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Sun Salutations in Sobriety

Many people in recovery are seeking serenity in the rooms—of yoga studios.

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Moving upward while going downward (dog) Photo

By Jennifer Garam

03/22/12

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At some point in sobriety, you're going to hit a spiritual wall. It's inevitable. When that happens, some turn to religion, others to self-help seminars. And then there are those who discover just how much peace can come from a downward dog.

Sarah, a 35-year-old New Yorker who’s been sober for nine years, was one of them. During her seventh year of sobriety, she began feeling such intense anxiety that, at her therapist’s recommendation, she decided to try a yoga class at a popular downtown studio. And she immediately realized she’d found a solution to the tension she’d been suffering from for most of her adult life: “I started to realize the connection between my thought patterns and my anxiety—specifically that my thought patterns and my breath caused my anxiety,” Sarah says now. “Yoga was really the way that I figured this out.” And she’s also figured out how to take what she finds on the mat and bring it out with her in the world. “After an hour of being in the present moment in yoga class, it’s easier to carry that on throughout the day,” she says.

According to Rolf Gates, a yoga teacher and the author of Meditations from the Mat: Daily Reflections on the Path of Yoga, there are several reasons why yoga is particularly helpful for recovering addicts. “Thinking the drink through is a prefrontal cortex function,” he says. “Meditation—which is a part of yoga—directly stimulates the growth of the prefrontal cortex, and this directly relates to our ability to be calm in a crisis, to gain insight into our own mental processes, and to think something through.”

"I think that once you have physical sobriety, yoga can train you into mental and emotional sobriety.”

Gates, who has close to 22 years of sobriety as well as experience as an addiction counselor, adds that another brain function that is enhanced through yoga practice is imagination and the ability to see the opportunities in your environment. And this, he explains, is a “crucial” skill for addicts in terms of being able to “see how you can get to where you’re going—and to maintain a sense of hope and forward momentum in your life.”

That certainly makes sense to 40-something Tony, who’s been abstinent from drugs for over five years. “I’ve spent my life trying to avoid being present in the moment,” he says. While in the past this kind of avoidance would have led him to act out through using or withdrawing, he’s learned through yoga that he has another choice: “If I reconnect to the moment,” he remarks, “things flow more calmly and peaceably.”

Staying present isn’t easy in the vigorous form of hot yoga that Tony practices; the physical discomfort he feels in class often incites his “fight or flight” impulse—which, he says, replicates his entire life pattern. But since a stated goal of the yoga he does is to just remain in the room for the whole class no matter what comes up, he is able to override his impulse to escape by simply following this instruction. Like Sarah, he is able to use these new behaviors outside of class as well. “Because of yoga,” he says, “I’m able to breathe, pause, and experience compassion for myself and others.” 

Tommy Rosen, a teacher who leads yoga classes and retreats specifically tailored to those in recovery, believes that yoga actually provides practical tools for applying 12-Step recovery—particularly in terms of the 11th Step (“Sought though prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of His will for us and the power to carry that out”). “There are many prayers about speaking to God, but there are no meditations in the 12 Steps about listening to God,” Rosen says. “So I ask: How do you listen? How do you sit still and develop the ability to quiet your mind? How do you develop the physical ability to actually sit in meditation and be comfortable?” For Rosen, those answers come through yoga.

Jenny, a 54-year-old yoga teacher with 18 years of sobriety, echoes Rosen’s belief. “The 11th Step is about prayer and meditation but we don’t learn any technique for it [meditation] in recovery,” she says. “With yoga, I’ve been able to meditate and practice an 11th Step because yoga has taught me a technique for meditation. And I’ve passed those different methods of meditation onto my sponsees.” 

