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.