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The Use of Yoga for Addiction Recovery in Treatment

Many treatment centers are now offering yoga for addiction recovery for their clients, from detox through sober living. This can be a beneficial tool, but it can also backfire if not handled carefully and properly.

Unfortunately, the clients are the ones who may suffer.

Yoga isn’t just another form of exercise, like going to the gym. Yoga, used therapeutically, can be a valuable tool for recovery, helping clients learn how to regulate their emotions using breath and movement and meditation to reconnect with their own bodies.

Studies Show the Benefit of Yoga for Addiction Recovery

Many studies have been done around yoga and the long-term health benefits of the practice.

A study done by Chantal Villemure and Catherine Bushnell of the National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine found that yogis had a larger brain volume in the somatosensory cortex, which contains a mental map of the body.

Yoga also increased the volume of the superior parietal cortex, which is involved with directing our attention and focus. Additionally, the visual cortex increased in size, which Villemure postulated may be due to the visualization techniques used in yoga practice.

Other regions of the brain were also affected by a regular yoga practice. These include the hippocampus, a region critical to dampening stress, and the precuneus and posterior cingulate cortex which are both key to our concept of self.

Also, as Dr. Bessel van der Kolk points out in his book, “The Body Keeps the Score,” yoga is helpful in working with trauma as clients can learn to reconnect with their physical bodies, something that’s frequently lost or disrupted by traumatic experiences, and as we now know, trauma is most often the underlying cause of substance use, as people who have been traumatized aren’t comfortable in their own skin and will do whatever they need to in order to numb the pain of being present.

Yoga Must Be Taught by Certified Teachers to Be Effective

Unfortunately, not all yoga teachers are created equal. There’s no requirement that someone teaching yoga be trained in the practice.

Yoga Alliance is the largest certifying body in the US. However, accreditation through Yoga Alliance is not mandatory for a yoga school, nor is their certification necessary for someone to teach.

Beyond that, even if a teacher has completed a 200-hour course and been certified through Yoga Alliance, most yoga schools do not have any course material for students on working in a treatment environment or working with clients with trauma history.

Yoga for addiction recovery is different from other types of yoga, especially when working with trauma clients.

When a teacher comes to the treatment center, they’ll frequently have a group of people in varying stages of recovery, from almost 30 days to newly sober and perhaps still detoxing. It’s important to know how to teach to ALL the clients, not to just start a class as you might in a gym or studio where the teacher might assume that everyone will be able to keep up.

As you know, clients in detox are not strong, cannot balance, and frequently can’t focus. Starting with a modern yoga practice will teach them only one thing—that they hate yoga and will never do it again.

That’s a shame as they lose the possibility of acquiring another tool that will help to keep them sober once they leave treatment.

With an instructor who is trained to work with this population, the situation is different.

Clients in detox can be guided to restorative practices and breath. Clients who are ready for more movement can be given that along with breathing practices that’ll help them become more embodied and present in the moment.

Meeting the client where they are is the focus of trauma-aware yoga, It’s also what helps clients develop a love for the practice and keep going.

Yoga for Addiction Recovery — Do It Right

You won’t get a trauma-trained teacher for $25 an hour. Like everything else, you get what you pay for.

If you want to see your clients thrive when in your care and afterwards, be prepared to double that at least.

Also be prepared to interview instructors carefully. Make sure they are Trauma Awareness trained. Ask to see their certification. Ask where else they currently teach and where they’ve taught before.

Just like any potential new hire, be prepared to do the due diligence. It’ll pay off for your clients and your reputation.

Have you used yoga for addiction recovery? Tell me your story in the comments. I’d be glad to hear it.

Celeste Mendelsohn is a certified yoga therapist. She works in Trauma and Substance Use Treatment, certifies teachers to work in the treatment environment and lives in Panama where she holds retreats for teachers and others that work with trauma survivors. For more information, contact her at

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Celeste Mendelsohn

My journey into yoga and the integration of its principles into recovery from trauma and C-PTSD is a personal one. My family life, growing up, was chaotic and sometimes violent. I learned to live on ’Red Alert’ trying to stay safe and keep my mother safe. I am in long-term recovery from C-PTSD and am the daughter of, and also the ex-wife of people with use disorders who, I believe, also had trauma in their childhoods. I've been practicing Yoga for 26 years, starting initially because of a physical problem diagnosed at the time as Fibromyalgia. Chronic pain can be an ongoing issue for trauma survivors. Yoga allows me to move, stretch and return to strength and balance daily. I have a deep spiritual connection with movement and breath. I’ve found that regular yoga practice enhances all areas of my life. I teach Yoga for Trauma and SUD in treatment centers for use disorders and also with a trauma outpatient center. Working with trauma and use disorders, using the tools of yoga therapy, gives me insight and a connection with something greater than myself every day, as I see people transform and heal their lives, thanks to the same tools that helped me to heal. Yoga Tarana - Treating Trauma with Yoga is an ongoing work of love. Tarana means recovery or rescue, in Sanskrit, and I believe with all my heart that yoga and the training I’ve received, rescued me from a life of “repeating the same mistakes and hoping for a different result” that is the earmark of Complex PTSD. My ongoing mission is to make these valuable tools for serenity more accessible to everyone and to give trauma survivors a broad spectrum of information through online workshops and webinars, online courses and inperson retreats (when that is viable once again). My intention is to help others as I have been helped - realizing the mental, physical and spiritual benefits of integrating this dynamic philosophy and practice into their lives. TRAINING • IAYT certified yoga therapist • ERYT500 certified Yoga Alliance • BALM Coach • Meditation Teacher with davidji • Yoga of Recovery with Durga Leela • Yoga of 12-Step Recovery with Nikki Myers • Trauma Aware Yoga with Hala Khoury • Yoga of the Heart with Nischala Joy Devi

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