Nikki Myers, the co-founder of Yoga of 12-Step Recovery [Y12SR], takes this philosophy one step further: she believes that incorporating yoga into recovery can actually help prevent a relapse. A 58-year-old yoga therapist and trauma-healing practitioner in Indianapolis, Indiana, Myers struggled with relapse for 13 years before getting clean in 2000. And she cites yoga, in conjunction with a 12-Step program, with helping her to find sobriety. Through Y12SR—a relapse prevention program that integrates talk therapy and body awareness practices—Myers teaches people in recovery to identify when they’re out of balance. Since being out of balance—being, quite simply, anxious or depressed—can lead to relapse, Myers stresses the importance of catching it quickly.  

“We help people recognize signs within their bodies before it becomes a situation where they might relapse,” she explains. “We want them to see when a tool can be applied to redirect their course before behaving impulsively—it may be ‘call my sponsor,’ ‘get my butt to a meeting,’ ‘get on my yoga mat,’ or breathing techniques. What we teach in Yoga of 12-Step Recovery are the warning signs that happen at the level of body before they ever manifest out in the world. The idea is that you’re able to intervene and apply a tool before relapsing or doing something that you don’t want to do.”

For some, recovery means getting the opportunity to pick back up a yoga practice that had been lying dormant. Alyssa, a 36-year-old New Yorker who’s been clean for 13 months, had already been practicing yoga for about 10 years before she came into recovery. She actually sought out yoga during active addiction, she recalls, because she was always looking for something outside of herself to make her feel better—though towards the end of using, she stopped going to class.

Being in recovery has enabled Alyssa to reconnect to her yoga practice with a new sense of vitality and purpose. After three months of sobriety, she started class again. Getting clean, she says, gave her the strength and energy to get back to her practice, and she credits the support of her sponsor and her 12-Step community with helping her return. “I really feel that yoga and meditation was a gift that I was able to recover in the past year,” she says. “At this point I’m not doing it because I think it makes my body look great; I’m doing it more for that connection with my Higher Self. Even if it’s just for an hour or two a day, to have that relief and know that everything I need is inside of myself—that’s the gift.”

While Gates says that someone who already has an established yoga practice should be able to continue with it upon entering recovery without a problem, he cautions newcomers with no prior experience with yoga from starting too soon. “Yoga classes are great, but they’re over and above [what you need to be doing],” he states. “I say, hit your meetings—don’t think, ‘Well I could do five meetings but I’m going to do three meetings and two yoga classes.’ You do your five meetings and you get your yoga in when you get your yoga in.” 

Although yoga can complement recovery, Gates feels that it is by no means a replacement. “The reality is that a yoga class isn’t going to keep someone sober,” he says plainly. “Once you’re committed and established in your conviction that you don’t want to drink no matter what, a yoga class can support you in creating an internal environment of calm and clarity that helps you make good choices which will contribute to your sobriety.”

Gates continues, “There’s going to be a turning point when it’s just not enough to not drink—when you’re like, ‘I want more from my life.’ At that point, yoga starts to loom as being really significant because it’s where people can develop, essentially, mental and emotional sobriety. I think that once you have physical sobriety, yoga can train you into mental and emotional sobriety.”

Tony echoes that sentiment. “Whether I’m in a 12-Step recovery room or I’m in a yoga class, I have a deep and abiding sense that I am in the solution to whatever it is that is challenging me at any given moment,” he says.

Jenny, too, feels that her yoga and 12-Step programs are inextricably linked. Not only do they both foster equanimity, but the combination of the two also contributes to the fullness of her life. “Without yoga, my recovery wouldn’t be so rich,” she concludes. “And without recovery, I don’t think I would have yoga.”

Jennifer Garam is a regular contributor to The Frisky and a blogger for Psychology Today whose writing has also appeared on The Huffington Post, Health.com, Crazy Sexy Life, DivineCaroline.com, and in Interview Magazine. Having practiced yoga for the past 14 years, she writes the blog NotSoZen YogaJen about being a Type A urbanite using yoga to help manage depression and anxiety. She's also written for The Fix about not being in recovering but acting like you are.

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