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Yoga Service: The Key to Sobriety

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This is an interview with Kyczy Hawk, who started teaching yoga at treatment centers in the Bay area of San Francisco in 2008. She became an Art of Yoga volunteer in 2009, and a staff member from 2010 through early 2012. Since 2010 she has been a Niroga Institute teacher, and volunteers at Elmwood Correctional Jail (in Santa Clara County, Calif.). In 2010 she became a certified teacher and space holder for Yoga of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR) meeting and yoga classes in studios and church basements, as well as treatment centers. She is paid for some classes, some have gone from volunteer to paid positions, and some continue on a volunteer basis. For those interested, Kyczy holds workshops and co-leads a certification course called SOAR (Success Over Addiction and Relapse), teaching with Kent Bond, owner and founder of Willow Glen Yoga in San Jose, Calif. She is the author of "Yoga and the Twelve Step Path" (CRP, April 2012).

Rob: What originally motivated you to do this work and what continues to motivate you? How, if at all, has that motivation changed over time?

My first experiences on the mat in person with a teacher saved me from relapse. Exhausted emotionally, physically and spiritually, I had run out of internal resources to care for myself. There were layers of pain, shame and guilt about my active addiction years that kept surfacing. Feelings were trapped in my body. The best efforts of my 12-step program could not touch them. My yoga practice reached these places, releasing tension and trauma. Yoga philosophy enhanced and re-invigorated my 12-step program. As I healed, I thought that this practice could benefit other people in recovery. Then I sought out further training in order to bring this practice to others.

Is there a standout moment from your work with Y12SR?

Teaching there has presented me with ongoing experience of how much yoga has to offer people in recovery. A lot of people in long-term sobriety love the discussions that occur, as they build upon the program principles and reframes them in another useful way. The physical practice gets at the tensions from the past held in our bodies and addresses those of daily living. The reason I enjoy that group is that I see the same people for a long period of time.

I also get phenomenal positive feedback from my work in treatment centers. From the moment participants express having better sleep and being able to relax, to using the breath to make better choices and decrease negative impulses -- their spontaneous endorsements let me know I've chosen a useful service path.

What did you know about the population you are working with, before you began teaching? What were some of the assumptions you had about this population and how, if at all, have those assumptions changed?

As a woman in recovery, I know something about the ravages of addiction. I learned about the power of yoga in my relapse prevention when I started the practice in my seventeenth year of sobriety. I started with my own experience of quiet breathing, physical challenge and enhancement of my spiritual condition. I progressed in my ability to discern healthy relaxation/tension release from a feeling of boredom or being tired. I wanted to bring these tools to people in recovery. But I was too passionate and too "studio yoga" in my delivery style. I had to learn quickly to meet people where they were and to resist the fire hose of enthusiasm and information (the head-based practice) and to offer students respite (a somatic-based practice). It just all works better when I listen rather than tell.

What are two distinct ways that your teaching style differs from the way you might teach in a studio and what are the reasons for these differences?

Language usage and body awareness are two pieces of my style that are unique to my teaching.

I teach a trauma-informed class that is highly somatically-based. Breath, sensing the body, working within a healthy capacity and adequate savasana (rest pose) are important to all yoga classes, but detailed attention and reminders are ultra-important for the recovering population. In treatment centers and jails, people may have shut down completely, either out of prior life experiences or to keep themselves safe where they are. Bodies can be riddled with tension and blocks that have arisen out of negative life experiences. Choice of pose and use of language are also very important to allow the students to feel safe, reduce a sense of vulnerability, and to be mindful of triggers -- words or phrases that can re-invoke trauma, situations of using, or participating in addictive behaviors.

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

There have been two challenges. The first had to do with expectations. When I started teaching classes, I expected to teach yoga poses. It turned out that I really needed to teach the all of it, the point of yoga, the breath, the release and the unity of yoga. When I teach I stick to what I think of as the "health, safety, and purpose" of the poses, rather than the extreme or the hard "working the edge" of the poses. My wish is that every student leave the mat with a sense of mastery and competence. As recovering addicts, we need to do estimable things to find self-esteem. Practicing yoga with compassionate intent is an estimable act.

The other challenge is self-care and recharging. Outside of my personal practice, which is by nature solitary, I find support in my recovery community and in yoga teachers who teach similar groups, therapeutic yoga of all types. The other part of that challenge is isolation... Most of my classes are in centers or facilities so I don't have the community of the studio tribe to help re-nurture me. This requires an active effort to reach out and to take care of myself.

What advice would you give to anyone who is going to teach in the population that you work with?

Start with addressing the challenges I noted above in yourself. Get sufficient training to give you confidence and skills to hold space with confidence and authority. It's comforting to your students to have you provide a framework for their practice. Art of Yoga, Niroga, Nikki Myers with Y12SR as well as Kent Bond and myself with SOAR (Success Over Addiction and Relapse) all have intensive training programs that can prepare a yoga teacher for this vulnerable and delightful community of aspirants.

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

I hope we are able to bring yoga to all treatment centers and offer it as an option in jails and institutions.

I hope the yoga service community continues to help and support one another, reinforcing the usefulness of this practice.

My community of yogis who teach in recovery are developing a network. We have an annual conference "Yoga and Recovery -- a Celebration." We just completed our third year at Esalen in Big Sur, Calif. with Nikki Myers, Rolf Gates, Tommy Rosen and Heidi Sormaz . We will be meeting next in May 2013 at Kripalu, Massachusetts, and back in California next November. This is an amazing event that allows professionals and students to meet and discuss recovery in all forms and for all people, and to practice some dynamite yoga together.

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

As someone in recovery, service is key to my sobriety. (The 12-step program strongly suggests that we remain in service to the program and to newcomers, sharing time and wisdom to help us both remain in true recovery -- not just abstinent.) I'm also responsible for my own care, so charging for classes is part of my professional life. I keep my rates low and I try to keep one free class on my personal schedule each week; right now that is in the jail. In the past it has been either providing space for the class by paying the rent with small donations towards that fixed cost, or other free classes. My service is also my ongoing study and connection around my specialty area so that I continue to bring the best to my students.

What other organizations do you admire?

Y12SR is awesome. I love Niroga Institute, its broad and effective mission and the fact they let me have so much fun doing what I do. Art of Yoga is doing great work for girls in the San Francisco South Bay area of California and, of course, Off the Mat, which now is an umbrella for Y12SR, allowing us to expand our service and our reach.

Editor: Alice Trembour

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

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Join us at the Yoga Service Conference at Omega June 7-9th

Call for submissions for the new Journal of Yoga Service!

Please visit our website at www.yogaservicecouncil.org or email our editor, Kelly Birch, at kellymbirch@gmail.com