Yoga and meditation enhance recovery processes
Heather Poyner Jan 5, 2020
The Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings teaches breathing techniques to the Women in Recovery group at the Kenosha County Detention Center.
KENOSHA NEWS PHOTO BY SEAN KRAJACIC
Four-second breathing, gentle stretching and guided meditation.
Such calming exercises are often found in yoga studios and fitness centers. Less common, however, is finding them at the Kenosha County Detention Center or at the ELCA Outreach Center.
Since last summer, the Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings has been folding yoga, breathing and meditation into group therapy programs on substance abuse and recovery in several Kenosha venues.
A recovery coach for the Hope Council on Alcohol and Other Drugs, Cummings introduces participants to relaxation techniques said to enhance the potential for success in recovery from substance use and trauma.
“We want to give people another tool in their toolbox; it helps them to know they have power,” Cummings said.
Cummings began folding yoga and meditation into recovery programs at the KCDC, the ECLA and the YMCA shortly after being hired as a recovery and education coach by the Hope Council last June.
The core of Women in Recovery, a 12-week recovery program offered at KCDC, is an education curriculum. When Cummings took on the program, she looked for ways to enhance it with yoga, breathing and a bit of nutrition education.
“I wanted to add yoga and chair meditation as a way to help with healing,” she said.
She also regularly adds breathing and meditation to the KCDC’s Women’s Awakening group, which focuses on women’s issues ranging from the psychological to the physical.
At a session for Women in Recovery last December, Cummings led 10 participants in a brief breathing and relaxation exercise. She told them to begin by placing their left hand over their hearts and their right hand on their bellies.
She next told them to inhale and exhale in four-second intervals.
“You can do this anywhere, anytime you feel stressed,” she told them.
Reversing the order of things which are normally done (i.e., right hand over the heart) causes the brain to think differently, Cummings said in an interview later. “Doing familiar things in a novel way makes you think.”
“The goal is to get out of the fight/flight/freeze mode and into the rest and digest mode,” she said. “We are not designed to live (in fight/flight) — we need to go into rest and digest mode.”
For those who are incarcerated, the exercises are particularly helpful, noted Cummings. “A vast majority of women who are incarcerated have had vast amounts of trauma in their lives.”
“The women really enjoy it,” said Jevon Claussen, KCDC programs manager. “They like the new techniques to calm down, especially because incarceration can be an extremely stressful environment.”
“We want to help them form new habits now for when they get out,” Cummings said.
The exercises work to heal not just those with substance abuse issues, but also anyone who has experienced trauma, Cummings said.
In addition to her work at the KCDC, since early fall Cummings has led “30/30 for Recovery,” at the YMCA. The once-a-week class supports those in recovery from substance abuse with 30 minutes of yoga, a discussion on a topic related to recovery and guided meditation or progressive relaxation.
The class came about as a result of a grant received by the Hope Council from the Mary Frost Ashley Charitable Trust in early 2019, explained Hope Council Director Guida Brown.
“Monica was hired by the Hope Council right around the time funding became available, and she just happened to earn her yoga teacher certification around that time, so it was a perfect fit for the YMCA to hire her as the yoga instructor,” Brown said.
As attendance for the class gathers momentum, Cummings is optimistic. “Women who would not typically do yoga are coming to this class.”
Tenille Fick, YMCA member engagement director, is enthusiastic about the program. “Recovery is obviously a huge need in our society, and many people are in need of something like this, a modality that combines mind and body.”
Cummings reports that inmates who are former smokers report feeling better after the breathing exercises. “They say they can take complete lungfuls of breath now.”
Inmates also report being much calmer after exercises, she said.
“We’ve never done this here before,” Claussen said. “I like to pride myself to bring in new and innovative things to help the (KCDC) population.”
Adding new healing modalities to recovery coaching is a welcome new addition to Hope Council programming, Brown said.
“Unfortunately, those newly in recovery — and far too often those in long-term recovery — aren’t addressing all the dimensions (to healing),” she said.
“There are so many aspects that need to be addressed in recovery, and we’re happy to help others understand this through yoga, breathing, and meditation.”
For Cummings, it is especially gratifying to be able to offer yoga and meditation to those who might not have the financial means to experience it at traditional yoga or fitness studios.
Cummings gives a shout-out to the KCDC, the YMCA and the ECLA — for letting her add yoga and meditation to standard recovery programs.
“I am truly grateful these institutions have been willing to think outside the box and try something new,” she said.
Practicing what she preaches.
For the Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings, 58, helping others reach wellness through peaceful practices is an integral part of her own journey.
A native of Philadelpia, Cummings’ background includes a bachelor’s degree in political science from Rutgers, a doctoral degree in ministry from Claremont School of Theology and service in the Peace Corps in South Africa.
But it also includes a drug addiction that cost her her officer’s rank and standing with the U.S. Army. Cummings was a second lieutenant in the Signal Corps when she was discharged for failing a drug test in 1986.
