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12-Step-Style Yoga for Addiction and Depression

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2014-03-09-SuzulaBidon.jpegThis is an interview with Suzula Bidon, a certified yoga teacher, an addict in recovery (working on six years), an Ivy League graduate (Barnard/Columbia), a third-year law student (on the Dean's List), and a federal ex-felon (30 months for a conspiracy drug charge). Orange is the New Black indeed!

In the course of Suzula's recovery from addiction and depression, she found that 12-Step programs provide a solid framework for healing mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. However, they don't always offer tools for physical healing, or for reconnecting the mind and spirit with the body.

She has developed a sequence of yoga postures that embodies the spiritual principles of 12-Step recovery. She teaches that sequence in Minnesota to people in recovery twice a week. She is also a certified student attorney, and volunteers time helping women reentering society from prison (most of whom are addicts) with their civil legal matters (custody, parenting time, evictions). She also does pro bono defense work in Ramsey County Mental Health Court, a diversionary/specialty court. In an odd twist, the Minnesota Corrections Department won't let her into prisons to teach yoga. Before she couldn't get out; now she can't get in!

Rob: What originally motivated you to do yoga service?

My personal experience with addiction and recovery is the motivation for all of the service I do. I know what the hell of addiction feels like. I know the debilitating shame and hopelessness of disconnection. I know how overwhelming and impossible the prospect of recovery -- hell, even just getting out of bed and facing the day without a chemical crutch -- can be in active addiction.

Fortunately, I have experienced the miracle of recovery. I know that I can only keep what I have by giving it away. I now live a full, rich life that continues to fulfill and surpass my biggest hopes and dreams for myself. If it weren't for the service and community of others in recovery, I wouldn't have the life I have today.

At 12-Step meetings, it is often a warm, sincere welcome that determines whether or not a newcomer will stay or come back to the meeting. I do yoga service because I want to be that person -- that influence -- when it comes to yoga. Physical fitness is intimidating. It takes courage to show up for class and try something new. Yoga in particular carries this mystical aura that can keep new students from trying it out. I de-mystify "capital Y" yoga; I make it accessible. By stretching and breathing with the 12 Steps as an underlying theme, I help people in recovery reconnect with their bodies.

What continues to motivate you?

Yoga, and the way I pair poses with the spiritual principles of 12-Step recovery, has given me a new understanding of the 12 Steps, and a sense of physical connection and mind-body wholeness that I was missing until I returned to the practice of yoga. Because I'm a member of the population I teach, my own experience motivates me.

What keeps me teaching recovery yoga is that I know it works, and I know it offers something I didn't get from the 12 Steps alone. Yoga reconciled me with my body, and gave me physical tools I can use to reconnect the various aspects of myself. Any psychological or emotional disruption is manageable with breath. When something throws me out of balance, my physical experience of yoga is like muscle memory. I know I can lose and find myself during yoga, so why can't I do the same thing in my life?

Another way to say this is that yoga allows me to physically process disconnection and discomfort. It teaches me that I can survive discomfort. In active addiction, there was a chasm between my head and my heart. I knew drugs were addictive, but my psychological pain was so great, I didn't care. All I knew was that substance X made me feel better, and made existing in my own skin bearable. I hope to show other addicts the power of yoga to connect head and heart and body, so that substance X can't gain a toehold.

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

Yes. In my classes we have an anonymous check-in share before class. I encourage my students to go deep; I suggest they share something they are working on or struggling with, something to which they can dedicate their physical practice during class. I usually share first to establish a safe space and lead by example. I am consistently moved by the insight and candor of my students.

In one of my early classes, we went around the studio sharing before class, and as usual, people were breathtakingly honest and open about their inner lives. Then we practiced yoga for an hour, and ended practice with the serenity prayer. I opened the floor for our "check-out," in which students can share anything that came up for them, give me feedback, etc. A few students shared, and then we came to the one student who was new to class, and with awe in her voice and tears in her eyes she said, "You guys really do it. You don't just talk about it; you really work a 12- Step program." Her reaction is why I teach. It is such an honor to be granted the opportunity to really see my students being themselves, and taking the risk to be seen.

What did you know about the population you are working with, before you began teaching?

I am a member of the population I teach.

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

Be real. Be authentic, genuine, engaged, and emotionally present. Creating a safe space for students is critical. If they sense any judgment or insincerity from the teacher, they will clam up and withhold their emotional vulnerability. Their willingness to expose their raw spots is what makes group physical yoga practice so effective for recovering addicts.

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

I love flash mobs. I would like to organize service yoga flash mobs.

What organizations do you admire?

I love what Nikki Meyers is doing with Y12SR. She has built up a grass-roots network of 12- Step meetings that incorporate yoga.

Off the Mat is another group that is bringing yoga to underserved populations that are especially in need of tools to foster psychological well-being and mind-body connection.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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Are you a yoga instructor giving back to underserved populations? E-mail Executive Director Rob Schware if you're interested in being interviewed for this series. Thanks for all that you do in the name of service!

Photo courtesy of Suzula Bidon