This is the first in a two-part series. In many addiction recovery programs, regular physical exercise is considered to be a top line behavior. Extensive research in exercise physiology demonstrates that exercise helps alleviate stress, increases a sense of well-being and boosts self-confidence. In recent years, addiction treatment centers, addiction therapists and addiction experts have included another tool in the arsenal of effective strategies in combating the stress, anxiety and depression that often plague people in recovery as they work toward building healthy and productive habits: mindfulness practices. In this article, I’ll discuss yoga—which combines exercise and mindfulness—and introduce a simple morning yoga routine I use every day as part of my addiction recovery program.
The Science of Yoga
Over the past 50 years, it’s been well documented in scientific journals that yoga increases strength, balance, flexibility, coordination, control and awareness. In the past two decades, research has shown that the benefits of a practice of yoga extend far beyond the physical. In the present day, yoga is recognized as an essential element in the ongoing effort to balance mind, body and spirit in the often stressful modern world. In an article in the May 2013 edition of Forbes Magazine, BK Bose, Ph.D. wrote: “[Yoga] is about more than just mindfulness …this is not some feel good, foo-foo practice from the Himalayas. This is based in cutting edge neuroscience, trauma research, and in somatic psychology … this is simple. Anyone can do this, anytime, anywhere. If you can move, if you can breathe, then you can do the practice.” When you practice any yoga routine, you can have the confidence that you’re not wasting your time—it really works, and the research is there to prove it. Throw out the idea that yoga is a loopy, esoteric hobby—it’s actually “cutting edge neuroscience.” Morning Yoga for Recovery: Open the Body, Clear the Mind The following yoga series should take only five to seven minutes, but can be extended to take 10 to 15 minutes if you do everything twice. I originally designed this series to take roughly the amount of time it takes for a Mr. Coffee machine to brew a pot of coffee. While you’re waiting for your morning java, give this little series of movement a try.
- Stand with your feet shoulder distance apart, and your feet parallel, i.e. toes facing forward—not pigeon-toed in, or turned out—straight ahead, as if on a pair of railroad tracks. Relax, and begin to breathe easy. Keep your knees straight, but not locked. Relax your pelvis. Allow your low back to lengthen, and feel free—do this by gently tucking your tailbone just a tad. Lengthen the torso—front, back and sides. Open your chest, and relax your shoulders. Roll your shoulders a few times forward and back, then relax. Relax your neck. Reach the top of your head upward—imagine a string attached to the crown of your head, gently lifting you up. Some people like to imagine they’re like a marionette, suspended by the string. Keep your gaze straight ahead, at eye level. Your chin is neither tucked, nor jutting out. Allow your arms to hang loose by your sides, with your hands free of any tension. This is called Tadasana: the Mountain Pose. Tadasana is the ground-zero standing posture common to all styles of yoga.
- As you inhale, reach your hands out to your sides and up over your head. As you exhale, release them back down to your sides. Repeat this 10 times. Take nice, deep breaths as you inhale and reach your arms up, and relax completely as you exhale and return your arms to your sides. Send your mind and your energy out past the ends of your fingers as you reach out and up. Imagine your arms are longer than they actually are. As you inhale and reach out and up, open your chest and gain length in your spine. As you exhale your arms back down, keep this sense of length and openness while staying completely relaxed. When you finish your 10 inhalations/exhalations, return to Tadasana by following the directions in the first step.
- From Tadasana, inhale and raise arms up over your head, and leave them there, palms facing inward—as if you’re a referee signaling “touchdown” in a football game. Keep your arms straight, in line over your shoulders. Make a perfect line of alignment that runs downward from your hands, through your elbows, shoulders, hips, knees and heels. Hold this posture for three or four breaths.
- With your arms still above your head (let your shoulders heat up a little—this means you’re working those muscles and getting stronger), bring your palms toward one another, interlace your fingers, and rotate your palms upward, so they are facing the ceiling. If you look up, you should see the backs of your hands—thumbs toward the front, pinkies toward the back. Your palms should be flat and facing up.
- Reach actively up with your palms while keeping your shoulders down and relaxed. Don’t let your shoulders creep up to your ears. If you have tight shoulders, this might not be as easy as it sounds. Move your hands forward a little bit if this allows your shoulders to relax. Now, take a nice breath in, and as you exhale, bend your torso to your right side. Keep your body nice and long as you feel the stretch along the left side of your torso. Keep your palms rotated out, and your arms continuously reaching long and strong. Stay here in this easy side bend for two or three breaths. Then, take a deep breath in, and as you exhale, come back up to center. Without dropping your hands to your sides, repeat this side bend on your left side. Exhale as you bend to the left, hold for two to three breaths, then exhale as you move back up to center.
- Repeat Step 5. Side bend at least twice on both sides.
- Relax your arms back to down to your sides, and check in with Tadasana by following the directions in Step 1. Stand in Tadasana for three to four nice, slow breaths.
- Repeat Step 2. Inhale and exhale your arms up and down 10 times. Remember—as you inhale, gain length in your spine and open your chest. As you exhale, maintain this length and openness while staying relaxed. Return to
- Inhale, lift your arms above your head, palms facing one another, then interlace the fingers and rotate them upward just as in Step 4. This time, instead of side bending, take a deep breath in, and twist your body to the right as you exhale. Look behind you—your gaze should be directed backward, past the inside of your right upper arm. You’re still standing tall, arms reaching up, but your torso is twisting. From this twist, take a deep breath in, exhale and return to center. Repeat this on your left side—inhale, twist as you exhale, inhale, return back to center. Repeat this sequence on each side as many times as feels good.
- Return to Tadasana and check in by following the directions in Step 1. Pay attention to your body. You’re in exactly the same position as when you started, but how do you feel. Different? The same? Note your feelings and physical sensations without judgment.
Congratulations—you’ve just finished a yoga routine. Although I like to practice this sequence in the morning, it can be used at any time during the day or evening. It’s a simple, quick and easy way to check in with your body, calm your mind and face the world—and your recovery—with a fresh and open perspective.