How Yoga Enhances Recovery

As a culture, we have become very familiar with the suffering and loss associated with substance use disorders.  We are also quick to notice the psycho-biological symptoms associated with them. What we may not be as familiar with, and completely unprepared for, however, is the discomfort associated with Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome or PAWS.  PAWS refers to abstinence-based biological changes that occur once an individual has made a decision for change and entered recovery. It is the abstinence-based biological symptoms of PAWS that makes early recovery so uncomfortable and hard to understand, and therefore extremely difficult to maintain.

Hot Yoga is a powerful tool for  recovery from substance use disorders. Some of its greatest potential lies in the practice’s ability to alleviate the symptoms of  Post Acute Withdrawal Syndrome.

PAWS is a cluster of symptoms that set in after a person stops using drugs or drinking and has completed detoxification. At this stage, the severe symptoms of acute withdrawal have passed and a person can begin to focus on their recovery on physical and emotional levels. PAWS can make this second phase extraordinarily difficult because it has a severe impact on a person’s thought processes, decision-making, ability to control emotion and ability to maintain physical coordination.

“Everyone said I would feel better and I feel worse. I feel like I am going crazy.”      -Anonymous

Below, find common PAWS symptoms and how yoga can help:

Inability to Process & Organize Thoughts: Feeling unable to solve simple problems, maintain focus on a specified task, or reason in the abstract.

Yoga postures improve the movement of cerebrospinal fluid, bathing the brain with biochemicals and nutrition, and facilitating the removal of wastes.

 Yoga increases focus, concentration, and attention through the practice of both concentration meditation and mindfulness meditation during postures.

The practice of yoga improves circulation in the entire body, including the brain, potentially leading to improved neurological function.

Yoga postures improve the movement of cerebrospinal fluid, bathing the brain with biochemicals and nutrition, and facilitating the removal of wastes.

“The presence of brain dysfunction has been documented in 75-95% of the recovering individuals tested. Recent research indicates that the symptoms of post-acute withdrawal associated with alcohol/drug-related damage to the brain may contribute to many cases of relapse.” ~ Terrence Gorski

Depression.  Inability to experience pleasure or joy (anhedonia), pessimistic and/or negative thinking, irritability, anger.

 Yoga promotes a positive attitude, improves mood, and helps decrease stress and tension.

Massachusetts General Hospital is in the middle of a comprehensive study on the effects of hot yoga on clinical depression. Preliminary results show a statistically-significant negative correlation between number of classes taken and depression symptoms.

In our preliminary Sober Yogis study at Bikram Yoga Portsmouth, participants saw a two-thirds reduction in depression symptoms.

Memory problems

 Yoga increases the movement of cerebrospinal fluid and increases blood flow to the brain.

Practitioners engage in breathing exercises that require them to breathe in rhythm in a group. Clinical studies on rhythm therapy show that it causes improvements in short term memory and facial recognition.

Lack of initiative/motivation

 Yoga increases energy.

Yoga causes a sense of wellness and self-acceptance.

Participating in a challenging class that the yogi may not yet believe they can “do” and proving that inner voice wrong over and over again increases motivation, grit, drive, and sense of accomplishment.

Increased sensitivity to pain

 Yoga improves the practitioners self-awareness to what is happening in the present moment. This improves proprioception and helps to develop a realistic sense of pain and injury.

Yoga reduces symptoms of arthritis, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia, and other autoimmune diseases, reducing pain.

Studies on fibromyalgia and yoga have shown an over 50% reduction in perceived pain in patients after starting yoga.

Yoga improves joint mobility, muscle strength and flexibility, skeletal alignment, and improves overall health, reducing pain.

Emotional overreactions or emotional numbing

 Yoga is the practice of being present within one’s body. As the practitioner begins to feel their body, part-by-part, they also learn to feel the emotions inside the body as well.

Yoga trains the practitioner to breathe calmly, even when uncomfortable. This allows the yogi to experience uncomfortable thoughts and emotions without triggering a fight-or-flight response, diffusing the challenging feeling.

Across the board, yoga students report a reduction in emotional overreaction that continues to grow the longer they continue the practice.

For yogis who have long suppressed emotions, accessing them through the body is sometimes the only way to “metabolize” these “stuck” emotions.

Therapists have found patients stuck in PTSD treatment move forward in leaps and bounds through the therapeutic practice of yoga.

People talk about a “yoga glow” which is a deep feeling of wellness after practice. A body that feels good is much easier to “be present” inside.

In our preliminary Sober Yogis study in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, the average participant saw a reduction in Emotional Overreaction and/or Numbness from Severe to Mild.


 Yoga increases feelings of wellness and decreases anxiety.

