Kicking a bad habit is hard. Facing why we have a habit is even harder – and we usually need to be honest with ourselves before we can make lasting progress.
Addiction is the worst kind of habit. It's when we continue with a pattern, despite adverse consequences. It can show itself in terribly toxic ways: alcoholism and narcotics addiction are two. It also can show up in ways that don't necessarily seem harmful.
“Right now I feel the addiction we are all being faced with is cell phones,” says Annalisa Cunningham, who holds a master's degree in marriage and family counseling and is the author of “Healing Addiction with Yoga: A Yoga Program for People in 12-Step Recovery.”
Cunningham, who has been a yoga instructor for 35 years, grew up with an alcoholic father. During the 1980s, she launched a yoga program for patients and their family members at a 28-day inpatient addiction recovery clinic at Feather River Hospital in Paradise, California. Later, responding to demand, she offered classes to the greater community that were designed specifically for people in 12-step recovery programs. The classes often included people from various 12-step meetings, including Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics Anonymous, Overeaters Anonymous and Co-Dependents Anonymous, among others, Cunningham recalls.
“It can be any kind of addiction – people get out of being in their body,” Cunningham says. Simple translation: Addiction often involves numbing (or numbness).
Yoga helps people learn “to relax and move into the feelings that are happening in their body and mind,” Cunningham says. “Yoga is the tool, but it's really about moving into a place of self-love. How do I teach people to love themselves?”
To be sure, overcoming addiction often requires more than yoga. “I would say it's supplemental, a great complement to a 12-step program or working with a counselor,” she says. “The goal of yoga practice is the total harmony between body, mind and spirit in each individual – and even further, a union between the individual and the divine. It is a physical, mental, emotional and spiritual practice, which … enhances one's life-force energy and brings greater peace of mind.”
Cunningham's work often involves gentle yoga postures, breathing exercises, positive affirmations, visualization, meditation and journal-writing exercises. Her emphasis is on honesty, trust, acceptance, forgiveness, self-worth and surrender to a higher power, she says.
“I always start with breathing because when people are tense they have a tendency to hold their breath or breathe fast or shallow,” she says. “I'm trying to ground them into their body.”
When she was growing up, Cunningham says, she didn't have tools to help her relax. “In my body, I held a tremendous amount of tension, and I didn't know that.” Until she got a massage and was encouraged to relax.
“Relaxation is a skill,” she says. “Someone has to teach it to you. Then you have practice it. In particular, I find people involved in addiction not able to relax” easily.
Breathing slowly helps you get there. Cunningham's diaphragmatic breathing instructions:
Lie on your back, and place your right hand on your lower abdomen. As you inhale, draw the air all the way down, so your lower abdomen expands. With your right hand, feel your abdomen rise. As you exhale, feel your hand lower and your abdomen become hollow with the release of air. Continue breathing slowly and deeply for 10 breaths.
Next, try yoga poses coupled with affirmations. Here are two Cunningham uses:
Postures and affirmations
Stand tall with your feet hip-width apart, pointing ahead. Raise the sole of your right foot and place it on your inner left calf. Gently join your hands at heart-center. Say to yourself: "I am calm. I am balanced. I am rooted in faith." Repeat with your left foot.
Corpse Pose (Savasana)
Rest comfortably on your back and breathe slowly. Say to yourself: “I allow myself to relax completely. I surrender to my higher power."
Journalist Mitra Malek has taught yoga regularly since 2006 and was a senior editor at Yoga Journal, for which she still edits and creates content. Learn more at mitramalek.com.