For anyone in active addiction to drugs or alcohol, feelings of stress, anxiety, and other emotions are a daily reality. To help addiction treatment clients seeking recovery at Hope House, based in Crownsville, MD, instructor Lilia Conzuelo has been teaching the practice of yoga, as a tool to detoxify the body and calm the mind.
Yoga can be an effective means for helping with all types of physical and psychological addictions – not only addiction to drugs and alcohol, Conzuelo notes. “It could be other types of addictions, like cigarette smoking, or any addiction that might be impacting a person’s life.”
Some addiction treatment clients at Hope House have been participating in yoga once a week, “but we are looking forward to doing it more, based on the results we are having,” Conzuelo says. “We’ve been seeing patients start to feel more at peace within themselves.”
Yoga is not based on any religious belief system or community, Conzuelo points out. “It has always been approached as a technology for inner well-being. Yoga is a spiritual discipline based on extremely subtle science, which focuses on achieving harmony between mind and body.
“Some people think yoga is just physical exercise, but it is much more than that. It is an art and science of healthy living. In essence, yoga means ‘union’…practicing yoga leads to the union of the individual consciousness with that of the universal consciousness, thus leading to a perfect harmony between mind, breath and body, man and nature.”
Understanding why yoga can help with addiction starts with the roots of addiction, Conzuelo says. “People who become addicted typically have pain in their hearts, minds, and bodies that they want to forget. When they start doing yoga, they learn how to control their stress response by breathing.”
When people are feeling stressed, they often develop the habit of shallow breathing, rather than taking deep breaths, which causes stress to build up in the body. Breath can be used to control emotions, which is what Conzuelo teaches clients.
“Breath is one of the most healing resources we have; we can use it to reduce anxiety, fear, pain and depression, use it to activate our immune system, increase our ability to concentrate and release ‘feel-good’ hormones, such as dopamine. Deep breathing does this by activating the parasympathetic healing system.”
Yoga is an evidence-based practice. The benefits of practicing yoga have been confirmed by scientific research. It improves circulation and lung capacity, it stretches and strengthens muscles, it helps to work out the organs and improves digestion, and it regulates the nervous and endocrine systems.
Working with clients, Conzuelo has seen yoga help clients who may have been initially reluctant to try it. “When people are addicted, their physical body is in a weakened state,” Conzuelo points out. “They don’t have much energy, their joints are swollen, they are not flexible. People sometimes wonder how they are going to do exercise in that condition.”
But yoga techniques are taught in a way that is appropriate for each person’s physical condition, Conzuelo says. “The first rule for yoga is you have to do whatever feels comfortable for the body. It’s not about twisting or turning, or contorting postures. It’s not going to hurt them or make them feel worse. It’s a process of listening to your body and breathing ‘into’ a posture.”
“We start by observing our breathing and then start stretching and moving our bodies, then the energy starts flowing. By practicing yoga, we become conscious of movement; as we breathe, we are sending oxygen to the parts of the body that are stiff, and then we start feeling better. It has to be very mindful breathing, done with guidance. At the end of the practice, we feel better and more relaxed and more clear of mind.”
“Yoga enables you to observe, experience and regulate your breathing patterns. This offers a way to access the benefits of deep rhythmic breathing anytime, by mindfully observing your breath. You begin to breathe the way we are supposed to breathe. Then you feel relaxed, in control of the experience, and connected with yourself and the world.”