It was a very unexpected benefit.Laying in Savasana (dead man’s pose), I felt like the weight of the World had been lifted off of me.There was a steady and deep contentment that had evaded me for the previous two decades despite many attempts to capture it.One clear thought crossed my mind: Yoga is my recovery superpower!
My original motivation to go to yoga was to relieve the chronic throb at the base of my back that pulsated like the heartbeat of a wild horse. My other hope was to drop a few pounds that inhabited my hips and clung on with a death grip. A friend suggested that yoga would help both dilemmas. So off I went with high anxiety and a sticky new yoga mat.
Months later, while lying supine on the floor, it occurred to me that yoga was providing an enormous boost to my ability to stay clean and sober.I was even feeling happy. The struggle of early recovery seemed to slip away as quietly and slowly as ice melts from a frozen pond in spring.I was in the midst of a big thaw and I loved it!
My curiosity was piqued that morning as my yoga practice concluded. I wondered exactly how yoga had created such a sense of ease in my mind and my body.I realized yoga is my recovery superpower because it helps me to cultivate discipline; experience bursts of joy; improve my focus, strength and stamina; and connect to community.
Yoga became a recovery superpower for me because it requires me to be disciplined.I commit to rolling out my mat in a yoga studio or in my home.Then I actually do it. The decision to practice is not enough.I have to take action.
This takes discipline.I experience the benefit of making a commitment and having the skill and ability to actually stick to it.I hold this committment lightly so it does not become a stressor if I miss a day or two here and there.
Being disciplined in this way has given me confidence, positive regard for myself, and a can-do attitude.Not to mention the benefits of a consistent yoga practice!
Bursts of Joy
For some people it might be difficult to imagine how yoga would bring bursts of joy.This was definitely an unanticipated recovery tool for me.
The bursts of joy come when I experience a physical release in a tight shoulder as a result of my yoga practice.Joy also comes when I finally capture that balancing pose if even for only a second or two.
And perhaps the most amazing experience of joy is walking out of the yoga practice when I feel renewed, reset, and ready to take on life clean and sober.
Focus, Strength, & Stamina
One of the greatest assets of a regular yoga practice is a sharper mental focus.Being aware of what I am focusing on has helped my yoga practice and my sobriety.
Focus matters when I am in a pose on my mat and when I am living life.I can see how I am holding tension in my body, mind, or spirit.When I realize my focus is not where I want it or my focus is all over the place, I can make a conscious decision to redirect my attentions.
This is an excellent recovery superpower because before I sharpened my focus through yoga, my mind and emotions dragged me around like a wind slams a wind chime in a hurricane.No wonder I was frequently anxious and always on the verge of relapse.
Because of my yoga practice, I have learned the relapse prevention skill of being able to direct my attention to more beneficial and supportive areas that support my recovery rather than destroy it.
I have gotten physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger as a result of my yoga practice.My body muscles have gained strength as I learn new poses and take familiar poses deeper.My mind has strengthened as a result of being able to choose what I focus on. Very few people actually have this skill.Try focusing on your breathing for only ONE minute and see if your mind wonders.
My stamina to withstand that which I do not like has improved too.I have learned to practice being comfortable with the uncomfortable. Now this is a magnificent recovery superpower!When I am in a yoga pose that I do not like, I practice being with that which is uncomfortable.I learn that I do not have to react. This translates off the mat when I am in conflict with someone I love or my boss is having a bad day and taking it out on me.
My stamina has improved and I have become more physically, mentally, and emotionally stronger.I used to take everything personally, tire easily, and feel like I was constantly in a battle with everyone and everything.My stamina has improved and I have put down my sword. There is tremendous freedom of spirit and I find peace and serenity.
Connect to Community
I did not go to yoga class to find friends. Yet over time, I saw the same people and we would small talk before and after class.That led to having a coffee together and then attending a talk or going on a weekend retreat.I practiced being in healthy relationships.This was something that seemed out of reach for me in my active days of using drugs and alcohol.
