One of the BEST yoga teaching experiences I have had to date is teaching at a substance abuse rehabilitation facility. My dear friend and soul sister Cookie and her husband graciously helped me obtain an opportunity to teach at a rehab, Principles Recovery Center.
It challenged me as a yoga teacher and as a person but it fulfilled me so much. I learned from the students as much as they learned from me. It was not easy…most of the students were men and they had a preconceived notion that “yoga was for women” (as do most Westernized men). Most importantly, they were going through one of the toughest times in their lives: recovery from addiction. I saw a lot of myself in them and it inspired me to teach with all my heart in hopes of sparking some type of healing within.
Here are some tips based on my experience that will hopefully help other teachers out there efficiently teach this type of demographic:
When I first began teaching, I mostly taught Kundalini Yoga . Then, I started incorporating Vinyasa Yoga, Yin Yoga, and Hatha Yoga. I also taught pranayama methods and meditation techniques. I would gauge the participants’ moods and chose a style that fit that day. The classes were catered to them and their needs. This is essential because sometimes as a teacher, you want to teach what YOU want, but a yoga class is NEVER about you. It is about your students. Overall, the students were least receptive to Kundalini and most receptive to Yin/Hatha.
I recognized that I was not teaching avid yoga practitioners who voluntarily came to yoga class. Most of the students had NEVER done yoga and my class was just part of their weekly schedule at the facility. But I was still eager to teach yogic philosophy during practice because I wanted them to truly know the WHOLE of yoga…not just the fitness aspect that Western society concentrates on. However, esoteric language and spiritual references were often times met with eye rolls and snarky remarks. I even faced backlash from an atheist student one time I mentioned “God”. I struggled because I did not want to water down yoga philosophy in any way, but I realized that I could not make anyone believe in something that they had no interest in believing. Everyone is on their own journey and my job as a teacher is to be compassionate and understanding of everyone all the while guiding them to expand their consciousness, in whatever way serves them best. So from that day forward, I seldom used the word ‘God’, but I did refer to God as consciousness, higher power, source, love or light. I also swapped out the word ‘chakras’ for energy centers and used more scientific and anatomical terms. It was like sneaking vegetables in your kid’s dinner: they were still getting the benefits but didn’t know 🙂 Keeping it simple worked out best.
Intensity / Time:
The students will obviously be recovering from some type of drug or alcohol abuse, therefore, they will probably be experiencing physical aches, pains, and shakes. It can be difficult for some to keep up with a high intensity flow or hold postures for too long, which can lead to quitting and discouragement. To avoid this, I started off slowly and increased intensity/time as I saw fit. Although I agree that students need to be pushed out of their comfort zone and guided to their “edge”, a teacher’s discernment is his/her best friend. I always reminded them that if the class got too intense, they were welcome to take child’s pose or lie on their back to rest. This needed to be emphasized as I witnessed many occasions of unhealthy competition which could have potentially led to injury.
Practice Certain Postures With Caution:
My Kundalini Yoga teacher trainer, Deva Kaur, advised us to use caution with certain postures in all male classes that can be viewed as sexual in nature. She told us about one time while teaching Kundalini yoga at a men’s prison, the entire class went bonkers during cat-cows. They all lost focus and got disruptive. I found this advice to be helpful as a woman teaching a class full of men and I can confirm that bridges are to be used with caution as well: in one instance, it got quite uncomfortable for me as all these men started doing up and down movements obnoxiously in an obviously sexual manner and laughing up a storm. Not a great experience, but definitely learned that cat-cows, bridges, and other similar postures are to be used sparingly. Also, I was always aware of the angle in which I was practicing a posture in front of the class.
Remember: most people (who do not regularly practice yoga) do not know how to relax. It takes longer for them to activate their parasympathetic nervous system and release tension in their body. I realized that the students needed extra time and guidance heading into relaxation, otherwise, they would just fidget and constantly move around in shavasana. Some students did not like lying down and preferred to sit. Stress balls came in handy for these individuals. I had them squeeze the stress balls and coordinate their breath with the movement. Playing soft music also helped immensely during this time.
I quickly noticed that Kundalini Yoga meditations were not a fan favorite. The meditations that were well received were short guided meditations and meditations using a mala. The meditations would never exceed 5 minutes and were always done after practice. I also incorporated still moments in between postures. I encouraged them to focus on their breath, the inhale and exhale. I seized every moment I had to bring them in the present moment and out of their thoughts.
The most chanting that I ever got out of my students was a sheepish OM. Aside from that, they did not want to participate. Understandably so…do you remember your first yoga class where you had to chant in a foreign language without knowing what the heck you were saying or without having the knowledge of the power of mantra? Chances are you felt out of place or perhaps even silly. I particularly LOVE chanting, but again…it is about the student, not the teacher! When I taught Kundalini yoga kriyas, I selected the ones with minimal chanting, if at all. In other classes, I stuck to OM in the beginning and at the end of the class.
In a group like this, there will be distractions. It is what it is. Students laughed at some of the postures or cracked jokes. I just continued to instruct and encouraged them to keep going. Laughing is totally cool…it diffuses the seriousness of the class…but be careful as it can take everyone out of focus. I let them have a chuckle or two and kept it moving. Needless to say, I was particularly vigilant of the patients not participating in class. They chose to sit on a chair or take a nap on the floor, which was fine with me, until some began to disrupt the students doing yoga by making fun of them or using their cellphones. This made the students practicing lose focus or feel embarrassed. I would simply say, “please do not be disruptive to other students trying to have an experience.” They usually stopped. Be prepared to ask someone to leave the room if need be. It rarely ever gets this far, but it is important to protect the environment of your class. I always tried my best to make sure that my students felt safe, judgement-free, and respected at all times.
Extra Motivation Needed:
Individuals struggling with addiction feel dis-empowered. It is important to help them direct their attention on regaining their power. I recall one instance where I said, “Ok class, don’t quit, almost there!” and one student replied, “Well quitting is normal to me, so….” In another occasion, I said, “It is ok to chant, there is no judgment here”, and another student jokingly replied, “haha that is what my drug dealer said.” I took these opportunities to respond, “Quitting may have been your norm but not anymore”, and, “There is no judgment here and unlike your drug dealer, nothing bad can come from doing yoga.” Little counters like this bring the focus back on their strength, courage, and accountability and out of their powerlessness and defeated mindset. I also gave them plenty of praise and encouragement during practice, especially for effort. This group needs a good dose of motivation and inspiration to go along with their yoga class. Reading quotes at the end of class was a great touch as well.
Watch Teacher Triggers:
There might be students who want to test you. They will attempt to test your patience, knowledge, and authority. Keep in mind that these students are NOT at your level of consciousness. I had to remind myself of this frequently as to not let them get under my skin. As a passionate yoga lover, it bothered me a bit when they would make fun of the chants or not take the postures seriously. But after a breath or two (and maybeeee a death stare), I came back to the fact that hey, it’s not towards me and they just don’t know or care about yoga like I do….YET. This was a great lesson for me about compassion, reactivity, and not taking anything personal. Yoga is so cool like that!
I WANT TO KNOW….
Did these tips help you teachers out there? Are there any other tips that you wish to share with the world regarding teaching this type of demographic? I invite you to leave a comment below so we can all learn together 🙂
If you or a loved one is struggling with alcoholism or drug addiction, Principles Recovery Center is ready to help. Please visit their website for more information.