The Healing Power of Yoga in Recovery
Updated: Feb 25, 2022
Through yoga, we all have the power to heal and reclaim our true authenticity. When I first entered into recovery, I knew I would be facing a devastating divorce after 23 years of marriage and was terrified of my unknown future. How was I going to navigate a new life that was absolutely foreign to me and deal with the pain of loss without numbing myself? I honestly didn’t even know who I was anymore. My life was centered around my marriage and raising kids. What started out as a lot of fun progressed into addiction, created out of the loss of my self-worth and unhappiness too powerful to deal with in reality. I was stuck hitting the replay button of “Why me? Why is this happening?” I had dabbled around with yoga throughout the years and decided that it would be worth a try to heal my fried nervous system and somehow get me through what was ahead. My first few yoga classes at an athletic club showed me that there was a lot I could learn, and I liked the challenge of that. It felt good to stretch and push myself even though I could barely stand on one leg. I had been a somewhat competitive athlete in most of my adult years, racing in triathlons, marathons, and the Pole, Pedal, Paddle, so I always assumed that yoga wasn’t challenging enough. Wow, was I wrong! It was hard, but the results were profoundly inspiring. I started to feel healthier and stronger. My head was clearing, and I felt uplifted instead of doomed. I ended up following a teacher I really connected with to Namaspa. She had this beautiful, spiritual quality about her, and I wanted what she had. Namaspa felt like home, and I became a part of a community that welcomed me in and encouraged me to grow. As I reclaimed my sense of self and personal power, I could see how I had been sabotaging my life. Something in me was waking up. I felt alive with hope and courage. Brené Brown says, “When you deny your story, it defines you. When you own your own story, you can write a brave new ending.” When I accepted life on life’s terms and owned my own story, I knew I was coming back home to who I always was. The addition of yoga to my work in recovery became my refuge and strength as I walked through the profound uncertainty of starting over. With the simplicity of tuning into my breath and movement of my body, I melted away layers of resistance, found clarity, and embraced the reality of my life. Yoga gave me the gift of courage, well-being, and hope. Addiction creates chaos in the mind and body. Even when the cycle of addiction stops, the chaos doesn't just magically go away. The practices of meditation and yoga evoke observation of the churning mind, surrender to what can’t be controlled, and navigation of the “middle line” instead of dramatic peaks and valleys. There are still disappointments, but we can learn to embrace what comes and goes, move through resistance, and love how beautifully unique our path is. Once I stopped clinging to old thought patterns and beliefs and released old emotions that were occupying my body, I found an amazing sense of freedom. Recovery and yoga blend together to create a powerful practice of inquiry, acceptance, and healing in every aspect of our being. Yoga physically and energetically rinses out “the issues in the tissues.” It moves stuck energy and promotes healing. Our life experiences not only become a part of our memory in the mind, they also become a memory in our physicality as well. In active addiction, our bodies are in the high alert phase of flight or flight and seldom return to homeostasis, causing disease and an overwhelmed nervous system. With focus and breath, areas in our minds and bodies that are blocked can be opened, and a sense of space, release, and calm becomes accessible. Yoga can teach us non-reactivity in the midst of life’s storms. When we stay in a pose, or just on our mat, even when it’s uncomfortable, and resist the urge to escape as we did in addiction, there’s something really beautiful and empowering on the other side of that. Thoughts and emotions bubble up, which creates an opportunity to observe, inquire, and let go of what's heavy, moving from numbing out to allowing ourselves to feel. If we can break through the darkness of our protective shield that spurs us into the isolation of addiction, let ourselves be vulnerable and open to let light in, we start the process of healing. We change our relationship with fear as we realize that “this too shall pass.” Each time I returned to my mat, I opened up a little more, let life flow through me, and created space for grace to come in. I was empowered to handle my divorce by taking what I considered to be the high road, which I never could have mustered had I not been able to look at life through the lens of yoga and recovery. This was the moment in my recovery where I moved from fear to love. Blending yoga and recovery opens us up to a powerful new way to live life with joy and serenity. We no longer stay sober based on fear of the past. We stay sober out of love for life. By the end of my first month of being on my mat, I knew that I wanted to become a yoga teacher and share this incredible gift with those who were suffering. As part of my teacher training, we were asked to write an essay comparing the Yoga Sutras to a spiritual text. When I was pondering what I wanted to compare the sutras to, I thought about how much my life had changed since I chose to be a sober woman. I made yoga a part of my recovery simultaneously with AA. Both have enabled me to follow a path to my own realization and transformation that I couldn’t have imagined. I have been able to go through adversity with grace and peace of mind. I am evolving into the person I know is really me. I love how the Yoga Sutras challenge me by making me dig deeper. It requires a lot of excavation to see what’s under all the junk that’s accumulated over the years! This path of discovery is also the path of recovery, and the more I learn, the more I see how much they have in common with the 12 Steps. So I chose the Big Book of AA as my text of spiritual comparison. The steps ask us to admit what we’re powerless over, surrender, believe that there’s hope, continue to do inventory, apologize for our mistakes, and help others. As I continue doing those things, I feel peace and joy. Both the sutras and the steps go hand in hand, weaving together to create this beautiful tapestry I call my life. “God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” The Serenity Prayer is my daily mantra on and off the mat. Faith, energy, mindfulness, and wisdom form the path to realization. Faith allows me to believe that I’m not in charge of everything, and I don’t have to react to the circumstances around me. I feel peace when I let go of trying to control what I cannot. Mindfulness is choosing to be still and letting things be. And wisdom is seeing things as they are in their purest sense without forming judgment. The sutras embody all, giving us the ability to choose inner peace and serenity. With yoga and sobriety, I am cultivating the art of making right decisions based on asking myself, “Is this going to enhance my serenity or draw away from it?” The Big Book suggests that we relax and take it easy instead of struggling to control. As quoted in the movie The Legend of Bagger Vance, “There’s a shot out there for every one of us. All we have to do is get ourselves out of the way, and it will come to us.” Our brains are quick to fire, but if we slow down, pause, and breathe, we can come from a place of response instead of reaction. The quality of our relationships, including the one with ourselves, is dependent on the length of our pause. Therefore, Recovery Yoga was born. It’s a donation-based class that we created from scratch by integrating yoga with the 12 Steps. We begin with meditation and sharing and follow with a gentle flow to allow students, many of whom have never done yoga before, to simply experience what is present in their own bodies. Recovery Yoga is a space to meet who you are on your mat with the safety of non-judgment and confidentiality. The Namaspa Foundation was formed to help pay for teachers to offer this healing class to treatment centers, shelters, jails, and those who wouldn’t otherwise have access to yoga. There is also a Recovery Yoga Book Club being held by Namaspa teachers via Livestream on Wednesdays at 6:00 pm. Yoga teaches us how to be at home with ourselves and how to be present one breath at a time. It shows us how to move through discomfort while resisting the urge to numb out and also how to move through joy without attachment. Acceptance is an ongoing quest. It doesn’t mean settling. Acceptance means living in reality and making the best of what is. It enables us to choose who we want to be now. It’s never too late to do the hard work of growing up. It can happen by making small changes one day at a time, and before you know it, you find yourself enjoying a life that you imagined!
We get to be the light-keepers and illuminate the road ahead.
If you’re in recovery or even just considering it, I encourage you to try yoga as a part of your healing and transformation. You don’t have to be super bendy or shaped a certain way or be a certain age. It is for every body, and all you have to do is be willing to get on your mat and breathe. It will enhance your life and bring you home to the beautiful and radiant being that you are.