It’s becoming a trend. Yoga is being studied by doctors and scientists to help people recover from everything from surgical pain to diabetes. There are lots of studies that conﬁrm the positive effects of yoga on the body, and the list includes use disorders for everything from alcohol and drugs to food.
If you already have a regular yoga practice, you may be aware of some of the life afﬁrming changes that your practice can create, like improved strength, ﬂexibility and energy. But did you know that a regular practice that includes meditation and breathing practices can reduce your cravings for food, alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and most anything else that a person might use to “feel better?”
How Does This Work?
First, endorphins created during asana (movement) practice works within the body to soothe achey muscles, irritable minds, stress and feelings of loneliness. The increased oxygen in the blood stream helps to create feelings of calm and wellness. Speciﬁc yoga asana can also help ﬂush toxic chemicals from the blood stream created during traumatic events and stressful situations, which are the root for all use disorders.
And that’s just the asana! If your practice includes breath practices (pranayama) and meditation there are even more beneﬁts that can modify the mind and body in healthy, integrative ways:
- Pranayama breath practices increase oxygen in the blood stream and enhances feelings of calm and steadiness in practitioners who do it regularly.
- Certain pranayama exercises help reduce food cravings, enhance the immune system, cool down anger and increase serotonin in the brains of people who are depressed.
- Meditation boosts the feel-good chemicals and a regular meditation practice has been documented to shrink the amount of gray matter in the Amygdala (the area of the brain responsible for strong emotions like fear and anxiety) even when the subject is not in the meditative state.
- Finally, the prefrontal cortex, (responsible for positive capacities like concentration, happiness, creativity, and rational thinking) has been shown by EEG to communicate with other areas of the brain more effectively when the subjects were meditating regularly, than the were prior to having a meditation practice. This is great news for those who want to stay away from use behaviors and dependencies.
Move, Breath, Meditate. Rinse and Repeat
As Dr. Timothy McCall stated in an article in Yoga International, “The more you think, say, or do something, the more likely you are to think, say, or do it again. With every activity, neurons forge connections with one another, and the more a behavior is repeated, the stronger those neural links become.” What this means for those in recovery is, as Swami Vivekananda once said, “The only remedy for bad habits is counter habits.”
There are studies currently underway to determine how effective a regular yoga practice is for people who are trying to stay sober. All the evidence so far shows that people in recovery programs who also have a yoga practice are happier, feel more connected to their fellows and have a higher chance of sticking with their recovery program.
That’s good news, especially because of the current criticism being levied at 12-Step programs in general, and the many treatment centers and recovery programs that use the 12 Steps in their format.
Telling the truth about Chronic Family Trauma (CFT) aka C-PTSD
I am a woman in long-term recovery from Chronic Family Trauma (CFT).
Last year I started following the work of a group called Facing Addiction. Their mission is to change the public perception of addiction and to decriminalize it. How they do this is multi-fold, but part of their message is what some of us already understand – addicts aren’t bad people, they’re sick people.
The spokesmen and women for Facing Addiction identify as “Addicts in long term recovery” in the press, and give their names. The point being that the public can now look at the lives of these people and know the positives rather than just the negatives portrayed in stereotypes of addiction. People in the public eye like senators, sports figures and entertainment superstars identify themselves in this way in support of this cause.
It got me thinking – in 12-Step rooms, people find connection when one Member of AA, one member of NA , one member of Al-Anon talks to another. The stories of strangers recall personal struggles and ring true. People identify, seeing themselves more clearly. Then one of my mentors said to me in a discussion of my business plans and mission statement, “Celeste you really need to tell your story.” And I realized that with the opening of the door by Facing Addiction, I could.
I am a woman in long-term recovery from Chronic Family Trauma (CFT). In this way I can identify myself and tell my story. I can carry the message online and in person and perhaps help others in the world who have a similar story. I can share my journey living with CFT and my discovery that it can still affect my choices, my perceptions and my relationships today. I can also help others with the tools that have worked to help me so much, like meditation, yoga asana and pranayama breathing practices, as well as spirituality, emotional integrity, honesty, looking at my own part, making changes in my behavior, and showing up for myself.
