Yoga, stretching, and meditation is often used in treatment centers for its many benefits of body, mind, and spirit. But what exactly is yoga and where did it originate from? Why does yoga help people in recovery from addiction?
Origins of Yoga
Yoga has been practiced for thousands of years, though a specific date has been debated by anthropologists. Somewhere between 3200 and 1500 BCE is the agreed upon years that the practice of yoga was developed. The term “yoga” was found in ancient India’s written texts called the Veda’s. These volumes are the oldest found literature scribed in Sanskrit and which give a detailed insight into early Hinduism. The Vedas are a collection of philosophies and ideas written into hymns, mantras, and ritual ceremonies that were meant to be practiced and passed down verbally for future generations. As the Vedas were meant to draw down spiritual powers which were to be used for the health and welfare of individuals and community, there was a physical practice created to support the four sacred Vedic texts. “Yoga is believed to be derived from the joining or “yoking” of the breath, sound, and movement of the Vedas.
The Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda scripts were divided into separate yoga rituals and yoga practices.
The Rig Veda Yoga includes a collection of prayers and mantras meant to be vocalized to draw overall health and happiness. In this text, the word and explanation of “yoga” were found. The other texts focus on musical sounds and chanting spiritual worship and ritual design, and tools to remove or protect from negative forces.
During the 3rd Century BCE, yoga stretched to include Buddhist practices which were integrated into daily focus and was thought to be the foundation to ground an individual into a state of calmness, insight, and balance.
Out of the teachings, the six main schools of the foundational philosophy were created, one primary focus being Union with the Divine or Yoga. Some of the approaches fell away over the last several hundred years, while others have survived and become internationally popular, yoga heading the way as the most recognized and practiced Vedic influence.
For the next few thousand years, the practice of yoga became more specified in its development and included a set of poses which were thought to uphold the foundation of the belief, and which would help the participator transcend the body and strive for the highest level of consciousness. This focus was meant to access high spiritual realms, mysticism, and rid physical pain while obtaining enlightenment, reducing the worldly suffering.
Yoga in Treatment
Yoga will most likely be on the list of weekly programming, if not daily. Some treatment centers may even base their entire programming on yoga sessions. It has been found to be useful in several areas of reducing stress. Other benefits that yoga has in order to obtain and maintain sobriety include:
- Personal awareness and insight
- Increased physical strength
- Feeling better about self
- Positive habit building
- Tool for triggers
- Decrease in pain
- Increased flexibility
- Increased endorphins
- Stabilization of moods/emotional health
- Decrease in depression
- Sleep patterns normalize
Stress reduction: as yoga is a physical activity, the gentle stretching and holding of poses will increase stamina and strength, during which endorphins, will be released and cortisol ( stress hormone) will diminish. There have been studies which have measured the effects of pre and post yoga practice in relation to stress reduction. Yoga will include the conscious practice of mindful breathing, a technique often used in substance abuse treatment to be a quick and powerful response to stressful situations.
Pain relief and physical health: Yoga can be the one physical activity which a person who has chronic and/or severe pain can participate in. Yoga has been proven to open up areas that are “stuck” or locked, due to a past injury or illness. Yoga is self-paced, and instructors will be able to guide you into moderated poses when someone has physical limitations. Yoga gives the body increased flexibility and a higher degree of motion with the stretching and lengthening of muscles and tendons. Circulation will improve, blood sugar levels balanced, and pain decreases. A person’s strength and stamina will increase, making it an overall benefit for personal health. Yoga can reduce weight and support a healthy BMI. Yoga does not have to be rigorous for the benefits of weight loss, gentle stretches and poses have also been evidence of obtaining a healthy weight. Often in recovery, people who stop using drugs may gain weight, because of their caloric intake increases. Yoga is a great adjunct to their program to maintain the desired size.
Yoga and the brain
Neuroplasticity is defined by how the brain can change through a person’s lifetime. Synaptic thought and brain activity can be increased or diminished. Due to the highly destructive nature of drugs and alcohol on the brain, it is imperative to help rebuild and restructure the brain. Yoga can help with neuroplasticity by the integration of the health triad: mental, emotional, spiritual as certain therapies only focus on one at a time, By doing so, the brain develops new synaptic thoughts and neuro causeways which would circumvent relapsing behaviors.
Awareness: ridding the body of addictions and focusing on self through treatment can often be increased by yoga. Breathwork which reduces stress will also increase relaxation and help with repatterning negative self-thoughts and fears. We hold our breaths when we are afraid, and being mindful and aware of our breath can often subside fears and phobias. The practice of yoga in itself is a focus on connecting us to living in the now and staying present, often used for people in addiction recovery. In addition, memory can improve, focus and concentration increase, and coordination of thoughts to actions become normalized. The practice of yoga will ultimately create serenity and inner peace, which will allow for better awareness of self and the world around you.
Learning yoga in treatment is a gentle tool that can be utilized when transitioning out of treatment. Yoga classes are literally international. However, if you live rurally and return to an area without a yoga center, there are dozens of online instructions that you could follow, or you could take what you had learned from the recovery center and create a self-paced, at home yoga and meditation practice.
