Yoga for Recovery: Why Spend Treatment Time on the Floor?

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Let me start by being completely honest. I was skeptical about yoga for a very long time. The thought of being surrounded by flexible hipsters wearing tight pants in a hot room seemed, well, awful. Don’t you have to be able to touch your toes, stand on your head, and not pass out in a 100 degree room? Don’t you have to utter “Namaste” daily while walking around with a Starbucks frap in one hand and a yoga mat in the other? Fine. I’ll also be honest and admit that I’ve never tried yoga but just thought this to be the absolute truth. Well, that is until I experienced yoga for the first time and I was floored. Literally.

The first day yoga instructors were coming to teach the patients in our evening Intensive Outpatient Program, I, as the Coordinator, wanted to see what this yoga in recovery thing was all about. Sure, I had read the research and heard about the importance of integrating holistic treatment into recovery practices. I knew about the connection between one’s physical and emotional well-being and that yoga practice was an effective addition to treatment in facilities across the country. However, as a yoga skeptic, I just had to see it for myself.

Once the class started, I couldn’t believe the relaxation that came over the room. I was amazed by the calm, peaceful, and non-judgmental stance that yoga offered and the fact that, as a surprise to me, no one was standing on their heads in tight pants! What was even more exciting was the opportunity that yoga practice afforded our clients, those in the earliest stages of recovery struggling with the concepts of acceptance, serenity, letting go and living in the moment. Yoga provided each individual a chance to actually practice these concepts in a way that was real and meaningful. I also couldn’t believe how excited I was to start my own yoga practice personally (which I am pleased to say I did!). But how does yoga actually add value to recovery programs?

  1. Mindfulness
    Living in the present as opposed to projecting into the future or focusing on past mistakes is a challenge for anyone, especially those beginning their journey into recovery. As much as being “mindful,” or staying in the present moment is a popular term used in many treatment programs, how do we allow clients to really practice mindfulness in treatment, other than redirecting them in session? I learned very quickly that yoga has a funny way of teaching mindfulness. Thanks to gravity and the inherent need for focus when holding a yoga pose, I realized that letting my mind wander back to what happened during the day or forward to what’s on the agenda for tomorrow was almost impossible! Gravity ultimately won every time. On the yoga mat, there is no choice but to focus and stay in the moment.
  2. Acceptance
    When a client starts our program, we ask them to accept what they cannot change, which includes the fact that they have no control over their addiction. How do we as treatment professionals help clients practice acceptance and, in turn, gain courage to make the necessary changes they need to sustain their recovery? In my first yoga class there was no choice but to accept what my body could and could not do. I needed to accept the absolute fact that I could not touch my toes or balance on one foot for longer than 4 seconds. I also needed to have the courage to work on these things and allow myself to get better (I’m up to 30 seconds now!). We teach that serenity and peace come with acceptance, all of which can be practiced on the mat.
  3. Patience
    For long periods of time, addicts have received instant gratification through their substance use which in turn makes learning to delay gratification a difficult hurdle for those in early recovery. Though challenging, mastering delayed gratification allows clients to control impulses and wait for rewards earned as opposed to seeking instant pleasure. Yoga is truly a slow-and-steady practice, where improvements happen over time (though slight improvements can be seen quite quickly). By incorporating yoga into treatment, clients practice patience and reap the rewards of working towards a goal.

Don’t take my word for it – I seriously wouldn’t have! I encourage all to try yoga and experience the benefits of it for themselves, both those in recovery and those working to help others. Hearing clients discuss the benefits for themselves and seeing them have the opportunity to practice these concepts in the moment make me a true believer in spending treatment time on the floor.

Elizabeth Frei, LCSW
Substance Abuse Coordinator
High Focus Centers – Paramus, NJ