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Beyond addiction: How yoga therapy supports the biology of recovery to change your brain



Whether or not you identify as someone who has ever struggled with addiction, consider this: we all have habits, some helpful, some not so much.


Whether or not you find these habits to be "bad" might depend on whether you feel they have outlived their usefulness.


As a yoga therapist, I support people through the addiction recovery process by teaching yoga practices that change habits rooted in the subconscious mind.


Put simply, I help people change their brains.


Your bad habit


Take a moment to think of one habit you'd like to let go of, but for some reason, you can't.


Maybe you question your relationship to your drinking, your eating, your drug use, your phone use, your sex life, your cutting, your shopping, your gaming, your gambling, your smoking, your caffeine intake, your hair pulling, your work life, your plastic surgeries, your skin or nail picking, your need to consult so-and-so all the time, your obsession with... insert anything here.


Got one yet?


Chances are, you can think of more than one.


Me? I have many. Now here's one I've never admitted to before: I'm a lip-biter.


That's right, for some reason, I find myself chewing and eating the insides of my cheeks whenever I feel anxious or overwhelmed. If you know me, you've probably never seen me do this (hopefully!) because I do it secretly, when I'm alone. I tell myself it's harmful, it's weird, and I should stop right now... or maybe it's not that big of a deal. Even if I could suppress the urge, before too long, there's my tongue again, searching around for that one rough patch of skin that's ripe for a nibble!


I feel a mild sense of shame about this.


So like many people with compulsive habits, I hide this behavior.


Are you with me, nail-biters?


Addictive and compulsive behaviors are brain patterns that come in many shades and colors.


The neurobiology of brain habits


All habits are related to the brain's natural learning process. Our desire for some experiences over others causes us to repeat those experiences. Our brains have evolved to automate this process, freeing us up to think about other things.


With repetition over time, neurological patterns are created. These patterns helped you learn to walk. You don't need to concentrate on walking anymore. It's automatic. If you have a stroke, you may need to forge new patterns to learn to walk again.


Repetitive patterns shift the biology of your brain. Some neural connections are prioritized over others.


Studies show that meditation changes brainwave states and reorganizes how the brain relates to itself. A meta-analysis of studies on meditation and brain change indicates that regular meditators exhibit structural changes in the brain's white and gray matter, as well as enhanced function.


Marc Lewis Ph.D., a neuroscientist and professor of developmental psychology, says in his book "The Biology of Desire" that addiction is not a disease, but rather a "frightful, devastating, and insidious process of change in our habits and our synaptic patterning (p.144)."


Lewis describes how, when fueled by desire, the learning process causes brain change, and habits are formed. Those patterns predominate, leading to structural change. The newly established neural circuitry feeds on itself, rewarding behaviors that become increasingly compulsive.


This might sound like bad news.


But using the tools of yoga, this is also very good news.


How bad is your habit?


Yoga offers a roadmap for brain change through practices such as chanting and meditation.


Yoga says we all have brain habits, and they make us less free. As a spiritual pursuit, Yoga would have us banish all brain habits in the pursuit of enlightenment. In this state, we inhabit a perpetual beginner's mind--tranquil, open, and completely immersed in present sensation.


Yoga therapists think about brain habits a little differently than Yogis who are in it for the bliss.


For yoga therapists, habits are only bad if the client says so. We're not aiming for enlightenment. We're aiming for relief from suffering.


For this reason, yoga therapists are best suited to support the longer term, rather than acute, phases of addiction recovery.


So is my lip biting all that bad?


That's up to me. Now that my secret is out, I may start to feel compelled to walk the talk and use the practices of yoga to change my brain so that I no longer feed my compulsion.


What about your habit? Is it something you really want to change?


If so, using yoga practices like chanting and meditation, chances are, you can.


The role of desire


But first, to do that, you're going to have to think about desire.


Underneath every habit, there is a brain pattern fueled by desire. In the brain, desire is negotiated in the striatum, where past pleasures are reinterpreted as present desires.


Yoga has a lot to say about desire.


Ancient Yogic texts reference desire as all-pervasive and essential to life itself. The Brihadaranyaka Upanishad says: "[Man] is verily formed of desire," and the Yajur Veda tells us that without divine desire, or kama, the world could not exist. Vedic scholar Alain Daniélou puts it well: "On the physical, as on the intellectual and spiritual plane, all creation, all invention, all imagination is the fruit of desire."


