Yoga and Recovery: “Spring Cleaning” for the Soul

Friday, February 28th, 2014

yogaIt’s no secret that yoga can help recovery from addiction; that’s why my partner and I teach at Phoenix House Delaware County Center two nights per week. It’s a men’s program on an old estate in upstate New York, and we practice in the library—a gorgeous, really ornate room with high ceilings. In the summer we’ll also go outside and to practice. When we first started it was this big rowdy group of guys, and some would arrive late. But nowadays the guys are already there when I arrive, set up in a huge circle, and it’s dead silence; they’re already meditating. The first time that happened I was just like, “Wow.” Many students tell me they look forward to not just the physical aspect of class, but the mental and spiritual levels too.

In addition to yoga poses I teach mindfulness, breath meditation, and traditional Buddhist meditation. I’ve given some students meditation CDs and helped them start a meditation practice on their own. One student came to me and said, “This week I was sitting on a rock meditating, and I was so still that a chipmunk came right up to me!” It’s amazing for them to truly experience that level of stillness.

Sometimes I teach by myself, and sometimes my partner comes and runs around helping people with alignment or working with them on handstands. The clients are so determined and respectful. Many of the same clients come every week, the same core group of guys who are always recruiting their friends. We hear them whisper to one another mid-class, “See? I TOLD you you’d like it!” A lot of guys start out with the idea that yoga is really easy and is all about dainty stretches, but very soon they realize that it’s so much more than that.

The new students learn quickly, and they love figuring out the proper alignment. Everyone loves the positive atmosphere that we all create together in the room. We focus on being in the present moment; when you walk through these doors, you let go of any negative energy. “This is your time,” I tell the clients. “Let’s just leave the negativity at the door.” Over time they really start to understand and appreciate this, and I hear more and more guys saying, “Hey, I really like this present moment thing!”

Each week my partner reads aloud one chapter from Meditations from the Mat by Rolf Gates; he’s a recovering alcoholic and drug addict as well as a yoga teacher. Gates interprets the Yoga Sutras and relates them to his personal life in recovery. The clients connect with that, and it helps them realize they’re not alone. Gates’ story isn’t a fairytale; he’s a real person who suffered and lost everything and still found recovery. In class, I ask students to go inward and see what’s holding them back – the old things and old phrases that they’re beating themselves up about – and let that stuff go. Here, we do our “spring cleaning” internally. The students often ask for book recommendations, which I love to give. I’ve provided information for a couple of students who have gone onward to become yoga teachers themselves. We also talk about nutrition, the treatment process, and what it means to treat the whole body.

meditationThe yoga program at Phoenix House started as an experiment, but it’s really expanded. It used to be focused on gentle yoga only, but now we’ve also incorporated some faster-paced power yoga, which the clients love. It’s a natural high, and makes them feel great. We’ve done relaxation flows, massage, restorative yoga—it’s so funny to see these huge men set up for restorative yoga with their blankets and pillows, like they’re ready for a great big sleepover! We never skip savasana, the quiet rest at the end of the yoga practice. Sometimes they’ll stay lying down silent for 20 minutes.

At the end of class, we’ll do a very basic mantra in Sanskrit, explain what it means, talk about the syllables and the power of sound. It’s been an evolving process. Sometimes we stay after class to chat, or to help out if somebody is upset. It’s not a macho testosterone-fest at all, and it’s wonderful to see these individuals opening up to each other and to the practice of yoga.

We talk about what’s going to happen when the guys leave treatment, and they’re often terrified. But we plan for how they’ll continue to use yoga to improve their lives, and they start to become optimistic about the future. It’s all about letting them discover that there ARE alternatives to drug use, and Phoenix House gives them those alternatives. They walk away with the tools they need to bring what they’ve got here out into the world, to stay connected. That’s what yoga is about—that knowledge that even in our darkest moments, we’re connected.

Nancy Forstbauer
Yoga Teacher, Phoenix House



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  • Janis

    Hi…I’m a yoga teacher/recovering alcoholic/12 Stepper and am starting to teach a class, Yoga for Recovery from Addictions. Would you be willing to share what poses you emphasize to help those in recovery? I would greatly appreciate any ideas you have.

    Kind regards, Janis

  • ljohnson

    That’s great, Janis! We’ll try to pass your message on to Nancy to see if she can be of assistance. –Liana Johnson, Phoenix House

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