Through my yoga practice I also found I was getting better at connecting with my loved ones.I no longer had the need to change things to be as I thought they should be.My acceptance and tolerance grew.My ability to authentically contact with others improved.This is a very helpful superpower in recovery!The isolation of addiction waned as my ability to connect improved.
The skills I learn being on my yoga mat translate into real life situations.My yoga practice is a superpower because it helps me to cultivate discipline; experience bursts of joy; improve focus, strength and stamina; and connect to community.
I never would have guessed that yoga and sobriety would be a focus in my life.I went to yoga class because I felt overweight and my back hurt.I was in early recovery but the two seemed unrelated.My yoga was my yoga.My sobriety, well, my sobriety was just separate. Yoga & Sobriety
Then I realized that the more I did yoga the better I felt. The better I felt, the more smoothly sobriety went.I began to wonder what was going on.So I started talking to people, cruising the Internet, and reading articles.It became clear to me that something was happening and I was not imagining the changes I was experiencing.
Eventually, I saw that there were four things that my yoga practice was providing that also improved my sobriety.I am sure there are many more positive attributes of doing yoga but, at this time in early recovery, I only saw these four: an increase in awareness; my mat as a mirror; confidence booster shot; and stillness.
Increase In Awareness
Once I started to become consistent going to yoga I began to notice a lot more about everything.Emotions, thoughts, and especially cravings became obvious and somehow not so subtle anymore. Once I was aware of their presence, I now had choice as to what to do about it.I became a lot more aware of my emotional wake, that is, the impact I was having on others as a result of my behaviors and words.I noticed you a lot more and could see that I was shifting from being self-focused to an extreme to being increasingly more other-focused.
At times all this awareness was a bit overwhelming.I realized I could only take it in small chunks some days and other days I welcomed it and was grateful to be seeing a new reality.This waking up is a common manifestation of a consistent yoga practice.It may have something to do with having to train the mind to be in the moment when on a yoga mat in order to follow along with the class.Having body awareness in yoga is essential and this also helped my entire being to begin to wake up to the present moment and accept it just as it is.
My Mat As A Mirror
I once heard a yoga teacher say that our yoga practice is a mirror for our lives.I did not understand this statement at all.I had no clue what she was talking about.Esoteric, I thought, and therefore beyond my understanding.
I noticed that I had trouble with all balancing poses. I would constantly lose my balance and fall out of the pose.Even after getting better at a lot of the poses I still struggled with the balancing ones.I dreaded the balancing part of each class. It was curios to me why this was happening.I followed the instructions and cues but still wobbled and eventually fell out.
One day I remembered the teacher saying that our mats are like a mirror to our lives.Bam!It hit me.At the time I was frantically running around like a lunatic trying to be wonder woman.Meetings, therapy, work, family, exercise – super woman!I would fall into bed so exhausted every night and still feel like I should have done more.To say my life lacked balance was an understatement!
So I began to practice the graceful art of saying no and slowing down.I had to learn that my worthiness in life was not predicated on how much I got done in a day or how crammed my schedule was.I stopped wearing my hectic schedule as a badge of honor and worthiness.
I learned that I could have balance in my life and on my yoga mat.
Confidence Booster Shot
I started yoga practice with a lack of body awareness and an inability to actually do most of the poses at any level of skill.I was trying too hard and performing rather than releasing and letting go into the postures.
Yoga practice was an unfolding of a slow inner connection and an internal awareness that started to dominant my life.Slowly, through practice and persistence, I began to gain confidence on and off my yoga mat.
The poses that once were absolutely unavailable to me, too hard or too flexy-bendy, over time became accessible.I started to listen to my body and trust it more.This manifested off the mat as knowing when to pause before speaking or acting.It also meant I began witnessing my thought patterns and behaviors as an outside observer.Not judging, just noticing. I realized I had more options; more choices available in any given moment.The wisdom of the body began to connect with the knowing of the mind.
