I realized that in my excitement to present this exciting interview with everyone I neglected to give a paragraph primer for this wonderful woman and yoga professional, Durga!  Most of what is most interesting about her life story, her work, and her process of creating YOGA OF RECOVERY is in the interview below but I will give you a little bit to introduce and thank Durga for her her thoughtful interview.  I approached Durga via email a short while ago asking if she might have a moment for an email interview for this blog and the EMBODY MENTAL HEALTH TIMES blog.  She graciously gave me more of her time and her poetic prose than I could have asked for and as you will see below her story is moving, profound, and passion-filled–all the best that one can find in the field of integrative and complementary mental health treatment!  I thank Durga for her efforts in creating YOGA OF RECOVERY and for sharing her journey with me and the readers of these blogs!

Q:  How was “Yoga of Recovery” created?  What made you decide to combine aspects of yoga, ayurveda, and the 12 step process for recovery from addiction?

I had originally gone to an ashram in a bid to stop smoking, on a challenge from my therapist, who had diagnosed me as clinically depressed and suggested that I see a psychiatrist to be prescribed medication.  I was wary of being medicated.  I was still using nicotine (15+ cigarettes per day) but was being advised to bring in another chemical to help my mood and mind. I was 18 months abstinent from alcohol at this time.

During my ‘trying to stop smoking’ period, I attended a party hosted by my AA Sponsor and met a woman there who suggested that I go to the Sivananda Ashram in Grass Valley, California, as a supportive way to get through the initial days of abstinence from cigarettes. At the ashram, smoking was not allowed and the busy schedule with practices of yoga and breathing exercises would help me connect to a healthy more conscious way to the body. I knew I needed to be sequestered from society in order to achieve complete abstinence!  In the back of my mind, I also knew that I had unrealistic expectations about the anti-depressants they were planning to give me, I was looking for the “Happy Pill” and would be disappointed with anything less.  I had a sneaking suspicion that an anti-depressant would not meet my expectations of chemically-induced happiness.

I went to the ashram to support my recovery and I have been relieved of my nicotine obsession for over 9 years now.  I am also medication-free.

During one of my stays at the ashram, I heard a lecture on Ayurveda, the science of healing. Ayurveda says that disease begins when we forget our true nature as spirit – we forget that Divinity resides within each of us.  If we understand ourselves only as body and mind, we become wrapped up in the nature of the physical world. This was very interesting to me as it fit with what I’d been told in AA – that addiction was a “spiritual malady” and that I was “spiritually sick”.  The Big Book of AA says that we are “beyond human aid.  Our human resources, as marshaled by the will, were not sufficient: they failed utterly”.  I had never considered that prospect/explanation before entering AA but when I heard it there it did make sense to me – the more efforts I made to marshal my will and stop drinking and smoking, the more I felt an utter failure, never being able to manage what I set out to do.

My work now is bringing this message to others who suffer from addiction or who have been impacted by addiction. My desire is to help others remember that essential piece that I, and others have forgotten: our true nature as spirit.

Yoga of Recovery is a body of work that introduces people to the Yoga philosophy, Ayurveda and 12 Step Recovery. These systems of healing are complementary and provide guidance for us to develop a fit spiritual condition on our journey to the perfection of the soul.

Q:  What is your background in the field of addiction?  What made you passionate about assisting others in their recovery process?

My background is simply my family of origin, some might also say the country where I was raised – Scotland!  It caused me great pain as an adolescent to see my mother succumb to the disease of alcoholism, which I know first hand to be progressive and fatal, it took 20 years to kill her.  During that time I became the thing I most ‘hated’, the alcoholic, so I was angry, confused, scared, lonely and baffled – I had moved to England to escape the pain of alcoholism and found that ‘wherever you go, there you are’.

Q:  What drew you, personally, to the practice of yoga, meditation, and the healing techniques of Ayurveda?

Even as a practicing alcoholic I was drawn to yoga, I had been a member of the Sivananda Yoga Center in London before I moved to the US.  I would go a few times per week for a hatha yoga class, and that was one area of my life that I felt good about, I was doing something worthwhile and self-caring, but it ran right alongside the many other self-destructive things I was doing, that I just could not stop.

