Yoga For Addiction Recovery: A Hard-Won Reward

Leah Murtagh
Yoga For Addiction Recovery: A Hard-Won Reward

I’ve been teaching a yoga class for a group of recovering substance addicts for about three months now. The owner of the clinic is a friend, and he thought yoga would be a way to add value to the services he provides for his clients at a reasonable cost. They come to my studio every other Wednesday.

I never thought teaching yoga could be so frustrating and so rewarding all at the same time.

Not Your Typical Yoga Students

These people are not your “typical” yoga students. Many of them seem annoyed that they have to attend class and always have their phones with them, even during practice. Some of them have very real physical ailments that make some poses impossible, even if they had 100 years to work on them.

Some participate actively while others sit on the sidelines—sleeping, reading, or texting their friends. On any given week, they can be noisy, sullen, restless, dramatic, closed-off and afraid, or “above” exercise that is clearly for girls.

Most of them are completely disconnected from their bodies—bending, stretching, and breathing deliberately are completely foreign actions to them.

Still, these brave souls each have a story. Many of these stories make me wonder how they ever survived long enough to come to class in the first place!

Why I Am Doing This

Why on earth am I doing this? I do this because I know something they don’t know—yoga can be one of the most effective recovery tools they can add to their quest for lasting sobriety.

I know this because I, too, have a recovery story. Yoga has, in many ways, saved me in some of the darkest moments of my life. When I wanted so badly to make a terrible, destructive decision, yoga was there. When depression debilitated me, the mat gave me one precious hour of relief and clarity.

Now, certainly, yoga didn’t guarantee perfection or ensure that I never messed up—I still did some pretty stupid things, just like every other human being out there.

The point is that yoga was ever-present once I finally found it—a chance to begin again, something healthy and familiar, an option to breathe and be, instead of escaping and disconnecting from myself and others.

Here’s what I tell these amazing recovery students.

How Yoga Aids Recovery

  1. Yoga alone will not make you sober. It does, however, help make you mindful of what you have to do to become sober. Ultimately, you must still call your sponsor, go to class, attend meetings, attend your private counseling sessions, and take your medication.
  2. Yoga gives you choices. It provides a self-imposed time-out while you feel your feelings, accept where you are at any given moment, and decide, proactively, what you want to do next.
  3. Yoga improves the health of your body as you are cleaning it out. You build a connection to yourself that once you experience, you cannot deny. Having that connection makes you think a little harder before using your drug of choice.
  4. Yoga takes courage, just like your sobriety journey. It opens you up to new things and helps you replace old patterns. Change occurs in your life with yoga, regardless of your “level” of proficiency with all the poses.
  5. Sobriety presents a lot of unknowns, which can be scary. Will my relationships, job, home, and finances change because of my new habits? How do I handle all of that? Yoga can provide an anchor for movement and breath—the practice of yoga grounds you and provides consistency—something every addict needs in bulk quantity!
  6. Yoga is fun! Yoga can be a break from all the hard work of recovery. With so much emotional surgery going on, yoga is a welcome break of sweetness and light! We can laugh at ourselves and with others; we can cheer for our own accomplishments and those of our fellows. Do not underestimate the good feelings that yoga can bring. You may soon find that the high you were chasing with chemicals or destructive behavior pales in comparison to the authentic goodness, warmth, community, and love that yoga brings.

Breaking Through

I wasn’t sure that any of this had been getting through to these students, until just recently, after my last class, one student came up to talk to me.

“Thank you. Thank you for doing this for us. When I breathe, I feel better. After class, I feel better. I think about breathing now, in my life. I think about making different choices. My body feels better. Can you give me an exercise to strengthen my knee?”

And that, ladies and gentlemen, makes everything worthwhile.