Getting better at the physical poses, becoming aware of the wisdom within, and seeing that my perception was the only thing in the way of true happiness and contentment, all gave me a huge confidence booster shot.
I was feeling much better in my own skin and everyone was commenting on how I seemed different, in a positive way, but no one could quite put their finger on what was different.I knew exactly what it was and I felt like I had a superpower that was proving to be extremely useful in sobriety! My yoga practice was reaping huge benefits for my sobriety.
Being alone was always a very scary event for me.Anxiety would rise up and take over every thought and emotion.I avoided being quiet and being still at all costs.When I was quiet difficult emotions and thoughts in my body would start to pulsate and my mind would start screaming while my throat tightened.I learned early on to numb all that chaos inside of me and to avoid being alone and quiet; avoid being still.
Savasana is the final resting pose of every yoga practice. It is also known as “dead man’s pose” because you lay completely still stretched out on your back on your yoga mat.
At first this pose was unwelcomed aspect of every yoga class I took.My mind would race around evaluating how I thought I did during the class or my mind would be busy judging others.During savasana every teacher would encourage us to rest, let go, and just breathe.
I am not sure exactly when it happened and I imagine it was slowly developing over time, but I began to actually try to experience what the teacher was suggesting.Focusing on my breath was available to me so I would watch the rise and fall of my chest or listen to the wave like sounds of my breathing.I liked the peace and serenity I felt as I gave over the need to control the present moment.In time, I befriended stillness and actually began to seek it out.
Today, I know that I need a bit of stillness on a regular basis to pause, let go, and surrender once again to the way things are.It helps to remind me that I am not in charge and there is no need to make things different than they currently exist.I found true and deep acceptance in the stillness I practiced on my yoga mat.
When I started practicing yoga in early recovery, I had a faint inclination that it was somehow going to be a huge support in helping my sobriety and staying clean & sober. I had no idea how and I could not explain why. But I knew something very special was happening in my body, mind, and spirit in those early days of yoga practice. Since then I have become interested in understanding how yoga helps me stay clean and sober.
A study from 2014 specifies what is actually happening physically, neurologically, emotionally, and behaviorally when one commits him or herself to the practice of the eight-limb path of yoga. Most people in the West think of yoga as only the postures – or asanas. Yoga is actually an entire system for health and well-being. This system of yoga has been a huge relapse prevention tool for me. It took me awhile to realize how enormous of a support my yoga practice is to my recovery from addiction. Now, it is an essential part of my sobriety toolkit.
The Eight-Limb Path to Sobriety
Ethics – The Yamas and the Niyamas make up the first and second limb. The Yamas are considered moral observances like non-violence and non-stealing. The Niyamas are self-disciplines like practicing contentment and surrender. Contentment means I am not restless and constantly thinking I need more, bigger and better. Surrender means I accept conditions as they are not as I wish them to be. For a more in-depth review of the first two limbs of yoga go here. The ethical principles that make up the first two limbs are put into practice in day-to-day living is how yoga helps me to stay clean and sober.
Asana – This is the third limb. Asana is the Sanskrit word that refers to the postures that are done in a yoga class. The movement of my body in yoga helped to awaken my awareness of the emotions that were stored there. I had separated myself from my emotional self by numbing with drugs and alcohol. Yoga helped to connect my mind and my body. I saw there was a reservoir of healing that still needed to happen in order for me to be free from the pain of the past. My body remembered even though my mind was ready to move on. I found great healing and skillfulness with my emotions every time I unrolled my yoga mat and did the poses.
Breathing Exercises – Specific ways of working with the breath is known as Pranayama. This practice involves working with the breath like counting the inhale in and the exhale out slowly, retaining the inhale (holding one’s breath) and sustaining the exhale, and alternate nostril breathing. At first pranayama practices are awkward as we learn how to control the breath and get in touch with its essence. Over time, I have experienced tremendous calm and peaceful abiding as a result of just five minutes of breathing practice. This part of the eight-limb path is intended to prepare the mind for meditation. Working with the breath in very specific and intentional ways quiets the mind and a deep and refreshing stillness emerges that translates into inner peace and serenity.
