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Why Yoga Might Be The Secret to Sobriety

The ancient practice has more in common with 12-step programs than you might think. And pairing the two offers a unique approach to recovery.

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If over the past year and a half you’ve poured a glass of wine to cope with the challenge of living through a pandemic, you’re not alone: Between February and November last year, people’s alcohol consumption and the proportion of those exceeding drinking guidelines both increased nearly 40 percent, while binge drinking increased by 30 percent, according to the nonprofit research group RTI International. And women who lived with children under the age of five? Their drinking increased by a staggering 323 percent.

Given these sobering statistics, it’s no surprise that Y12SR (Yoga of 12-Step Recovery) founder Nikki Myers has been inundated with emails. Y12SR is a recovery program based on Yoga Sutra 2.16: “future pain can be avoided.” Last year, her online classes increased by some 50 percent.

Myers understands her clients’ challenges. She got sober in the late ’80s with the help of the 12-step program of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), but relapsed after eight years. She got sober again—this time immersing herself in yoga instead of AA.

Read the author’s personal story: Yoga Helped Me Maintain My Sobriety During the Pandemic

What yoga has in common with 12-step programs

“I started noting the similarities between yogic philosophy and the basis of the 12 steps,” says Myers. Both emphasize the fundamental spiritual principle of surrendering to a higher power (ishvara pranidhana). Both stress honesty (satya), self-study (svadhiyaya), and breaking habits and patterns that stand in the way of our peace (samskaras). Both address the importance of investigating misperception or false understanding, especially as it relates to ourselves (avidya).

Myers relapsed four years later, but managed to get sober again—this time by incorporating both the 12-step program and yoga. “I realized, at least for me, there had to be a union between the cognitive approach to addiction recovery offered by 12-step programs, and the somatic approach to healing offered through yoga,” she says. After all, if substance abuse is a disease with a physical, mental, and spiritual component, a holistic program of recovery should address all three. And that’s exactly what she decided to do: in 2004, Myers—who previously founded CITYOGA School of Yoga and Health in Indianapolis— held her first Y12SR workshop.

How yoga supports addiction recovery

Y12SR brings together the practical tools of 12-step meetings (mental and spiritual) and the body-centered approach of yoga (physical and spiritual). “It’s a relapse prevention program,” Myers says. 

“Bringing the 12 steps and yoga together offers us a way to not just process what goes on at the level of mind, but also release what is being held in the body,” she says. 

Yoga—through the effective use of asana, pranayama, and meditation—helps release “the issues living in our tissues,” Myers says, and provides tools to bring yoga’s five bodies into balance and alignment.  “It’s the integration among the five bodies where healing becomes possible,” she says. “The whole goal of Y12SR is to include the physical, the energetic, the mental, the character, and the heart bodies.” When those are in alignment, she says, especially for someone recovering from substance abuse, people can walk in wholeness, and are better protected from disease, dysfunction, and disharmony. 

See also: Rates of Trauma & Addiction Are Skyrocketing. Yoga Can Help

How the yoga and the sutras can help heal the brain

Sutra 1.2—yoga is the cessation of the fluctuations of the mind—is key in supporting recovery. Obviously, a quiet and peaceful mind rooted in the present is beneficial to checking that impulse to escape through a drink or drug. But also, people living with addiction are “healing from a brain that’s been so damaged that it’s hard to make good choices,” says yoga teacher and Daily Reflections on Addiction, Yoga, and Getting Well author Rolf Gates, who was a presenter (along with Myers) at Kripalu’s Yoga, Meditation, and Addiction Recovery Conference this summer and who has used yoga, along with meditation, to help him maintain sobriety for 31 years. “Healing of the brain is associated with relapse prevention, and we can think of the yoga sutras as a manual to changing the brain,” he says.

Science backs this up: Research shows that, in addition to improving overall brain health, yoga can help heal the functional connectivity of the left prefrontal cortex—the planning part of the brain that can be damaged by chronic alcohol use. The result: you’re better able to anticipate the logical outcome of, say, picking up that first drink. “I’ve also found that a mindfulness practice helps tremendously with impulse control,” Gates says. So you logically perceive the consequences of an action, and then can up-level your impulse control, that’s very analogous to relapse prevention.”

See also: The Benefits of Yoga: 38 Ways Your Practice Can Improve Your Life

Yoga activates the “rest and digest” nervous system response

Yoga practices don’t just help the brain heal from the abuse of addiction. They also activate the parasympathetic nervous system, which is responsible for helping our body relax and bounce back from stress. Many people in recovery have been traumatized in their final years of addiction, Gates says. “They’re in the habit of living in their sympathetic nervous system.” A tough email from a boss, a perceived slight from a friend can immediately trigger the flight, fight, or freeze reaction of the sympathetic nervous system.

Asana and pranayama turn on the parasympathetic nervous system. “With yoga, you learn how to choose and receive the felt experience of the body and the breath,” says Gates. That tool is especially beneficial for someone in recovery because it helps them to recognize—to actually feel—when their body is flooded with stress and anxiety, so that they can then use their breathing techniques to simply sit with it.

Practices that harness attention and intention—like yoga, meditation, and breathwork—also aid recovery because they help you meet and hold whatever the moment brings with compassion, says Gates. For example, when past behaviors bubble to the surface of the mind, yoga practices can be used to access a calming perspective, instead of beating yourself up, getting caught in a shame spiral, and wanting nothing more than to numb out and escape. Pranayama is an especially essential tool for this, which is why Y12SR incorporates, for instance, ujjayi breathing, anuloma viola (alternate nostril breathing), and brahmari (bee buzzing breath).

Working with the body and breath can help you find ease in recovery

Getting in touch with the body is a crucial skill that can be taken off the mat and into the real world. “It’s not the poses, it’s how you’re being in the poses. You are learning to meet and hold a process skillfully,” Rolf explains. You can do the same the next day at work, or when you’re having an argument with your spouse. “It’s just like how you surrender to win in 12-step. It’s a paradox—the way that you work with the body and breath is that you find the middle, the middle between effort and ease.” In other words, you simply stop fighting—stop trying so darn hard to control everything—and surrender.

And that’s the place one can, as Myers says, find the spaciousness where ‘the wisdom to know the difference’ lives.

“Working with hundreds and hundreds of people, I’ve seen that what’s needed is a deep connection with the cognitive behavioral work of the 12 steps, and something related to the body, and that something connecting the body to mind and spirit is yoga,” Myers says. “Yoga philosophy gives that.”

Practice with Nikki Myers: A Heart Breath Practice to Help Those Struggling From Addiction