Yoga for Addiction: 7 Ways Yoga Can Support Your Treatment Program

NOTE: Due to the sensitive nature of the subject and the need for anonymity of those in recovery, some names and identifying locations have been changed.

Diane B. is a recovery success story. Yet even after 30 years of sobriety, she knows that each day may bring a challenge to her sobriety. Fortunately, she has a strong base of skills she can utilize when she feels stressed. Twelve-step work and yoga are but two of the tools she regularly uses to stay sober and healthy.

A study reported by found that 23.5 million Americans aged 12 and older are currently struggling with illicit and prescription drug addiction. That is one in ten Americans addicted across all social and economic classes.

Approximately 120 people die every day in America from a drug overdose. The rise of heroin use across the country is just one factor leading to overdose statistics.

Doctors struggle to find the right treatment program while families grasp at straws trying to help the addict. Treatment centers are incredibly expensive and rarely covered in full by insurance. Factor in that the average addict goes through three different treatment centers, and relapse rates hover at 40 percent, it’s obvious there is no easy, one-size-fits-all solution.

While 12-step programs remain the core of treatment centers, more and more facilities are also implementing a holistic approach.  Although famous actors and models have been vocal about their use of yoga to treat their addiction, yoga and meditation is now becoming increasingly common to the treatment prescription for everyone.

How Yoga Practice Can Help

Jilda Watson developed the yoga program at a treatment center in Alabama ten years ago. She had already been a yoga teacher for a few years but was searching for a way to expand her teaching.

“When I began teaching at the treatment center I realized the needs of my students there were very different than my gym students.  As I assessed the students, I knew that in each class there would be many modifications and there was an incredible need for meditation and breath work,” said Watson.

Addiction leads to an unhealthy lifestyle beyond drugs, usually including lack of exercise, chronic pain, lethargy, and depression.  The asanas might not always be accessible to those struggling with addiction. Therefore, restorative poses, meditation, and pranayama make up the bulk of an addiction class.

“The discipline of yoga breathing helps me in situations where I am feeling stressed,” said Diane B. “I use it to calm myself and refocus.”

Meditation and Stress Relief

A study done by Massachusetts General Hospital proved that a daily meditation practice increases the gray matter in the parts of the brain associated with learning, self-awareness, and introspection. It also has been proven to decrease the gray matter in areas of the brain responsible for anxiety and stress. Meditation helps change how an addict’s brain processes self-awareness, anxiety and stress, allowing them to evaluate and respond to everyday situations without the help of drugs or alcohol.

Meditation’s positive effect on stress and anxiety is especially important because both are frequent triggers for relapse.

“Life in a recovery program is tough,” says Watson. “You deal with your issues of addiction, often physical injuries or illness, community living, being away from home and family and friends and the sometimes overwhelming stress of deeply examining your life.  There is much anger, guilt, and shame.”

Meditation allows those in recovery to calm themselves when feelings of anxiety, shame, fear or cravings surface. Meditation also opens an opportunity for the practitioner to connect with a higher power. The 12 Steps of Alcoholics Anonymous have a strong focus on connecting with a higher power or “God as we understood him.”

In fact, Step 11 specifically mentions meditation: “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God, as we understood Him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out. “

7 Ways Yoga Can Complement a 12-Step Strategy

Yoga makes a natural companion to 12-step programs in a variety of other ways as well:

  1. Teaching pranayama, or controlled breathing, to gain control of thoughts and emotions

  2. Emphasizing the spiritual connection through meditation and prayer

  3. Gaining a sense of self-discipline to avoid impulsive or negative actions

  4. Releasing negative energy through movement with the asanas

  5. Developing a sense of accomplishment leading to increased self-esteem and decreased feelings of inadequacy

  6. Creating a stronger, healthier body leading to a stronger, healthier mind

  7. Developing a connection to other like-minded yogis in recovery

“Yoga helps me stay in touch with my body rather than out of touch with my feelings and emotions,” said Diane B.

When combined with other therapies such as counseling, support groups, and healthy nutrition, yoga can be very beneficial in helping treat addiction to drugs and alcohol.

“I know that yoga is a wonderful tool for recovery. It helps them to sleep, to be calmer, to handle chronic pain, “ says Watson. “I tell them that yoga and meditation won’t make the bad stuff go away in their lives, but it will allow them to handle it better.”

More about yoga’s benefits from Jennifer Williams-Fields: New Program Reveals Workplace Yoga Benefits Employees and Companies

To learn about creating trauma-aware classes, check out Celeste Mendelsohn’s three-part class on YogaUOnline, Teaching Trauma Aware Yoga: Creating a Healing Space

Jennifer Williams FieldsJennifer Williams-Fields E-RYT 200 is passionate about writing, yoga, traveling, public speaking and being a fabulous single momma to six super kids. Doing it all at one time, however, is her great struggle. She has been teaching yoga since 2005 and writing since she first picked up a crayon. Although her life is a sort of organized chaos, she loves every minute of the craziness and is grateful for all she’s learned along the way. Her first book “Creating A Joyful Life: The Lessons I Learned From Yoga and My Mom” is now available on Amazon. She has had her essays featured on Yahoo! and Dr. Oz The Good Life. She is a regular writer for Elephant Journal Magazine, YourTango, and YogaUOnline. See more from Jennifer at

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