For some, yoga is about tightening the abs or getting a workout. For Mona Villarreal, yoga is about healing – first, her own mind and body from the trauma she suffered as a child, and today, using her experience to help others in recovery at Positive Sobriety Institute.
“Yoga is a tool to help someone heal,” she said. “Whether you are doing asana, the movement of yoga, or sitting on a mat doing meditation, you are helping someone to become present, to be in the moment. In the early stages of recovery, people are struggling. They are thinking of the guilt and the shame and the humiliation they left behind…To heal yourself, you have to get present.”
It’s a journey she knows well.
Mona’s parents died when she was a young girl. One of 13 children, Mona and her brothers and sisters were split up. Mona was placed in foster care. Her psychiatric injuries weren’t all she had to deal with ¬– a spinal condition often left her in agonizing pain.
As an adult, she sought counseling and therapy to help her deal with the events of her past. She also learned yoga, which strengthened her back. As her body got stronger, she felt her confidence grow. She became a certified yoga instructor.
Yet, even as she sought out healthy ways to help her cope with the heartbreak of her past, too often, she turned to alcohol. “I would drink the pain away,” she said.
In 2008, four years after she became a yoga instructor, she got sober. During her recovery, one of the 12 steps became especially meaningful to her – Step 11, which requires committing to a spiritual practice – scripture, prayer or meditation.
“I knew yoga was healing me. I got more interested in learning the depths of it, and how it taps into those inner channels in our body, helping us get new life force energy within,” she said. “The 11th step says, ‘through prayers and meditation improve your conscious contact with God.’ I knew I wanted to help people in recovery. But I needed to help myself first. I made a promise to myself I would work on my 12 steps. I would work on my sobriety. And then I would work on yoga to help other people with the same issues I struggle with, which is sobriety.”
At Positive Sobriety Institute, Mona teaches three days a week. One day focuses on the movement, mindfulness and breathing of Hatha yoga; another day is Yin yoga, which focuses on slow, long poses and stretches to open the connective tissues. On the third day, she practices reiki, a form of healing touch, complemented by Tibetan “singing” bowls, used for healing and calming the mind.
“The vibrations wake up the cellular level, the parts of us that are asleep and broken from all those years of using,” she explained. “They help people who are struggling to feel calm, peace and love again.”
In her classes, she sometimes uses dark humor to connect with others who are struggling with their own difficult pasts. “I often say I had a lot of dads, and none of them liked me,” she’ll say. Sometimes, she’ll share one of her own adventures in alcoholism that was humiliating at the time, but she has moved on from – subtly letting her students know it’s OK if they forgive themselves for their mistakes, too. Other days, she leads the class in sharing something they are grateful for.
“It took me a long time to learn what my gifts are,” she said. “I really do care about these people; they can feel it. You are scared to death when you’re trying to change your life. It’s terrifying. But when we roll out that yoga mat, it’s all pure love.”