices, such as yoga, and newer findings in contemplative techniques.