It has become axiomatic that there are many pathways to recovery and each is equally valid. The same can be said for yoga. My pathway in yoga started in high school as a reason to avoid physical education classes. I have scant memories from this time about yogic benefits, but Parvatatanas (gastric wind-relieving pose) was definitely something my all-male class understood to be healthy and liberating.
Years later while traveling in India, I stumbled into a bookstore and found Swami Saraswati’s classic text Asana Pranayama Mudra Banda. Only then did the power of yoga to change my life become clear. Almost immediately I enrolled in an intensive 30-day training program focusing on yoga practice and philosophy. The highly regimented program presented yoga as a lifestyle that goes far beyond striking poses on a mat.
Those enrolled in the program were asked to follow rules about how to treat themselves and other living things. Accepting the imposition of strict guidelines contrasted starkly with my Western upbringing. In doing so I learned not only how to twist my body in ways I never imagined possible, but also how attention paid to self and surroundings can lead to a richer, healthier and fuller existence.
To understand how yoga can improve addiction treatment and recovery outcomes, understanding a few basic principles and procedures are in order. Asana translates to “pose,” simply the postures assumed while practicing. There are thousands: Lotus pose, Tree pose, Fish pose, Cow-faced pose, and the universal favorite Corpse pose. Pranayama refers to control of the breath. Prana, the first half of the word, is often defined as vital energy and breath. Yama, the latter half, can be understood to mean something akin to discipline. Control of breath refers not only to command over the speed and duration of breath but also specific techniques such as Ujjayi, the breath one would use to fog a mirror.
Mudra, meaning “gesture” in Sanskrit, refers to positions, predominantly of the hands, used to influence the mood and energies in the body. Gyan mudra is perhaps the most iconic. It is formed by joining the tip of the index finger and thumb while extending the three remaining fingers. Banda more or less translates to “lock” or “hold.” It is a tightening of a specific body region in order to lock in energy or direct its flow to a specific area. Many people, unbeknownst to them, are likely familiar with mula banda. This banda at its most basic level involves the contracting the pelvic floor. This can be very helpful on long car trips.
In the West, yoga is often understood through these physical elements. Fitness programs promote the practice as a good addition to a weight control program or stretching routine. The Western perspective suggests that its importance lies in flexibility, and that spiritual gains might come as a bonus. But my yoga practice has led me to understand myself as a spiritual being with physical experiences, rather than the reverse. If one accepts the premise that we are in fact spiritual beings enjoying physical experiences, many of the elements not typically focused on in the West become the basis for personal transformation.
Inherent in yoga is a moral code. Yamas and niyamas represent a series of "right living" or ethical rules within yoga. They are a form of moral imperatives. Ahimsa speaks most directly to recovery, as it asks practitioners to avoid harm to self and others. They encourage us to treat ourselves with dignity and respect by avoiding substances or thought patterns that are detrimental to wellness. Svadhyaya refers to the practice of self-reflection. It asks practitioners to recognize strengths, flaws, motivations and biases. It emphasizes the importance of studying both the present moment and recognizing the journey one makes through life. Finally, ishvara pranidhana asks us to surrender to a higher power.
Mindfulness and meditation are essential to yoga practice. Mindfulness refers to maintaining focus on the internal and external qualities of the present moment. Meditation refers to a much broader engagement of the mind intended to restructure the consciousness. When I provide yoga to incarcerated youths, I often use the words “concentrate” and “focus” to encourage an attention to a specific a part of their being, such as their breathing or a sensation of stretching a certain part of their body. These types of directions seek to have youths engage in more mindful behaviors. In contrast, at the start and end of these classes I ask the students to remain silent and still in a comfortable position while they attempt to slow down and clear their mind of thoughts. This practice, albeit brief, aligns more closely with meditation. Meditation may support and enhance the development of mindfulness, but mindfulness can be learned and practiced without meditation.
Shelley Richanbach is both a person in long-term recovery and a certified addiction counselor. In her practice she combines 12-Step discussions with movement and meditation activities to tap into past traumatic experiences that may underlie a person’s compulsive behavior. The body serves as a metaphor for the entire life experience, not only as a source of felt phenomena, but also as living action. Imagining the body as a map and changing the patterned body structure, she believes, results in a different way of experiencing, moving and acting in the individual’s life.
Richanbach explains in a personal communication, “My belief is that the body is the key to becoming aware and to identify issues, confront them, to feel and find release, and to eventually heal. That the body and mind can change and that there’s the potential for growth, including becoming aware and awake to one's spirit, perhaps for the first time.