Yogi Rod Stryker lays out a path to use four fundamental forms of desire to live our best life.


These four desires are dharma, the desire to become the most authentic version of yourself, kama, the desire for pleasure and contentment, moksha, the desire for freedom and connection, and artha, the desire for the means to fulfill one's dharma.


Desire fuels us, for better or for worse.


Desire got you into this mess; now desire is what's going to get you out of it.


A Yogic perspective on addiction: a roadmap for healing


In a sense, Yoga teaches us that we are all addicts.


The Sutras say we are all addicted (attached) to vrittis, or thoughts, and that these vrittis cause us suffering. We are attracted by pleasure and repelled by pain.


The teachings describe the natural human condition as including both freedom and addiction to thought, to fear, and to the stories we tell ourselves about who we are.


Yoga therapists see addiction as stemming from an imbalance with the holistic framework of the Self.


The prescription includes practices that restore balance to the system. These practices might vary from person to person, but always feature the opportunity for experiencing one's own felt perspective and contemplative awareness.


A milestone in the healing process is the journey toward surrender.


Surrender can mean many things. For some, it could mean the divine, but for others, surrender might mean accepting that the addiction is not sustainable. It could be an acceptance that suffering is too great.


Let's say your bad habit has caused you great suffering. Perhaps you or your loved one has experienced much pain and devastation.


Yoga therapists help support the recovery process through teaching practices that can shift subconscious states in order to help a person repattern their brain.


We move, we breathe, we chant, we meditation, we contemplate, we feel and we notice.


This is the process of personal growth. This is the process of transformative healing.


This is how we move beyond addiction.


The root of unwanted mental patterns


How does yoga work to support addiction recovery?


Unlike cognitive modalities, yoga is experiential. Experiential practices allow us to work with traumas stored in the body and in the subconscious mind. Yoga allows us to do this with practice, rather than with analysis.


Yogis believe that every bad habit, every compulsive behavior, every addiction, has a samskara at its root.


Samskaras are behavioral and mental patterns rooted in the subconscious mind.


The Yoga Sutras describe samskaras as "subliminal impressions." Samskaras are cyclical patterns that arise from mental impressions, past experiences and psychological conditioning, such as perspectives and biases we may or may not know that we hold. Samskaras could based on factors like our cultural context, our attachment style, our traumatic experiences, or our upbringing.


Trauma is one type of samskara that can cause great suffering. Yogis have spent millennia trying to unravel samskaras in order to experience freedom on a spiritual level.


Yet, like habits, samskaras are neither good nor bad per se.


That warm fuzzy feeling you get when you smell freshly baked cookies?


That's a samskara.


That trill of anticipation you get when you hear a marching band approaching from a distance?


Samskara again.


Like bad habits, samskaras only need unraveling when they cause too much suffering for the sufferer.


The desire to be free of the pattern becomes more than the desire to continue it.


This is when healing begins.


Yoga practices to support addiction recovery


What if you imagine a world in which your habit didn't have such a hold on you, and you like that idea?


You want to be free.


You want to heal your suffering.


Yoga therapists have observed clinical evidence of the effectiveness of chanting when used by people with obsessive-style mind types.


Chanting is a form of meditation used in many spiritual traditions. It involves singing or speaking a set of words, in any language, over and over, and giving oneself over to rhythm.


Chanting engages the mind in a completely different way than cognitive processing, while still allowing a person to be mentally present and aware.


Chanting is a rich sensory experience. The ears hear sound, vibration is felt inside the body, the fingers feel the passing of mala beads, and rhythm can be somatically sensed. These felt experiences allow us to be mentally present more easily than when we are left alone with our thoughts.


This is no small feat for many of us!


For people in recovery, being mentally present can be too painful to bear. Chanting presents an opportunity for presence in a way that might be easier to tolerate.


A popular yoga chant I learned from my teacher, Brandt Passalacqua, is Om Namah Shivaya. I was taught to interpret the meaning of this chant as: "With great respect and love, I bow to my own heart, my inner teacher."


You are invited to chant Om Namah Shivaya along with me here.


If you wish to move beyond addiction in the Yogic sense of the word, whatever form that may take for you, remember this: Healing happens through your own felt perspective.


Awareness heals.


Chant, listen, feel, su