Back2Basics offers a holistic and integrative approach to the treatment of addiction and co-occurring issues. By nature, the program is designed to bring participants into the outdoors and learn to be more comfortable in their own skin. We also bring in components of nutrition, fitness and mindfulness to complement the therapeutic and recovery work. In addition, the practice of yoga is an important component for teaching young people in recovery to become more “grounded” in their bodies.
The benefits of yoga are multifaceted, from the simple art of breath awareness to the inner explorations of Yoga Nidra (progressive relaxation/journey work). Yoga in rehab does not look like the yoga that happens in trendy studios with bendy instructors. In fact, it can be kind of awkward and silly at times. We try to make it playful and attainable for those who may never be able to touch their toes or sit like a monk. We also create serious pauses to discover the inner challenges that serve as obstacles to sobriety and well-being.
The first stage of practicing yoga begins with simple mindfulness. Mindfulness is the experience of “witnessing” the sensations, thoughts and feelings that we have without needing to judge, fix or change. Mindfulness is an expression of compassion and awareness of self and our surroundings. Addiction takes us out of connection to our body and spills over, creating chaos in our relationships. Mindfulness can bring us back “in” to ourselves as a way to learn to reconnect to our self and develop healthier communications with others. The mindfulness component of yoga in recovery is essential and fundamental. We practice a variety of mindfulness tools from learning to use the senses in the kitchen to observing the waves of emotions that rise and fall during early recovery.
Once mindfulness has been introduced, the practice of movement can begin to unfold. Participants in early recovery struggle with basic body awareness. Simply learning to be aware of how the toes are positioned in a standing posture brings attention to “placement in space.” Transitioning from posture to posture, with the breath as the guide, builds the concept of “staying aware in the changes.” This practice need not be fancy or complicated to be beneficial. In fact, “less is more” when it comes to integrating the benefits of the practices.
Years ago, I learned a multitude of very involved Yoga Therapy techniques to implement into mental health treatment. After much trial and error, I learned that keeping the practices simple allow them to be more accessible. Participants may choose to advance the learning of yoga beyond treatment, but to learn a non-intimidating practice early on more easily allows them to experience the benefits.
Once the experience of mindful movement has occurred, now the art of stillness feels less scary. Addicts struggle to sit with themselves, so it is no surprise that the more restorative and meditative practices can be somewhat uncomfortable and even triggering. As they get more comfortable in the body, settling into quiet spaces can be more easily received. Restorative practices then become a sought-out favorite as a time to “pause” and “reflect.”
My favorite of all yoga tools is the practice of Yoga Nidra. This experience is usually a 35-minute experience that begins with guided mindfulness, progressive relaxation and then recovery-specific imagery work. The meditation is centralized around creating an intention that is relevant to the personal work that relates to peeling back the patterns of “addict consciousness.” This work can get very personal, as it invites incredibly honest reflection of the patterns that have contributed to addiction. Being in “theta state” (reduced brain waves) for this portion of the practice allows the opportunity for reflection in a calm space. Witnessing our challenges from the state of the parasympathetic nervous system (rest/digest) can help to rewire reactive responses and help to cultivate a better feeling of acceptance.
What is most amazing to witness is the receptivity of these young men to do the practices. Even those who come in with a prior aversion to yoga find something that speaks to them. We get super creative with a variety of approaches so that there is something that resonates with everyone. For example, we may do a power/core yoga practice to hip bumping music that speaks to the guys who want more of a fiery experience. Or, we explore creative sequences to challenge the participants who appreciate (or need) unpredictability. Sometimes, we visit a labyrinth to experience silent, reflective walking. On a special occasion, as part of the mindful eating series, they get to practice consuming a cheeseburger with slow and conscious chewing.
Yoga and mindfulness work because of how they change the patterns in the brain and the nervous system. Addiction activates an overly sensitive fight or flight pattern of survival and reactivity, causing a fog in the cortex of logic and ethics. As the regulation between the sympathetic to the parasympathetic responses become more harmonious, the hippocampus (memory/learning) can more effectively do a proper job while the center for emotional regulation (amygdala/midbrain) becomes less reactive. This synergistic relationship allows us to work on “emotional sobriety” as part of the recovery journey. In addition, the sweet little section of the brain that allows us to be more compassionate (insula) is able to more effectively produce the chemicals (GABA) needed for empathetic reflection. As these changes start to slowly cultivate in the brain, we can use the benefits in therapy.
For example, if someone gets triggered with anger toward another peer, the invitation of pausing to notice what is occurring with heart rate can be used to guide a slower response. Or, if talking about an old memory causes anxiety, the guidance of breath awareness can be used as a way to “anchor” back to the present moment. If someone is struggling with sleep, there are simple practices for releasing the “hot zones” of tension in the muscles to help support the relaxation response. For some of the residents, the practices can begin to create the “natural highs” as a gentle tool to move through cravings. And for others, they discover an inner space of wisdom and guidance. A goal of yoga is to experience the serenity that already exists inside the self.
I feel very honored to be able to bring the practices of yoga into a therapeutic milieu. My journey with this began in 1994, when I was a baby social worker and new meditator. I got asked to teach a “stress management” class at a mental health clinic. I decided to open the class with a guided “centering” practice that involved just noticing the breath. Then, I was asked to not do that again, because it was not a “researched” form of treatment. A few years later (1997), I had the opportunity to use my fresh skills as a new yoga teacher as part of the Recreational Therapy department of the psych hospital where I worked. By 1999, I opened a private clinical practice offering an integrative approach using yoga, meditation and other somatic practices to treat anxiety-related disorders.
I have spent the last two-and-a-half decades training in methods that have a mind-body approach to addressing mental health issues. In addition, I have been able to offer dozens of workshops and presentations to other professionals and yoga teachers. Up until the COVID-19 pandemic, teaching public classes virtually all seven days of the week was just part of my existence. Life has changed, and my vision of continuing to train other teachers/practitioners in this art has dramatically shifted. It is clear that I am more needed to provide this work to those who may never step into a studio. For that, I am eternally grateful for the opportunity the team has given me to develop this project at Back2Basics. FBN
By Keelyn Riley, LCSW, C-IAYT
Keelyn Riley, LCSW, C-IAYT, is a licensed clinical social worker and a yoga teacher/therapist.
Back2Basics is a Joint Commission nationally accredited treatment center offering up to six-months of daily programming, licensed in Arizona. Back2Basics Outdoor Adventure Recovery combines residential therapeutic counseling with experiential outdoor adventures to treat individuals with substance and alcohol addiction and lead them through rehab and recovery into long-term sober living. The program is highlighted by spending time in the beautifully serene wilderness where individuals are physically challenged, their minds are cleared and they learn ways to defeat old addictive thinking patterns through various outdoor adventures. Now accepting most medical insurance.