In many ways, our habits can be defined by their mindlessness. Whether it’s absentmindedly cycling through our daily routine or automatically reaching for a cigarette in the morning, the well-worn neurological pathways we’ve trod through repetition into our brain can make certain behaviours feel hard to break. For much of the time, this is pretty harmless, but in the case of smoking, it can be fatal.
While it is far from the case that everyone who smokes struggles with mental health problems, according to the National Institute on Drug Abuse there is a significant comorbidity between tobacco use and mental disorders – with people living with mental illness smoking at two to four times the rate of the general population.
This strongly suggests that stress and emotional distress are particular triggers for smoking. From there, once someone has started smoking regularly, the addiction creates changes in the brain that make it hard to stop. On both these fronts, yoga can help, whether it’s using yoga for anxiety to address the feelings that may lead us to find comfort in smoking, and facilitating structural brain changes that help us break the addiction.
Smoking in the UK
The research into the toxicity of smoking cigarettes is unequivocable. Smoking contributes to increased chances of developing lung cancer, COPD, heart disease, stroke and many other potentially fatal health issues, leading to an average loss of ten years on life expectancy. The effect of smoking is also cumulative – the more cigarettes you smoke, and the longer you smoke them for, the greater your chances of permanently impacting your health.
In the UK, 13% of women and 16.5% of men aged eighteen and above smoked cigarettes in 2018, and studies suggest that it takes an average of thirty attempts to quit smoking successfully. If you are a person who smokes, you may find it’s a release in busy days filled with personal and professional responsibilities, or it may be part of letting your hair down with a few drinks on Fridays. More often than not, stress is a trigger.
Challenges in Quitting
Through many years of public health campaigns and ongoing attempts to make tobacco companies behave responsibly (this has, unfortunately, has had little success, with tobacco companies simply transporting their marketing efforts elsewhere), awareness of the dangers of smoking has grown. One in six UK smokers want to give up the habit, and there are now one million fewer smokers today than there was in 2014.
Nicotine, however, is an extremely addictive substance, and as any ex-smoker can attest, giving up is far from easy – which is why such a relatively high proportion of the population are still smokers despite awareness of the dangers. Most people will attempt to quit smoking by going “cold turkey”, which evidence suggests is the least effective method, but support from smoking cessation services and the use of cessation aids increases people’s chances of leaving behind cigarettes for good.
A person who gives up smoking before 30 will avoid more than 97 percent of the risk of death associated with continued smoking (enjoying the life expectancy of someone who has never smoked), while those who quit before 40 can expect to avoid 90% of that risk. Conversely, however, for every year someone continues to smoke after 40 they can expect to lose another 3 months in life expectancy.
Therefore, helping people quit for good as quickly as possible is the best scenario – but it is never too late to quit, with even older smokers cutting their risk of heart attack by 40% by giving up smoking.
Using yoga to quit smoking
Smoking is perhaps one of the most unhealthiest and expensive habits it’s possible to have. Even those who perhaps haven’t intellectualised the long term health implications (the age group with the most smokers is 25-34, when it is easy to feel somewhat invincible) resent the coughs, colds and decreased physical fitness associated with smoking, and people looking to have children also have a strong motivation to stop.
Alongside traditional sources of help from organisations such as the NHS, yoga can support us physically, neurologically and emotionally through the journey of going smoke-free, through mechanisms such as:
Engendering Changes in Brain Structure
The practice of yoga (and particularly its mindful aspect) has been found in brain imaging studies to engender physical changes in our brain structure, which go some way to explain the positive impacts often observed in those who use the practice.
It’s thought that yoga and mindfulness can reduce unconscious triggers in smokers by boosting areas of the brain associated with self-regulation – with one study discovering, after a mindfulness program, that smokers didn’t realise they’d been smoking less but demonstrated a 60% reduction in carbon dioxide percentage in the lungs. This suggests that mindfulness helps people to cut down on cigarettes even if they hadn’t intended to, by creating changes in the brain.
Mindfulness is a key element of yoga practice – with the development of our present moment awareness and body awareness two of the most profound benefits of taking up yoga as a habit. The UK government’s SmokeFree service recommends mindfulness as a way to stop smoking and prevent relapse, and a variety of studies support this advice.
A 2011 study ( which was the first randomized clinical trial to look at mindfulness training as a stand-alone approach for quitting smoking) found that 31% of those who practiced mindfulness were still smoke-free after receiving treatment, while those in the control group (who were given traditional methods of support) only had a 6% success rate in avoiding relapse.
Another, from 2019, found that study participants who used a mindfulness-based smoking cessation app reduced their cigarette consumption by an average of 11 cigarettes per day, while Dr. Nora Volkow, director of the US National Institute on Drug Abuse, reports that “early evidence suggests that exercises aimed at increasing self-control, such as mindfulness meditation, can decrease the unconscious influences that motivate a person to smoke.”
Addiction is created through a range of feedback loops, and researchers believe this is something that mindfulness helps to break. By reducing stress, mindfulness removes a trigger for cravings, but it also reduces the physiological stress caused by craving itself – making this feeling easier for smokers to ride out. Mindfulness can also be used to bring people into the present moment and become more aware of how unpleasant the sensation of smoking actually is, reducing their desire for another cigarette still further.
Increasing Lung Capacity and Physical Fitness
When a person quits smoking, they are often at the start of a long process of their lungs healing – an experience which is more or less pronounced depending on how long for and how much they’ve smoked. As the cilia in the lungs regrow and function fully again, our body finally has a chance to clear out the alveoli of the detritus left by smoking, and ex-smokers can find they have a pronounced cough for many months after quitting the habit.
As a practice in which you can use most of your body’s muscles, yoga stimulates your lungs through focused breathing. Yoga also helps workout your diaphragm, the muscle that operates the lungs. With breathing exercises, this increases lung capacity, while the active pursuit of holding asanas improves physical fitness, helping to get people’s bodies and respiratory systems back into shape.
Most promisingly, the fact that yoga can help us quit this bad habit means that (through similar mechanisms) it can help us leave other unhelpful behaviours behind too – so whatever it is you want to stop or cut down on, yoga can be a great support!