“Yoga is a process of complete personality transformation to realise the stable and lasting state of Inner Peace”
Sri Prasad Rangnekar
This is a quote from my teacher and I think it gives insight on how the various yoga practices can help those suffering from addiction and also family and friends who are dealing with the effect it has on their lives.
There are many facets to yoga, there are the physical postures and breathing techniques which help to steady the body and mind.
There are also social and personal disciplines or observances which help to guide us to live our lives with respect and honour both towards ourselves and others.
Then there are the practices of taking our awareness inwards and away from the external stimuli and as we practice focused concentration (meditational practices) with regular effort it will lead us into the deeper states of Meditation and eventually to the state of Inner Peace mentioned in the quote above.
All these facets of yoga help to make the transformations that need to take place to bring the person suffering from addiction to a place of health and wellness both physically, mentally and emotionally.
The Eight Limbs of Yoga
These different facets of yoga come from the Yoga Sutras, a collection of 196 aphorisms or verses (sutras), which lay out a systemised practice of yoga. They were written by an ancient sage called Patanjali about 1700-2000 years ago.
It was the first time anything had been written down about the yoga practices as it had always been passed down verbally from master to student before.
These various facets are called the Eight Limbs of Yoga:
- Yama – Social/Ethical disciplines
- Niyama – Personal observances
- Asana – Physical posture
- Pranayama – Control of the Breath/ Prana ( life force energy)
- Pratyahara – Drawing the senses inwards
- Dharana – Focused Concentration
- Dhyana – Spontaneous Meditation
- Samadhi – Realization of the True Self / Inner Peace
It should be noted that these are not steps from 1 to 8, it is not necessary to start with Yama and work through in order, in fact, many people start with Asana and Pranayama the more physical aspects and it its these that you will generally find in a yoga class.
However, it is the practice of all the limbs that leads to the “complete personality transformation” that my teacher refers to in the quote.
The Physical Aspects of Yoga
Let’s take a closer look at how the physical aspects of yoga can help in recovery.
Asana – Physical Postures
In addiction, the body takes quite a battering for various reasons, from having to deal with the overload of toxic substances to physical weakness or injury.
The physical postures help to gently restore strength and stability, while also helping the body to restore and maintain its natural defences and detoxification systems to optimal working order.
The postures also foster better body/mind awareness, so as we become more aware of our bodies it becomes much easier to notice when we begin to feel out of sorts mentally.
When we feel stressed, anxious, depressed or angry these can be triggers for old addictive behaviours to surface, but when we prepare ourselves through the practices of yoga it becomes much easier to identify and deal with those triggers before they get out of hand.
When we practice the various different postures it is important to observe how the body feels in the pose, what sensations arise?, also how it feels going into and coming out of a pose.
It is also important to synchronize the breath with the movements while going in and out and to keep the breath smooth while holding the posture.
This body/ breath awareness is one of the things that set yoga asanas apart from other forms of exercise and it is this that helps to re-connect and further develop mind/ body awareness.
After a physical yoga practice very often we experience a sense of calm and well being, a kind of natural high. This feel-good sensation helps to maintain our desire for health and wellness. It’s a positive addiction!
Pranayama – Control of the Breath/ Prana
In pranayama, we learn various different practices to control the breath and therefore Prana or Life Force Energy. It is really this prana that we are looking to control but we utilise the breath as it is the easiest way to connect to the life force energy.
The breath and the mind are intrinsically linked if you consider how you naturally breathe when you are relaxed and how you breath when you feel anxious or angry you will see there is a big difference.
This mind/breath connection is a two way street, for example if you are feeling relaxed and start to deliberately breathe with short and shallow breaths you will no doubt begin to feel somewhat agitated, whereas if you can be aware enough when you feel anxious or angry ( the physical postures will help to develop this awareness) and begin to breathe slowly and deeply you will soon start to calm down.
Even just being aware of your own natural breathing rhythm is calming and centering in itself.
Although there are many pranayama techniques there is no need to rush into these, just simple breath awareness and gentle deep breathing is perfect for recovery.
There are many varied techniques both in Asana and Pranayama but this does not mean that all of them are good for everybody!
The reason there are so many techniques is because there are many different types of person and if something doesn`t feel right for you, for whatever reason, listen to your intuition and be cautious or maybe just leave it out completely.
You can always try again another day or perhaps accept that technique is just not for you.
On a Personal Note.
I would like to say that many times in situations where I may have turned to drowning my sorrows in alcohol or going on a drugged up party binge, Yoga has been my saving grace.
When I feel in trouble I step up my physical practice, do some more intense study of myself and yoga philosophy or chat with a yoga friend.
Then the next day instead of waking up feeling even more miserable I wake up feeling better, proud of myself and more able to deal with the situation.
It should also be noted that the practice of yoga is very compatible with the other modalities of addiction recovery such as the 12 Step Program, in fact, many similarities can be seen between the 12 steps and the yamas and niyamas, we will explore this in another blog.