The practice of yoga extends beyond the physical postures performed on a mat in a dimly lit, incense infused studio. It is a body, mind, and spirit modality with multiple indications for wellness, regardless of age, body size, shape, and condition. When used as a method in a recovery tool kit, yoga is an invaluable asset.
To illustrate how yoga can enhance your recovery experience, we’ve interviewed Kanjana Hartshorne, LCSW, C-IAYT, CCFP, Reiki Master, a licensed psychotherapist, compassion fatigue professional, and certified yoga therapist.
She has over 1000 hours of yoga training and has focused much of that training on yoga for mental health. As a yoga teacher and yoga therapist, she has worked with a variety of populations including college students, veterans, and individuals who are incarcerated.
Her primary focus in yoga for mental health has been:
- Body image,
- Chronic pain,
What drew you to work with folks in recovery?
My path to working with people in recovery wasn’t straightforward. About five years ago I began to focus more heavily on treating complex trauma. Through this work, I realized the astounding efficacy of yoga therapy in the treatment of trauma. And as I continued down this path I saw that more and more of the people I worked with struggled with recovery too and that trauma and addiction often go hand in hand. So I began to create therapeutic yoga offerings specifically for people in recovery. Fast forward to today where much of my trauma and recovery work is steeped in yoga therapy for mental health.
You teach trauma-informed yoga too, can you speak about that since many who face addiction are trauma survivors?
All of my classes are always trauma-sensitive because you never know who is in the room and a trauma-informed approach creates a safe place for those with a history of trauma and/or addiction to practice yoga. I think the most important parts of trauma-informed or trauma-sensitive yoga for those in recovery from substance use and/or mental health concerns are creating safety, offering choice, and consistency/predictability.
People who’ve experienced trauma often no longer feel safe. Perhaps that’s no longer feeling safe in public spaces, interpersonally, or maybe even within their own body. So I do my best to create safety in the space by setting up the mats ahead of time, giving everyone a clear path and line of sight to the exits, using invitational and culturally competent language, not using touch or touch permission stones/cards, and more.
It’s a very intentional space and students know that coming in. As my classes almost always take place within a therapy center I also have a chance to meet with each student for an intake prior to classes and this helps them to feel more comfortable in attending and helps me to learn about any physical injuries, limitations, or poses that may be triggering for them before class even begins.
I’m also sure to offer a yoga sequence that slowly builds upon itself. This way there are no surprises, and participants report feeling less on edge when they know what to expect. I’m careful to offer choices for each pose, as choice is something that often is stripped away during a traumatic event. And I try to give reminders that that choice can be to do no pose at all!
In practice, I use yoga therapy to help my clients find safety within themselves once again. As substance use is often about disconnection (often described as a desire for escape, avoidance of discomfort, pervasive loneliness, etc.), we use yoga to work on (re)connection.
First, we establish practices that help clients to regulate should yoga or mindfulness exercises bring up any unwanted memories, thoughts, emotions, or other discomforts. We know that trauma lives in our cellular memory and often times when practicing yoga, traumatic symptoms can actually increase before they decrease. This is part of why I find pairing trauma-sensitive yoga with therapy to be extremely helpful. The yoga allows us to tap in and (re)connect and the therapy allows a safe space to process.
“To me, yoga for recovery is not about pushing past the physical limits of our bodies. It’s about finding and meeting what it is you need, moment to moment.”
Once a few safety practices have been established, we work together to slowly and mindfully reconnect to each layer of self- body, breath/energy, thoughts/emotions, values, and Higher Power (Higher Self, God, Ancestors, Universe, Mother Nature, or whatever Higher Power means to them). From there, we return to our practice week to week to continue to cultivate the personal sense of power and control and to continue to grow each person’s window of tolerance.
To me, yoga for recovery is not about pushing past the physical limits of our bodies. It’s about finding and meeting what it is you need, moment to moment. It’s about growing your resiliency and regaining a sense of agency in your life. It’s about the slow, beautiful realization that much of what you need is already within you. This experience of (re)connection to self through yoga can be so empowering and if we maintain our practice, thus maintaining our connection to self, we can better maintain lasting recovery.
What are the benefits of yoga to help maintain sobriety?