This, however, turned out to be the best thing that could have happened, she said, because it rebooted her life in sobriety.
She marks her sobriety on Jan. 8, 1990 — 30 years ago this week.
“I had to find my own inner wisdom and strength,” she said.
Cummings found her wisdom and strength in spirituality, reiki, yoga and meditation practices and sought ways to pass it forward.
She became a minister in the Unitarian Universalist Church, a reiki master, an addiction recovery coach and, most recently, a certified yoga instructor.
In 2008, she moved to Kenosha from L.A. and taught spirituality and health care at Rosalind Franklin University in North Chicago.
In 2017, she founded the Kenosha Center for Spirituality and Health through which she offers private classes in spiritual guidance.
“It is not counseling,” she explained. “The persons seeking spiritual guidance drive the session, and I guide them.”
She is also a community minister for Bradford Unitarian Universalist Church in Kenosha.
In June 2018, she joined the Hope Council, where she provides addiction recovery counseling to individuals and leads group sessions for family members of those with addiction issues.
Although she once questioned her status as a veteran, today she embraces it as she works to help fellow vets.
Cummings is a member of and instructor for Warriors at Ease, a veterans organization offering yoga and meditation to support the health and healing of service members, veterans and families.
“My wish is to find a (donated) space to teach yoga to active military, commanding officers and first responders in Kenosha,” she said.
Hope Council: Yoga and meditation help treat substance use disorder, trauma recovery
BY MONICA L. CUMMINGS SPECIAL TO THE KENOSHA NEWS Jan 5, 2020
I am a trained trauma-sensitive yoga and meditation instructor and recovery coach and have been clean and sober since Jan. 8, 1990.
During the six months I have worked at the Hope Council, I have been witness to countless stories wherein trauma plays a central role in the person’s life. In fact, the National Institute on Drug Abuse cites that Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder is common among people with substance use disorders, and patients suffering from both of these conditions have a more difficult time meeting their treatment goals.
According to the Department of Veterans Affairs “Almost 1 out of every 3 veterans seeking treatment for Substance Use Disorder also has PTSD.” And estimates suggest that as many as 80% of women seeking treatment for drug abuse report lifetime histories of sexual and/or physical assault.
One of the things that happens to people who experience trauma, and/or abuse substances, is numbing their feelings and disconnecting from themselves as a way of coping with life. However, our brains and bodies, which are in constant communication, remember everything and hold our experiences on the cellular level.
The phase “issues in our tissues” is a good reminder that everything that happens to us is stored in our brains and our bodies, often remaining out of our awareness until triggered by smells, sounds, places, and/or people.
It is difficult to talk someone into feeling safe on the physiological level of the body, especially if they are living in the fight or flight mode (freeze) of the sympathetic nervous system instead of the rest and digest parasympathetic nervous system.
One technique I teach clients to support them in moving out of the sympathetic nervous system and into the parasympathetic nervous system is various breathing exercises. For example, I ask clients to focus on their breaths while they inhale and exhale through their noses and to notice how their abdomens rise with each inhale and fall with each exhale.
Another technique I utilize is guided meditations that support clients in developing awareness of the subtle messages their bodies give them way before their minds begin the obsessive thinking about wanting to use alcohol or other non-prescribed drugs. One example is that I pose this question during meditation: “Where do you feel craving/contentment, happy/sad, angry/calm in your body?”
A third technique I use is yoga, which can support clients in the process of reconnecting with their bodies and grounding them in time and space. For example, during class I will ask “How does your body feel in this pose?”
In conclusion, incorporating breathing exercises, trauma-sensitive yoga, and guided meditation in the treatment of SUD and trauma can be transformative by helping our clients to calm their minds and ground themselves in the present moment.
The Rev. Dr. Monica Cummings
Monica L. Cummings is a record coach with the Hope Council on Alcohol and Other Drug Abuse in Kenosha County.
Can Reiki Help with Anxiety?
The alternative therapy is being used more and more for emotional well-being.
By Julia Malacoff | Jan 27, 2018
As the less-is-more approach to health and medicine gains traction, more people are turning to alternative treatments to deal with both mental and physical health issues. Chances are if you tell your doctor you want to try essential oils, acupuncture, or even cupping as part of your game plan to combat a certain ailment, she won’t bat an eye. Along with that, energy healing of all kinds is gaining traction, Reiki being the most popular—especially for emotional well-being and in particular, anxiety. Unlike crystal healing, however, mainstream medicine experts say there may actually be something to the practice. (Related: What Is Crystal Light Therapy?)
What Is Reiki?
“Reiki is a combination of the Japanese words ‘Rei,’ which means ‘great spirit,’ ‘God,’ or ‘higher power’ and ‘Ki,’ which refers to the spiritual energy of all living things,” says Scott Carroll, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist and author who has studied indigenous energy healing systems. Ki is a similar concept to “chi” in Chinese traditional medicine (TCM) and “prana” in Ayurveda, and is thought to flow through chakras, meridians (major channels), and nadis (minor channels) in the body, which are part of the aura that surrounds the body, Dr. Carroll explains. “Just as in acupuncture, disruptions of the flow of energy through chakras, meridians, and nadis and collections of negative energy in the aura are thought to cause both physical disease and psychological issues, such as anxiety.”
