Laura McCarthy teaches men to conquer addiction with downward-facing dog
Six sets of wary eyes watch Laura McCarthy as she slings bright mats across the dingy carpet. The men stare each time a rubber rectangle lands with a soft thud at their feet.
“I got broken ribs, remember?” says the guy who looks like he really likes McCarthy, despite the things she’s about to do to him. “You got to take it easy on me.”
She grins and turns toward another man, who’s making a racket. She hasn’t seen him before, and his phlegm-filled hacking is the sound of someone who is deeply unhealthy. “Have you practiced before?” she asks him.
“No,” he answers.
“Oh,” says McCarthy, practically singing. “That’s what I like to hear.”
The men live at The Men’s Shelter on North Tryon, just outside of uptown. They’re recovering addicts. And she is their yoga teacher. She also holds classes at the Relapse Prevention Program at Jail Central, the Salvation Army’s rehab program, and the Detox Center on Billingsley Road. When she first visited the jail to talk about practicing there, the people in charge of programming assumed McCarthy would want to work with the women. They were wrong. “Really my focus is on men because they’re so underserved,” she says.
This isn’t trendy yoga. It’s not the “hot” kind, “the kind where you’re sweating it out in spandex,” she says, rolling her eyes. Most of her students wouldn’t or couldn’t engage in that kind of exercise. Some struggle with mental illness, others with physical ailments. Most battle addiction. The yoga McCarthy teaches is about controlling thoughts and breathing. “It’s about fostering deep change through a meditative process,” she says.
“With each exhale, settle a little bit further into the breath,” she says slowly, as the six men close their eyes. They haven’t touched their mats yet. They sit in folding chairs. “If you take a nap,” she adds in the same even tone, “I’ll pluck you in the
middle of the forehead.”
The man to her left cracks an eyelid to see if she’s serious.
McCarthy is tall and blond; she’s pretty. She has perfect posture and long, lean limbs—attributes that could also conjure a ballet dancer. But walking easily around the shelter, she seems sturdier than that. Among all the testosterone, she avoids looking vulnerable, perhaps because the men appear to appreciate her calm competence above anything.
“Release any leftover tension in your body,” McCarthy says, her voice hypnotic.
“If the body is relaxed, the breath is relaxed, and the mind is turned inward.”
The men get very quiet, their chests rising and sinking.
“If you calm the breath, you can calm the body and the mind,” McCarthy says, watching them closely. “Anytime, anywhere. You can do this.”
In 2006, McCarthy was working the front desk at YogaOne in Charlotte when she answered an Urban Ministry ad asking for volunteer yoga instructors. She wasn’t sure what she was getting involved in, but her instincts told her to do it.
The men in her first class had just begun a nine-month Substance Abuse Education and Recovery program commonly called SABER. It wasn’t long before she made what would be, for her, a life-changing recognition: There are profound similarities between practicing traditional yoga and overcoming addiction.
The traditional yoga system has students work through a series of eight concepts stacked like levels. “The first two deal with the morals and ethics of the practice,” McCarthy says. Others focus on concentration, meditation, and integration. “So the postures, what we generally think of as yoga, [are] really just one-eighth of the whole system,” she says. “And the whole system parallels pretty closely with Twelve Steps. It’s all about how you treat yourself and others.”
McCarthy believes yoga can help addicts cultivate a sense of control that those with the disease tend to lose, and she’s devoted herself to helping them make that connection.
She asks the men to take off their shoes and move onto their mats.
“You don’t want to see what I’ve got going on under here,” one says, pointing to his sneakers and frowning.
“No? OK,” she says, unfazed. “Stand on those mats anyway. You’re now going to draw the strength of your body back into your core,” McCarthy tells them. “Release the weight of your body into the soles of your feet. These are basic mechanics. We are realigning your body.” The men spend 20 minutes standing on their mats, mimicking her slow arm movements, measuring their breaths. McCarthy speaks in a steady, even tone. Eventually, she tells them to open their eyes.
“Who found their core?” she asks them. Two men raise their hands.
“But then I lost it,” says one, sighing with frustration.
After a year of volunteer work for SABER, McCarthy joined the staff at the shelter as a recreational therapist. In 2010, she branched out on her own, developing classes for other groups that help homeless, addicted, or incarcerated men. “I’ve been doing this work without pay,” she says. “In the meantime, I’ve learned how to live a simple life.”
She recently formed a donation-based organization called Swaraj Yoga and applied for nonprofit status. She now teaches at six facilities, including the Salvation Army. She also expanded to include some female students from The Battered Women’s Shelter, which just added a substance abuse program. “One of the ladies has anger issues,” McCarthy says. “And she came in one day saying, ‘Ms. Laura, I just love this breathing stuff! It stopped me from killing someone!’”
McCarthy believes the woman wasn’t entirely kidding.
“My students can be a little reticent to downright surly at first,” McCarthy admits. “But for the most part, I’d say they’re stellar because they’ve already committed to making major change. They’ve already committed to getting sober. How often can you say that about your average yoga student?”
“With a smooth breath, you’re going to soften the knees,” McCarthy tells her students at The Men’s Shelter.
No one does. She giggles. “No seriously,” she says. “Do it.”
She guides the group into Warrior One.
“Oh boy!” says one man, whose knees are creaking.
“You feeling some heat in your system?” McCarthy asks.
“Oh yeah,” he says, groaning his way into Warrior Two.
After a while, the door opens, and a young man in a dark jumpsuit walks in.
He gets a mat. “Welcome,” says McCarthy. “We were just about to move into final meditation.”
She tells the class to be very still.
“Um, are you telling me I’m not supposed to move?” the new guy asks.
“Yes,” McCarthy says. “Not a muscle.”
“What if I’ve got tears rolling out of my eyes?” he complains.
“Then you’re just going to let them roll,” McCarthy answers. “Just come back to the breath and begin again.”