New Study Points to Yoga as a Promising Complement to Substance Use Disorder Treatment

According to recent data, approximately 21.5 million American adults aged 12 and older have battled some form of Substance Abuse Disorder within the past two years.  Increasingly, Yoga is being recognized as a powerful adjunct to more traditional medically oriented and healing modalities.

The term “Substance Use Disorder” was coined by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services to replace more stigmatizing labels, such as Alcoholism or drug abuse. It covers the full spectrum of issues that result when alcohol or other substances are misused in a way that risks health, damages important relationships, and impairs one’s ability to meet the responsibilities of daily life. The term also provides a common language for health care professionals.

Many people who struggle with substance misuse also live with psychosocial problems,  mental illness, and a past trauma history. In addition to the physical pain and discomfort of detoxing, attempts at recovery may be hampered by reduced self-esteem, anxiety, depression, and a negative self-image formed as a result of past unsuccessful attempts at abstinence. That’s what makes Yoga such a smart strategy.

Yoga Can Aid All Aspects of Recovery

The medical and mental health communities are increasingly recognizing that Yoga’s holistic mind-body focus, physical movements, breath- and centering practices dovetail beautifully with traditional recovery methods.

An exploratory study published in the Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine Journal measured perceptions of inpatient rehabilitation professionals regarding the feasibility and usefulness of integrating yoga therapy into inpatient rehabilitation settings.

While further research is needed, the inpatient rehabilitation stakeholders who participated in the study viewed yoga therapy as a promising complement to other treatments in the long-term recovery process. In another promising sign, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has begun integrating yoga therapy into the rehabilitation services it offers.

The tools of yoga can be utilized by individuals throughout all phases of recovery, including detoxification, restoration to health, and long-term management. As a felt-sense is one of the things many people in recovery have lost Yoga creates an easeful path for people to reconnect with their bodies.

Celeste Mendelsohn, a yoga therapist who works with people in recovery from Substance Use Disorder points out that Yoga allows people to get back into their bodies in an easy, comfortable and non-threatening way. “It allows them an embodied and breath-based way to reconnect to their sensation and to recover some of the proprioception they’ve lost, so they can understand that their body has messages for them,” she explains.

Via movement, breathing techniques, mantra, mudra, or more inner-focused practices, yogic tools can be customized to meet each person’s needs.

There is also a great synergy between the ancient yogic philosophies, such as the system of restraints and practices called the Yamas and Niyamas, and modern methods of recovery, such as 12-step programs. Both are rooted in the creation of inner empowerment, and both are based on a philosophical framework that includes contemplation, self-reflection, making healthier lifestyle choices, and actively creating transformation toward a better path.

In both in-patient and outpatient facilities, there’s a growing willingness among the counselors and health care professionals to embrace the tools of yoga as part of a whole-person recovery strategy. 

“The counselors I work with are very excited about the possibilities of what they can do,” Celeste says. “I’ve had counselors ask for yoga tools they can integrate into their own work with clients after the clients have left my class. For example, a counselor will ask me about breath work they can offer to alleviate anxiety or other symptoms of stress.”

How Can The Yoga Community Foster the Process?

Celeste believes any yoga teacher or therapist who wants to work with Substance Use Disorders should first gain a solid understanding of both yoga and the recovery process. “It’s really going to be up to us working in this world to carry the message with professionalism.

“We need to have a real understanding of what we are walking into when we enter this particular area. To integrate our work into that modality and gain real acceptance into a treatment center entails more than just understanding the nuts and bolts of working with the client. We’ve got to have a solid understanding of the language and behaviors of recovery, as well the subtle cues of what’s happening to clients who are undergoing a difficult and uncomfortable process,” she states.

That depth of understanding should extend to the ability to go off script when something isn’t working. “It’s important to be very present with your clients and really know your material,” she says. “You’ve also got to be creative because not everyone will respond in the same way to what you offer. The ability to create an atmosphere of exploration and curiosity in your students and yourself in a partnership that allows each person to find the practice that resonates with them. It’s important to have a lot of flexibility as a teacher.”

Need more information about your students and substance use disorder?  Study online – Addressing the Root Cause of Addiction: Advanced Topics for Teaching Yoga for Substance Use Disorder – a course with Celeste Mendelsohn and YogaUOnline.

Lynn Crimando

 Lynn Crimando, MA serves as the teaching mentor for YogaUOnline’s Wellness Educator Program. She is a yoga teacher, C-IAYT Yoga Therapist, board-certified Health and Wellness Coach, and a Buteyko Practitioner. She has a private practice in New York City and teaches classes throughout the city on behalf of Health Advocates for Older People. In addition, Lynn is on the faculty of the IAYT-approved Yoga Polarity Therapist Training in Malverne, New York. To learn more about Lynn, visit her website:


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