Yoga and Healing Addiction :
By Felicia M. Tomasko
“In retrospect, my addiction was a yearning of my soul, a quest to end the feeling of
separation. Several times I insisted on going to India rather than treatment centers. On
the way to LAX, I would smoke a doobie in the car and snort cocaine in the airplane
bathroom. Once in India, I would just sit, and never need to get loaded. There I found my
access to spirit.”
Teresa taught yoga while still struggling with addiction, and is currently a successful
yoga teacher who has helped numerous students out of denial and into recovery.
Thousands like Teresa (name changed) regularly attend yoga classes, either not
realizing they have a problem with addiction, or not willing to admit to one. But their yoga
practice is creating an effect. Treatment specialists are taking notice and are
incorporating yoga and meditation into recovery programs. Yoga helps people with
addictions increase self-awareness, enhance physical and mental stamina, detoxify the
body, find a new social circle and connect to their inner spirituality.
According to the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous (AA), a significant reason for using
is to deal with inner pain and anesthetize the self. Addiction specialists agree that people
who are susceptible to the disease of addiction can become addicted to anything as a
coping mechanism, a means of filling an inner void or chasing a spiritual yearning.
Addiction can be focused on a substance, like alcohol, chemicals or food; or a behavior,
like gambling, sex or relationships. Bill and Bob, the founders of AA, recognized the
spiritual nature of addiction and saw that the antidote to the anesthesia comes from
reconnecting with an individual’s higher power. This is where yoga can be a superior tool
for rehabilitation; a person’s relationship with their spirituality and higher power is integral
to the 12 steps as well as yoga’s eight-fold path.
Getting loaded didn’t connect Teresa to her spiritual self, it only caused further
separation. Due to the intervention of family and friends who missed who she was before
addiction took hold, she entered treatment at the Betty Ford Center in Rancho Mirage.
She also had had enough—of loneliness and her life falling apart around her.
Los Angeles-based intervention specialist Ed Storti finds many people enter treatment
programs or embark on recovery through the intervention of family or friends, like
Teresa, or through a crisis. The death of Jill’s mother—from alcoholism—created her
crisis. Even though Jill (name changed) attended yoga classes, she would go from the
studio to the corner bar. “I had a good job, friends, I did yoga, I couldn’t be an alcoholic.”
For Jill, who grew up in an alcoholic family, alcohol was the solution for stress; in fact,
she described it as the solution for everything. Jill was angry with her mother for not
being available, but Jill subsequently realized that she was also angry with herself.
“When my mother was gone, it was me that was not available; it left me suicidal, I knew I
Now Jill utilizes the principles of Yoga and Ayurveda, along with AA’s 12 steps in her
own recovery. In recovery, she explored the philosophical tradition of yoga, and noticed
parallels between the anonymous movement’s 12 steps and the eight-fold path of yoga
practice: in the emphasis on truth, meditation, surrender to a higher power and self-
awareness. Well known Los Angeles yoga teacher Frank White also says that both
were integral in his recovery, “AA saved my life; yoga gave me a new way to go with it.”
The 12 steps include a “searching and fearless” personal inventory and the ongoing
continuation of that inventory. By cultivating awareness of feelings while in a common
posture like downward facing dog, self-awareness is developed. Allison Sackin, who
teaches at Promises treatment center in Malibu, sees this as a benefit of yoga. Attention
that was directed outward in the addictive process becomes directed inward. Sackin
says, “People with addictions are chasing something outside themselves; through yoga,
people are chasing something that’s already there.”
Yoga was the cornerstone of Superhealth, the country’s first alternative health center for
the treatment of addictions in Tucson, Arizona. Begun when 3HO ashram staff fed
heroin addicts, then took them in and offered recovery services based on Kundalini
yoga, strict diet, massage, acupuncture and acupressure and other holistic therapies.
Pima County recognized the quality of their approach, providing funding and referrals.
Superhealth earned the prestigious western medical accolade of accreditation from
JCAHO, the Joint Commission on Accreditation of Healthcare Organizations in 1978 and
operated as a full-scale medical recovery center until 1990.
From the pioneering efforts of the Kundalini yoga community, yoga and meditation,
along with other body-centered holistic therapies such as massage and acupuncture, are
becoming progressively incorporated into mainstream treatment facilities. Storti says
many people don’t know what yoga is before entering recovery, but it is increasingly
more common for yoga and meditation to be integrated into treatment programs in
hospitals, sober living houses and county treatment centers. From the prominent Betty
Ford Center in Rancho Mirage to programs in prisons, yoga classes are presented as
either electives or mandatory therapeutic experiences.
In the L.A. and Orange County-funded Southern California Alcohol and Drug Programs’
residential treatment centers, David Wells (Certified Ayurvedic Specialist and yoga
teacher) teaches compulsory yoga classes to recovering drug and alcohol addicts. Wells
utilizes techniques to calm the body and mind through gentle exercises, pranayama
(breath techniques) and savasana (relaxation). Students report that yoga is one of their
favorite activities; new to most, yoga helps them not only cope with stress, but change
their state of consciousness in a manner that is not destructive to mind and body.
