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Yoga and Recovery: Three Ways to Start on The Path To Wellness

 Yoga is so much more than the glossy images of the ultra bendy

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By Tara Steinke

03/03/14

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Have you been thinking about trying yoga? Has the flashy images of fit people in tight clothes intimidated you from taking a class? Or maybe you think you already have to be a paradigm of good health before even stepping foot into a yoga class? Yoga is so much more than the glossy images of the ultra bendy.  

The practice of yoga and the process of recovery are both paths of personal transformation.

So how does this practice work? There are three aspects of yoga: the physical postures, breath work and meditation. All three combine to create the practice of yoga. Yoga means “union” in Sanskrit. The philosophy of the practice is to bring the mind, body, and spirit together in a united alignment. According to the ancient yoga philosophers, a person can find true peace, contentment and happiness, known as Samadhi, through the cleansing and connective practice of yoga.

The physical poses are known as asanas and are the first aspect that many us are familiar with when thinking about yoga. There are hundreds of different yoga poses that are sequenced across various classes and styles of yoga. The physical aspect for beginners is the gateway into the practice because it teaches bodily awareness and the release of pent up emotions and stuck energy. For many in recovery, there has been a disassociation from the body through the use of drugs, alcohol, food, or other substances. Yoga theory posits that much of our pain comes from repetitive patterns or actions deemed samskaras. Samskaras are the scars we accumulate through our life experiences. Similar to a groove on a record that continues to repeat, samskaras hold us hostage to the past unless we can become aware of these patterns that no longer serve us and make the conscious decision to change. Asanas bring this awareness into the physical body through the postures. We gain strength through standing poses such as Warrior II (Virabhadrasana Two) or balance poses such as Tree pose (Vrikasana). Poses such as twists can aid in the detoxification of organs such as the liver, kidneys, and help to keep the body systems regulated. The first stage of recovery is the physical aspect of simply detoxing the body. Starting a gentle yoga practice at this time in the process can greatly aid in this cleansing.

One of the biggest misconceptions about recovery is the notion that if an individual simply exercises willpower then temptation will be resisted. For some in recovery, the willpower muscle is formidable whereas for others it quickly fatigues. The mind alone cannot be the sole instigator of change. Once the body is more flexible due to asana it makes it much easier to be open to change and to heal past scars and damage.

The second aspect of yoga is the breath work known as pranayama. What separates yoga from other forms of exercise is the emphasis on linking breath to movement. Our breath is our life force or prana. Our lungs not only regulate our physical systems, but also are directly tied to our emotional and mental facilities and can be a very key aspect of healing and recovery that many may take for granted.  Our lungs are the link to our circulatory and nervous system providing detoxification, energy, and even a built in relaxation response. Taking a deep breath and exhaling it out is a red flag to the nervous system to slow down thereby calming mind and body. In a yoga class, the breath is instructed as part of the postures and similar to the asanas, there are many different types of breathing techniques that can help to cleanse, calm and strengthen the body. Simply drawing awareness to the patterns of the breath can help to still a mind that is agitated and to help ease negative thoughts or cravings. For many, recovery can be an awakening to new thoughts and sensations that were previously stifled due to the use of substances. It can also be a scary time as the body releases the need, yet the mind continues to desire.  Simple breathing techniques can replace and strengthen as the body heals.

Lastly, a yoga practice contains an element of meditation. For most of us, the mere thought of sitting with our thoughts is annoying or scary. The Yoga Sutras, the ancient guidebook on the practice of yoga states that the intent of yoga is to still or to quiet the mind. It is very hard to drop into meditation right away and anyone who claims it is easy is not being honest! The idea behind the asanas and the pranayama is to open and clear the body creating space for mindfulness and meditation. Meditation is important because it allows us to drop into a deeper sense of self and awareness. When we can really truly see our own inner light we become less impacted by the world around us, embracing our inner strength without the need for external validation through such things as drugs, alcohol, money or the latest electronic gadget. True healing and change appear when we are not simply resisting what is not longer working or causing pain, but understanding why these patterns persist and using both the body and mind to move toward change. Yoga as a practice requires the individual to simply show up and move and breathe in order to be present with what is happening in the moment.

As you move along the path of recovery, seek out the practice of yoga as a tool to aid in that process. If you are brand new to the practice, look into beginner classes at the local gym or yoga studio. Some studios even offer yoga and recovery classes. It may seem scary at first, but there is a yoga teacher and class out there for everyone. The willingness to participate in your path to health and wellness is worth it.

Tara Steinke works in the music industry and is a 500 RYT yoga teacher and writer.

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