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Yoga in Addiction Treatment and Recovery: An Interview With Moira Howard

bigstock-Young-woman-doing-yoga-in-stud-67198972The key to effective drug addiction treatment is a comprehensive program that includes a range of traditional as well as alternative and holistic treatment measures. For each patient, the specifics of the treatment plan will be different depending upon their individual needs in recovery, but for almost all patients across the board, the implementation of holistic therapies like yoga practice will provide a number of physical and mental health benefits and improve the overall outcome of recovery in addiction treatment.

Yoga is one of a number of complementary and alternative medicine (CAM) options that have been proven to be effective in helping patients struggling with chronic mental and physical health issues, including substance abuse and addiction. A mindfulness-based therapy, yoga assists patients in being present in the moment while also improving flexibility and circulation and reducing overall levels of stress.

Moira Howard, LMHC, CAP, ICADC, 200hr RYT, has worked with the addicted population since 2007. She completed her yoga teacher training in the fall of 2013 and began working with Futures of Palm Beach in early 2014. Her experience in providing personal therapy and yoga therapy to patients in recovery gives her an in-depth understanding of the benefits experienced by those who engage in regular yoga practice as they seek to grow and progress in addiction treatment.

What drew you personally to teach yoga to people in recovery? Were you first a therapist and then developed an interest in yoga or vice versa?

I had discovered the physical practice while working out. I started to attend more frequently and began to notice the emotional and mental peace I felt after a class. I was working as a therapist at this point in various treatment facilities. I knew that if this type of practice helped me then I could use it to further the healing process for patients who attend treatment. I took a teacher training and could not wait to combine the knowledge of yoga with my experience as a therapist.

I was personally drawn to instructing yoga after years of practice on my own.

 What are the benefits of yoga for anyone interested in utilizing the practice?

Prescription-rehab-3The benefits of yoga are limitless. I have read studies showing that yoga and meditation can help with multiple things. Some of the benefits include emotional regulation, relaxation, physical strength, concentration, focus, and even lengthening life.

What are the benefits of yoga practice specifically for people who are in recovery and early recovery?

The major benefits I see from yoga practice for people early in recovery include focus, self-exploration and connection with mind/body/spirit. Often in addictions, people lose focus of who they are and are unable to connect with their own emotions. Yoga is a time to connect with yourself in multiple ways.

The importance of yoga is not just the physical postures but the mental awareness and stillness gained. Through breathing techniques, physical postures, and mental awareness, many benefits are gained. People in recovery will learn to have a steady mind and control emotions through breathing techniques. The physical self-improvements done in the postures can help build self-confidence and self-esteem.

Do you recommend that all patients in recovery give it a try? Are there any specific situations where yoga may be an especially important part of recovery?

bigstock-Group-of-several-people-doing-91054823Yes, I would recommend yoga to everyone. There are many different schools and types of yoga. If one does not initially appeal to an individual, I would suggest trying a different one. I think that especially in recovery when the brain is healing, yoga can assist in the process. The meditation, focus, and breathing techniques can help individuals who struggle with impulsivity, emotional instability, and low self-esteem. I believe that having a healthy coping skill such as yoga can help people avoid relapse.

I have seen yoga improve many people’s lives. I have met others who found balance and self-love through practicing yoga early in recovery. I also have met women who struggled with eating disorders and used yoga to avoid this self-destructive pattern. Yoga is a time for self-care and acceptance.

You are both a therapist and a yoga instructor. Can you talk a little bit about the therapeutic benefits of yoga?

I have introduced many yogic breathing techniques into my therapeutic practice. I think that if a person can connect with their breath and self then they can learn to regulate emotions better. Yoga helps increase stress management, reduce anxiety, and decrease insomnia. Therapy is a mental and emotional way to address these issues. Doing yoga in addition to therapy is helpful to attain a more balanced recovery.

Are there ways in which yoga and therapy can intersect and/or augment one another?

bigstock-image-of-a-stack-of-hard-back-86205839-600x422There are many books on this connection of yoga and therapy. It is interesting how connected the two subjects are. Yoga can assist individuals therapeutically through meditation, postures, and relaxation. Benefits include reduced anxiety, reduced insomnia, and decreased depression. Yoga is a form of self-help or therapy. I believe therapeutic practices are not necessarily limited to traditional talk therapy. In addition to counseling, yoga can help improve the outcome of treatment.

Is there any benefit to utilizing yoga as an alternative or complementary form of pain management?

There are a multitude of ways that yoga can assist with pain management. Yoga helps stimulate blood flow, calms the central nervous system, and improves circulation. Through continued practice, yoga builds and strengthens supporting muscles and reduces tension through myofascial release.

I know from my own experience with a back injury (torn inter-spinal ligament) during teacher training that yoga helped with my healing process. I was cautious and watchful of any postures I did that would strain my back further. In time, my injury healed naturally. I did not take medications or do any procedures. I feel that continuing to do yoga helped me learn limits and boundaries, which are necessary. I learned to be kinder to myself and not push myself to places I was not ready to go. This experience gave me a great appreciation and understanding for others with physical limitations who want to practice yoga.

Have you found that patients can utilize yoga to help them manage mental health symptoms, potentially eradicating the need for medication if it was formerly necessary?

bigstock-Happy-men-and-women-doing-warr-84760604I have met many patients and fellow yoga instructors who use yoga as a healthy coping skill. I recently was attending a yoga class and spoke to the instructor about what I do for a living. She beamed with joy and told me that she was sober five years. This instructor described to me how she took her first yoga class in rehab and fell in love. She explained how she felt yoga helped her stay sober. I have read many articles and seen research that shows a reduction in cravings and thoughts of using through regular yoga practice.

In addition to reduced cravings, yoga can help reduce anxiety and impulsivity. Many people in recovery are prescribed medications for a multitude of things. I believe yoga can be helpful to reducing the need for medications.

Do you find that patients often carry on their yoga practice after they leave rehab or explore it more deeply in recovery?

Yes, I have heard of many people who continued doing yoga after treatment.

I have seen patients enter treatment and fall in love with yoga. The continued practice is a great way to support recovery and reduce relapse. Yoga is a physical practice with philosophically spiritual roots. Often, people in recovery find solace in spiritual practices. Yoga is an ancient tool originally used in India for spiritual purposes. In recovery, this discipline can be used physically, therapeutically, and spiritually.

The Mind/Body/Spirit Connection

Yoga positively impacts the practitioner’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual growth. All are critical parts of a person’s life, and therefore, all are important foci during initial addiction treatment and beyond. Often, patients focus intently on the physical aspect of addiction due to the nature of withdrawal symptoms and detox. While this may be the most pressing issue during the first weeks after the cessation of drug use and should continue to be addressed through proper nutrition and exercise on an ongoing basis, yoga can serve to maintain physical health while also allowing patients to explore how their physical well-being connects to their ability to increase their sense of emotional control and freedom and explore their understanding of spirituality as well.

Each person’s exploration of yoga will be as unique as their experience in active addiction. Through different styles of yoga, levels of intensity of practice, and incorporating one’s practice with other therapies, each patient will find benefits that are individual to their needs.

** Patients are encouraged to discuss their options in all aspects of treatment, including yoga practice, with their doctor or therapeutic team before they begin. Additionally, any new exercise regimen should be approved by a doctor.

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