Yoga Therapy and Substance Abuse

Substance addiction is a brain disease that takes over one’s life. It interferes with how the brain performs by affecting how neurons send, receive, and process signals via neurotransmitters. Yoga therapy is a complementary and alternative medicine beneficial in treating addiction.

The amygdala, basal ganglia, and prefrontal cortex are the three primary brain structures impacted by addiction. These three structures appear in two interrelated networks, the anterior cingulate cortex hub (ACC), and amygdala hub (Hanson, 2009). These systems offer top-down (ACC) and bottom-up (amygdala) approaches to motivational behavior. Ideally, these two hubs support one another and, in turn, reduce suffering. Yoga therapy harmonizes the disconnect between the ACC and amygdala hubs seen in substance abuse alleviating suffering and cultivating self-regulation, resilience, and eudaimonia.

When the ACC and amygdala become out of sync or in conflict, it creates and perpetuates suffering. Suffering is an embodied experience occurring via the sympathetic nervous system (SNS) and the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis (HPAA). When drug effects diminish, or withdrawal occurs, the amygdala is triggered and, according to Hanson, is “hardwired to focus on negative information and react intensely to it” (2009).

The basal ganglia’s responsibility is rewards, stimulation, and movement. Dopamine is a neurotransmitter that corresponds with the basal ganglia. When released, it has a wide-reaching effect on the brain and is involved in rewards, attention to stimuli, and motivation (Hanson, 2009). Healthy reward circuits receive a burst of dopamine when a reward is met and requires a recall. Dopamine changes the neural connectivity to that action, causing a more natural repeated response in the future, leading to the formation of habits. Unfortunately, substance abuse alters this natural response to seek out substances at the expense of other, healthier goals and activities.

Withdrawals cause the body to prepare for survival instincts responses of fight or flight. The brain starts shifting between the amygdala’s stress response, noting a disturbance, and the basal ganglia, seeking out past behavior to produce the desired result, which ultimately reduces impulse control of the prefrontal cortex through compulsively seeking out a drug (NIDA, 2009). The prefrontal cortex’s executive function declines because the SNS/HPAA emphasizes negativity and impulses, diminishing logic, appraisals, and intentions (Hanson, 2009). This circuit causes users to enter into a vicious and never-ending cycle of disappointment and reward-seeking due to tolerance.

Yoga therapy offers top-up techniques (mindfulness, meditation, and attention regulation), impacting the ACC, and bottom-down techniques (breath and movement practices), affecting the amygdala to support substance abuse. Working jointly with top-down and bottom-up approaches fosters collaboration and harmony between the two hubs and influences the regulation of the autonomic nervous system by decreasing the activation and impact of the SNS and HPAA. Autonomic regulation allows substance abuse users to end the cycle of extreme volleying between states of stress and reward. Self-regulation is cultivated, which is the conscious ability to maintain stability by accurately perceiving and adjusting one’s responses and reactions to threats or adversity. Self-regulation contributes to the development of resilience, allowing individuals to return to homeostasis quickly when experiencing stressful situations, and enabling the conservation of internal and psychophysiological resources.

Yoga therapy supports clients by seeking out the underlying cause of a condition. It aims to enhance a personal relationship between nature and self to strengthen regulation, resilience, and systemic well-being. Individuals learn to recognize the natural fluctuating states of life and how to navigate to restore and maintain homeostasis. Yoga therapy cultivates sustained attention, concentration, emotional regulation, and personal & spiritual growth. All of which enable cessation of habits and re-appraisal of natural stimuli, so one no longer avoids, grasps, or flees from life situations while improving their rationality, values, and worldviews.

Hanson, R., & Mendius, R. (2009). Buddha’s Brain: The practical neuroscience of happiness, love & wisdom. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications.

National Institute on Drug Abuse. (2018). Drugs, Brains, and Behavior: The Science of Addiction. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.