Mounting research suggests that being mindfully present in the body, feeling and moving through emotions and discomfort, has profound healing effect on a holistic level (Emerson, D. & Hopper E., 2011). Both yoga and psychotherapy aim to facilitate self-awareness, mindfulness, introspection, self-acceptance and lasting positive change. As Finding Om participants become more aware of their mental and physical habits on the mat, they become better able to recognize and ride out triggers off the mat. They learn that emotional pain can manifest somatically, and they are then able to begin directly addressing problems at their root.
Many therapies use yoga as part of psychological treatment. Viniyoga (Kraftsow, 1999), Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy (Lee, 1997) and the Trauma Center (Emerson, D. & Hopper E., 2011) use gentle hatha-based yoga. iRest Yoga Nidra restorative yoga lowers autonomic arousal and has shown excellent results reducing anxiety and somatic distress (Miller, 2010); Warriors at Ease was developed for specifically for soldiers with PTSD (warriorsatease.com).
A hallmark of addictive behaviors is impaired distress tolerance. In yoga I place people in challenging physical and mental positions, all the while encouraging them to notice and accept their feelings in real time. Participants are continually asked to notice sensations and accept them without rushing to judge, label or change them—especially when they are seemingly negative, such as “this sucks” or “I’m terrible at this.” A primary goal of Finding Om is to help people learn to accept rather than push aside feelings without getting attached to them or letting them dictate an experience. Members are encouraged to dig deep, breathe and stay with discomfort, practicing this skill on the mat to learn to do so in real life when it actually counts. Clients learn to recognize that these difficult moments will pass and that by maintaining mental equanimity they can not only survive unharmed but become stronger for the experiences. Group discussion after practice reinforces that what we do on the mat is only useful if we take the lessons home with us. Specifically, discussion topics include distress tolerance, emotional regulation, personal choice, coping skills, forgiveness, guilt and shame, communication and trigger situations. Finding Om emphases current functioning and living optimally in the present. It is the moment clients begin to let go of their “story,” the moment they start to accept things being imperfect, that they can begin accepting the fact that life itself is not perfect, that uncomfortable things happen, and that they can be okay without a need for “escaping” into a substance.
Finding Om uses a somewhat vigorous yoga flow designed push people physically, increasing heart rate, muscle strength and flexibility. This challenge appears to resonate strongly with clients looking to heal after chemically abusing their bodies for many years. This may be because part of what is “missing” in abstinence—namely the rush that comes with getting high—is partly eased by the release of endorphins after this physical type of practice.
Most people in Finding Om have little to no yoga experience. Many comment on how their increased fitness after several sessions of yoga provides motivation not to return to substance use. Even so, it is critical to be alert to feelings of failure in less adept participants. For this reason, I continually remind participants to treat cues as invitations, rather than commands. It is never the goal for participants to feel they have failed, so I encourage them to work within, rather than against, the limits of their body.
Similarly, it is critical to guard against injury, especially in a more demanding practice. I want them to step out of their comfort zones but caution people to distinguish between pain and unease. Group members are reminded that on-the-mat discomfort is only temporary, as it is in life. It is by starting, not making excuses and putting off practice, that you begin to experience benefits—just as it is by starting recovery that you actually get sober.
Finding Om Yoga Therapy is clinically proven to help reduce binge episodes in people with Binge Eating Disorder (Patz Clarke, D., 2009). Anecdotal reports from my work with addicts are consistently positive and promising. Yoga in general is not for everyone, and some inpatients remain resistant to the practice. Those who allow themselves to develop the mental and physical flexibility that the program intends to foster, however, report continued gains even after treatment has ended, as was proven with Binge Eaters. Some continue to practice yoga following Finding Om and report that the discussion part of treatment consolidated gains made and helps them more consciously apply the lessons inherent in yoga to their post-treatment practice. As one participant put it, “I realized how easily I myself can find the peace within myself when most of the time I’m searching elsewhere.”
Emerson, D., Hopper E. (2011) Overcoming Trauma Through Yoga: Reclaiming Your Body.
Berkeley CA: North Atlantic Books.
Kraftsow, G. (1999). Yoga for Wellness: Healing with the Timeless Teachings of Viniyoga. New York: Penguin Books.
Lee, M. (1997). Phoenix Rising Yoga Therapy: A Bridge from Body to Soul. Deerfield Beach, FL: Health Communications, Inc.
Miller, R. (2010). Yoga Nidra: A Meditative Practice for Deep Relaxation and Healing. Boulder CO: Sounds True, Inc.
Patz Clarke, D. (2009). Finding Om: A Pilot Study Assessing Yoga as a Component of Treatment for Binge Eating Disorder. (Unpublished doctoral dissertation). University of the Rockies: Colorado Springs, CO.