I created a YouTube video last year to tell my story, and to promote the idea of CFT as an ongoing and insidious Dis-ease that affects the addicted and the families equally. It is the essence of the message from the Al-Anon Family Groups – a 12-Step program – that this is a Family Disease. We are all affected by it, and if we really want to face the truth of our families and our lives, finding recovery as human beings, a nation and a planet, then we have to address the core issue of trauma and dysfunction in our family systems. We cannot truly hope to stem the crisis that addiction in this country has become unless we begin healing our families. And we cannot heal the families until the family members recognize and take responsibility for healing their own Dis-ease due to the effects of living with ongoing trauma. Addicts deal with that trauma by using. Others of us deal with it by controlling, managing, manipulating and numbing out. How we handle it may be different, but the foundation is the same. We are truly all one under the skin.
Almost is Never Enough
“It’s hard to get enough of something that almost works.”
I heard that line a while ago and I haven’t been able out get it out of my head. I know most people with substance use issues will respond to that with a visceral understanding and a “YES” from their souls. But I wonder whether the unseen and unheard majority, those affected by the use disorders of others and C-PTSD understand that this same principle is in play for us as well.
Our adult relationships almost work. We replay the childhood dynamic, marrying people who we want to give us the love and the comfort we could not find as children. Often those people also have use disorders and/or C-PTSD, because that’s the dynamic we know. It’s how we feel “at home.” But home was never what we wanted it to be. We try once again to make something that causes us pain feel good. And it can almost work.
This is how we become addicted to relationships – getting it almost right, having people in our lives who almost meet our needs. There is love at the core, but the love is warped by our unmet needs and we fall victim once again to our own internal demons.
The dance we continue to dance with the those we love, creating the chaos of more lives affected by dysfunction, is scary and yet mesmerizing. We are drawn in again and again not so much by the other person’s promise to change but by the very fact that it’s so close to right – but not quite. And it is not ever enough.
Because the real key to happiness doesn’t lie in something outside. Contentment and real joy come from our love and acceptance of ourselves. Only then can we connect to another and find real intimacy. There’s another saying that I love – a play on the word Intimacy. “Into Me, You See.” If we can’t let people see us as we truly are (because we don’t think we’re lovable), we’ll never find the connection we seek. If those we love wouldn’t love us if they knew us, if we can’t love them exactly as they are, then real intimacy will be impossible. We’ll forever continue to live our lives trying over and over again to get a different result – because it is actually impossible to really get enough of something that almost works.
The Issues Are In Our Tissues
Fascia is the elastic ‘container’ that exists throughout the body. It connects muscles,tendons and bones together and holds our organs within us.
Trauma: Physical or Emotional Shock can result in:
“Fight-or-Flight” reaction(when the body begins to mobilize);
- Adrenalin begins pumping to mobilize us into action.
- We may spontaneously excrete waste products.
- Some of our physical senses may become more acute while others shutdown.
- The heart rate increases and we may hyperventilate or sweat.
Ultimately this results in:
- Exhaustion – physical arousal associated with fight-or-flight cannot be prolonged indefinitely.
“Freeze”– disorientation, immobilization and numbness.
One study found that a consistent yoga practice improved depression and led to a significant increase in serotonin levels and a decrease in the levels of monoamine oxidase (an enzyme that breaks down neurotransmitters) and cortisol. At the University of Wisconsin, Richard Davidson, Ph.D., found that the left prefrontal cortex showed heightened activity in meditators, a finding that has been correlated with greater levels of happiness and better immune function. More dramatic left-sided activation was found in dedicated, long-term practitioners.
Yoga“quells the fluctuations of the mind,” according to Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. In other words, it slows down the mental loops of frustration, regret,anger, fear,and desire that are the result of, and also the cause of, stress.
Many people with Substance Use Disorders (SUD) suffer from chronic low self-esteem. If you practice yoga you’ll sense, (initially in brief glimpses, and later in more sustained awareness), that you’re worthwhile. If you practice regularly with an intention of self- examination and betterment—not just as a substitute for an aerobics class—you can access a different side of yourself. You’ll experience feelings of gratitude, empathy, and forgiveness, as well as a sense that you’re part of something bigger. While better health is not the goal of spirituality, it’s often a by-product, as documented by repeated scientific studies.
Yoga can ease pain. According to several studies, asana, meditation, or a combination of the two, reduced pain in people with arthritis, back pain, fibromyalgia, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other chronic conditions. For people with a SUD, this can be a really big wrench in the tool box of sobriety and sanity.