Q:  What drew you to the Sivananda yoga tradition?  How has your experience been within this community?

As I mentioned, I had began my practice of yoga at the Sivananda center in London about 20 years ago.  Somewhere I picked up a leaflet about an Open Day at their center on a Saturday and  I went along.  I enjoyed the class, was not so sure about the ‘Om-ing and chanting’ but went ahead and signed up for a Yoga I Class then a Yoga II then I became a member and continued to go to open yoga classes after work and at weekends.  I lived about a 15 minute drive away from the London Center.  After some years I moved to the US (a geographic!) and got into recovery in AA and was undergoing the agony of ‘trying’to stop smoking.  Through my AA Sponsor I met a woman who suggested I go to the Sivananda Ashram Yoga Farm to help me get through the initial few days of abstinence from cigarettes.  I looked them up online and realized they were only about a one hour drive from where I lived in the US, and that they were the people I did yoga with in London so felt comfortable enough to book a Yoga Beginners Week.  I was nervous about being in a retreat, an ashram, I had only done yoga class with them before, however, I went and have been going back there ever since, that was April 2001.

I believe now that the Guru and karma pulls you back to the place where you belong, Sivananda has become a second home to me.  I love it especially because they offer a synthesis of the yogic paths.  I enjoy (and need) the discipline of the daily schedule and I have a great respect and honor for the Swamis of the organization and the staff, who are all volunteers, working selflessly to bring yoga to the guests who come to the ashrams.  I meet amazing, interesting people from all over the world.  It is a blessing to be a part of such an organization.

Q:  Is “Yoga of Recovery” based on the practices and postures of the Sivananda tradition?  How is “Yoga for Recovery” different, augmented, or specially sensitized for helping persons recovering from addiction?

“Yoga of Recovery” is based on the practices of classical yoga, which includes the Four Paths of Yoga – Karma Yoga, Bhakti Yoga, Raja Yoga and Jnana Yoga.  When taught at Sivananda ashrams the asana classes are based on the sequence of postures given to us by Swami Vishnu-devananda.

When teaching the course for counselors we have yoga teachers and non-yoga teachers (social workers, youth leaders, therapists etc.) so these classes are different.  The YoR course is not exclusively a hatha yoga training course. We honor the training the yoga teachers come in with and develop their ability to teach to the varied audiences of people in recovery by bringing the wisdom of the 4 paths of yoga to the physical practice of yoga.  Yoga teachers learn how to augment and be sensitive to the needs and vulnerabilities of persons recovering from addiction.  The physical practice encompasses spiritual, emotional, and pranic aspects of healing.

Q: When did you create this program?  What is the focus of the retreats? What tools and skills did you want to impart to your students/retreat participants?

I undertook my studies of Yoga and Ayurveda for the purpose of improving my own health and well-being and to bring holistic healing to people in recovery.  My own recovery began in 1999; my studies began in 2001; we offered the first Yoga of Recovery retreat in August 2005.  The focus of the retreats is a consideration of the story of our addiction – how we act out and why.  We then look at the understanding and description of disease according to yoga and Ayurveda.  Guests learn about their unique Ayurvedic constitution and their tendencies.  By understanding their Ayurvedic constitution, they learn the areas in which they may become vulnerable when under stress – and they can determine what kinds of activities and changes in their lifestyle can best help them restore balance in mind and body.  We discuss simple and practical methods to maintain health and prevent disease through the use of such tools as proper daily and seasonal routines.  We aim to revitalize the body’s systems and boost the immune system so we have a strong foundation in health to face the challenges and stresses of daily life without resorting/relapsing into old addictive behaviors.

When people are introduced to the Yogic psychology of how to deal with the mind, the Yogic philosophy of the Self, and the practice an Ayurvedic lifestyle, and make use of these alongside the principles of the 12 steps, they then have a truly empowering personal program of recovery.

Q: When did you create the Training and Certification part of your program? What specialized expertise or knowledge does a professional yoga teacher or mental health professional come away with when attending your Certificate training in “Yoga of Recovery”?

