Wendy Harris headshot

Dr. Wendy Harris: A Bold New Treatment for Addiction

Dr. Wendy Harris will be presenting at the National Conference on Addiction Disorders (NCAD) West taking place in Denver, Colorado on October 24 – 26, 2019.  The title of her presentation is  “Cutting Edge, Innovative Approaches to Understanding and Treating Addiction.”

Wendy Harris headshotWhen most people think about addiction recovery, they often think of 12-step programs like Alcoholics Anonymous. However, addiction is a complex problem that requires more than a simple solution; one size cannot fit all with recovery.

Dr. Wendy Harris, teaching faculty at Antioch University Los Angeles and interim director of the Addiction and Recovery Specialization in the MA in Clinical Psychology program, knows this better than most. After her own struggle with drugs and alcohol in her teens and twenties, she had a life-changing car accident. “I literally was hit by a cement mixer,” she says. “That’s when I decided to move to Los Angeles and ‘get spiritual’ and simplify my life.”

Through that process, Harris began to practice kundalini yoga. Where some types of yoga focus predominantly on posture or the physical process, kundalini yoga is multidimensional and integrates into every facet of one’s life. In addition to postures and breathing, kundalini yoga also includes chanting mantras and meditation. “What we are doing is using a very precise technology to strengthen the body, to align, and elevate in consciousness,” says Harris. “It’s physical, mental, and spiritual, with a lifestyle component that includes a suggested diet, a routine of daily practice, and regular gathering in community.”

Using the practice was so beneficial to Harris that she decided to devote herself to researching it with the end goal of making it an evidence-based intervention for treating addiction. She went back to school for her doctorate and wrote her dissertation on kundalini yoga for treating opioid addiction with the aim of bridging the gap between the sacred practice and recovery treatment for a wider range of people suffering from addiction. “Kundalini yoga is a very comprehensive and multidimensional technology,” she says, “which is why we use it for recovery. It’s about becoming aware of the pure potential within us, and it teaches us how to leverage that potential to lead us to a conscious, liberated way of being, so we can live our true purpose.”

Addiction and Recovery Specialization at Antioch University

After completing her doctorate, Harris was called upon to write the curriculum and launch the Addiction and Recovery Specialization as part of the Clinical Psychology program at Antioch. “Antioch wanted something that was truly cutting edge and innovative,” says Harris, “so I knew we had to move beyond an abstinence-based 12-step model to something more inclusive and talk about the brain.” Today, the specialization offers courses on co-occurring disorders, neurobiology, the psychology of addiction, systems theoretical perspectives, and socio-cultural-political causes and solutions for treatment.

During their second year, the graduate students all participate in a traineeship, where they begin to apply their studies to clinical practice, using different evidence-based treatments to help people in recovery. Some students also choose to do independent studies with Harris, and in those cases, they enroll in one of two programs that Harris is affiliated with, Beyond Addiction and Compassionate Inquiry.

Beyond Addiction is a 16-module recovery program that includes kundalini yoga, breathing techniques, meditation, relaxation, self-reflection, lifestyle and dietary guidelines, and stress management. It treats the entire individual and all the components of addiction. Courses are offered in a variety of formats for individuals at various stages of recovery, professionals, and yoga teachers who would like to teach a yoga-based addiction recovery program.

Compassionate Inquiry focuses on the subconscious and unconscious dynamics that run the lives of addicts and offers insights leading to awareness and liberation from these dynamics. This non-judgemental way to treat addiction potentially helps break the chronic relapsing cycle by healing the underlying trauma, instead of just temporarily alleviating the trauma’s symptoms.

The Addiction and Recovery Specialization just graduated its first class this spring, and Harris says watching the students receive their degrees was monumental. “Watching them cross the stage having completed the specialization made it suddenly feel so real.”

Discovering the Right Treatment Program for You

Harris and her students aim to find treatments that work for their individual clients, rather than a magic bullet that works for everyone. “A comparison I use is when a medical doctor diagnoses a patient with cancer,” says Harris. “They say, ‘let’s discuss your options,’ plural. You can have surgery or chemotherapy or radiation. You can treat it naturally. You can do a combination, or you can do nothing. Addiction is the same way, and it’s important that everyone is aware there are options.”

For someone suffering from addiction, it’s vital that they know the different options that are available to them. First, Harris acknowledges that many people cannot afford an expensive treatment center, and she suggests community-based support programs, like 12-step programs, Refuge Recovery, or SMART Recovery. These all offer free, community-based care, and have meetings on-line for someone who may live in a rural location or be housebound. Students at Antioch must attend a variety of meetings as part of their graduate training, so they are aware of what options are out there.

Harris also notes that medication-assisted treatments are becoming more popular with the opioid epidemic and can work alongside cognitive behavior therapy, which is a great starting point but likely not enough on its own. Psychedelic interventions are now being researched at Johns Hopkins as a way to treat people with addiction and various mental disorders. She includes space in her courses for students to explore all that is emerging in the field of addiction and recovery.

And of course, there’s kundalini yoga, a practice that Harris is working to make more accessible to everyone. Years ago, she pioneered community-based kundalini yoga and meditation classes for recovery in Los Angeles. “In Malibu, there’s the ‘Rehab Riviera,’ where celebrities and people with lots of money can go and pay a fortune for treatment,” she says, “but the outcomes are not significantly better than what I see with people who are committed to the yogic path and participate in our programs.” As she works tirelessly to research the practice and earn its place in evidence-based treatments, she’s also working to make it more accessible, setting up a nonprofit center and helping students with scholarships to attend training with Beyond Addiction and Compassionate Inquiry. She also travels and teaches workshops on yoga for recovery at yoga festivals. Working with Antioch and these programs, Harris is making the world better every day by giving those struggling with addiction hope, care, compassion, and most importantly, options for treatment.