One of the components of my yoga teacher training program involved teaching classes for people in addiction recovery.
I confess that as the wife and daughter of alcoholics, I was apprehensive about the prospect.
My view of addiction was shaded by my own experience and perspective, and I made a strong case for exempting myself by teaching a class for children with autism instead. But yoga doesn’t let you wiggle out of what you need to reflect upon so easily, and so I ended up doing both.
I was unsure of myself and of my audience, who weren’t all willing participants, since the class was an official part of a mandated program.
I didn’t know if I knew how to teach the moves; they didn’t know the moves. I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be there, and they weren’t sure either. I wasn’t so certain I needed to do it, and neither were they.
Our only commonality was vulnerability—but luckily, feeling weak together can build immense strength.
We started each class by discussing a list of emotions displayed on a board and introducing ourselves in a format that I found cheesy but was admittedly effective. We would say our name, followed by “Right now, I feel…” and share three emotions from the board.
I went first. “My name is Ashley, and right now, I feel…”
I glanced at the emotions, ready to pick “joyful,” “peace,” and “hope,” and then glanced at the people in front of me, shifting awkwardly in a circle on the floor.
They were thoroughly freaked out at this alien landscape, so I chose honesty: “My name is Ashley, and right now I feel fear,” I said with a nervous laugh to break the tension, followed by “sad and hope.”
There was no need for commentary after we did our introductions, so I offered none, but there was a subtle shift when I admitted my feelings. Perhaps they were curious about why the heck a yoga teacher would be scared and sad, but I believe that mostly, there was a recognition of common ground. As we went around the circle, people slowly became more confident about sharing their own three words, and a hesitant camaraderie developed.
After that exercise, we discussed an essay from a daily meditation book, and each person who was brave enough to be authentic lent courage to the next person to do the same. Everyone walked into the room feeling isolated and uncertain, but by the time we were struggling through sun salutations, we were laughing at our awkward attempts together.
Even our errors became a celebration of connection, because once you admit that you’re scared and sad, the worst of it is over.
Addiction is often born of a desire to numb negative emotions, and that numbness leads to further isolation and more negative emotions.
“Research in the burgeoning fields of Interpersonal Neurobiology, Attachment and Sensorimotor Therapy theorize that various types of trauma can rupture neurological development in ways that make it difficult for individuals to regulate their emotional state,” says Dr. Rod Amiri of Malibu Hills Treatment Center, a non 12-step recovery center. “When people are unable to soothe themselves, they often turn to drugs or alcohol as a way to medicate intense feelings of terror, anxiety, rage, loneliness or alienation.”
Yoga, mindfulness, and meditation are effective ways to lessen those symptoms and provide a good source of community, minus the social pressure (since you’re doing something together but separately, and yet for yourselves as a group). A regular yoga practice is a way to honor a commitment to yourself, a medium to witness your personal growth both physically and emotionally, and an introduction to the practice of meditation and mindfulness.
These are also the building blocks of recovery.
“One new and promising approach to reduce physical and emotional distress of recovery and promote global health and wellness is the practice of mindful meditation,” Dr. Amiri says. “The APA has concluded that this 2,000-year-old Buddhist meditation technique can produce significant benefits when practiced daily. This is particularly helpful for those in recovery who struggle to regulate their emotional [effect] on a daily basis.”
“Mindfulness meditation practice activates a part of the brain (anterior cingulate) responsible for feelings of empathy, compassion and tolerance. This is expressed as a greater capacity for and ability to respond to stressors with positive, healing thoughts, feelings and actions. Over time, these actions shift behavior in positive, non-addictive ways that improve mood, self-esteem, self-worth and integrity.”
Recovery—much like life, doing yoga, or teaching it—won’t always be comfortable.
We won’t always feel certain about what comes next or if we’re doing it the “right” way—or even what “it” is. True growth requires us to leave behind whatever isn’t serving us to find what does—whether that’s an outdated perspective, an old fear, negative influences, personal trauma, bad habits, or anything that prohibits us from reaching our full potential.
It also means opening ourselves up to new opportunities without judgment. Honesty, authenticity, community and mindfulness are the ingredients to a recipe not only for recovery, but for a life well lived.
Author: Ashley McCann
Image: Hillary Boles/Flickr
Editor: Catherine Monkman