The first Yoga of Recovery for Counselors Training was offered in August 2008 in response to demand from people who wanted a more in-depth training so they could use the tools in their work.  It is the first comprehensive course to combine Ayurveda and Yoga with traditional recovery tools to offer a more holistic mind, body, spirit approach to addiction and self-destructive behaviors.  The course is for therapists, social workers, addiction counselors, sponsors, yoga teachers, Ayurvedic practitioners etc. Anyone interested in a more holistic and complete view of the problem and its solution.
Upon completion of the course they have the skills to introduce the healing potential of the holistic sciences of Ayurveda and Yoga into their own life and those around them.

Those in counseling roles leave with additional tools and a deeper understanding of the comprehensive approach to wellness, emotional sobriety and sustained spiritual development using Ayurveda and Yoga as extension therapies to any 12 Step work.

Yoga teachers become uniquely qualified and more confident to teach yoga in rehabs or to people in recovery from any addiction by fully understanding the root of the problem and the holistic approach, extended from limited understanding of substance abuse/behavioral problems to be treated with asana alone, to a full range of therapies for mind, body and spirit from these powerful healing modalities.

Q:  What effects or changes have you seen in persons coming to your retreat programs?  What have you seen or experienced in teaching this method that has surprised you?  What has been most rewarding about the experience?

Perhaps here I can let guests of the retreat answer this from the comments we have received from them – their response is what is rewarding for me..

“The retreat was an amazing life-changing event for me.  It worked for me mentally, spiritually and physically.  I left feeling inspired, refreshed, renewed, full of hope, strong and satisfied.  The lessons continue to grow each day so, for me, the work was substantial, not hype.  The workshops were great, useful, practical, well prepared and presented…The retreat is important for us in recovery. More please!”

WA, Reno NV

I can’t speak highly enough of the Yoga of Recovery course.  After 14 years in a 12 Step Program … I had a spiritual awakening.  Durga’s blending of the divinely inspired path to recovery of the 12 Step Program, with the Yogic path…and the tool box…is the Key to my recovery.  This is a wonderful program … it can only help everyone on a 12 Step program.

VM, Bahamas

This was an extraordinary class…it showed exactly what I had to do to not only transform this addiction but many other addictions I did not quite realize I had…Durga made Ayurveda simple, clear, practical and accessible.  A rich course.  Practical, comprehensive, simple, fun, shows how the 12 Step Program is one of the best kept secrets in the world of spiritual growth.

BK, MA USA

I am able to take a lot of information from this retreat.  I learned much about yoga, not just the asana yoga but the wonder of the other aspects.  The Ayurveda aspect was also very informative.  I feel that my tools for recovery have increased tremendously.

JM, CT USA

I loved the workshop.  I found the information confronting and enlightening…

To see the correlation between the perils of addiction, imbalance in doshas and the path of yoga all in an upward spiral was an epiphany.

CF, FL USA

Q:  On the “Yoga of Recovery” website’s FAQ you talk about this practice and retreat program also being appropriate for persons with eating disorders?  Have you considered cultivating a program model specific to eating disorders?

When I first began the retreat I assumed the guests would be people in recovery from drug and alcohol addiction.  What I found was that many of them had maintained sobriety for considerable lengths of time from their initial drug of choice but had shifted into dependence on some other substance or behavior in recovery.  I had witnessed both in myself and what seemed like a majority of 12 step members this switch of addictions – the main culprits being sugar addiction and codependency in relationships. Several ‘food addicts’ came to the retreat and I wondered if the work presented would feel totally relevant to them.  I was concerned that I did not fully understand that condition and that I needed to understand more about it from the Ayurvedic perspective.  Also, if the 12 Step solution was spiritual, allowing us to recover from a “seemingly hopeless condition of mind and body” then why did the addiction simply shift into another area, even for those who genuinely ‘worked the program’?  How spiritual did we need to be in our daily lives to fully recover from all dependencies and addictions?

The modern addiction problem shows us how people can become addicted to anything: alcohol, drugs, relationships, work, Internet, cell phones etc.  This provides a clue to the universal root of all addictions – the fact that we have externalized an inner spiritual need; an easy path to take in our society of over-consumption and hyper-sensory stimulation.  In this 21st Century we can consider the view of the addict as a seeker, someone who is inherently trying to transcend the mundane.  In “Overcoming Addictions”, Dr Deepak Chopra describes the problem as “self-destructive outlets for an unrecognized spiritual craving”.

