The Benefits of Yoga and Tai Chi for Recovery
There are many types of mindfulness practices. Some are meditative, and draw on traditional practices such as transcendental meditation, Zen Buddhist meditation, yogic meditation, and the walking meditation popularized by the Vietnamese monk Thich Nhat Hanh. Some types of mindfulness practice are task-oriented, and rooted in daily life. Mindfulness teachers urge their students to imbue everyday activities such as cooking, cleaning, and gardening with the qualities of mindfulness. Other mindfulness practices are rooted in the pursuit of artistic hobbies, such as painting, model building, or sculpture. Mindfulness teachers will even suggest to their students that they approach their work – whether it be carpentry, data entry, fixing cars, or medicine – with an attitude of mindfulness. No matter the task or context, what unites all of these activities and gives them the potential to be mindfulness practices is the mindset of the person performing the activity while the activity is being performed. The mindfulness mindset is one of focus and awareness: if you slow down, bring your attention fully to the task at hand, and become careful and attentive to the way you are doing what you are doing, completely and without judgment, then you are practicing mindfulness.
This article will address the benefits of studying two types of mindfulness practice – yoga and tai chi – with a special focus on what it is like to encounter these practices for the first time, and address the value of learning a specific form – a series of movements grouped together for their health and meditative benefits – and the many ways in which learning a form can help a person working their addiction recovery program.
Recovery, Yoga, and Tai Chi: Beginner’s Mind
In his well-known book on meditation “Zen Mind, Beginner’s Mind: Informal Talks on Zen Meditation and Practice”, world-renowned Zen Buddhist teacher Shunryu Suzuki writes
“In the beginner’s mind there are many possibilities, but in the expert’s there are few.”
With just a bit of reflection, it is easy to see how these words can apply to addiction recovery, especially in the early stages. When we reach the point at which we enter recovery, most of us are experts in at least one thing: how to maintain and practice our addiction. What most of us are desperately in need of is a new way of thinking, a new way to look at the world, and a new way to exist. We look to our program, no matter what form it takes, as a way to replace old, self-destructive habits with new, positive habits. We give up our expert status – that of experts at addiction—and replace it with beginner’s status – that of beginners at recovery. This step opens up a world of possibilities that allow us to move forward with confidence and hope.
The same is true when augmenting our recovery program with the study of a physical practice like yoga or tai chi. We go to the teachers because they know something we don’t know, and what we ask them to teach us is a series of movements or postures that are healthy for our bodies, minds, and souls. In yoga, the most common introductory series of movements, or form, that students learn is called the Sun Salutation, while in Tai Chi, the most common form beginning students learn is the Simplified Yang Style 24-Step form.
The Value of Form: An Independent Measure
One thing that mindfulness teaches us is that we are constantly changing. If we slow down and pay attention to our thoughts and feelings, and check in with them every day, we find that no two days are exactly alike. One day we might feel wonderful, the next day we might feel a little anxious, the next day we might feel overwhelmed, and the next we might feel calmly optimistic. Mindfulness teaches us to recognize these different states, without judgment, and attempt to trace them back to their root causes. We don’t try to fix them, we simply make an honest attempt to be aware of what they are and where they come from.
The mindful practice of a form, such as the Sun Salutation or Yang Style 24-Step form, gives us an objective measure for how we are feeling not only emotionally, mentally, and psychologically, but also physically. The benefit of learning an external form and practicing it mindfully, as opposed to the introspective self-examination of meditation, is that the form exists outside of ourselves—it is not us. It was there before us, and it will be there after us: the form is something we use to gauge where we are on that day. Since the form never changes, only we do, we can use it as a quantitative feedback tool. As we practice our form, it teaches us where we are in the moment: if a particular movement requires balance, and one morning we are having trouble with it, that’s a lesson—some part of us is out of balance. If a particular movement is complex, requires a high degree of attention, and we are having trouble executing it correctly, that’s a lesson—on that day, we need to focus a little harder. The daily practice of a form allows us to check in with ourselves, learn where we are on that day, and take that information forward into our family life, our work life, and most importantly, into the life-saving work of our recovery.