Yoga and Recovery from Alcoholism

I am an alcoholic.  I am a junkie.  And I practice yoga.

Addicts and alcoholics are a breed apart.  Yogis, too, are often wildly misunderstood by people at large.  But in the two, I’ve managed to find my place in the world.

My recovery and my commitment to yoga happened nearly simultaneously.  Nearly.  I stuck my toe into yoga before I quit drinking.  Some alcoholics talk of ‘hitting bottom’, and as everybody has a few war stories, I could come up with a bottom if I had to.  I was certainly low.  I’d been dragging that bottom for ten years.  But I sometimes think that I didn’t hit a bottom so much as I hit a peak: I found something in yoga that allowed me to see my alcoholism, to want out, and then to recover.

In my still drinking life, yoga was a hammer.  I would go to class to beat the hangover out of me.  Sometimes this worked.  Sometimes I vomited.  Sometimes I came in sipping ‘tea’ that was really whiskey.  Sometimes I found that the yoga studio seemed to be a place of huge refuge; I was a mess; I hated myself; I made thousands of promises and couldn’t seem to do anything right.  But in class, for a few minutes at a time, I found myself thinking things along the lines of “I can do this”.  As in, I may not be able to do anything else in my life.  But I can be here.

But the two –  girls who drink like me end up in dumpsters – didn’t sail very well together.  My life became more untenable, even as a longing in me seemed to grow.  Let me be clear.  The longing has existed since I was a child.  My life has been mostly untenable from the age of 14.  But yoga made those things clear to me.  I had always known them, I suppose, but I had known them as a defeatist does.  This is just who I am.  This is as good as it gets.  Yoga gave me a few insights and some clarity, blew on the ember of longing in me, and started a new thing in my brain.  A new thought, along the lines of ‘maybe’.  Maybe I don’t have to be this way.

Then I quit drinking.  That process is largely inexplicable.  It hurts deep, it causes euphoria, it changes the core of life.  It’s a journey, and we all know journeys.  But the alcoholic recovery journey has a number of layovers in hell, and dead-endedness, and mindless life or death situations.

I quit drinking, and I started volunteering at a yoga studio.  I volunteered because I couldn’t afford to pay for classes.  For the next three months, I went to two or three AA meetings and two bikram classes a day.  I didn’t know what else to do with myself.  The yoga filled my time.  My typical response to stress or crisis is to stop eating, stop sleeping; yoga ensured that I did both.  It was a safe place for me to be – even though most people had no idea about the alcoholism part, they were generally healthy, compassionate, growing human beings.

Yogis don’t, generally speaking, understand my relationship to AA.  And the AAs don’t, generally speaking, understand my passionate relationship with yoga.

Yet they fuse, and have become my spiritual path.  I laugh: what I learn on the mat, and hear from teachers, are the same principles I practice in AA.  The language and principles and spirituality of AA echo the lessons I take from the mat.

Of course I don’t know, I can’t say how things might have been, but I feel pretty damn sure that I would not have gotten sober if either of these two elements were removed.

The alcoholic brain, the yogic promise

Much like survivors of abuse or trauma, alcoholics tend to be dissociated from their body.  This is largely a function of denial – if the alcoholic maintained awareness of the damage being done, continued drinking wouldn’t be acceptable.  In order to keep itself alive, alcoholism weaves distortion and denial.  But the dissociation may also be along the lines of traumatic ‘splitting’; active alcoholism is traumatic.  Alcoholics do dangerous things.  They do things they are ashamed of, which gets pushed around by justification, rationalization, and minimization so that the cognitive dissonance doesn’t destroy us.  Alcoholics frequently ‘black out’, which literally cleaves a separation between what happens, experience, and what is available to our conscious selves.  There are lies.  There is increasing regret, sadness, defiance.  The core states become stained with booze, but the whole thing so chronic that the alcoholic takes it all as ‘normal’.

Yoga, of course, is the practice of mindful movement.  It is a union of mind and body.  It binds, heals, and makes more aware the interplay between the two.  Yoga continued to be my hammer: it smashed through layers of denial, distortion, and severance that would have taken years in therapy, years of talk.  Through yoga, I not only became aware of my body, but curious toward it, and compassionate for it.

Yoga is detox, and stimulates healing.  By engaging in a regular practice, I began a genuine process of physical recovery.  Most alcoholics don’t know how sick they are, or how badly they feel, because the bad is normal.  Yogis learn to listen to their bodies – not only in the case of chronic illnesses, like alcoholism, but in terms of fatigue, hunger, and bruises.  Yoga revealed my wounds to me, and it is only in knowing the wounds that integrity of healing can begin.

Alcoholics are perpetually bad at emotions, make illogical cognitive leaps, and have tended to numb down what they feel at any given moment.  The gentle, benevolent awareness learned in asana and contemplation teaches us where we are.  Most alcoholics don’t know what they feel, let alone why.  Patiently, yoga makes us emotionally literate.

Alcoholics suffer a spiritual or existential wound, as deep as the physical damage.  Because they are numb, and because the spiritual is an abstract thing in the first place, finding things like hope, trust, faith, and meaning are serious problems for alcoholics.  This is the basis of the AA program.  The 12 steps are the idiot’s guide to finding your soul.  But many struggle with the antiquated language and heavily monotheistic rote of the AA program; while the program itself is flexible, mostly newly sober alcoholics are not.  Yoga, too, is soul craft.  But it sneakily doesn’t look or sound like it.  It is open enough to be interpreted as not spiritual at all, and it is not religious.  But any set of thoughts and practices that deals with the ‘self’ is ultimately a spiritual path, and yoga opens doors that seem closed at churches, temples, or AA meetings.

Sobriety’s mantra is day at a time, stay in the present, just for today.  Alcoholics tend to be wracked by guilt and shame, stuck in the past, or to be concerned about the future.  The only real way to maintain sobriety and equilibrium is through the practice of letting go and re-entering the present moment.  There is no better practicable way to do this than to do yoga.  There are concepts, and books, or theologies.  But yoga is an actual blueprint, a guidebook, a trap door into the present.  One foot in front of the other.

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