Yoga for Recovery

Nadine Raia, LMSW, CASAC-T
Nadine Raia, LMSW, CASAC-T is a primary therapist at the New York Center for Living and a Yoga teacher with multiple certifications including for addiction and trauma.

“Yoga is not about the shape of our bodies, it’s about the shape of our lives.”—Adhil Palahivala

Moving With Intention
September is both National Recovery Month and National Yoga Month—a combination that highlights two complementary approaches to healing. We often hear about the benefit of the body/mind connection, which is interrupted during active substance use. Substance use creates dissociation from the body and prevents connection to physical sensations and feelings. Yoga offers a wonderful way to slowly reintroduce someone to physical, corporeal sensation as they seek recovery from substance use. Feelings of anxiety, stress, and depression that arise from substance use and subsequent detox may be overwhelming as they flood the body; mindful relaxation is invaluable towards helping people stay calm, present, and grounded when presented with stressors, urges, and cravings. In addition to improving relaxation, mood and increasing strength, yoga helps reduce and regulate stress hormones like adrenaline and cortisol. Yoga is a way to ground the body and create a connection between breath and movement, as well as strengthen the skills necessary to tolerate uncomfortable emotions that can potentially lead to relapse.

People struggling with substance use or other co-occurring mental health disorders such as anxiety, depression, or traumatic experiences are often seeking respite from certain negative or uncomfortable emotional experiences. Whether it be numbing physical or emotional pain through escapism and an altered psychological state, people attempt to escape whatever is making them unhappy. Yoga offers an alternative and positive way to create change in consciousness; instead of providing an escape, yoga empowers people with the ability to access a peaceful, restorative inner state that re-integrates mind, body, and spirit. Much like Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT)—a therapeutic approach we utilize at the Center along with yoga—the goal is to create present moment awareness.

Breathe and “Om it out”
The Autonomic Nervous System (ANS) is the center of self-regulating process, maintaining homeostasis in the body. It influences heart and respiration rate and is governed by the Vagus Nerve. The Vagus Nerve, the longest cranial nerve, stretches from the brain stem to the stomach. There is a link between the brain’s stress response and addiction—substance use and relapse can be triggered by our Vagus Nerve response to stress and anxiety. Yoga is often referred to as a “top-down, bottom-up” practice, meaning that we can either use practices that initiate in the mind and affect the body, or we can use the body to affect the mind.

A “bottom-up” example in yoga would be using postures (Asanas) or breathwork (Pranayama) that affect the ANS, which would in turn affect the quality of thoughts and change emotions. These include:

  • Chanting “Om” relaxes the Vagus Nerve, resetting the brain’s alarm system and stress response
  • Postures or Asanas like hip openers to engage the psoas muscle, where emotions are stored—when the psoas becomes exhausted, thus overwhelming the nervous system, it affects how we breathe.
  • Practice Box Breath: Inhale for four counts, hold breath of four counts, exhale for four counts, hold for four counts, repeat. Long slow breaths with an audible exhale sound elicits a Vagal Response. Use the breath to lead the body through negative self-talk, impulse, or craving.

A “top-down” example would be using imagery, repeated positive affirmation (Mantra) or meditation (Dhyana) to affect the ANS state, which would then affect the physiological systems of the body, calming the body. Practice the positive mantra of Loving Kindness: “May I be happy with myself as I am; May I be at peace with things as they are; May I live with peace and joy.”

Mind Over Matter
When someone is struggling with a craving to use substances, radical acceptance is the idea that one can acknowledge a craving without acting on the urge to use. Yoga practices incorporating mindfulness, meditation, breathwork, and movement allow people to manage the negative emotions and physical cravings that may lead to relapse. Focusing on the breath and physical movement allows the practitioner to ground the self in the physical body and disconnect from negative thoughts. When the mind is still, it is prepared to focus on positive images.

Whether you are in recovery from substance use or not, try a few beginner postures, being mindful to honor any physical limitations. Yoga postures should never cause pain. Accepting what your body can achieve with love and acceptance, rather than judgment; focus on breathing deeply and connecting the breath to the posture.

