How Yoga Can be Instrumental in Helping People Quit Smoking
As a women’s wellness consultant, I take our health challenges seriously. Many of my fitness and nutrition clients have cancer, but I rarely don a Pink Ribbon… especially in October. Heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in America, but I don’t typically Go Red on any day in February. Seeing gaggles of women at church and in the workplace glammed up in the color du jour may make for a pretty picture, but it does little to eradicate these very ugly illnesses.
Between the Susan G. Komen Foundation showing its “assets” over funding principles and a family member recently passing after a private, but painful battle with lung cancer, I am reminded that I need to do more… say more… write more.
My father’s ex-wife (whom I call Aunt Pat, because that’s what the rest of my “big cousins” do) just passed on- exactly one week after her own 93 year-old mother passed away. “Aunt Pat” is the mother of my three oldest siblings. As long as I have been on this earth, she and my 51 year old sister have smoked. SIDE NOTE: My father and most of his 11 siblings smoked at some point but have subsequently stopped. My father quit cold-turkey before I was born, based on a bet from my oldest brother… who is now a smoker… as is my middle brother. *sigh*
I have always despised smoking and if I’m honest, I have a not-so-slight prejudice against smokers, themselves.
They pollute, they liter, they poison their families and they usually stink. Even if it’s not their priority, I always encourage my wellness clients to stop smoking: suggesting gum, carrots, cinnamon sticks and licorice as oral replacements. Sadly, I have never felt empowered enough to help my own family members break these deadly habits. I completely understand that smoking is but one cause of cancer, even lung cancer; nutrition, exercise and other environmental factors play key roles in cancer prevention. The issue with smoking is that it negatively affects nearly every system of the body, including the immune system, complicating any healing that is to take place. I also understand that we all leave this earth, but I take issue with the notion that that is an excuse for making poor lifestyle choices.
My sister is now battling breast cancer and Aunt Pat spent the last year and a half of her life at my sister’s side, while her own body gave way to a disease process that was deep in her organs and bones, but not officially diagnosed until the time of her death. Aunt Pat was sassy, fashionable, and generous beyond belief. She also had longevity on her side. When compared to her mother, smoking literally took 20 years or more off of her life. Even as I’m writing, I cringe at my own crudeness, but cancer is not glamorous, polite or thoughtful.
Smokers are stubborn and addiction is an illness. I know that. Today, I am riddled with guilt because I never shared with Aunt Pat, my sister or my brothers any real techniques to eliminate their awful habit. Out of my selfish need for vindication, I am sharing one of my favorite smoking cessation suggestions. *Surprise, Surprise* It’s yoga! Yoga can succeed in ways that other methods cannot, because it is an overall and holistic substitution for the habit. Smoking is more than an addiction to nicotine; it is also a physical and social dependency. All addictions are coping mechanisms that attempt to correct an internal imbalance or deficiency. There are three main components to yoga practice: breathing, poses and meditation, they each have something to offer. Together they can help reduce and eliminate the cigarette cravings.
The part of smoking that many addicts attribute to relaxation and stress relief is nothing more than Pranayama (Prah- nah- YAH- mah), which in yoga, is the extension of breath, or “life force”. This deep, deliberate and controlled breathing is considered to be a cornerstone of yoga. However, this same style of breathing with a toxic cigarette on the other end swiftly sends poison through the blood stream and greatly reduces lung capacity. Many take breathing for granted, but it is indeed a miracle in and of itself. It is one of the few bodily functions that is both automatic and able to be controlled consciously. It is the first rite of passage as a human being and is usually the final act that we take before committing to death. With willpower, humans can go 30 or more days without food and a few days without hydration, but only a few minutes without breath. It is just that vital.
A regular pranayama practice can help to cleanse the lungs of toxins, thereby increasing their total capacity and overall quality of life. Breathing with clean lungs allows freshly oxygenated blood to access everything from the brain to the toes. It reduces nervousness, anxiety, and forgetfulness; it also increases overall mental clarity, energy and creativity. Inhaling and holding large amounts of oxygen, as in pranayama, can induce a drug-like response in the body and mind, without the poison.
Toxin-free pranayama also increases immunity and sensation, while making everything easier, from exercising to sleeping to having sex.
Speaking of interesting positions, smoking cessation may be achieved through the regular practice of asana (AH-suh-nuh). The body longs to be vigorous and free from disease. We long to look and feel great. A regular yoga posture practice can help to achieve all of these goals. Blood circulation becomes more efficient, making muscles, bones and joints stronger. Smoking becomes physically challenging… as well as quite unpopular at the yoga studio. This new yoga body begins to crave the benefits of physical exercise. The mind will feel victorious with the “crowding out” of the self-destructive behavior with a healthier, more energizing one. In addition to toning arms and abs, yoga builds a combination of internal discipline, strength, attitude and confidence that can overcome any long-standing habit.
This inner strength becomes even more essential when considering the third way that yoga can curb one’s enthusiasm for smoking. As with any action, the desire to smoke begins in the mind. Therefore, the meditative aspect of yoga is very helpful in breaking this and many other habits. Awareness, willpower and concentration make meditation possible. Meditation re-organizes the mind and re-prioritizes habits. Meditation also helps with the anger, depression, irritability, and insomnia associated with smoking cessation. It allows one to transcend these emotions in a peaceful and constructive way.
Smokers can use yogic breathing, postures, and meditation to eliminate unhealthy cravings. They may be used in isolation, but are much more effective when used together and with consistency. The physical and emotional benefits are far-reaching and whole. Find a yoga studio or practitioner in your area to guide you through any of these components. Sadly, it is too late for me to introduce yoga to Aunt Pat and wearing a red dress to church tomorrow will not do anything to bring her back, but I hope that this information can help someone that you love kick a habit that is hazardous for us all.
Photo Credit: Lululemon Athletica