When I started using drugs and alcohol as a teenager, I was looking for relief from anxiety and depression. I was looking for people who understood who I was and what I was going through. And, though I wouldn’t have put it into those words, I was seeking a connection to a force greater than myself—to spirit, mankind, the universe. Whatever you want to call it, you know it when you feel it, even at that age.
At first, I found all that in drugs and alcohol. It was an escape from the pressure and the stress, from the expectations of being part of a high-achieving, privileged family. To some degree, because it connected me with others who were escaping in the same way, it created a sense of community and shared ritual. And, particularly when I used hallucinogens, it sometimes gave me a fleeting sense of connection with something bigger.
But, of course, the more drugs I did, the less it helped, and the depression and anxiety came back worse than before. I was in and out of three treatment centers before one finally stuck. Finally, at the fourth treatment center I checked into, at age 24, I was introduced to yoga and meditation, as part of a holistic approach that integrated mind, body, and spirit. This time, it worked—and I know that the spiritual component of the program was a huge part of why it made the difference for me. What I found in yoga and meditation was what I was looking for in drugs and alcohol—a feeling of belonging to a greater purpose, a sense of community, relief from the constant focus on the self, a way to let go of pressure and expectations by learning to be in the present moment. And, with yoga, there’s a cumulative positive effect—the more you do, the better you feel—and those good feelings are sustainable. There’s no hangover with yoga.
The spiritual component of substance abuse treatment is sorely neglected in most programs, so when I founded the Newport Academy treatment programs for adolescents, I knew from the beginning that yoga and meditation were going to be a core component of our approach, alongside clinical and experiential therapeutic modalities. These practices are particularly powerful for young people because they have the potential to directly impact their still-developing brains and nervous systems. For example, the mindful practices of yoga and meditation develop the parts of the brain that regulate impulse control and how we react to stress and challenging emotions and situations. That understanding is particularly significant in regard to teens, whose brains are still developing even in late adolescence, according to experts such as Dan Siegel, M.D., whose book Brainstorm: The Power and Purpose of the Teenage Brain explores how brain development impacts teenagers’ behavior and relationships.
“Mindfulness quiets down the limbic system”—which is focused on impulses and primitive drives, and thus catalyzes risk-taking behaviors—“and buffers the prefrontal cortex, which is involved in making decisions and regulating emotions,” says Angela Wilson, LMHC, who teaches evidence-based yoga techniques in therapeutic venues and was a team member for a 2014 study on yoga and self-regulation. Learning to dispassionately watch how we act and react on the mat also strengthens what Wilson calls the “observing ego,” the capacity to observe and tolerate our emotions—or, as she puts it, to create “more space between having our feelings and acting on them.”
On a purely physical level, yoga practice on the mat improves physical fitness, strengthens the respiratory system, and allows us to develop mastery over what their bodies can do. But it’s not just our bodies that feel better. “When the body becomes healthier, we experience a higher sense of well-being,” says yoga researcher Sat Bir S. Khalsa, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Harvard Medical School, who recently oversaw a study on yoga and teen drug use funded by the National Institute on Drug Abuse. That body-mind connection isn’t entirely understood, but it has been increasingly validated by studies like one at Penn State in which students who were more physically active reported higher levels of excitement and enthusiasm.
The power of yoga—and yogic breathing practices, or pranayama, in particular—to calm the nervous system was one of the first benefits I experienced. Its effectiveness in this area for adolescents has been repeatedly validated in qualitative studies with participants who report that they use conscious breathing to relax before tests, to calm down when they’re angry, and to help them sleep. These are simple, easily taught interventions that can have a profound impact in their ability to decrease the stress response—essential because “stress is a major risk factor for disease, including addiction,” says Khalsa. “Every physical and mental condition has stress as a component.”
Beyond these neurobiological benefits, yoga is a profound way to build community and connection, which was one of its most important aspects for me. For teens, being together in an environment focused on acceptance of self and others—rather than one of competition and judgment—can be incredibly powerful. “The shared experience is very important to the process of healing,” says Wilson. In addition, she says, decreasing the stress response in the body and mind fosters a greater capacity for attunement, empathy, and connection with parents, peers, and teachers. “Relationship with others is vital in helping to restructure one’s mind in a healthy and positive way,” says Wilson. “What’s happening between two brains has the potential to change brain structure and enhance consciousness.”
Yoga also fosters development of mind-body awareness. The practice of intentionally synchronizing breath and movement leads to deeper awareness of our internal state, which translates off the mat into an ability to listen and respond to the messages the body sends. “You start to gravitate away from activities that don’t feel good and toward activities that feel good—which can make huge changes in avoiding risk factors,” Khalsa says. When we tune in to how our choices affect us at every level—physical, mental, emotional—we become more likely to make decisions that will benefit us, and less inclined to mask underlying issues with destructive behaviors.
If I’d had this practice available to me at a young age, my life might have been very different. I’m incredibly grateful to have discovered it, to have found my way back, and to be able to share these practices with others.