Yoga Therapy & Ayurveda for Addiction Recovery

Part 1: The First 3 Tenets of Yoga for Recovery

Ayurveda is often introduced and practiced alongside its sister science of yoga, which has been heartily embraced by a large number of Westerners, and is now being utilized not only as a form of exercise, but as a therapeutic remedy as well. Therapeutic use of yoga has particularly grown within the addiction recovery community, where Hatha yoga is often used to help patients through their time in early recovery. Outside of rehab centers, there are an increasing number of yoga teachers offering “Yoga of Recovery (YoR)” classes in our communities. These classes emphasize the connections between yoga and “12-Step” programs, which began in the 1930s with the first program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and reportedly number over 165 today.

Addiction is a major issue in our modern society, and is aptly described as a significant social plague. In addiction, a considerable number of people make several attempts at sobriety before it truly takes hold. Recovery is therefore seen by many as a lifelong process that necessitates a holistic solution: incorporating wisdom and practices that address physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. By including Ayurveda along with the philosophy and psychology of yoga, YoR creates a fully integrated, holistic healing approach to this rampant disorder of our modern world.

Yoga for Recovery

YoR programs include immersion retreats, teacher training, and counselor programs that provide a wide range of tools for working with people in their struggle through the addictive process of any substance or behavior. Six tenets form the basis of YoR. These tenets address the spiritual malady that is addiction, and provide a means for practitioners and people looking to overcome their own self-destructive and addictive tendencies to understand how to approach recovery from many angles simultaneously. It there offers a multi-faceted solution to a multi-pronged problem. YoR is not a protocol for treatment, however, but rather an invitation to each individual to undertake personal investigation and self-inquiry around their various addictive processes. It guides individuals in utilizing the many healing aspects of the Vedic sciences in the recovery process.

The six tenets of YoR are:

  1. Life is Longing;

  2. Life is Prana;

  3. Life is Relationship;

  4. Life is Sweet;

  5. Life is Love; and

  6. Life is Progress.

In this article, we’ll introduce these six tenets of YoR and share examples of an ongoing dialogue with YoR practitioners about how they apply these in their life.

Life is Longing

Life is longing is the first tenet of YoR. This deals with the spiritual aspect of the disease of addiction. Here we pose the question: “Is our ‘acting out’ behavior in part due to the fact that we are trying to materialize/actualize something that is a spiritual need within us?” We examine the roots, the storyline of our addictive behaviors through the question, “What do I long for?” We must honor our longing by dedicating time and space to spiritual practices. If we attempt to fulfill these purely by physical methods, it will corrupt into the craving process.

One YoR student described her experience of this tenet by using a metaphor to her food addiction:

Intimacy in all different types of relationships (love relationships, parental, friendship, etc.). . . . In our program this weekend, you said something that really hit home with me. You said that eating was the ‘most intimate’ experience you can have. You eat an apple, and it becomes a part of you. Those few words, along with the question, ‘What do you long for?’ immediately brought clarity to me. It makes perfect sense to me now why I overeat, and the ‘hunger I am really trying to satisfy.’ The retreat was so nourishing and healing for me. I cannot express how deeply the experience has touched me.

Life is Prana

Life is Prana is the second tenet. The dependency upon prana (life force energy) is truly built into our human condition and profoundly affects the addictive process. We ingest prana, at the gross level, through food, heat, liquids and air (breath), and, on a subtle level, through sensory impressions (predominantly the senses related to air and ether: sound and touch). Looking at the primary sources of our prana (air, water, and food), we can happily note that there are, as yet, no rehabilitation facilities for people suffering from their “addiction” to fresh air and water! It should be noted that there are indeed rehabilitation centers for those who suffer from their addiction to food, yet we are all “addicted” to food, meaning we are dependent on food for our survival. The term “eating disorders” instead describes the condition of suffering around this necessary dependency.

When our food, water and air are polluted, processed, and devitalized, or when we are removed from nature and bombarded with sensory stimuli, our prana is disturbed. When we are under stress, we shift into the fight or flight response and our breathing becomes fast and shallow. These disruptions to the flow of prana deplete our body’s reserves of this life-force, which can lead to fatigue and exacerbate muscle tension. Disturbed prana leads to a feeling of emptiness that somehow needs to be filled. When we experience challenges to prana, we seek to fill this emptiness in a variety of ways:

  1. If we are energy/prana-deficient, we seek stimulation.

  2. If we are hyperactive and constantly on the go, we seek sedation.

  3. If the flow of prana is blocked and we are in pain, we self-medicate.

  4. If we are under stress, we often seek instant gratification through our senses.

These coping mechanisms: stimulation, sedation, medication and instant gratification, are fully supported and even encouraged in our modern world of overdrive and hyper-sensory stimulation. The short-term pain relief created, however, is outweighed by the long-term progression of disturbed prana that can lead to depression, mental stagnation, denial and addiction.