Yoga can help you make changes in your life. In fact, that might be its greatest strength. Tapas, the Sanskrit word for “heat,” is the fire, the discipline that fuels yoga practice and
that regular practice builds. The tapas you develop can be extended to the rest of your life to overcome SUD and change dysfunctional habits. You may find that without making a particular effort to change things, you start to eat better, exercise more, or finally quit smoking after years of failed attempts. And, you will have less desire to pick up the drug or drink.
In much of conventional medicine, most patients are passive recipients of care. In yoga, it’s what you do for yourself that matters. Yoga gives you the tools to help you change. It’s possible that you’ll start to feel better the first time you try practicing. You may also notice that the more you commit to practice, the more you benefit. This results in three things: You get involved in your own care, you discover that your involvement gives you the power to effect change, and seeing that you can effect change gives you hope. And hope itself can be healing.
As you read all the ways yoga improves your health, you probably noticed a lot of overlap. That’s because they’re intensely interwoven. Change your posture and you change the way you breathe. Change your breathing and you change your nervous system. This is one of the great lessons of yoga: Everything is connected—your hipbone to your anklebone, you to your community, your community to the world. This interconnection is vital to understanding yoga. This holistic system simultaneously taps into many mechanisms that have additive (not addictive!) effects. This synergy may be the most important way of all that yoga heals.
So taking this insight into practical terms, think of when someone is feeling low, what image comes to mind? Their head is usually lowered, their chest caved in… protecting their heart. This physical pattern will start to affect their entire system, including their fascial grid. Think of what part of their fascia is becoming restricted. Their chest cavity is closing in, affecting their breathing. It sends a message to the brain … something is happening that is causing the breath to change. Thus the brain chemistry changes. It can start to release stress inducing hormones which further affects mood and stress levels – increasing tension in the body and it’s form.
This spiral works in both directions… our mind interpreting tension from our body and our body reacting to our mind. It stands to reason that if we work with our bodies, if we work on releasing and realigning our fascia, it will have a direct effect on our mind, our behavior and our emotions.
Tensionin any area will have an effect on the whole fascial grid. If you are constantly sitting at your desk for example, the fascia could bunch up in your chest area – leading to a weakened upper back. Sitting for long periods of time can tighten your hip flexors, which could, lead to fascial restriction of the hips. This could effect your neck all the way down to your toes and right into your core because the fascia is connected to everything in the body.
Does this connection go the other way? That is, if mind affects body, is it possible to change our mental and emotional patterning via the body as well? The short answer is
YES. Through bodywork physical movement like yoga, we can release psychological trauma by addressing chronic tension patterns and holdings in the body.
Distress from trauma builds up in the brain. It can shift the chemistry of the brain, changing the nervous system responses and thus impact the rest of the body as well, creating a variety of stress responses in the body.
The other issue is the patterns of tension that are created by traumatic distress. This tension can become chronic over time. When we are angry over long periods of time, as opposed to shifting from anger to calm, fearful to relaxed, the pattern becomes unresolved and the brain continues to send out these signals to the same muscles. This may create a postural pattern that, over time, becomes embedded. After a while the mind fits itself to that pattern, the muscles fit to the pattern, the fascia also fit into that pattern and your energy fits into it too. This may cause illness or rigidity in the body and the mind.
This chronic tension may require more than talk therapy to release, including movement and breathing practices to help[ the body and the mind readjust to a healthier way of being. Ida Rolf, the originator of the Rolfing Technique believed that this was possible through deep tissue manipulation. Some people work best with movement therapy, others with talk therapy and still others with the deep tissue work or even a combination.
Regular exercise isn’t going to change the deep rooted patterns in the fascia. However, long, slow stretches and holds WILL. Yoga can actually change the connective tissue, according to Tom Myers, author of Anatomy Trains. You can change the patterns that are lodged in the tissues.
What appears to work is holding deep stretches for several minutes so that the muscles can calm down. At that point, the fascia will start to release.This can facilitate the re- patterning that can lead to lasting lease of chronic issues within the body and the mind.
Yoga positions work with specific muscles in specific ways so alignment is important. If one area is weak, the body will automatically try to switch the workload, recruiting other, stronger muscles to do the work. We need to be mindful of this or we will miss the point and not actually be strengthening muscles groups that need to be stronger. We will only be continuing to build the areas that are already over-worked.
Having a yoga therapist who understands the challenges and is aware of the recruitment issue can help people to work smarter, targeting the areas of weaknessand creating a stronger and more unified structure within thebody.This re-patterning creates a shift within the whole organism – fascia, muscles, organs, blood and body chemistry and ultimately, within the brainitself.
