One of the hardest parts of recovery is often finding the ability to sit quietly and calmly, feeling at peace with your body and mind. Since that’s what yoga teaches, it’s little surprise that it’s used so often (as is meditation) to help those overcoming addiction.
That’s exactly how recovering heroin addict Kelly Benson discovered the benefits of a yoga practice. “It provided something for me in a spiritual aspect and was the first time I experienced quiet,” remembers Benson, who has been sober for two years. “It gave me a sense of calmness.” Benson grew to love yoga so much that she now teaches Bikram, a style of hot yoga, at Maine Hatha Yoga, in Portland, Maine, to help others recover from addiction. “Hot yoga focuses on strengthening and increasing the circulation and blood flow,” she says. “It makes you feel whole.” She explains how many addicts suffer from past trauma and difficult emotions: “Your whole mind is in conflict. And your mind is your worst enemy.”
Often described as a moving meditation, yoga helps by giving recovering addicts skills to help cope with and tolerate uncomfortable feelings and sensations, especially those that can lead to relapse, like anger, depression, sadness and anxiety. A Penn State study found that recovering addicts who don’t develop ways to cope with stress are more likely to relapse during recovery. In particular, the researchers noted a link between stress and cravings to use a substance. The ability to work through a stressful problem is a strong predictor of whether or not cravings arise, they added.
Now the mother of a 10-month old, Benson practices yoga at home in addition to teaching hot yoga twice a week. “Once the body and mind are starting to work together instead of being in conflict with each other, you can get into the spirituality aspect [of yoga],” she explains. “You can notice the stillness when your mind is quieter and your body’s healthy.” Addiction.com asked Benson to share the three poses she’s found most useful in maintaining sobriety. Before you try any of these postures be sure your body and muscles are warmed up and modify the poses as needed if you are new to yoga:
Standing Bow Pose: “This pose works great for concentration and balance,” says Benson. “It’s difficult to balance at first because the mind is loud, but once it starts to quiet down this posture can be powerful.”
- Begin by standing with both feet together. Shift your weight into your left leg and bend your right leg, moving your right heel toward your butt.
- Reach your right hand around to grab the raised foot behind your back. Grab your foot with all your fingers, holding it from the inner side of the foot at around ankle height. Extend your left arm upward, pointing it directly at the ceiling.
- Hold this position for 10 to 15 seconds, until you feel stable. Then slowly begin to bend forward at the hips. Keep your left leg straight (without locking the knee) and try not to let go of your rising leg.
- Hold the position for as long as you’re able, breathing deeply in and out through your nose if that feels comfortable. When you’re ready, move back to an upright position and slowly lower the right leg to the ground, coming back to standing. Repeat the pose on the other side.
Modification: If this pose is too challenging you can use a bar, wall or chair to help with your balance. You can also stay in the pose upright, arm extended, and not lean forward until you feel stable in the upright position.
Camel Pose: Camel pose is a big hip- and shoulder-opener, which is helpful to release past trauma from the hips and shoulders, says Benson. (Part of the philosophy behind yoga is that the body holds onto emotion in some parts of the body, so poses that target the hips, in particular, are powerful for helping to let go and find more peace and healing.)
- Kneel on the floor, placing your knees hip-distance apart. Press your shins and the tops of your feet into the floor. Then place your palms on the back of your pelvis, fingers pointing toward the floor.
- Lean back, slightly tucking your chin toward your chest. If you’re flexible enough to take the pose deeper, reach back with each hand to grab each heel. Your palms should rest on your heels with your fingers pointing toward your toes and your thumbs holding the outside of each foot.
- As you lean back, do your best to keep the thighs perpendicular to the floor and hips directly over your knees. If it’s difficult to grasp your heels without feeling compression in your low back, tuck your toes to elevate your heels. And if leaning back is too much for your body, stay in the upright Camel Pose, leaning back only slightly — as much as feels comfortable to get a nice stretch in your back, thighs and hips.
- If you’re leaning back and holding your heels, lift up through your pelvis, keeping your lower spine long. Turn your arms outward without squeezing your shoulder blades. Keep your head in a neutral position, or allow it to drop back as long as it doesn’t strain or crunch your neck. Hold Camel Pose for 30 to 60 seconds.
Tree Pose: Finding stillness in Tree pose, another balancing posture, provides a great opportunity to connect with yourself, especially if you do the pose in front of a mirror, Benson says. “It’s one of my favorites, and the most empowering one in my own practice.”
- Stand firm on both feet. Begin to bend the right knee as you shift your weight into your left leg. Rotate the right knee outward as you lift the leg and gently rest the right foot against the left lower leg, ankle or shin.
- You can stay here, or if you want a greater balance challenge, slowly slide the right foot up the left leg, but only as high up as allows you to maintain balance. Whenever you feel stable in the pose, slowly bring the palms together in prayer position in front of the heart.
- Keep the left leg strong, pressing the foot into the floor. If you feel very balanced here, try the next stage: As you inhale, draw your arms overhead, interlacing your fingers with the index fingers pointing up. Breathe and hold the pose with arms extended overhead for four to eight breaths.
- To release the pose, slowly exhale the arms down and then release the leg back to standing. Repeat on the other side.