How Yoga’s Mind-Body Benefits Can Enhance Substance Use Disorder Treatment


Beginning in ancient India, yoga began as a philosophy for well-being, awareness, and enlightenment over 3,000 years ago. While the modern yoga most commonly practiced in the West focuses on controlled breathing while moving through a series of postures, the original Eastern yogic tradition provides guidance on six additional elements, including life principles, self-discipline standards, sense withdrawal, concentration, meditation, and enlightenment. The postures and breath work that characterize the yoga of the West are intended to prepare the body and mind for spiritual growth.


Meaning “union” in Sanskrit, the original language of the practice, yoga refers to connecting the mind, body, and spirit. Although there are many different types of yoga, the most popular style of yoga involves a series of breath-controlled exercises and yoga postures, ending with a resting period.

A yoga instructor will often begin a session by leading breathing exercises. The breathing exercises can help individuals become more aware of the present moment and their inward own experience.

From there, the instructor typically leads the class in warm-up poses. Once everyone is primed for the practice, the majority of the session consists of a series of yoga poses led by the instructor.

Throughout the class, attendees are reminded to breathe with awareness by deeply inhaling through the nose, and deeply exhaling through their mouths. By encouraging the control of their breath during the session, the practice is meant to be challenging, but not physically overwhelming.

A resting pose generally concludes a class, which offers individuals an opportunity to settle their body and mind after the physical activity.


Most obviously a physical practice that strengthens and stretches the body, yoga is also an exercise for the mind. The yogic tradition holds that by concentrating on breathing and postures, the mind and body fuse with one another, allowing energy to flow in a more balanced way throughout the body. Below are some additional mind-body benefits of yoga.

Yoga can strengthen the brain.

Possibly due to the concentration on both controlled movement and awareness of one’s thoughts and senses, yoga advances new connections within the brain, changing the structure and functioning of the brain. Yoga can heighten attention, awareness, reasoning, decision-making, and other cognitive processes.

Yoga can decrease stress and boost mood.

As a moving meditation, yoga promotes self-control and calmness. By inviting individuals to relax, breathe deeply, and anchor themselves to the present moment, yoga counteracts the fight-or-flight response (which causes a person to feel stress) and instead activates the body’s relaxation response. By reducing the stress hormone cortisol, yoga has been shown to calm emotions and temper responses to unsettling situations. Yoga also increases the brain chemical called gamma-aminobutyric acid (GABA), which can cultivate a positive mood and lessen anxiety.

Yoga can improve sleep quality.

Yoga classes incorporate restorative postures that allow individuals the opportunity to turn their senses inward, providing downtime for the nervous system. By removing normal, everyday stimuli and encouraging relaxation for the nervous system, yoga produces a sense of calm beneficial for sleep.


Yoga is increasingly being integrated into mental and behavioral health treatment, such as by complementing care for those with post-traumatic stress disorder, depression, eating disorders, and substance use disorders (SUDs). Some of the ways yoga can enhance SUD recovery include:

  • Respect for the body: Substance use disorder coincides with harming one’s body. Yoga, however, connects individuals with their bodies, invoking a positive perspective and caring behaviors toward one’s body.
  • Emotional regulation: By inhibiting the sympathetic nervous system which triggers the fight-or-flight response, yoga overrides emotional responses of fear, aggressiveness, and rage. It also stimulates areas of the brain that promote feelings of tranquility and optimism. In this state, individuals can make more rational decisions.
  • Mindfulness: Yoga can help train the mind to notice one’s thoughts and emotions with acceptance, which can be helpful for recognizing triggers and cravings without judgment, while allowing the urges to pass.
  • Healthy self-esteem and self-empowerment: Yoga encourages moment-to-moment acceptance of one’s present abilities. This emphasis on self-compassion can be an empowering perspective for recovery as individuals work to rebuild their lives in sobriety while making the most of their present circumstances.


At Wasatch Crest, clients are introduced to a variety of experiential therapies, including yoga. Through guided breathing and movement, clients are invited to turn their attention inward, helping to balance their mental and emotional states and achieve a sense of well-being advantageous to healing. Reach out to learn more about our substance use disorder treatment programs.

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