  • Mountain Pose (Tadasana): This is a “heart opening” posture is a pose of stillness and awareness and serves as a reminder to connect with your inner strength and stability. It is a basic standing pose that promotes balance, core strength, and groundedness. Stand with feet hip distance apart, lift the toes, spread them wide and place them back on the floor. Feel your weight evenly balanced through the bottom of each foot, not leaning forward or back. Pull up the kneecaps, squeeze the thighs, and tuck the tailbone slightly under. Feel the hips aligned directly over the ankles. The legs are straight, but the knees are not locked back. Inhale and lift out of the waist, pressing the crown of the head up towards the ceiling, feeling the spine long and straight.

    Exhale and drop the shoulders down and back as you reach the fingertips towards the floor. Gently press the chest / sternum towards the front of the room. Rotate arms at the shoulders, turning palms towards the front of room. Breathe deeply and slowly to relax the body and mind. Reach both arms up towards the sky, interlacing the fingers and reversing the palms to face the ceiling. stretch the arms, feel the energy racing up and out, stretching the side body on each side. Release the fingers and swing the arms around to the back, again interlacing the fingers and stretching the arms, opening the chest, opening the heart. We spend too much of our time with our heads down and arms crossed in front of us, protecting ourselves from pain or hurt, it feels good to open our hearts. This is an empowering pose, standing like a superhero, which gives us strength and confidence. Inhale. Exhale.
  • Easy Pose (Sukhasana): Take a comfortable cross legged, seated position, place your hands palms down on your thighs to feel grounded or palms up to receive energy and begin to deepen your breath. Place your hands on your thighs and begin moving to the right side in large, exaggerated circles. This will release the tension held in the hips from sitting too long. We often carry our stress in our hips, that is why it is called ‘a pain on the ass’. Now start to slow it down and reverse your circles to the left now. (This helps release the psoas muscles) Slowly come back to center and stretch your arms up overhead, breathing in deeply, turning the body toward the right and exhaling fully, bringing the left hand to the top of the right knee and the right hand to the floor behind your right hip or rest it on the hip, whatever is available to you. Release and reverse on the left side. Inhale deeply, reaching your arms back up to the sky, twist the body to the left, exhaling fully and bringing the right hand to the top of the left knee and the left hand to the floor being the left hip. Come back to center.
  • Butterfly/Bound Angle Pose (Baddha Konasana): In a seated position, bend the knees and bring the soles of the feet together, gently opening the pelvis and hips. Bring your hands to heart center, in prayer. Breathe deeply and fully, exhale completely. Breathe deeply and exhale fully with the sound of Om, considered to be the sound of all the sounds in the universe. Raise your arms up over your head to the sky, again inhale deeply and exhale fully with the sound of Om and one more time inhale deeply and exhale fully with one final Om. (This helps release the Vagus Nerve).
  • Unbreakable Trust Mudra (Vajrapradama Mudra) Interlace your fingers over your heart, with the thumbs facing upwards. This is the Unshakeable Trust Mudra, finding trust in ourselves, and trust in the program. A mudra is just yoga for your hands. Your hands are epic instruments for healing and some of the most powerful ways to awaken your heart. Either close your eyes or lower your focus towards the ground, however you feel most comfortable. Repeat the following mantra: “May the fabric of my heart not unravel. May I remain soft and receptive when I want to shut down. May I believe in good things coming.”Come back to your deep cleansing breaths. Inhale deeply, exhale completely. May we all experience what it means to love and accept ourselves in this lifetime.

When leaving the cycle of addiction, where chronic stress and anxiety were present, healing can take place. Learning to sit with uncomfortable emotions in our bodies, and understanding the root of suffering, is how we grow. Yoga offers the chance to better understand ourselves, including our thoughts and emotions. Staying connected to a supportive sober community gives a foundation of strength while supplementing with yoga and meditation for overall improved health and wellbeing.

If you or a loved one is struggling with substance use disorder, please feel free to reach out to us at or call us at 212-712-8809.