By Eric Van Dril
Soon after getting sober in 1991, Tommy Rosen walked into a yoga studio for the first time and had a life-altering realization.
“I was newly sober, and I watched people move, the teacher in particular,” says Rosen, who teaches Yoga for Addiction Recovery at his yoga studio in Los Angeles. “She was moving in a way that was so free and so graceful. I remember remarking to myself, ‘I want that. I want to move that way.’”
Today, Rosen says yoga is a cornerstone of his sobriety and one of the most important things he does in his life. When Rosen walked into that studio for the first time, he formed an immediate affinity for yoga. It offered something he was longing for, a spiritual freedom that drugs and alcohol couldn’t provide.
For many people new to recovery, exercise is a simple and effective way to implement positive changes in their lives. But addicts are notorious for two things: overdoing it and quitting when things get tough. That’s why fitness experts such as Rosen say it is important to incorporate steps into fitness programs to keep new exercisers from burning out.
For addicts in recovery who are starting to exercise, Rosen says forming a relationship similar to the one he found with yoga is the most effective way to avoid burnout. Despite the significant impact it’s had on his life, Rosen admits yoga isn’t for everybody. But a vital part of avoiding burnout is discovering what types of exercise captivate you. Doing this is more likely to build a healthy relationship with exercise, fend off boredom and provide a natural high, which has proven to be very helpful in dealing with addiction.
In other words, it has to come from inside.
“Whenever we’re externally driven, it feels like someone else telling us what to do; then people tend to rebel,” says Karen Koenig, a psychotherapist who has worked as a clinical supervisor at a Florida methadone clinic for the past six years. “Get rid of these words: I should, need to, have to, must. Those are all external words, and when people say to us, ‘You need to do this,’ our reaction is ‘Yeah, well, too bad, I’m not going to.’ Replace those words with internal words: I want, prefer, desire, would like to, wish to. There’s a difference between saying, ‘I should go to the gym,’ and ‘I want to go to the gym.’”
Rocky Snyder had already built a positive relationship with exercise when he got sober 12 years ago. Snyder, a personal trainer in Santa Cruz, Calif., replaced drugs and alcohol with exercise when he got sober.
Now Snyder has integrated some of the core principles of the Twelve Step program to help people stick with their exercise programs.
“I really try to encourage people who may not have the economic wherewithal to afford a trainer to hook up with someone who wants to exercise also and try to be like a sponsor for each other,” Snyder says. “Make sure there’s some accountability, and know that somebody’s relying on you.”
Regardless of the person, Snyder’s advice on beginning a fitness routine is to go to a trainer, physical therapist or somebody with knowledge of the body in order to ensure the individual is physically capable of starting a workout program. Then, if everything checks out, assess the available options, and try to find an exciting type of exercise with which to connect.
“Within the fitness industry, they’re always trying to think of something new and different,” Snyder says. “We’ve got classes such as Zumba, Pilates, Bikram Yoga, and there’s a group called CrossFit that’s just taking the nation by storm. Everyone’s trying to reinvent the wheel and develop new and exciting ways to keep people motivated, but it really just comes back down to the basics of eating right and exercise.”
One of the most important things for addicts in recovery to realize when starting an exercise program is there likely won’t be very much time to exercise during the early days of sobriety. As Rosen experienced firsthand, much of a person’s time at the beginning of recovery is spent on vital things such as meetings and conversations with a sponsor. Adding a long, elaborate workout routine on top of an entirely new lifestyle can be the quickest way to develop a bad relationship with exercise.
Snyder, Rosen and Koenig all urge fitness newcomers to take things slow at the beginning. It’s fine if somebody who’s newly sober has to take a day off or can only work out for 10 to 15 minutes.
Recovery should take precedence, but when the individual is ready, exercise will be there. If done properly, it can be a powerful tool on the path to recovery.
“Getting high is something human beings love to do,” Rosen says. “The challenge is that human beings do it in such poor ways. When you get high in [an exercise] sense, you’re getting high, but you’re also strengthening your body. There’s no comedown, no weakening of the system. So it’s a short-term gain and a long-term gain also. And if you think about it, that’s a really powerful concept for people in recovery.”
Eric Van Dril is a sportswriter in Illinois. This is his first article for Renew.