Yoga, Teaching and Recovery

Yoga, Teaching and RecoveryI’ve been practicing yoga for 27 years, almost as long as I’ve been in recovery from alcohol and substance abuse. I’ve been a yoga teacher for almost as long as I’ve been in recovery—just short of two decades. These three streams of my life—yoga practice, yoga teaching and recovery—have followed parallel, complementary and mutually beneficial paths: my yoga teaching informs my yoga practice, my yoga practice informs my recovery and my recovery in turn informs both my yoga practice and my yoga teaching.

I came to my recovery by necessity when I was near bottom in my early 20s; I came to my yoga practice through the side door, while in rehearsals for a drama club play in high school, and I came to yoga teaching as a means of putting food on the table: believe it or not, it was the only immediately marketable skill I had when I graduated from a small theater school in Northern California with a degree in physical acting styles. One thing I love about yoga (unlike my degree in theater) is that it’s eminently practical. The lessons I learn from yoga, like those I learn from recovery, are really basic tools for life.

Not only does yoga keep my body healthy and strong, but it also gives me psychological and emotional coping skills that make the path to recovery seem less daunting and even a joy, which I’m able to embrace with a grateful attitude. This article will focus on the practice of one yoga posture—Tadasana, the Mountain Pose—and discuss its practical application in recovery and everyday life. This posture is meant to be practiced by itself and used either as a brief physical check-in for your body or as a solo meditation to calm your nerves and soothe your mind.

Tadasana: Stand Like a Mountain

The wonderful thing about Tadasana is that you can practice it almost anywhere and at almost any time. You can practice while waiting in line at the grocery store or the bank, while watching your child at the playground, or you can practice it for its own sake as a deep and personal meditation in the privacy of your own home. All you need is a little knowledge (presented below), a little bit of focus and a little bit of time.

  1. To begin, stand with your feet shoulder distance apart and your feet parallel, i.e. toes facing forward—not pigeon-toed in and not turned out, but straight ahead as if they were glued to a pair of railroad tracks.
  2. Relax and begin to focus on your breathing. If it’s comfortable to do so, breathe in and out through the nose on a slow four-count in and a slow four-count out. As you get more practice, expand the count to six in and six out and then eight in and eight out, but at the beginning just start with four slow, even breaths. Also, if breathing in and out through your noses is difficult, just breathe in a manner that is natural and comfortable.
  3. Keep your knees straight, but not locked. The shin bones should be tilted forward ever so slightly.
  4. Relax your pelvis. Allow your lower back to lengthen, and feel free—do this by tucking your tailbone just a tad. Don’t tuck too much; just enough to lengthen your lower back.
  5. Lengthen your torso—the front, back and sides. Open your chest so that your sternum, or the bone between your chest muscles where your ribs meet, tilts toward the sky.
  6. Roll your shoulders in nice, luxurious circles a few times forward and a few times back, and then let them relax completely—but don’t slouch.
  7. Relax your neck and reach the top of your head up. Imagine a string attached to the crown of your head, gently lifting you up. Look straight ahead with your gaze at eye level.
  8. Tuck your chin ever so slightly in order to gently lengthen the back of your neck. Relax the muscles of your head and face—including your jaw, cheeks, the muscles around your eye sockets and your tongue.
  9. Allow your arms to hang loose by your sides with the hands completely free of tension.
  10. Once you get here, go through the steps again. After you get a little bit of practice, the steps will happen automatically and you can take this shortcut: think of your head in line with your spine, which is in line with your tailbone, and then think of your shoulders resting above your hips, which are directly over your knees, which are in line with your feet and toes.

Once comfortable in this posture, bring your attention to your breathing and let your eyes close (don’t do this part if you’re standing in line at the store!). Focus on your abdomen. Allow the breath to move in and out, easily and comfortably. If you can maintain your attention on your lower abdomen for 10 breaths in and out, expand your attention to the top of your head and the soles of your feet—in effect, your entire body. Let your mind receive the information your body gives you without judgment. Simply observe and let it be. If you can maintain your attention on your entire body for 10 breaths in and out, expand your attention past your body to the room around you while your eyes remain closed. Keep your attention on the room for 10 breaths and then, step-wise, bring your attention, in concert with your breathing, back in—first return your attention to your body for 10 breaths, then back to your abdomen for 10 breaths. Finally, open your eyes and check back in with your Tadasana by following steps one through nine, above.

Lessons From Tadasana, Lessons for Recovery

When I stand in Tadasana, I imagine myself strong and firm, unmovable, like a mountain. The pose has taught me that at any given time, I can access a sense of calm, stillness and centeredness within myself. I’ve shared this with hundreds of yoga students over the years and watched the light bulb click on over their heads one by one as they gradually understand why I spend so much time focusing on this one deceptively simple posture. It’s no exaggeration to say that Tadasana is the true foundation of my yoga. Learning to be still and quiet in my body has taught me to be still and quiet in my mind and emotions. Tadasana teaches me that as I practice the unity of body, breath and mind, I slowly gain the tools to soothe myself without the use of alcohol or substances—and that’s the ultimate goal of my recovery. In this way, the three streams of my life—my yoga practice, my yoga teaching and my recovery—all flow into one, cohesive whole. Although I may look a little funny sometimes standing in line at the convenience store lengthening my spine and relaxing my shoulders, it doesn’t matter: I know I’m doing the right thing, in the right way and at just the right time.

By Angus Whyte

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