Holistic Approaches For Treating Addiction

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Substance use disorders are among the most costly medical and public health problems in the United States, with 23 million individuals needing treatment annually, but only 25 % of them actually receiving it. This figure is largely due to lack of access and financial resources for many Americans. Additionally, 90% of U.S. addiction treatment centers are 12-Step based and statistically only have a 5-10 % success rate. It’s fairly obvious that current treatment programs would benefit from integrating alternative approaches.

Conventional treatments are built around biomedicine’s paradigm. The disease model is limited in its approach to treatment because it suggests maintenance of the condition with no full resolution; the addict is forever doomed with a life-long ailment and society is at the mercy of an undying epidemic. However, treatment programs that integrate holistic approaches, including breath-based practices, provide a comprehensive approach to recovery.

Although conventional treatments show efficacy, they no longer adequately address the quantum physical worldview, which understands human physiology as a complex energetic structure, consisting of more than a closed anatomical system. That is, the human organism is more than a “body with separate parts.” Originating in the Far East and India with Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and Ayurveda, holistic medicine was fairly unknown in Western science until recently.

Holistic programs embrace a mind-body-spirit model; the philosophy focuses on the connection between your mind, body, and spirit. By simultaneously working on these aspects of healing, holistic interventions treat addiction from all sides. Holistic programs incorporate alternative therapies, promoting whole-body health through an integrative approach.

Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM)

Holistic programs are known for utilizing Complementary and Alternative Medicine (CAM). CAM is a group of diverse medical and health practices that fall outside the scope of traditional medicine. According to the National Center for Complementary and Integrative Health, more than one-third of adults in the US use some form of CAM.

Some popular CAM interventions include:

  • acupuncture
  • Ayurveda
  • breathing practices
  • yoga
  • Qigong
  • massage
  • meditation
  • hypnosis
  • imagery
  • functional medicine
  • naturopathy
  • homeopathy

The demand for CAM by the general public is increasing despite the fact that its use is largely paid by consumers without insurance, which suggests that the trend toward CAM and integrative healthcare is growing.

Research shows that both trauma and stress, two underlying causes that predispose one to addiction, are significant catalysts in the onset of addictive behaviors. Long-term healing from addiction depends on the resolution of root causes and underlying emotional issues.

While existing treatments are effective, they do not benefit all patients, and continued treatment is often necessary to avoid relapse. Therefore, there is an urgent need to improve psychosocial treatments for substance abuse, particularly with regard to improving relapse prevention skills, including managing cravings for substances. Holistic practices that emphasize the breath may be an effective way to approach this.

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The Power of the Breath

The breath is a powerful tool for releasing stress and bringing people back into balance. It enables us not only to be more skillful and successful in whatever we do, but also to enjoy each experience much more.

Breath-based interventions can produce the following effects:

  • reduces aggression and violence
  • increases health, strengthens the immune system
  • more ease and joy in personal relationships
  • improves self-esteem
  • greater creativity and clarity of mind
  • a deeper sense of community service
  • improves capacity to learn and reduces anxiety
  • enhances recovery from addiction

Evidence-Based CAM Interventions

Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY)

Several case studies have demonstrated that Sudarshan Kriya Yoga (SKY), a rhythmic, controlled breathing practice, aids in recovery from addiction and substance use disorders. Side effects of alcohol withdrawal, including stress, are associated with changes in the brain and release of hormones, such as cortisol. An increase in this hormone instigates drug-seeking behavior.

SKY reduces the release of stress hormones and activates neurotransmitters involved in emotion regulation. The controlled breathing technique involves several types of breathing patterns, ranging from slow and calming to rapid and stimulating. After the practice, people report feeling calm and relaxed. This specific breathing practice is a “natural antidepressant” with its associated release of endorphins and neurotransmitters.

The WINGS Project

The WINGS Project, founded by the International Association of Human Values (IAHV), is designed to offer a unique program as an adjunct within existing clinical treatment settings. The WINGS Project includes instruction on Sudarshan Kriya Yoga, and other practices including physical postures, cognitive coping skills, relapse prevention techniques, and stress reduction. The unique promise of this program for providing help to those faced with addiction and substance use problems lies in its ability to simultaneously address body and mind, bringing deep relaxation, clarity, and solid tools for maintaining sobriety.

The Youth Empowerment Seminar (YES!) for Recovery

The YES! for Recovery curriculum integrates yoga and breathing-based practices with a fun, experiential, social-emotional learning curriculum to create a program for supporting youth with substance use issues. With the pressures teens face today, there is a strong need for non-pharmaceutical interventions in this population. YES! offers practical tools for teens to manage stress, emotions, and triggers that could potentially lead to relapse. Research shows YES! was effective in reducing impulsivity among high school students, promoting mental health in adolescents and potentially protecting them from harmful coping behaviors like substance use.


Because meditation acts on the same rewards system in the brain that drugs and alcohol do, the principles that govern addiction’s control can be harnessed for health through meditation. Addiction is dependent on external stimuli for propulsion, while meditation brings focus to the internal forces that make up the mind-body complex. Meditation has been used as a tool in healthcare to promote internal psychological healing from illness.

Types of meditation used in improving health include:

  • Focused Attention (Concentration)– this practice involves putting your attention on one specific thing for the entire time to build focus
  • Mindfulness (Open Monitoring)– this practice allows your attention to flow freely without judgment or attachment simply observing your experience
  • Effortless Transcending ™– this practice requires no mental effort or concentration and focus on connection with Self
  • Guided Meditation– this practice is great for beginners and provides verbal instructions that walk a person through a proper technique
  • Mantra Meditationthis practice includes repeating a mantra (phrase or syllable) a few times with the intention of focusing the mind

Interest in meditation practices as a clinical intervention has increased in recent years. Meditation supports overcoming addictive behavior by drawing the sensory experience inward, cultivating awareness due to greater cognitive control. Active addiction causes a craving for an external substance but meditation provides an internal mechanism for inner security and contentment.

Asanas (Postures)

Yoga provides an outlet for coping, develops insight, and strengthens inner resolve for dealing with difficult emotions, cravings, and urges to act out in addictive patterns. The yoga philosophy offers a holistic approach to addictions that can be easily combined with conventional methods of treatment.

One advantage of practicing yogic asanas (postures) in the treatment of addiction is the combination of physical exercise and relaxation. Asanas produce strength, flexibility, and resilience, all qualities that can be applied to recovery.

Yoga postures (asanas) helpful for recovery from addiction include:

  • Warrior Poses (Virabdrasana I, II, III)
  • Standing Forward Bend (Uttanasana)
  • Downward Facing Dog (Adho Mukha Svansana)
  • Seated Forward Bend (Paschimottanasana)
  • Shoulder Stand (Sarvangasana)
  • Seated Twists (Ardha Matsyendrasana)
  • Child’s Pose (Balasana)
  • Corpse Pose (Savasana)

Yogic breathing decreases anxiety and depression and can thus often replace addictive medication, acting as a healthy substitute.

With the alarming addiction epidemic in the U.S., complementary and alternative approaches are gaining attention. Traditionally, Eastern medicine was not as common in Western society as it is today. The concept of mind-body medicine is taking hold and there is a realization that a healthy mind and body are interconnected. Holistic programs provide novel therapies, showing promise for sustained recovery outcomes.


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