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Integrating Yoga Into Personal Recovery and 12-Step Work

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This is an interview with Laura Cobb, a certified yoga instructor, personal trainer, and alcoholic. Laura started drinking in her 30s after living in Germany for eight years with her then-active-duty army husband. After learning she was pregnant and having a baby, she moved to Chicago, where she had grown up. Her drinking got so bad there she had to go into rehab twice. Always a fitness fan, she wanted to share her yoga. Now she's teaching yoga for income and also for service, having integrated yoga into her own recovery and 12-step work. Says Laura, "Turning things over on the mat and staying with my feelings has been a huge part of my recovery process. My yoga practice is as important as having a sponsor, working the steps, and attending meetings."

What originally motivated you to do yoga service, and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

It's part of the12-step work. I teach at "soberfest" -type events and retreats. What keeps me motivated is just offering some semblance of what yoga and the process of discovery has given me. Yoga is an adjunct to my recovery, as it allows me to explore my feelings on the mat, and breathe through the process of what I am feeling. After eight months of sobriety, I needed more in terms of recovery in order to grow. It's now been almost two years of sobriety. Yoga is meditation in motion, a way to check into my bodily sensations and emotions. Whatever comes up emotionally or physically on the mat encourages me to just sit with the feelings and physical sensations.

The motivation hasn't changed over time. Even when someone doesn't come to a class, I continue with my own recovery by showing up. Each time I arrive to the mat I offer myself my "blank slate," which is similar to how I show up at the 5 a.m. meeting I chair at my local fellowship. Sometimes no one comes for such an early meeting, so I take that opportunity to either practice and meditate or engage in my own recovery process at the fellowship by reading or meditating. Regardless, I show up for my responsibilities and try to be present for other AAs or students. I suppose this is like sponsorship: I tell my story, and I help other yogis understand their story and honor that.

Being of service is not about me. It helps in my sobriety, but often gets me out of myself. The joy of the process of recovery is in the journey, and not the destination. Likewise, with yoga, the joy is in the process of seeing what comes up on the mat and seeing where it takes me, rather than "getting" a certain pose. Nowadays, I'm simply motivated to see how my own yoga practice and that of my students allows us to respond to daily life by breathing and staying present through the physical sensations that come up.

Is there a standout moment from your work with recovering addicts?

Not really. I believe that everyone who comes to yoga is searching for something. Maybe it's a release of emotions or something physical. The most gratifying experience is when someone has an emotional reaction while in a posture (usually savasana, corpse pose). Even when I do not feel I facilitated a class very well -- that is, I was not as present as I could have been -- students say I have offered a safe and sacred place for them to experience their own sensations on the mat. What other moments do you need?

What did you know about alcoholics and people in recovery before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population, and how have those assumptions changed?

I always assume that everyone is dealing with something. However, as a licensed professional counselor I try to use specific language to encourage students to take any expression within a pose that feels right for them. If it feels good, they are able to release stress and tension, and their breath is without struggle, then I'm doing my job.

What has been the greatest challenge in your teaching experience, and what tools have you developed for addressing that challenge?

Realizing that if students do not show for a class, I cannot take it personally. I cannot control how many students or the level of experience a student has who comes to my class. As such, this is similar to sponsorship or working the 12th step. I cannot want recovery or progress in yoga more than the students. If students show up (or sponsees work), their progress will reflect this.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach yoga to people in recovery from addictions?

The process should be organic and flow with whatever comes up on the mat. Teachers need to realize that we are facilitators of the class with specific knowledge of structural alignment and adhere to the concept of "do no harm." Keep the best interests of each student at heart and the process and journey will unfold in time, according to something greater than themselves.

Recovery and the yogic journey happens over time. One day a student may "fly" in crow and the effort won't seem as challenging.

What are some of your ideas about or hopes for the future of "service yoga" in America in the next decade?

My hopes for "service yoga" in the future is for more teachers to offer opportunities for students to explore their own personal practice with integrity, rather than adhering to a program prescribed for them. Each person is different. That is the beauty of yoga (and recovery). There is no "perfect" pose, just as there is no perfect program. As long as we are rigorously honest with ourselves on the mat, the process will unfold.

How has this work changed your definition of service? Your definition of yoga? Your practice?

My definition of yoga is the union of breath and movement along with traveling organically throughout the journey. If it doesn't feel "right" then it is unlikely to be in the best interest of the practice. Likewise, if students clean up their side of the street (stay present and honest on the mat without judgement or expectation of themselves or others), there is integrity. Their mat/house is clean and all will fall into place.

What organizations do you admire?

I admire Yoga Alliance for maintaining rigorous certification standards. I also respect the Yoga of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) program, which is meshing together yoga and recovery.

Editor: Alice Trembour

Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved or un-served populations? Email if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thank you for all you do in the name of service!

My health is looked after by a wonderful yoga studio, the Yoga Pod. And their teachers are bringing yoga to many unserved populations after completing the Yoga Pod Seva Teacher Training. Check out their fall intensive program:

Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans Recovering from Trauma, a collection of simple but effective yoga practices developed by Suzanne Manafort and Dr. Daniel Libby through practical and clinical experience working with veterans coping with PTSD and other psycho-emotional stress. While benefiting trauma patients safely and comfortably, the practices can be used by anyone dealing with stress.

The Give Back Yoga Foundation is making this manual available free to veterans and VA hospitals. It is also available on the GBYF website, and the Mindful Yoga Therapy for Veterans new website if you would like to purchase the book and support free distribution to veterans. This practice guide includes a supplement (poster-size) of the yoga practices.