Worth noting: Even though Reiki utilizes some of the same ideas as TCM and Ayurveda, its practice isn’t as long-standing. Reiki, as we know it today, was developed about 100 years ago, although the concept of energy healing can be traced back much further than that in Japanese culture.
So how does it work, exactly? In theory, “Reiki practitioners heal by directing the purest form of Ki that comes from God or ‘great spirit’ to flow through the disrupted channels or to break up the negative energy collections in the aura,” Dr. Carroll says. “Practitioners visualize certain symbols to more precisely open these channels or break up negative energy and then replace it with the ‘God Ki.’ Since Reiki works on the energetic system of the body and isn’t directly physical, it can be used in a complementary fashion with Western medicine and psychiatry,” he adds. (Related: Everything You Need to Know About Energy Work—and Why You Should Try It)
Does It Reduce Anxiety?
Reiki is popular for dealing with all kinds of health issues, but it’s especially gaining traction in the mental health community. “Because Reiki is intended to induce relaxation in a manner similar to yoga or acupuncture and attenuate people’s stress response—or the release of cortisol from their adrenal glands and activation of the sympathetic nervous system—it can be a creative and useful way to reduce stress,” says Ashwini Nadkarni, M.D., associate psychiatrist and instructor at Harvard Medical School.
And conventional doctors aren’t hesitant to say that the practice might be helpful for a variety of patients. “Reiki may be beneficial for several issues, including anxiety, depression, pain management, and even for improved emotional coping with major medical illnesses,” says Aparna Iyer, M.D., a board-certified psychiatrist in Dallas, and adjunct assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center. The research on Reiki’s effectiveness, though, leaves a lot to be desired. “While many people with depression, anxiety, and various other mental health issues report a significant benefit from Reiki on their mental health, the studies are few and far between and the evidence-based data is limited,” Dr. Iyer points out. “Although some studies show no benefit, many small studies do indicate that Reiki’s benefits on mental health are promising.” And fortunately, she says, the data doesn’t suggest that there’s harm done by it.
“People find Reiki treatments relaxing to the body and nourishing for the soul,” says Kathy Morelli, L.M.T., L.P.C., a licensed professional counselor and Reiki practitioner. Plus, lots of people with anxiety are looking for non-pharmaceutical treatment options, and Reiki definitely provides that. “There’s a lot of anxiety in our fast-paced world, and people are looking for something besides Xanax to help them,” Morelli says. This is especially true for those who are already dealing with an addiction since some of the most common anti-anxiety drugs (benzodiazepines) are habit-forming.
But it’s important to note that Reiki shouldn’t be used as the *only* treatment for anxiety. “I’m a believer in complementary therapies, not alternative therapies,” Morelli explains. That means taking an integrative approach to treating anxiety, not one that rejects Western medicine. “Most people don’t want to abandon their regular medical care—they’re just adding some complementary treatments in as well. So, in counseling a person with anxiety and depression, we use psychotherapy and medications as the conventional treatment, and we can also add in complementary therapies to help healing on multiple levels,” she explains. (BTW, here’s why you should stop saying you have anxiety if you really don’t.)
What to Expect
If you decide to give Reiki a go for anxiety (or anything else), it can help to know what the session might be like beforehand. “Expect the practitioner to treat you with respect and to create an atmosphere of safety and acceptance,” Morelli says. “Reiki is done fully clothed and the practitioner uses no oils.” The treatment itself is non-manipulative, which means Reiki won’t interfere with any other medical treatments. “The practitioner will either very lightly touch the receiver or not touch them at all, as she channels life force energy into the areas of the energy field of the receiver,” she adds.
And even though the research on Reiki has mixed findings, what is consistent in the studies are the lived experiences of people during a treatment, Morelli says. “Most people report that Reiki is a deeply relaxing experience and their emotional distress evens out. Some report that it helps in letting go of emotional trauma.” Some sensations that people report during the session, according to Morelli, are: warmth or tingling, deep relaxation, relief from mental or emotional stress, a feeling of nurturing and general well-being, and relief from aches and pains.
Results might depend on what you’re expecting to get from the treatment. “In my experience, responses to treatments like Reiki have a lot to do with whether or not the patient is open to it,” Dr. Carroll says. “People who are open and comfortable tend to benefit, while those who are doubtful tend not to get much out of it.” When you think about it, this isn’t *so* different from how people respond to psychotherapy; the more you put in, the more you get out. While talking to a therapist about your anxiety is a much more evidence-based way to deal with mental health issues, there’s no reason not to add multiple tools to your arsenal to fight them—alternative or otherwise.