Yoga & Recovery: Q & A with Tommy Rosen

mbg Founder & Co-CEO By Jason Wachob
mbg Founder & Co-CEO

Jason Wachob is the Founder and Co-CEO of mindbodygreen and the author of Wellth.

Tommy Rosen is a leading authority on yoga, addiction and recovery with 20 years experience helping others to overcome addictions of every kind. (Plus, he's a really nice guy). Tommy is one of the pioneers in the relatively new field of 'Yoga and Recovery', which utilizes yoga and meditation to empower people to move beyond addiction and build fulfilling lives.

Tommy talks to us about his own journey and the power of yoga and meditation to transform lives.

MBG: Why do you think yoga has helped so many people recover from addiction?

TR: Truthfully, I do not think it has yet. Most people in recovery from addiction find themselves in 12-step programs. If we are talking about that population, I would say we haven’t yet scratched the surface. From my personal experience and interactions, an amazingly low percentage of people in 12-step programs practice yoga. I believe that is going to change. In fact, it is my mission to change this. Once people in recovery feel the incredible effects of yoga, they will gravitate to it in great numbers. After all, yoga taps into the endocrine system and the nervous system and gets things moving in the right direction. It produces a euphoric effect and if there is anything people in recovery can relate to its that euphoric effect. It makes you feel great. Except with yoga, your body is left strengthened, your mind calm and your connection to everything becomes clearer and sweeter. Yoga is a massive upgrade from drugs and alcohol. This cannot be overstated. You get everything you were searching for in the first place and no hangover. The only requirement is steadfast diligence and commitment to practice. If you have that the rewards come.

Now, if we are talking about people who struggle with addictions, big and small, who have never been in 12-step recovery, now that is quite another story. That population is much bigger than the 12-step population.You are talking, quite frankly, about the entire human race, nearly 7 billion people.

And, of course, there is not really a way to characterize these people. You cannot give them a designation like they are in 12-step recovery. I guess you could call them human beings. I am not trying to be funny here. I actually feel that addiction is that widespread and quite misunderstood especially in some of its less visible forms. I ask a lot of people what their addiction is. Many of them say they don’t have one. Then I give them my definition of addiction: Any behavior that you continue to engage in despite the negative consequences that the behavior leaves in its wake. If you are not addicted to The Big 5 – drugs, alcohol, food, sex or money. Then you might be dealing with what I call The 4 Aggravations: Resentment, Negative Thinking, Self-Doubt and Procrastination. These “less harmful” addictions sap us of our energy, cause lots of damage and must be faced in order for us to live a life of fulfillment and to heal ourselves and the world. 

So, that is all a long-winded way of saying that we are at the beginning of putting yoga and meditation into mainstream use as tools to fight and overcome addictions of all kinds.

How has yoga helped you personally recover?

You could write a book covering the answer to this question and I have. It is called Recovery 2.0: Using Yoga and Meditation to Overcome Addiction and It will be out this year. Here is an excerpt from it: 

The 12 steps gave me a foundation, “a blueprint”, as they say, for living a fulfilling life. I certainly did not have such a blueprint before I arrived in rehab at Hazelden in 1989, nor did I have the power and ability to adopt a set of rules and tools into my life.Yet, day by day, with the support and love of many, many people and the willingness to try things a different way, my life started to change in miraculous ways just as is promised within the doctrines of the program.

Nonetheless, the day would come years later in my recovery where my way of thinking and reacting to life would result in several emotional bottoms that would leave me utterly crushed. The 12 steps had laid a foundation for my recovery, but there was inner work I needed to get to that required something else. I simply required other tools, other guides and other technologies to get deep enough into my body, into my mind, subconscious and spirit to move through the stuck-ness I was feeling and transform myself into the person I wanted to be. I was being pulled toward the deep, powerful well of Vinyasa Flow, Kundalini Yoga and meditation.

In yoga, I found a way to get the issues out of my tissues and to transform myself at a deep level. I feel like I no longer think the same way I used to, that my entire being has been lifted up to a higher frequency if you will. I feel strong, vital and have the energy to pass it on, which is the greatest gift ever.

Can you talk about how you first came to yoga? How/when did you know that yoga was such a powerful tool for recovery?

I first came to yoga in 1991. I walked off the street into Janet Macleod’s Iyengar class in San Francisco. I had never seen a person move with so much freedom. I wanted that right away. Over the years, I experienced many different forms of Yoga – Bikram, Iyengar, Ashtanga, Vinyasa Flow – but it was not until I encountered the transformational power of Kundalini Yoga that I fully got the connection between Yoga and Recovery. That was 2003. I had just found my life teacher, Guruprem Singh Khalsa. We met once a week for about 5 years. It was a kind of modern day apprenticeship. He taught me how to breathe and how to move well through time and space. He taught me about women, money and God. You know, the usual suspects. I was so blessed and got a chance to truly grow beyond addiction.

