6 Ways Yoga Helps With Depression and Addiction
By Valerie Martin, LCSW, RYT, Trauma Therapist and Yoga Instructor at The Ranch
With the explosion of yoga in the west over the past two decades, it’s clear that this ancient tradition is shedding its old reputation as an esoteric practice exclusively for the spiritually devout. It’s also not just for those who consider themselves flexible or interested in eastern spirituality.
Research shows that yoga asana practices (the physical aspect of the tradition that most of us think of as just “yoga”) increase flexibility and muscular strength, improve respiratory and cardiovascular function, support addiction recovery, reduce stress, anxiety, depression and chronic pain, improve sleep patterns, and enhance overall well-being and quality of life.
At The Ranch, yoga is used as a tool to help in the recovery process. While a yoga practice is not appropriate for people in early stages of drug detox or withdrawal, once they are more medically stable, yoga can support them in regaining a sense of groundedness, strength and vitality, both physically and mentally.
Below are some of the ways yoga can support recovery from both substance abuse and co-occurring depression and anxiety.
- Putting the body in motion. Studies show that just getting the body moving is extremely helpful with depression and addiction recovery. Rather than focusing on burning calories or building muscle, yoga classes offered at The Ranch are at a level and pace that are accessible to most people, and add an important dimension of mindfulness that is often missing from other types of exercise.
- Encouraging mindful presence. Yoga supports clients in developing an important skill called interoception, which is the internal sense of body functioning and ownership. This skill allows people to pay closer attention to what’s going on in the body and adjust as needed. Developing interoception on the yoga mat can help people in early recovery learn to notice the subtle emotions, moods and needs in their day-to-day lives. It can also help them become more sensitive to emotional fluctuations and urges, and take action to intervene before they become overwhelming. For example, an unhelpful thought or an urge that passes through the mind can be noticed as something merely passing through.
- Connecting mind to body. In depression and many types of addictions, people often become cut off from the neck down, with little to no sense of embodiment. The body and mind each run on their own autopilot with no communication between the two. Even the most simple yoga movements, like moving the arms up with the inhale and down with the exhale, can begin to re-establish the mind-body connection. On a physical level, people learn how to find comfort within their own skin. Mentally, this helps to open intuition and carve a deeper connection to our wise mind — the place within that helps support good decision-making.
- Creating awareness of all sensations in the body. Because of the brain’s negativity bias, sometimes the first things noticed by a new yoga practitioner are uncomfortable sensations or frustration with things like limited flexibility. But as practitioners continue to develop their ability to interocept, they also begin to notice other sensations: This stretch feels nice in my left hip, or my legs feel nice and grounded. Eventually, awareness of discomfort can become an indicator to listen to the body and adjust accordingly, instead of just “muscling through” or comparing to the instructor or the person on the next mat.
- Helping to regulate emotions. Yoga is an excellent tool for self-soothing. One of the most important tools is the ability to notice and be with sensations across the whole spectrum — pleasant, neutral, unpleasant and painful. People with addictions are accustomed to going straight to drugs, food, sex, shopping or other escapes to short-circuit any unpleasant feelings. In yoga practice, they experiment with: How can I be present with this uncomfortable sensation without needing to change it right now? Or is this sensation actually painful and possibly harming me, and a sign I need to do something differently? By developing intimate awareness of their own needs, people in recovery can attune better to themselves rather than what is going on externally. They learn that they don’t have to push themselves until it is painful, or run toward something to take pain away. It takes time to develop this kind of distress tolerance and awareness, but every small movement brings them closer.
- Centering through breathing. Breathing practices in yoga are referred to as pranayama, although people do not need to know the Sanskrit names of the different breaths in order to benefit from them. Pranayama can be practiced on its own, or integrated into a yoga practice/class. Recommended breathing exercises vary depending on the needs of the individual. Different techniques can help with the hypoarousal of the nervous system that accompanies depression or the hyperarousal of anxiety. For example, when someone is feeling anxious, making the exhales longer than the inhales can activate the parasympathetic nervous system to help them regulate and calm down.