Recovery Yoga with Rolf Gates

Q&A with Rolf Gates, Co-Founder of The Yoga, Meditation, and Recovery Conference

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Get to know Rolf Gates, the co-founder of the Yoga, Meditation, and Recovery Conference and the host of our next #WorkitCommunity event, Love Yourself Recovery Yoga.

Can you tell me a little bit about yourself? 

I’m Robert Gates. I’m a yoga teacher and I’ve been teaching yoga since the 90s. And I’m a dad and a 17-year-old who’s just got into college and is heading off on this next fall, and I have a 14-year-old who’s in ninth grade and is starting high school this year. My wife, Mariam, is a children’s author who’s written eight books on yoga for kids, and she’s a special ed teacher here in Santa Cruz.

How did you get into teaching Yoga? Why do you think practicing yoga is important for mental health? and for people in recovery?

I got into yoga for mental health. I was working with adolescents in residential treatment in the 90s. After my first year of that kind of work full time, I was working as an addictions counselor with these kids. I went on a yoga week for a vacation at Kripalu, and it was amazing. It was like everything I needed to do. That kind of work is very difficult. When you’re working with traumatized populations, you get vicarious trauma and so you start to experience the effects of trauma yourself. Being in a kind of sacred space, eating healthy and doing yoga poses, and doing meditation and breathwork was what I needed to both kind of work on my own mental health, but also go beyond kind of mental health and into wellness and proactivity, and so I did six years in that work. I spent the next five years, now that I had a resource to develop some enthusiasm for something I had just been surviving, which was the work I was doing. So yoga started off as a mental health practice, then I went to graduate school for social work and I needed a part-time job. I got and trained as a yoga teacher just as an excuse to spend 30 days at Kripalu in the summer of  1997. That sounded like a good idea, July in the Berkshires. I did that and then I needed a job while I was in school, So I started teaching yoga and I really liked it. But  I got nervous before my first class. Afterward, I was like, you know, I bet you have to teach five days a week if you don’t want to be nervous every time you teach, so I started teaching a lot and that also meant that I started getting paid a fair amount for someone in graduate school. I did that for a year, and then I took a full-time teaching job and I left graduate school in 1999 and I’ve been teaching full time ever since. 

I felt that yoga teaching was social work. A form of social work I wanted to participate in because it wasn’t just kind of working from the neck up, it was a way to kind of take whatever you’re doing about social work. It’s about learning how to treat yourself better, and it’s learning how to be more skillful in the world. And so there are skills that you’re being taught in a social work setting. And the way a yoga teacher teaches those skills is to have you embody them, you know, in real-time, like in so you’re it’s basically group facilitation where the students are embodying the principles, like from the first breath. Right. So it’s a very effective form of social work. So I was into it.

What is your advice to someone wanting to try yoga but they don’t know where to start?

I think it’s like it’s available kind of anywhere. During covid, it’s hard to kind of go to your local studio and takes a beginners class. But I’m sure that there is like an infinite amount of intro to yoga classes that you can do online these days, like through Peloton, they have yoga classes. You just have to go ahead and do it, If you have the resources, you can ask a teacher to work with you privately on Zoom to kind of get you up to speed. But I think at this point the resources are widespread. You just kind of jump in yoga. It’s not as dangerous as learning how to snowboard or ski. I watch my sons learning how to snowboard and I’m watching thousands of people learning how to ski and snowboard. So, like, if you can learn how to ski and snowboard, you can definitely learn how to do yoga poses. So jump in. Have courage. Have faith in yourself. 

I love yoga and meditation but often find myself distracted by other tasks I need to get done, other noise in my house, etc. Do you have any advice for how to overcome outside distractions and be more in the moment?

I would put first things first, you know, I’ve been coaching people for twenty-five years, and basically, people want to cut down trees, but they don’t want to sharpen the blade. Just kind of think of it that way, if you sharpen the blade, what happens to the process of cutting down trees? It’s like you’re one hundred percent more efficient if you sharpen the blade. Mental and emotional preparation is key. Mental preparation is how you enhance performance. So I would consider some mental preparation as part of how you get things done right. As far as emotional preparation, your body is holding a lot of stress and tension that makes you feel like you’re under stress and tension, but you’re really just holding stress and tension. So if you relieve that stress and tension directly, you won’t be making up stories to explain it. There’s a way that if you’re holding stress and tension, then you come up with a story to make that normal. It’s like, well, I have the stress and tension because my life kind of sucks. It’s like, no, you just have stress and tension in your body. 

Just be like I kind of feel pretty good at breakfast. Right? And so you’re sharpening your blade. You’re taking care of your body in a way that’s unbelievably empowering. You’re becoming independent, basically a health care system. You’re tuning the part of you that has true wisdom, like your body. And in Buddhism, the first foundation of mindfulness is tuning into your body because your body will tell you. If you’re eating right, your body will tell you if the person that you’re interacting with is truthful. Your body will tell you if what you’re being told is wise. Like if you’re in your body listening to me right now, you’ll know what I’m saying is truthful. You’ll know if it’s wise. You’ll know if you should follow this advice. The first foundation of mindfulness, which is like really being present for how your body’s responding to things as a way to teach you how to relate to your emotional life, your mental life, and then your external life, your external mindfulness. So it’s a very efficient way of getting ready for your day.

Another thing that I think makes a difference for people is self-compassion. There’s a way that we’ve learned not to care for ourselves. So what you’re really asking is how do I start caring for myself? In some ways, it has to feel practical, right. So do the practices and see if it’s practical if you’re having a better day. Really, the reason to do it is self-compassion, it’s just that we’ve just unlearned self-compassion. So you have to start with it being practical, like, wow, this is sharpening my blade. But at the end of the day, you’re discovering for yourself that consistent practice is an act of self-compassion.

Lastly, tell us where we can find you.

You can find me on rolfgates.com. I also provide a couple of free meditations a week if anyone is interested. All of the information is on my website.


For more information and to register for our next event, Love Yourself Recovery Yoga, on February 10th at 7pm EST/4pm PST, visit our #WorkitCommunity page. 

Courtney Todd is the digital marketing coordinator at Workit Health. She has a  passion for raising awareness in the addiction treatment, recovery, and public health space.

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