How Yoga and Exercise Help With Addiction Recovery

Addiction to drugs and alcohol caused Troy Jackson, who was in his 40s at the time, to become homeless, get into fights and encounter frequent run-ins with the police.

While using, Jackson was fired from several jobs. At one job, a bouncer in Philadelphia, where he currently resides, he would come to work intoxicated, and he even put a plan to attack a customer into motion.

“The tipping point was when I threatened to kill someone, and I went looking for the person,” Jackson says. “My job sent me home, and I went looking for that guy that night to harm him. And luckily, I didn’t find him. My mind wasn’t thinking straight from the drugs and alcohol.”

After multiple failed attempts, Jackson, now 58 and 16 years sober, was able to conquer his addiction and stay clean with treatment, support groups and yoga. In fact, it proved to be such a powerful recovery tool for him that he’s now a yoga teacher.

[READ: 10 Signs of Addiction.]

A Disease That Everyone Is Vulnerable Against

According to Dr. Anna Lembke, professor of psychiatry at Stanford University School of Medicine and chief of the Stanford Addiction Medicine Dual Diagnosis Clinic, addiction is a disease defined as the continuous, compulsive use of a substance or behavior despite harm to one’s self or others.

In her recent book “Dopamine Nation,” Lembke explains that addiction affects everyone, as it is built into the fabric of our modern day culture. Just about everything — our food, phones, television, sexual behavior, shopping, social media presence and substances we consume like alcohol — is engineered to be addictive.

“It’s really endemic in our culture and in our society,” Lembke says. “And the problem is only getting worse with the internet. Addiction is interwoven into modern life.”

[READ: What’s the Best Diet for Newly Sober Alcoholics and Addicts?]

Exercise Produces an Enduring Dopamine Response

Jackson practiced a very physical, hot, power yoga to help him stay sober. It provided him with a new way to feel good, and it was a high that lasted longer than drugs and alcohol.

“It gave me rules to live by,” Jackson says. “I saw a vast improvement in my body and started to heal. Not only was it a buzz, but there was this altruism that I can share. There’s other ways of getting high. There’s other ways of enjoying life, and I found that on my mat.”

Lembke says that there is good data on exercise as a preventative measure against developing an addiction. Furthermore, it’s helpful as a treatment for withdrawal and as a way to maintain recovery. The delayed gratification component of exercise provides a more resilient dopamine release in the brain because you have to work for it. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter responsible for feeling pleasure.

“Exercise sets in motion the body and brain’s own healing and restorative mechanisms to increase endogenous dopamine, norepinephrine, serotonin, opioids, endocannabinoids, so that it’s actually a way to get dopamine, but indirectly,” Lembke says. “Which means that it’s more enduring.”

The brain processes pleasure and pain in tandem, Lambke explains. When someone has a pleasurable experience, the brain counteracts and they feel more discomfort after. When one becomes addicted and they use an intoxicant or do an addictive behavior, the brain releases large amounts of dopamine. To compensate, the brain then downregulates dopamine and brings them below baseline, or into a dopamine deficit state, afterwards. With heavy, consistent use, this dopamine deficient state becomes an addict’s new baseline, and when they’re not using, they become depressed, anxious and irritable. Nothing else is interesting, and they need their intoxicant just to feel normal.

[READ: Yoga for All Bodies.]

Purposeful Engagement Helps Traverse Addiction

Jackson found the physical and mental challenges in yoga to be transformative and pivotal in his recovery. He decided to become a yoga teacher and share his love for his practice.

“Each time getting on the mat was a discovery, a challenge, there was joy,” Jackson says. “Then you add on top of that this sense of purpose in teaching yoga and spreading joy to others. For me, that lit my brain up, that made me happy, I found that community. I found that in a different way without drugs and alcohol.”

According to Lembke, battling addiction by willfully taking on good stress is a process called hormesis. By doing difficult and meaningful tasks such as exercise, it shifts our brain chemistry to handle stress more easefully and feel more pleasure after.

Honesty, Faith, Service and Community Bolster Recovery

Lembke explains that telling the truth establishes better intimacy with people; it holds us more accountable. And it also creates a plenty mindset as opposed to a scarcity mindset because we can rely on the world to be an orderly and predictable place in which we can delay gratification.

Believing in something greater than ourselves and a supportive community that is both empathetic and efficient at providing actionable steps to get and stay clean, help battle addiction. In severe cases, medication and hospitalization are necessary.

Jackson went on to receive a master’s in social service and became a licensed social worker. He currently works as a licensed psychotherapist and a yoga teacher. He prays often, and he is grateful for the small gifts in his everyday life, something he missed while in the throes of addiction.

“I wanted to die every day,” Jackson says. “I was too afraid to kill myself, so I was just trying to do it slowly. When I was using, I hated myself. I hated others around me. It was a miserable existence. Now, one of the first highs I get every morning is the fact that I’m alive. Life’s good. That’s a high in itself.”

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