Freedom from Addiction
Using yoga to eliminate negative thought patterns has been a savior for Texan Terri Laird who celebrated her 11th year of sobriety this past Christmas. While she's only been practicing Kundalini Yoga for two years, this Los Angeles musician claims it has helped her maintain sobriety and shed other addictions like cigarettes, coffee, and antidepressants. "When I'm taking care of my body, mind, and spirit, I don't have to fill the void with substances," she says. "It also helps curb the power of the subconscious to fill my head with all those negative voices. I really believe that yoga has changed my brain chemistry."
Laird's instinct may be correct. Yoga can, in fact, alter brain neurology and help reduce cravings, anxiety, and fearčall responses that can lead to destructive behaviors. Roy King, Ph.D. and M.D., an associate professor of psychiatry and behavioral science at Stanford University, has studied the biological impact of yoga on drug abuse. He explains that a neurotransmitter called dopamine is elevated in the basal ganglia of the brain when drugs are introduced to the body and during other pleasurable states like sexual arousal and romantic love. One physiological reason addicts go back for more is that their brain begins to crave that dopamine surge even when they just think about drug use. King explains, though, that yoga and meditation may actually dampen dopamine activity in the basal ganglia. "This is the part of the brain that's involved with control over motivation and attraction," he says. "By inhibiting that dopamine impulse, yoga helps inhibit cravings and negative emotional states that trigger drug use."
King also points out that some forms of yoga, like Kundalini which emphasizes intense breathing patterns, may actually trigger endorphins and activate the body's natural pleasure producer. In fact, Kaur Khalsa was initially attracted to yoga after she heard Yogi Bhajan proclaim, "I'm going to teach you how to get high on your breath." "I thought that was great," recalls Kaur Khalsa. "Little by little the drugs fell off. I realized I was experiencing a kind of high, but it was natural." But when dealing with addicts who may suffer from deep-seated emotional and mental disorders, King warns that yoga teachers need to be cautious that students don't substitute one high for another.
The idea of a yoga community is also a compelling notion for addicts and their caregivers. From a behavioral standpoint, a significant way to overcome temptation is just staying away from people who use substances or from situations that prompt anxiety. "Yoga teachers tend to be calm, peaceful people with healing personalities," says Frederick. "Yoga class is a great place to observe quiet and inner strength. You also have a greater potential to make a healthy friendship than you would in a bar."
A yoga studio can offer addicts, who often turn to abuse because they feel alienated, a community of like-minded people. "Some people don't realize the ladder you have to climb to become sober," says Kaur Khalsa. She has observed that addicts (especially those who are newly sober) may get headaches or nausea, or their bodies may shake like jackhammers. That's why she's worked hard to create a safe haven at her yoga studio: She serves tea after class; music and chanting play a big role in her practice; and she even invites students to dine with her on Sunday nights.