Your 'Yoga for Recovery' class is part yoga/meditation/inspirational philosophy/group share -- why do you think this combo works?

I believe strongly that Asana practice, getting into the body, connecting with the breath, detoxing and strengthening all the systems is a key to living a great life.

And, of course, in these crazy times, meditation is required for anyone who hopes to remain sane amidst the madness. We now take in about as much information in a single month as people 100 years ago used to in their entire lives. That’s astonishing. Without quiet, stillness, intention to connect deeply, it is tough if not impossible to think well and live well.

Philosophy is inspiration for us all. If we drop some Rumi poetry or delve into The Yoga Sutras, those words can act as catalysts to further understanding of oneself. The words are signposts, which inspire and direct us toward many “aha” moments.

As for the group share, this is central to recovery. One person sharing from the heart about what is really going on for them. Others listening with open hearts and reflecting back on their own experience. Practicing together and then sharing at that level is powerful. We’re talking about the development of a new kind of recovery community uplifting each other with the powerful technologies of yoga and meditation clearing the way for a joyous life beyond addiction.

Are certain types of yoga -- or certain poses -- better for recovery than others?

With regards to addiction recovery, which is really all about transformation, I feel that Kundalini Yoga offers the quickest way to get there. Of course, all forms of yoga really offer something that the other forms do not. Kundalini may focus more on the movement of energy and subtle body work, but if overall total physical health is what you are after, then, in my opinion, you would definitely want to add an Asana practice into the mix. Sweat everyday. Connect with the body and breath everyday. Laugh everyday. These are important parts of recovery. I have found the combination of Kundalini and Ashtanga or Iyengar-based Asana practice to be super-powerful agents in recovery. They stack the odds in our favor. And let’s face it, when we are talking about addiction, the odds are squarely against us.

There are countless specific poses, kriyas and meditations that address addiction directly. In Asana practice, forward folds can be very calming and centering, blood comes into the head creating a sense of renewal and mental clarity. Twisting helps us to move stuck emotional energy and detoxify the organ systems. Backbends build confidence and vitality. As for meditation, where do I begin? I love to teach the meditation for stress relief and to clear past emotion. It’s a simple breath – inhale 5, hold for 5 exhale for 5. The hands are held in front of the heart with each fingertip on one hand touching its counterpart on the other. Do this breath for 11 minutes a day for 40 days and you will no longer have to wonder if meditation is helpful for people in recovery.

What can yoga offer that other recovery groups/programs can't?

The energy of addiction and all its causes lives in the body. It is with us all the time no matter what until we do the physical work necessary to get it out of our tissues. This requires more than putting down drugs and alcohol. This requires a scientific approach developed over thousands of years and it is called yoga.

Then, once it is out we can begin the daily maintenance process of detoxifying and clearing new energies that come up. This is the process of true recovery. This is what we do when we get on the yoga mat. We connect with our body and breath. We clear energy and get present. We strengthen and develop flexibility and most of all we center ourselves in our Self.

Yoga and relationships -- do you think yoga is also a tool to strengthen relationships?

There are 3 principal relationships – relationship to self, to others and to God (whatever your understanding of that might be). At the physical level, our bodies change when we practice yoga. At the mental level, our thinking changes. Naturally, all our relationships will evolve as we evolve through our yoga practice. Yoga is definitely a tool, which can help strengthen relationships, but it is not automatic. A practitioner has to work at bringing awareness to their behavior. Anyone can try to put their body into yoga poses, but it is the attention they bring to the practice that will affect the outcome of the practice.

How has your practice evolved? What's challenging? What's easy?

There was a time when Downward Dog was painful and difficult for me. Teachers used to say, “This is supposed to be a rest pose,” but at the beginning, that was an impossible concept to understand. I can also remember what an eternity 90 minutes felt like. I think I actually asked a yoga teacher once where the clock was. Hahahaha. I do not experience it that way any longer. For many years I practiced yoga very on and off. It was important, though, that I did that work. Perhaps, it got me ready to take it to a deeper level.

Yoga is now as challenging as ever, but in different ways. I am working on things, which are as hard for me today as those first downward dogs were years ago. This reminds me of my teacher’s words, “We are all beginners to our next step.” I’m also 44 and not 24. My priorities on the mat have changed drastically. Now, I’m interested in seeing if I can move through a class and not lose track of a single breath or try to remain in full awareness of my entire being for 90 minutes. So far, I’m at about 15 seconds, up recently from 14 seconds. 

I encourage everyone to hang in there and show up each day to see what is there. Through practice and observation, as Pattabi Jois put it, “Everything is coming.”

What are you currently working on? What's next?

The first installments of my DVD series, Recovery 2.0, will be edited this July. I am looking for a distributor for that and a publisher for the book, Recovery 2.0. Once these products are out there, people in recovery will hopefully have access to these teachings in language they really resonate with.

And of course, more practice, more practice and more practice.

For more on Tommy Rosen: (Sign up for The Forklift Newsletter)

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