The next four parts of the eight-limbs of yoga are different types of meditation. They specifically focus on turning inward and quieting the mind, body, & spirit. Each one has its own specialty area and, when practiced regularly, brings skillfulness in working with the fluctuations of thought and emotion. These practices illustrate specifically how yoga has helped me stay clean and sober.
Sensory Withdrawal – In Sanskrit this is known as Pratyahara. I first learned this during asana practice. In order to hold a balancing pose I had to focus my eyes on one spot and block out all other movement and sounds in the room or I would fall. In those first few months of yoga practice every time someone near me wobbled or fell out of a balancing pose, so would I. I begin to see how my yoga mat is a mirror for my life. Whatever crisis those around me were enduring I, too, would be adversely affected. Pratyahara has helped me to see that I can be compassionate and emphatic and not be lost in someone else’s emotional turmoil. Simply by withdrawing my senses and coming into my quiet place I can reset myself to avoid overloading my senses and flooding my emotions. This is very useful in recovery because I can manage my emotions much more efficiently and skillfully.
Attention Control – This is known as Dharana. It is often thought of as concentration. I do not think that term really fits because that connotation means I am going to overpower my mind and try really hard to pay attention. It has a sort of constricting quality that requires me to buck up and focus. This misses the point of Dharana. It is really more about training the untrained mind with a gentle and compassionate patience that is enduring. An analogy that is used often is that of training a puppy to sit. We do not kick and hit the puppy every time it gets up and curiously starts exploring. We patiently and gently bring the puppy back to the sitting position and say ”sit.” It is an open loving stance imbued with patience and kindness. My Dharana practice has been a focus on the breath by simply noticing when I am breathing in and out. I even notice the ever so slight pause at the top of the inhale and the bottom of the exhale. Every time my mind wanders, I bring it back to the breath, again and again without judgment. Paying attention in this way has sharpened my ability to notice and to be aware of what is going on around me and inside of me. For my recovery, this is a huge dose of relapse prevention! When I am starting to get irritated, shut down, or unhinged, I see it in the developing stages and take appropriate action to save myself and those around me from the pain and suffering of my actions.
Meditation – Dhyana is the seventh limb of the eight limbs of yoga. It is different than the attention control we practice in Dharana because here we bring precise attention to all that surfaces externally and internally and then practice acceptance. With meditation I am aware of all that is and I no longer have to react to it. I realize that my reactions come from my conditioning. This conditioning parses everything into good or bad; strong or weak; like or dislike. This creates great suffering as I grasp for what I like and want and push away that which I do not. Not a fun way to live. Finding that middle path of accepting all that comes up and all that happens with a mindful presence brings the peace and serenity that I have always sought. In meditation we eventually become one with the meditative object and cease feeling separate from all things and everybody. One of the reasons I drank and drugged excessively was because of the intense pain of not feeling a part of. I always felt apart from. Dhyana helps clear that emotional and cognitive hurdle and I begin to experience that I actually cannot be separated from any thing as it is all one. I know with certainty that I am not a separate entity.
Samadhi – is the final limb of the yogic path. It is when we transcend the realities of form and shape and experience self-realization in its highest form. Samadhi is the highest form of feeling one with all things. It is a true connection and joining with the divine.
From my yoga mat and meditation cushion I have realized that the visceral attunement that emerges as a result of practicing and living the eight limbs of yoga is actually my authentic self – or the Spirit within – manifesting. Connecting to the Spirit within gives me an undeniable internal compass point that insists that I continue to do the next right thing. This is how yoga helps my sobriety and remaining clean and sober.
Sobriety is the key to a better life. Sobriety is a way of life. Sobriety is change.
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