One of the biggest ways yoga aids recovery is through the connection of mind and body. This helps us to increase awareness and management of impulses and cravings. It makes me think of the Viktor Frankl quote that “Between stimulus and response there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response lies our growth and our freedom.” Through yoga we learn how to find and grow that space. So, if the response to a stimulus is the urge to use then we are also learning how to grow the space between stimuli and urge to use, therefore giving us the power and freedom to make a different choice.
Another big way yoga aids recovery and maintains sobriety is by returning a person’s nervous system to a homeostatic state. Oftentimes after a trauma event, a person can develop symptoms related to that trauma (Post Traumatic Stress). This can lead to people being in a state of fight/flight/freeze on a consistent basis. While helpful during emergencies, being in this state constantly is extremely stressful. One or more traumatic things have happened and so in order to protect us, our brain and nervous system go on high alert, just waiting for the next traumatic thing to happen.
This can look like insomnia, feeling on edge all the time, being jumpy, racing heart for no reason, panic attacks, muscular tension, and more. Yoga and mindfulness help us to be aware of these reactions as they occur and yoga and mindfulness also give us the tools to regulate these reactions. As we practice regulation over and over, our body begins to realize that we are as safe. And slowly we find balance and the ability to reset.
How does yoga impact people physically, emotionally, and spiritually?
Yoga can be impactful for all layers of the self- physical, mental/emotional, energetic, wisdom/intuition, and/or spiritual. It gives us additional tools to help us tolerate and be present to the discomfort in each of these layers of self, a discomfort that can often lead to relapse.
Mentally and emotionally yoga can help us to better know ourselves through awareness of our thoughts and feelings without judgment.
Physically, yoga can improve balance, strength, flexibility, sleep, interoception (awareness of internal processes like how we know we are hungry), and proprioception (awareness of the body in space). It can also reduce tension (mental and physical) and promote relaxation.
Mentally and emotionally yoga can help us to better know ourselves through awareness of our thoughts and feelings without judgment. This can lead to an increased ability to regulate thoughts, emotions, stress, and impulses.
Energetically, yoga can help us find the calm within the chaos, increase energy throughout the day, and manage our nervous system through regulation of the breath. From the wisdom or intuitive layer of self, yoga can help us (re)learn how to listen to our bodies and respond to our bodies and minds with self-compassion, as we would a dear friend.
Spiritually yoga can help us connect to something greater than ourselves. And the beauty of yoga is that it’s secular and the practices and philosophies can be applied to the beliefs of the individual practitioner.
Have you seen anecdotal evidence that yoga reduces cravings among your students/clients?
Yes! I’ve been gathering data on this for the last two years and have seen clinically significant decreases in the reported urge to use alcohol and/or substance both before and after each class and over the course of several months to a year. This is also true for reported symptoms of anxiety, depression, and trauma. As these often co-occur with addiction, reducing these symptoms helps clients to maintain sobriety.
Anything else you have in mind
Yoga has SO many benefits and different types of yoga can bring different benefits. I teach trauma-sensitive yoga for recovery that tends to be more gentle. This too is intentional. The practices I offer are accessible to all bodies, so much so that some people practice on the mat while others practice in chairs. I think this is so important for people to know because maybe they’ve had an experience with yoga that was not right for their body’s needs. Or perhaps they’ve been exposed to yoga in social media which portrays yoga as a fitness class for young, white, wealthy women and worry that it won’t be helpful to them or meet their unique needs. Or maybe they’ve had a number of other experiences that cause them to shy away from yoga as a complementary healing modality. I want to help spread the word that yoga is for everybody and every body. That no matter your age, ability, health, etc.if you can breathe, you can practice yoga.
I want to be clear that a yoga for recovery class or program isn’t always sunshine and daisies. Oftentimes yoga and mindfulness can bring up difficult thoughts, feelings, emotions, memories, images, etc. This is why a trauma-sensitive approach is important in the treatment of recovery from substance use and mental health concerns. It’s also why I highly recommend that trauma-sensitive yoga is conceptualized as a complementary service to therapy. Together, psychotherapy and yoga therapy offers an integrated approach to recovery that combines both top-down (cognitive) and bottom-up (somatic) practices for healing and prevention.
Take your yoga off the mat and into the world as you make it a part of your daily practice. Investing in but a few moments of stillness and silence or focused breath and stretching will have you move through your life with greater ease and grace and balance.