Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness as Alternative Opioid Therapies

Pain relievers and prescription drugs are the most common go-to for people in pain. Medications are designed to work fast, which is exactly what people want. Drugs are accessible, whether over-the-counter or prescribed by a doctor. Opioids such as morphine, OxyContin, and Vicodin are used to treat both short-term and chronic pain. These powerful medications are addictive, and are prescribed frequently to individuals who want fast relief. Recently, however, major medical organizations are beginning to move away from the use of prescription drugs and towards other types of therapies to reduce pain, including yoga, meditation, and mindfulness.


The Opioid Safety Initiative

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs (VA) introduced an Opioid Safety Initiative (OSI) in February of 2014 to decrease the use of opioids among U.S. veterans in VA health care systems. Its aim is to decrease the number of people who become addicted to or dependent on opioids. The VA puts a large emphasis on patient education regarding the risks and potential benefits of opioids, as well as the benefits of alternative therapies; and frequently monitors and gets feedback from patients.1

The ultimate goal is to improve the quality of life for veterans suffering from chronic pain. This goal has already been proven possible in Minneapolis, Minnesota where OSI practices have reduced high-dose opioid use by more than 50 percent at eight sites of care.1

Which therapies were used in Minnesota to make them so successful, you ask? The OSI suggests several alternative therapies including yoga and meditation, acupuncture, behavior therapy, physiotherapy methods, and general patient lifestyle improvements, like exercise and weight loss.2 It is not simply one method of treatment that relieves pain quickly and effectively; instead it is a combination of several practices, so that veterans are working on bettering themselves both physically and mentally.

The OSI was created because of research conducted and published by the National Institute of Health (NIH). NIH research has influenced other organizations and publications, including the Harvard Bulletin, to publish articles about changing the standard of care to include yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices.


What are Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness?

Yoga is a form of exercise, relaxation, and spiritual strengthening. Meditation is a period of time one spends thinking deeply and focusing his/her mind. And mindfulness is a practice of self-awareness and insight. These three practices go hand-in-hand when it comes to treating psychological, neural, physiological, and behavioral processes in individuals.3

Studies show that yoga helps people energize and strengthen the psyche, which can benefit those with both physical and mental pain, and meditation and mindfulness can reduce anxiety and depression and help individuals control their emotions.4 There is significant evidence to support this change in the “standard of care” for the treatment of pain.


The Benefits of Yoga, Meditation, and Mindfulness

Numerous studies have shown that yoga is helpful when treating the multidimensionality of chronic pain; that is, the physical, emotional, social, and spiritual components. Yoga breathing techniques relax most skeletal muscles and bring individuals into a deep, reflective state where it is impossible to be anxious or angry. One technique called diaphragmatic breathing is said to be the most valuable thing a person can learn when on the road to recovering from chronic pain.4

Similarly, meditation and mindfulness work to focus the mind on one’s own body and increase awareness of how one is feeling. During meditative states, individuals reach a deeper level of relaxation at both physical and mental levels. Using meditation and mindfulness for pain allows individuals to perceive their pain from an observer’s perspective, which, in turn, changes the way the pain is experienced.4 Practices that cultivate awareness create capacity for self-control and self-regulation and play a significant role in finding relief from pain.



Yoga, meditation, and mindfulness practices help individuals learn self-care, meaning the practices are done by the individual, rather than someone else, as with acupuncture or behavior therapy. Self-care practices are an important and essential part of the recovery process for pain, and are important in everyday life as well. They enable individuals to become aware of their health in a different light, and encourage them to develop new habits and decide how they want to stay healthy. Self-care helps individuals feel at-one with their body and mind, and brings balance and harmony into people’s lives.4

Without learning self-care, individuals rely too heavily on other people to fix their pain. They depend on others to tell them which needs and remedies will better them, rather than taking the time to figure out their needs and possible tracks to recovery on their own. Individuals who listen to their bodies and are aware of themselves find a direct benefit to their health and road to recovering from pain.

This article was contributed by Maris Laughton. 

Maris is a second semester freshman at American University, but is originally from Hudson, Massachusetts. She moved to DC for the abundant internship opportunities and with hopes of escaping the snow. She is majoring in print journalism with a possible minor in French. Her ultimate goal is to travel the world and be published in a the National Geographic magazine. Maris is currently enrolled in the Yoga and Mindfulness Research course taught by Dr. Norris.

To read more about our students and to find out about the research they are doing, visit the Mind-Body Medicine homepage.


1 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2014, February 25). VA initiative shows early promise in

            reducing use of opioids for chronic pain. Retrieved from

2 U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. (2014). Pain Management: Opioid Safety: VA Educational

Guide. Retrieved from


3 Khanna, S., & Greeson, J. M. (2013). A narrative review of yoga and mindfulness as

complementary therapies for addiction. Complementary Therapies in Medicine, 21(3),

244-252. doi:10.1016/j.ctim.2013.01.008

4 Vallath, N. (2010). Perspectives on yoga inputs in the management of chronic pain. Indian

            Journal of Palliative Care, 16(1), 1-7. doi:10.4103/0973-1075.63127


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