Yoga of Recovery is for people who are looking to overcome any of their own addictive or self-destructive behaviors and also for people histories of addiction in themselves or within their family.   Guests range in age from 16 to 84 years old and experience every type of addiction – this means both the ‘primary’ addiction and all the cross-addictions that have come up since abstaining from the ‘substance/behavior of choice’.  We investigate the root causes and reasons for our compulsions, attachments and addictive imbalances.  What in our nature compels us to this continual external seeking?  We look at the stress response of the different doshic types, unmanaged emotions, how the mind works by repetition, creating deep grooves of self-destructive habits.   The approach is from the point of view of Sattva, unity (Vedanta) and not from separation, the ‘them and us’ mentality that stems from egoism, Rajas (turbulence) and Tamas (dullness).  This is important since in the media portrayal of the problem of addiction, both historically and currently, it is presented as a case of ‘them and us’, but in truth we are all addicted to some degree.

The more subtle and ubiquitous ‘attachments’ that we all suffer from and that no one can avoid entirely are our addictions/attachments to food and people.  These are the first and last ties to our embodied existence in our human condition.  The founder of AA, Bill Wilson, speaks of these same concepts when he discusses our “instincts run wild” which involve our “legitimate, natural desires to eat, to reproduce, for society, security and companionship”. (Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous)  It is also interesting that the AlAnon program (the ‘people’ addiction, co-addicts) was the second 12 step program formed and perhaps a little-known fact that Bill Wilson’s ‘sponsor’ was a man with an eating disorder, not alcoholism.

During our retreats and courses we talk about our experience with any addictive habits that we are recovering from. This helps us develop more openness and compassion around both our own lingering compulsions and the struggle of different ‘drug of choice’ than ours.

Q:  Do you believe we all, as humans, have addictive natures in some respect?  Do you believe anyone (not just someone in recovery from a drug or alcohol addiction) could benefit from your program?

Yes, see answer above.  Ayurveda is the science of life so we can all benefit from its  lifestyle recommendations.  Ultimately, the purpose of life is Self-realization, so everyone who is drawn to the philosophy, psychology and physical practice of yoga would enjoy this retreat.  It is like yoga applied to our daily life.

Q:  What is your hope for the program and your work over the next 5 years?  Do you hope to see expansion of the program?  Do you have any plans to create programs for any other specific populations of people?

My hope is that people come to the retreats and discover and reclaim their own health and healing, becoming empowered in their daily life choices.  I hope they leave with a feeling of awe and reverence toward the Divine healing power and ways to participate in the healing energy of nature, the world around us.  I hope students from the course will introduce people to these concepts in their local communities.  One day we hope to offer an extended Yoga of Recovery residential retreat, where people can join us for 2-4 weeks, like a Vedic sober living home.  We also hope to bring the retreat to special groups like ‘at-promise’ youth and young women who are struggling with addiction problems.

Q:  What are your hopes and aspirations for the field of mental health, addiction treatment and the integration of complementary and holistic practices for mind, body, and spirit wellness?

I believe integration is the future and that the mental health field will lead the way by accepting the experience of patients with complementary and holistic practices for mind, body, and spirit wellness as evidence of their efficacy.  I believe we need to experience healing, not wait for evidence of it from scientific sources!

Q:  Any final words, thoughts, inspirations, or experiences you would like to share with the readers?

“Remember, Forget” – last words of swami Sivananda

“Health is Wealth, Peace of Mind is Happiness, Yoga shows the way” – Swami Vishnu-devananda

LEARN MORE ABOUT DURGA & THE YOGA OF RECOVERY AT: www.yogaofrecovery.com


Durga is a Clinical Ayurvedic and Pancha Karma Specialist, trained at the California College of Ayurveda and also in Kerala, India. She leads several Ayurvedic Retreats at International Sivananda Yoga Ashrams. Durga has been involved with the 12-Step Fellowship for over 10 years. She completed her Sivananda Yoga teachers Training Course in May 2002, the Meditation Immersion Course in January 2005 and the Advanced Yoga Teachers Training Course in March 2006.

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