Move for Recovery

Move for Recovery

Rabbit and Crane by Michael McConnell/

Steven Washington, author of Recovering You, shares his recovery journey and how movement was the key to success.

For many, the body is uncharted territory. Especially for those of us in recovery. We have long histories of not setting our health and wellbeing as a top priority. In recovery, we have a blessed opportunity to change that.

When we become ready to make important changes in life, we often start with approaches to abstinence and sobriety that focus on the practical aspects of recovery. These approaches can arrest the use of substances or addictive behaviors through some sort of intervention, such as rehab, medical detox, 12-step programs, or other addiction-recovery methods. They tend to place more focus on the mind.

Through years of experience, I feel strongly that the mind-body connection also needs to be acknowledged and explored. After all, it’s the body that keeps the score. It stores the trauma we have endured in life, and without focus and support, we will never be able to fully unearth the causes and conditions of our addictions and ultimately find freedom.

Some of my earliest memories are of me dancing in our family’s Connecticut apartment or twirling over and over until I was dizzy, just like Lynda Carter did on television as Wonder Woman.

For some reason, movement seemed to transport me to a magical place in my body and mind. Rhythmically moving my body would cast a spell on me that somehow would regulate my extremely sensitive and disregulated nervous system. I suppose I was doing energy work on myself long before I knew what it was.

Even one of my mother’s boyfriends saw that I had a special gift when he caught me rolling around on the living room carpet, dancing to Stephanie Mills or Stevie Wonder. I was embarrassed that he caught me, but then I felt a warm rush of pride as he showered me with praise. That moment foreshadowed a bright future as a professional dancer on Broadway.

But despite every personal and professional accomplishment, my insatiable need to self-medicate my inner pain would threaten to destroy me and everything that my hard work and intention had built. While my addictions to alcohol and drugs didn’t land me in hospital beds, jail cells, or the grave, they left me feeling depleted, isolated, afraid, ashamed, and powerless.

Some days I would look at myself in the mirror and not recognize the person I saw. I felt broken.

My brokenness created a stillness in me that lasted long enough for me to listen to my inner voice. That voice encouraged me to contact my friend Craig, who had long-term sobriety. When I arrived at his New York City apartment in 2002, sat on his couch, and confessed secrets about my addiction, he nodded his head and said he understood.

My friend took me to my first 12-step recovery meeting, and it changed my life. Being in recovery has given me a blueprint for life. Prior to getting sober, I thought everyone else knew how to do this life thing and that somehow I didn’t get the memo. So, I danced as fast and as best as I could to keep up. Boy, was I wrong. My first days, weeks, and months of sobriety taught me that life wasn’t a race and there was an easier, softer way to live. The people I met constantly gave me examples of how to live a life rooted in love, community, acceptance, accountability, service, and faith. So much gratitude to those who went before me.

I thought that getting sober would fix all my problems, but it did not. What it did was make me more open and willing to seek other sources of healing that would tend to my needs. Recovery led me to therapy, which works well when you’re honest with yourself and the therapist and not secretly drinking yourself to sleep at night in between sessions. Recovery led me to have the courage to leave a dance career that had worn out my body, mind, and spirit. I was then inspired to become a Pilates teacher.

Through my growing years of sobriety and teaching, I noticed that people all around me were taking big leaps in life by going back to school and earning advanced degrees. I had so much wreckage from my academic past that I thought it would be a bridge too far for me. But that still, small voice inside of me spoke loudly and urged me to go back to school and study Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM)—in addition to moving across the country to California and starting a new life.

As I attended my TCM classes, I initially felt overjoyed and optimistic to be there, but within weeks, my feelings turned a corner to fear and dread. My full-time school schedule and part-time work life, coupled with the complexities of learning about a foreign culture while being haunted by ancient, fearful thoughts of not being good, smart, or popular enough made me unable to function. My anxiety was off the charts. I feared that I would lose my sobriety. I saw a relapse as something equal to death for me—figuratively and literally.

Then the Universe gave me a great gift. It gave me back the gift of movement when qigong was incorporated into the school’s curriculum. Qigong is the ancient Chinese practice of life force energy cultivation through flowing movements, standing postures, deep breathing, and focused intention. I blissfully lost myself in the practice and could feel how my body loved how energizing and relaxing it was all at the same time.

I also felt my deep-seated fear and worry begin to slip away and be replaced by a sense of overall wellbeing and surrender to the moment. I then felt my mind begin to quiet. The constant chatter of self-doubt and anxiety started to slip away when I practiced. And I felt more connected to the deepest parts of me and my Higher Power. What I was learning in classes came to life for me. I learned that the body is the foundation upon which the emotions, the mind, and the spirit can be supported and nourished.

The practice helped me regulate my nervous system, which allowed a multitude of invaluable insights to come forth. I began to receive messages of strength, hope, and love from deep within. The still, small voice said the following:

“Despite what you are feeling, all is well.”
“You’ve placed too much value on the opinions of others. Trust your own opinion of yourself above anyone else’s.”
“You will master your schoolwork and still feel called to move on from this.”
“Trust this process.”

If you are ready to try qigong, here is a simple movement taken from my book, Recovering You. This foundational exercise is called “Pulling Down the Sky.” The purpose of this exercise is to calm the mind, relax the body, and anchor you. As you repeat the exercise, it will draw you back to the present moment—where great potential for growth and peace resides.

1. Start by standing with your legs about shoulder width apart.

2. As you ground yourself in this position, envision waves of calm gently washing over you.

3. Soften your knees, lengthen your spine, and lift the crown of your head toward the sky. As you do this, allow your arms to be long and relaxed at the sides of your body.

4. Take a deep inhale through your nose as you lift your arms out to the sides and then up above your head.

5. As you exhale, again through the nose, let your arms float down by bending the elbows outward.

6. Allow your hands to lower and pass in front of your head, heart, and abdomen.

7. Repeat this exercise at least 12 times.

Movement Tips

  • Palms face upward as arms lift.

  • Palms face downward as the arms lower.

  • Be sure to relax the hands and shoulders throughout.

  • Be mindful of releasing excess tension in the shoulders when the arms are above the head.

  • Take your time. Coordinate the breath with the movement.

  • Listen to your body. Modify when you need to.

Excerpted from the book Recovering You: Soul Care and Mindful Movement for Overcoming Addiction copyright ©2022 by Steven Washington with illustrations by Erin Posanti. Printed with permission from New World Library—

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Rabbit and Crane credit Michael Mc Connell

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