What 20 Minutes of Yoga Can Do for the Addicted Brain

Mind-body practices like yoga have been shown to decrease stress and anxiety and contribute to an overall sense of well-being, with reports of these changes occurring after just one session. For individuals in recovery from an addiction to alcohol or other drugs, this ancient Indian system of healthcare can quickly imbue hope that a return to wellness is achievable. We know that individuals exposed to stress are more likely to abuse substances or relapse into active drug use. We also know that there is a high prevalence of substance use and dependence among people with mood and anxiety disorders. While such traditional therapies as counseling and medication have been proven effective in treating addiction and its co-occurring disorders, mindful physical exercise like yoga has recently emerged as a potent complementary health approach. In the experience of Melissa D’Angelo, a college graduate with a loving family and a good job, a prescription for opioids after kidney surgery soon led her to heroin. Yoga, she said, was the catalyst that helped her get her life back on track. Now in recovery, D’Angelo told yogajournal.com that when she gets anxious, there’s nothing better than doing adho mukha svanasana. “At work, if I’m stressed, I’ll literally go into the bathroom and do downward dog,” D’Angelo told the online publication. “It puts me in a relaxed state and allows me to clearly focus on what I need to be doing — not [on] what I want to be doing, which may be relapsing.”

The Science

Some of the most exciting research into the healing power of yoga for recovery reveals that its mind-body benefits are more complex than we might think. According to Dr. John Denninger, a psychiatrist at Harvard Medical School, yoga can trigger an almost immediate response in genetic activity, switching on and off genes linked to stress and immune function. In a government-funded study, Denninger found that blood tests showed substantial changes in gene expression in participants who meditated for just 20 minutes a day over an eight-week period. “People who are long-term yoga practitioners, people who are long-term meditators, they are different in many ways from the people who don’t practice,” Denninger said in an interview with Ally Ford and Tom O’Brien. “It’s pretty hard to be a skeptic in the face of this kind of data.” Other research compared the effect of yoga versus walking on mood and anxiety. Participants engaged in their respective activity for 60 minutes a day, three days a week, for 12 weeks. At the end of the study period, the yoga practitioners reported greater improvements in mood and anxiety than those who had walked.

Treating Addiction Through Yoga

Many drug rehab centers now offer regular yoga classes. And because yoga asanas (postures) and pranayama (breathing exercises) can be done by anyone, anytime, anywhere, addicts can work to strengthen their recovery when neither a therapist nor sponsor is available. These yoga poses are recommended to help recovering addicts bring peace and calm to their daily lives. Here are other ways yoga can be instrumental in your recovery:

  • Improves focus and awareness — Yoga can help recovering addicts maintain the concentration necessary to stay mentally strong and focused on their recovery goals. In addition, yoga training emphasizes an awareness of one’s thoughts and feelings without the need to get involved with them by “numbing out” with substances.
  • Reduces cravings — Yoga helps individuals develop a calmer state of mind, which goes a long way toward thwarting cravings. Also, after withdrawal, when the brain is essentially starved of dopamine, yoga has also been shown to naturally increase levels of the pleasure-inducing chemical.
  • Stimulates the prefrontal cortex — Long-term yoga practice aids in the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for self-control and an area that is heavily compromised by substance use.
  • Helps conquer insomnia — Yoga provides downtime for the nervous system, with the byproduct being better sleep. Here are poses to enhance sleep.

Incorporating yoga into your recovery practice heals the body and mind and can help you develop spiritual wellness, no matter your religious beliefs. In addition, yoga can help you meet and bond with like-minded individuals who are working on themselves in the same way you are. All it takes is 20 minutes a day to experience the beneficial mental, physical and spiritual effects of this healing therapy.

Scroll to Top