Restorative Yoga – A Powerful Tool in Early Recovery
Restorative Yoga is a powerful tool used by Yoga Therapists to treat people with injuries like low back pain and muscle rehabilitation, as well as in recovery from diseases such as cancer,diabetes, heart disease, arthritis and immune dysfunction. Pioneered by Judith Hanson Lasater, Restorative Yoga provides a completely supportive environment for total relaxation.
The Practice of Restorative Yoga Requires Little Strength
Restorative Yoga utilizes yoga equipment — blocks, bolsters, blankets, and straps — to facilitate finding and holding poses for extended periods of time comfortably, usually three to five minutes. Also, most Restorative poses are done on the floor and require little strength or balance. This makes them perfect for people in early recovery from Substance Use Disorders (SUD) because strength and balance often present challenges for them. Supported poses allow the participants to feel more in control of their own bodies, which is also beneficial for emotional and physical trauma.
Restorative Yoga balances the energy in the whole body
Each Restorative sequence is designed to move the spine in all directions. These movements illustrate the idea that well-being is enhanced by a healthy spine. Some Restorative poses are back bends, while others are forward folds. Other poses gently twist the spine both left and right, and stretch the body laterally.
A well-sequenced Restorative practice also includes an inverted pose, which reverses the effects of gravity. Whether putting the legs on a bolster or inverting the body over a chair in a supported shoulder stand, the effects are quite dramatic. Blood and lymph fluid tends to accumulate in the lower extremities because we stand or sit most of the day When we change the relationship of the legs to gravity,fluids are returned to the upper body and heart function is enhanced.
In preliminary research on the effects of inverted poses, the Psychobiologist and Yoga teacher Roger Cole, Ph.D., found that they dramatically alter hormone levels, thus reducing brain arousal, blood pressure, and fluid retention. He believes that reversing the effects of gravity benefits the practitioner by slowing the heart rate and dilating the blood vessels in the upper body.
Restorative yoga also alternately stimulates and soothes the organs. In a forward fold blood is forced out of the abdominal organs as they are squeezed. In a back bend fresh blood is returned to the organs as the abdomen is opened to replenish them. This enhances oxygen exchange and the removal of wastes and toxins through the membranes of the cells.
Yoga Brings Balance For People in Recovery
Hatha Yoga, the most popular and well-known style of yoga, has its beginnings in India with the Hindu tradition. The word “Hatha” comes from two Sanskrit words: Ha, meaning the Moon, and Tha, meaning the Sun. The word “Yoga” also has an entwined meaning here. “Yoga” is generally thought to be derived from the Sanskrit for “Union.” Hence, Hatha Yoga is the union or balance of the Moon and Sun nature in people, or the cool with the ﬁre. This balance is desirable for all but is especially helpful with PTSD, Complex Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (C-PTSD) and Substance Use Disorder (SUD) as our natures conﬂict and cause imbalance within the body. That imbalance and discomfort is what people with PTSD, C-PTSD and SUD seek to medicate and avoid with drugs and alcohol, food, sex, love, Internet, gambling, etc.
Kundalini Yoga Was Introduced as a Therapy for Substance Use Disorder (SUD), aka Addiction
There are many oﬀshoots of Hatha; Tantra, Viniyoga, Anusara, Iyengar, Power Yoga, Bikram, and Sivananda are a few of the most popular. Kundalini Yoga is an exception; its lineage traces its roots to Tantra, which is a Hatha Yoga style, but Kundalini practice went in diﬀerent directions from Hatha.
Kundalini was introduced to the U.S. by Yogi Bajan as a therapy for the Western culture of overwork and stress. According to him, overwork and stress caused mental dysfunction and addiction became a way to cope with the dysfunctions in our lives. Kundalini is a valuable tool in the toolbox, and its Kriyas (posture and breath) and Pranayama (breath) practices are incredibly helpful when used with knowledge and awareness.
That said, I believe that Hatha is more accessible for students new to recovery. At this stage, the body is untrained and not strong, making participants more susceptible to injury. Also, the repetition of many of the Kriyas is reminiscent of calisthenics and does not induce the meditative, inward focus that I have found to be so helpful to people in recovery from SUD.
I teach Hatha-based classes, however, once students have moved on from detox (where I prefer to teach Restorative I encourage the exploration of diﬀerent techniques and styles of yoga, including Kundalini.