Yoga trains the body, through focused breathwork, to activate the parasympathetic nervous system, circumventing anxiety.

In our preliminary Sober Yogis study at Blaze Yoga and Pilates, participants saw an average 67% reduction in anxiety symptoms.

Sleep disturbances (including using dreams) Sleep disturbances may range from insomnia to narcolepsy to sleep apnea, the most commonly reported problem is the inability to maintain a regular sleeping cycle.

 Yoga decreases tension and anxiety and improves the capacity for restful sleep.

Yoga practices like deep breathing techniques, savasana, and restorative postures strengthen the vagus nerve and decrease activation of the sympathetic nervous system, allowing the practitioner to fall asleep more easily.

Yoga helps to stabilize production of cortisol, a primary hormonal driver in sleep disturbance.

Yogis practicing 45 minutes of yoga three times a week for twelve weeks saw an average 31% reduction in cortisol (the “stress” hormone).

Physical Coordination Problems: problems with balance, hand-to-eye coordination, fine motor skills, and impaired reflexes.

 Yoga seeks to bring the practitioner to mental and emotional wellness by moving through the door of the body.

Each posture starts with direct awareness and attention to the body as a whole and as parts and allows the practitioner to slowly introduce movement and depth with control, regardless of health and wellness.

Yoga improves the physicality and function of all who practice.

Yoga is a therapeutic practice that improves coordination, balance, strength, flexibility, range of motion, joint health, strength, circulation, and fine and gross motor skills.

Feeling unable to cope with stress:  overreaction to a situation that does not warrant it, or no reaction to a very grave situation. A person also might feel stressed all the time without being able to articulate why.

 Yoga decreases stress, tension, and anxiety.

Yoga increases self-acceptance.

Yoga encourages the development of a healthy ego, the ability to see one’s self through the lens of right now, an ever-changing person.

Yoga provides community. Individuals with social connections are not only healthier, but also cope with stress more easily.

Cravings/Urges/Thoughts of Using

 Yoga strengthens the mind and the body.

The practice of yoga teaches the yogi mental strength, discipline, self-control, determination, concentration, and will power.

Yoga helps to regulate and stabilize blood sugar and blood pressure, two factors known to increase cravings.

Yoga decreases depression, anxiety, and other PAWS symptoms, common causes for cravings.

A regular yoga practice also decreases cholesterol, associated with sugar cravings and binge eating.

Yoga allows the addict to experience euphoria by moving their body therapeutically, allowing the practitioner to develop a healthy relationship with “feeling good”.

The therapeutic Bikram Yoga series is particularly effective at creating this feeling of euphoria because it improves circulation and function of the entire body in a heated room. The sweat-factor or heat therapy imparts a feeling of well-being that is unparalleled.

Why does it have to be hot? Hot Yoga shows particular promise in improving health and enhancing recovery in three primary way. Learn why our classes are heated

Detoxification Detox is a popular buzz word in the wellness community. Many health gurus have over-stated the benefits of sweating and detox, but let’s not throw the baby out with the bathwater.

The liver, kidneys, lungs, and excretory organs are the primary players in the detox game. They do the bulk of the body’s detoxification. The skin is the largest organ in the body and through that organ we excrete sweat primarily for cooling and scent purposes.

Our sweat is comprised of water and several important minerals, but studies have also shown sweat to contain heavy metals, fat-soluable toxins, and urea in the same concentrations found in human urine. While sweat is not a primary mover of wastes in the body, it does have the potential to reduce amount of detox required of the liver.

Each sweaty yoga class you take is like a mini vacation for your liver and kidneys.

Hyperthermia Hyperthermia has been studied since the 1970s for it’s positive effects on depression. Culturally, saunas have been used for centuries in Siberia and the Baltics to reduce the impact of seasonal depression. In study after study, results show a “significant reduction” in depressive symptoms.

If you want to feel better, get hot!

Vasodilation Exercising in a heated environment causes immediate and complete vasodilation throughout the body. This process improves the ease with which the body can transport blood, waste, nutrients, and biochemicals, which increases the speed of recovery and healing.

In addiction recovery, we talk often about the protracted healing time for the brain as it adapts to life without the substance of choice. During this painful process of neuroplasticity, if we support the body by increasing circulation, we simultaneously shorten this process and improve it’s efficacy.

For those new to exercise or recovering from a lifetime of illness or injury, practicing in a heated room allows for more movement with a drastically-reduced risk of injury. This makes the practice safe and effective for people of all levels of health and wellness.

Heat speeds healing.

If feels good to move your body. It feels good to sweat. Completing a full-body workout like we do in Hot Yoga lends a sense of accomplishment and pride. Through a regular practice, we can rebuild our fragile egos as a solid foundation on which to build a new and satisfying life.