In YoR, we investigate ways in which our prana is deranged and suggest hatha yoga, and especially pranayama, as therapy. Many rehabs offer hatha yoga classes. Breathing exercises should be emphasized as part of this practice; when stressful situations arise, it will likely be easier to quietly regulate the breath than practice asana. This is particularly the case for YoR, which used to resist cravings when faced with triggers for relapse. Such triggers can arise everywhere in our daily lives—social functions, criticism from our boss, disagreement with loved ones, etc. We also guide participants to select fresh, natural foods high in prana, and instruct in the use of emotional freedom technique (EFT/Tapping), which is a quick method of alleviating craving intensity that reflects back to the wisdom of marma therapy of Ayurveda.

Here is a comment from one of our students on her understanding of prana:

When my prana is free-flowing, I feel connected to the earth . . . connected to myself (I can believe in the food in me—and I can believe in being of benefit to others). I feel connected to the tapestry of humankind (past, present and future) . . . and I feel creative . . . When my prana is not free-flowing all of the above become congested.

Life is Relationship

This brings us to our third tenet of YoR: Life is Relationship. Most of our psychological pain and suffering revolves around relationship problems. In YoR, we investigate what aspects our relationships may have led us to our addiction behaviors (children of addicts), or indeed, may be our addiction (codependency and sex and love addictions). According to yoga, the heart cannot find any ultimate happiness solely in a human relationship; this can only be found in the proper relationship with God or the cosmic spirit. Hence bhakti yoga is an important healing tool. Bhakti yoga rests upon a personal connection with God—not an external God but the God within our own hearts, our inner Self that is the Self of all.

Devotion describes our internal relationship with our idea of divinity. This extends to our current relationships, which also offer an opportunity to be devoted: to our parents/partner/children/community, etc.

Expanding our idea of relationships, we look at the way we relate with everything in our life, from our relationships with food and our senses, to our community, the seasons, Mother Earth, etc. We begin to increase our awareness of how we take in the world and our environment. What leads to healthy feelings of comfort, security, safety and satisfaction? On the other hand, what leaves us feeling empty, fearful, anxious, angry or stressed?

Here is another YoR student sharing on this topic:

I have found in my own recovery that this issue of relationship is intimately linked with my alcohol addiction . . . I find that this deeper layer of healing is much more complicated (and rewarding) than simply removing drugs and alcohol from my life. My issues stemmed from witnessing and experiencing violence in my childhood. The physical abuse was not particularly severe, but it had a profound effect on me. Even more damaging was emotional abuse. Again it was not severe (and not intentional . . . my mother was mentally ill) but it warped my sense of security. Getting sober was my ticket to inner peace; I found the 12 steps, counseling, and yoga were my recipe for wholeness. It is a continual work in progress but I no longer have to drink or use drugs to cope with daily life. I feel lucky that when I went to treatment [for alcoholism] I was also diagnosed with codependency, male dependence, romance and relationship addiction, and Adult Children of Alcoholics issues. I’ve been diving into healing on all these realms ever since.”

Click here for Part 2 of this series!

Reprinted with permission from Durga Leela of Yoga For Recovery (YoR). 

Durga is the founder of Yoga of RecoveryR, a comprehensive program that integrates Ayurveda and Yoga with recovery tools for a holistic mind, body and spirit approach for all those affected by addiction and self-destructive behaviors.  Yoga of Recovery is currently offered as workshops, retreats and certificate courses. Durga holds the RYT-500 qualification (Yoga Alliance registered), having completed both the Sivananda Yoga teachers Training Course and Advanced Yoga Training. She is also extensively trained in Meditation and Vedanta.

She is a Clinical Ayurvedic and Pancha Karma Specialist, trained both in the US and  India. She is the Director of the Ayurveda Programs at the Sivananda Yoga Farm in California and a professional member and conference speaker for the National Ayurvedic Medical Association (NAMA) and the International Association of Yoga Therapists (IAYT).

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