From drug addict to yoga instructor

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Wednesday, May 1, 2013 - 4:52pm

Editor's note: In the Human Factor, we profile survivors who have overcome the odds. Confronting a life obstacle -- injury, illness or other hardship -- they tapped their inner strength and found resilience they didn't know they possessed. This week, we meet recovering drug addict Vinnie Marino, now one of the most sought-after yoga teachers in Los Angeles.

(CNN) -- Vinnie Marino grew up in the 1960s and says a "restlessness" drew him to reading about Buddhism, practicing yoga and eating a vegetarian diet.

But, while in high school, he also found drugs. After dropping out of college, he moved to San Francisco, where, he says, "My first week there I was introduced to shooting cocaine." Eventually, heroin helped calm his "crazy cocaine brain." He stayed in the downward spiral for years before fighting to get clean.

Here are five questions for Marino:

CNN: You started doing yoga as a teenager when you were living in New York, but you didn't really get serious about it until you moved to Los Angeles. What happened?

Vinnie Marino: When I lived in Manhattan, I would jog around Washington Square Park, dreading each lap. I was never a good jock, but yoga just felt so intense. There was a soft side and a strong side to it and a spiritual feeling around it. It really felt like it embodied my whole thing.

So I started going to a few vinyasa flow and power flow classes in Los Angeles. There was music at some of them, and it was really physically challenging. It just kept calling me back. I didn't dread it like, "Oh, no, I've got to go the gym tomorrow." I know people who love the gym, and they go, and it's a great thing for them. That was just never my experience, but with yoga, I was excited about it, and I just kept on doing it.

CNN: You weren't sure if you could make a career out of it, though. Then came a pivotal moment. What was it like teaching your first class?

Marino: I did a lot of teacher trainings. I was studying Iyengar Yoga, and I just resisted teaching as much as I loved it. A friend of mine was teaching at a gym in Hollywood, and he said there were like three students that came. It was in an air-conditioned room at seven in the morning. He said, "I'm going away. Will you please teach for me?" I said, "Absolutely not. I will not. Cannot." He said, "I'm going away. You have to teach for me." So I went and did it.

Then, I was at another class at the gym I belonged to, and the teacher didn't show up. There were a whole bunch of students in the room, and they said, "You should teach! You're good at it, and you're always here." So I it did it again, and it was fun. Then it just started unfolding for me. I started substitute teaching at Yoga Works for Shiva Rea and Seane Corn and Eric Schiffmann, which is really funny. These are big names in yoga. It was really funny at the time.

CNN: I've heard you ask in class, "Who knows about the past or the future? Ram Dass said it all with 'Be here now.' " How did this become your philosophy?

Marino: The older I get, the more I become aware of the fact that life doesn't stop when bad things happen. You still go to work. You still function, for the most part.

I'm around a lot of people every day -- and I'm aware, from knowing these people year after year, that when some people disappear, I'm like, "Wow, I wonder where they went." Then they come back and tell me their husband died, they're living with their family -- or "I got a divorce," "I've been on cancer treatment." There are just so many things you don't actually see when you see a person, even if they appear healthy and strong and beautiful, which there's a lot of in L.A.

CNN: In fact, you say you've been drawn to Buddhism because they don't "rainbow-color" everything and simply encourage people to think good thoughts. Why do you so strongly believe in this mentality?

Marino: Underneath everything, we're all in this human predicament. In Buddhism, they talk about, inherently in life, there's suffering. There are a lot of people here in L.A. who have it all right now. So if you see someone and say, "Wow, they have a great career, tons of money; they're beautiful," there's almost a sadness in knowing that's not going to last forever.

Even if by some stroke of luck, whatever it is, you have an amazing life and nothing bad ever happens to you, you know that sooner or later, you're going to pass away, and everyone you love is, too. There's suffering in that.

CNN: From everything you've gone through, what's your message to anyone who's trying to live well?

Marino: Enjoy right now and be as kind to others as you can. A message that transcends every religion and spirituality is to be of service. Whatever it looks like in your life, as minimal or as big as it could be, people of service are usually happier because when you're of service, you realize you're a part of a whole.

They talk about this because people that live the longest feel like they're connected to a community. Whatever community that is, there's some connection that someone cares about. You care about them, and that makes our hearts beat. That makes us desire to get up and keep going.

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