Can Ashtanga Yoga Help With Substance Use Disorder?

Shaun Jones

For research scientist Shaun Jones, Master of Public Health (MPH), practicing mindfulness and focus have always been an important part of his life. He practices and teaches a traditional form of yoga known as Ashtanga, which is a set series of postures done in the same order every time it’s rehearsed. With Ashtanga, students learn one posture at a time, allowing them to develop their practice incrementally.

“Unlike typical yoga classes, Ashtanga allows you to work at your own pace. You’re able to build more independence this way, but it also builds a better relationship with your teacher since they get a one-on-one understanding of your practice,” Shaun explains. “I gravitated toward Ashtanga because it’s a very physically and emotionally demanding practice and I enjoy being challenged that way. I also noticed that the more I did it, my anxiety lowered while my focus and clarity increased.”

Shaun teaching a yoga classIt’s not uncommon for people to be affected by substance use in one way or another. Shaun has been exposed to a variety of people who’ve had their lives ruined by substance abuse, which led him to pursue research for his MPH thesis on how Ashtanga can help those who are struggling. “My yoga teacher is actually a recovering heroin addict,” he says. “In fact, he’s been clean for about thirteen years now. He struggled with sobriety until he started practicing this type of yoga. It’s been his mission ever since then to spread the word as much as possible.”

“He is the most dedicated person I know,” Shaun continues. “He inspires me to get up in the morning because I don’t face the same challenges he does. If he can wake up and maintain his sobriety, then I can get up and do my practice too.”

Shaun’s guiding concepts were that Ashtanga yoga would have advantages over other types of yoga for helping people in recovery because it forces you to create healthy habits and structure. “You have to maintain a routine to get up every morning and go to practice. It forces you to take care of your body by staying hydrated throughout the day and eating right. It also allows you to create metrics of success; because you always have something new to work toward as you master one posture at a time.”

Ashtanga creates a community that offers support to those who need it. “One thing that people with substance use issues face is a sense of isolation, but when they get involved with Ashtanga yoga, they’re able to build relationships with others who are practicing with them. When you’re able to socialize around things besides substances, it will help you make better choices. It creates a sort of family.”Shaun doing Ashtanga

There’s a concept in Ashtanga called Tristhsana, which refers to three places of attention and action: physical posture, breathing and focus. “You focus on what your body’s doing, every breath is counted and every pose has a gazing point. By having all of your mental capacity focused on your practice, there’s really no room for your mind to wander,” Shaun explains. “One of the key takeaways from the data I collected was that close to 80% of my respondents noticed their breath whenever they were in a stressful situation or had a craving. This helped them focus on their physical sensations and to breathe through them. This practice implicitly teaches people how to cope with cravings and stressful situations by learning to breathe through them calmly.”

“Everyone who’s in recovery has options like twelve step programs, counseling and medication assisted treatments to choose from,” Shaun says. “I think of yoga as another piece of that tool kit that somebody can have. I believe that the more options people have, the easier it will be for them to find what works for them, which will increase their chances of living a healthy productive life.”

When it comes to applying Ashtanga to his daily life, Shaun says, “I know that my practice is the most difficult thing I’ll do all day, and if I can breathe through that, I can breathe through anything.”


Get in touch with Shaun to learn more about Ashtanga Yoga: 
Instagram: @shaunjones

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