The Meadows in Arizona is a residential program that has gained national attention for
its treatment of a broad range of addictions and conditions including sex and love
addictions, codependency, alcoholism, drug addiction, gambling addictions, and eating
disorders, as well as trauma and other psychological conditions. Body-centered
therapies have been increasingly incorporated over the past 15 years; first acupuncture,
then tai chi, and now yoga. Yoga instructor and acupuncturist Andre Zitcer, L.Ac is a full
member of the treatment team. He attends team meetings where patients’ recovery
programs are planned and works at both the Meadows and Melody House, the
associated after-care treatment program. In Zitcer’s experience, people with addictions
are often unaware of their bodies. Through concentrating on physical sensation in yoga,
and expanding the breath, Zitcer finds students become more present to and aware of
their experience of body, mind, and emotions, even when it is uncomfortable.
Annalisa Cunningham, in Healing Addiction with Yoga, asserts: “Most people in recovery
have a history of degrading their bodies.” Yoga offers the means to counteract this, and
heal body and mind. Cunningham elucidates several benefits of yoga practice for those
in recovery including: decreased stress levels, reduction of fatigue through savasana
(relaxation), increased physical strength and flexibility, and the flushing and removal of
toxins through “activating and stimulating circulation, digestion and elimination.” Sackin
incorporates poses such as Kundalini sets utilizing arm movements that target the lymph
nodes underneath the arms and around the chest to stimulate the lymphatic system and
enhance the body’s natural systems of detoxification.
Unsurprisingly, yoga advances the spiritual quest that AA finds integral to recovery.
David is a staff member at SHARE!, a clearinghouse and center for self-help and
recovery groups, and in recovery himself. David insists, “The answer to addiction comes
from a spiritual life.” When in recovery, and exploring the 12 steps, taking inventory is an
“internal housecleaning” and “the passport to a new spirituality.”
Located in Culver City, SHARE!, begun by director Ruth Holman 11 years ago, is a
program funded by the California Department of Mental Health. SHARE! hosts more
than 70 groups every week to support people in recovery or seeking self-discovery,
groups that are not only spiritual but psychological. SHARE! staff delineate the
difference between spirituality and religion; people of any religious tradition can
participate in both 12 step programs and yoga.
Although the road from addiction to recovery has components of a spiritual quest with
spiritual answers, addiction is a physical disease. The craving an addict experiences for
a substance or behavior is intensely physical, and for many, the addiction serves as their
coping mechanism. Gary Fisher, Director of the prestigious Cirque Lodge treatment
center in Utah, describes this craving not as a choice, but something the addict feels
“with every fiber of their being,” particularly under stress, “stress induces craving and
craving induces using.” In order to help people discover new coping strategies, and
methods for reducing stress, yoga is incorporated into the Cirque Lodge experiential
program. Other programs nationwide, including the renowned Betty Ford Center, utilize
yoga for stress reduction.
Cirque’s participants benefit from yoga, stating it enhances “the cultivation of courage
and the ability to endure, as well as the positive practice of focus and concentration.”
The courage and endurance found in yoga can help people face cravings. Jill feels the
“30 seconds of willpower” provided by yoga allows her to handle the obsession one hour
at a time. Ana Forrest, owner of the Forrest Yoga Circle in Santa Monica, also
discovered endurance in the practice: “I used Sun Salutations as my 12 step program.
Every time I wanted to use I did Suns. Sometimes I did Suns all night.” Both willpower
and stress-reduction improve people’s ability to face cravings, or avoid them in the first
place. Gary insists, “Relapse starts well before a person takes their next drink, or
engages in their addictive behavior,” as the person struggles, under stress, at risk of
succumbing to the old familiar coping mechanisms of engaging in addictive behaviors.
With solid, healthy coping mechanisms, people are less likely to use.
Yet another benefit of yoga relates to sangha (the company of a spiritual community or
group of like-minded people). People in recovery find they must cultivate a new social
circle. Meetings, 12 step programs and self-help groups, like those at SHARE, provide
community and a social outlet. For many people yoga classes fulfill these needs. Even if
people in recovery didn’t begin attending yoga classes to help “get through” addictions,
they find a new social group and activity that didn’t center on drugs, being at bars or
Storti cautions against the process of trading one addiction for another - a process with
which many recovering addicts are familiar. An addiction to alcohol can be commonly
traded for another substance or behavior, continuing the vicious cycle as the person
searches for something to fill their inner emptiness. Zitcer has seen people return home
to become obsessive about their yoga practice; therefore, he feels it is important to
combine yoga with therapy or recovery groups.
Teresa, now that she is sober, believes her yoga practice and teaching: “has liberated
the essence which allows me to be a clear creative channel for cosmic consciousness,
guidance, knowing and teaching.”
Felicia M. Tomasko is a writer, yoga teacher, and Ayurvedic practitioner in Santa