Types of Yoga
Hatha yoga is the broad term that is defined as yoga that uses physical poses. This is the majority of what the western world would define yoga to be. If there is a practitioner advertising or teaching at the facility as a hatha yoga teacher, they most likely will be able to teach the beginner a series of poses and it is a good introduction to the practice of yoga in general. Hatha yoga can be understood as introductory level, and move into Ashtanga and Vinyasa. Hatha yoga is taught at treatment centers so that clients can work at their pace while developing an understanding on the benefits. Ashtanga
Ashtanga yoga is based on the Vedic principals and ancient texts that were turned from philosophy into practice. In America, it became popular in the 1970’s and is continuously utilized and popular today. There are physical poses used in a sequence which combines breathing technique to each movement. Ashtanga yoga and Vinayasa style are similar, however, Ashtanga has the same sequence and poses in the same order. It is rigorous, and more demanding, which will be used to increase the heart rate due to the physical focus and strength building. This practice is good for people who like routine and want to increase their proficiency before moving on to something new.
Vinyasa yoga is similar to Ashtanga, with the main difference being that Vinyasas can change the sequence of poses in each class. Vinyasa is a Sanskrit word that translates roughly to “placing special” or referring to the sequence of poses. In Vinyasa, the poses are transitioned in a conscientious and smooth approach, which the teacher will instruct, keeping the challenges of each individual in the group. Vinyasa will also concentrate on breath control in regards to the sequence of poses and transitions of them. Vinyasa is also movement focused and will utilize music in the classes to keep it lively. The classes will develop poses with the individuals who attend, and several of the poses will be repeated in different order, with one or two new introduced each class. This is good for people who like to change up their routine but don’t want to learn everything new.
Vinyasa classes are known for their fluid, movement-intensive practices. Vinyasa teachers sequence their classes to smoothly transition from pose to pose, with the intention of linking breath to movement, and often play music to keep things lively. The intensity of the practice is similar to Ashtanga, but no two vinyasa classes are the same. If you like to change up routine while developing and challenging yourself, Vinyasa may be the practice for you.
Bikram and Hot Yoga
Bikram yoga was developed by Bikram Choudhury from India who created a Hatha practice of 26 poses for 90 minutes and breathing exercises in a hot room. It was brought to the United States in the 1970’s and although gained a following, has been controversial towards its founder. Allegations of misconduct, approach, cult-like atmosphere, and sexual assault became public, damning the practice. However, practitioners of this style swear by the rapid results of the style and approach. Bikram trademarked his style, and subsequent teachers may find themselves in legal trouble if they vary from the sequence. Bikram yoga teachers become certified and who have completed several weeks course training. This seems to be the antithesis of yoga. The heated classrooms that are between 95 and 105 degrees, will add to the stretching and flexibility, and will also challenge people physically, making it more of a “work out” than a gentle approach. Bikram is physically demanding and causes sweating, which students will need enough water to stay hydrated, and appropriate mats and towels.
Hot yoga is basically the same as Bikram but doesn’t have it in the name because of the above- mentioned copyright reasons. The sequence of postures can differ from his 26 poses, but it will be set up to run about the same length and heat the room. Sweating and physical challenges are the center of hot yoga.
Iyengar is another style of yoga developed by an Indian man and popularized in the West in the 1970’s. It is a mindful and specific style of yoga, that pays close attention to each pose. A teacher will instruct and assists in how to properly hold the pose in correct alignment, in order to obtain the most benefit within each posture.
Iyengar practice will use yoga “props” to help as well. Rolled up blankets, blocks, cloth straps, mats, that are given will help the student increase and maintain the pose. It is helpful in developing concentration, letting go, obtaining clarity, and personal insight. It is not meant to go fast or be aerobic, though it will increase strength and stamina. Iyengar offers challenges in the mental and emotional realms whilst developing an increase of physical wellness. This style is especially beneficial for chronic pain, recovery from injury, and strength building without damaging existing conditions. Balance and stability will increase, often beneficial for people in recovery.
Iyengar has integrated several hundred poses from classical Hatha and can be used by the beginning to advanced student. Often, there can be the range of students performing the same pose, making allowances to challenge each level and modify with or without the use of props. Over time, the student can see their advancement of certain poses as they work on perfecting the alignment of breath and body.
This style of yoga concentrates the classes by developing technique in sequence and attention to timing and that incorporates breath control amount spent in each posture. It is good for those who need to pay attention to detail, who have a tendency to rush and get ahead of themselves, who need to learn the art of “letting go” and who have physical challenges such as age-related issues or recovery from disease and injury.
The instructor is often verbally helpful and will visit each student to assist them in finding the correct alignment. They are initially certified after at least two years of training and obtaining mentorship and will receive certifications for subsequent levels.
Restorative yoga is an excellent style, to begin with if a client has anxiety, is feeling overwhelmed, is suffering from fatigue, or has multiple health issues. It is sometimes called “yin yoga” and also uses props like Iyengar in order to help the student with any challenges. In many restorative classes, there will be a part of the class that designates the pose to complete relaxation, like the “child’s pose” or an easy, non-taxing physical posture where the body can relax in a mindful state. Restorative is very beneficial for clients in recovery who have not slept well and who need time to rest and recover. A class in restorative yoga, followed by a Hatha practice, is commonly offered in treatment.
If you are offered yoga classes in treatment, take advantage of them: keep an open mind and willingness to learn something new, or expand on something you already know. The key to success with yoga is to participate, being at ease with yourself and your limitations, and not what anyone else can or cannot do.
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