Four teenagers unroll yoga mats in the common area of the East Coast drug rehabilitation center they currently call home. They’re ready for their Sunday afternoon vinyasa flow. Today, they seem tired. One of the teens, Vicki (name changed to preserve confidentiality), requests a gentle practice. She
emphasizes: “No downward dogs!”
I tell them I’ll happily oblige. Working with recovering addicts, you quickly learn to meet them where they’re at. They can be cooperative on some days and challenging, if not downright defiant, on others. Patience is tested. Compassion is key.
Vicki has been living in the addiction recovery unit for several months. Her care team estimates it will be several more before she’s ready for release. The eldest child in a large family, she is estranged from her siblings. This rehabilitation unit is the end of the line for her. Her fellow addicts in recovery: Lindsay, Morgan, and Tyrone, join her for yoga every Sunday afternoon. This is her sangha, or spiritual community. Still, treatment is a time of transition, and healing can be peppered with moments of loss. Vicki’s closest friend, Lindsay, is leaving the unit in a week: her treatment team has determined that she’s ready. Vicki will undoubtedly feel her absence — we all will. If Lindsay continues along a path of recovery outside of the unit, then and only then will she have a chance at a decent life.
Research suggests that the tools learned in yoga can beautifully supplement an addict’s recovery program, as the addict learns to detach from old behaviors and find new ways of living. By weaving together body, mind, and breath, the yoga practitioner learns to accept the present moment, no matter what challenges arise.
“We each have our stories,” I remind the teens as we begin our practice. Many of these stories include elements of self-destruction, disrespect, and even violence. Key concepts in yoga counterbalance old attitudes and behaviors, bringing self-awareness, compassion, and non-violence to the table (or the mat, in this case).
During the few months that we have worked together, I’ve come to see this group of teens as modern-day warriors. They’re facing demons at an age when many of their peers are studying for exams, going out on dates, and learning to drive. Not yet 18, they’ve seen fellow addicts die of the disease that brought them to this recovery unit in the first place.
By learning the principles of yoga, these young warriors add peaceful weapons to their artillery. Maintaining a balanced mind, strong body, and breath awareness works in direct contrast to the racing thoughts, weakened immune systems, and incorrect breathing patterns so common among addicts during their years of self-abuse.
Yogic principles learned on the mat can be transferred to daily life. In Uttanasana, Forward Fold, we learn about surrender. Letting the head, torso, and arms relax over the legs, finding movement and connecting with the breath, we allow prana, life energy, to nourish the brain, chest, and fingertips. We gaze through the world from an upside-down point of view, accepting this moment and releasing the need to control.
In Tree Pose, Vrksasana, we learn that it’s okay to find movement: trees sway in the wind. During powerful storms, it’s this swaying motion that keeps tree trunks from snapping. To remain flexible in body and mind, life no longer feels like such a struggle. When things don’t go our way, we’re less likely to get bent out of shape.
Yoga is not a miracle cure. It can’t take away the suffering that comes hand-in-hand with life in a human body: illness, disappointment, loss and aging come to many. What yoga can do is help remove layers of attachment to this suffering. When holding a difficult asana, yoga pose, for an extended period of time, one may feel a sensation of pulling or tightness in a certain muscle group. The breath may grow louder and more strained. But the moment passes. The pose is released and one finds an immediate sense of relief.
Learning to stay present in each moment, accepting emotions as they come and remembering that these emotions will pass, we begin to see our own suffering as impermanent. When drug cravings return, as surely they will during times of stress, these young yogis can choose to connect with their breaths, to feel their connection to the earth, and to feel a sense of being supported by something larger than themselves.
As we come to the end of our practice and find a restorative Child’s Pose, Balasana, a line from Max Ehrmann’s ‘Desiderata’ comes into my mind:
“You are a child of the universe,
no less than the trees and the stars;
you have a right to be here.
And whether or not it is clear to you,
no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.”
I hope that these teens keep shining. May their light grow brighter with each day that passes, chasing away the darkness that brought them here in the first place.
Please note: the above piece was inspired by recent service work with Root to Rise NJ, whose mission is to “break the stigma associated with addiction by pushing the limits of what is physically and mentally possible.” All names and identifying details were changed to preserve confidentiality.
Image found at Wikimedia Commons