Addiction and Yoga

By Bob C.

My wife and I did our first date at a yoga class. It was a great idea I guess because we eventually got married. Doing a class five minutes after we met was a wonderful way to meet. We did not have to rely on each others, “verbal interface.” We met, said hi, then proceeded to do something that was non-verbal for almost an hour and a half.

I love that. I also love bringing people to their first yoga class- especially men, since men tend to be a bit uncomfortable taking a class. Out of all the people I love bringing to yoga, though, my favorite is a recovering addict. Yoga is in my opinion one of the most beneficial things a person in recovery from an addiction can do. It brings a sense of strength, enthusiasm and freedom.

The yoga process is very similar to the process of recovery, especially those found in 12-step movements. I would like to encourage anyone who is in recovery to try the wonderful practice, as a way to boost their recovery. I guarantee that giving a little dedication, yoga will give you back a lot.

What do recovery and yoga have in common? Yoga increases a sense of clarity, and so does the 12-step recovery process. I’ve taught a lot of yoga, and taken thousands of classes, and one of the most common things I hear talking to people is that yoga induces mental clarity. When I practice regularly, my focus is strong.

What does clarity have to do with recovery? Perhaps only a person who never struggled with an addiction would ask, as subjectively, addiction is a confusing illness to have. You crave using substances that have brought you devastating suffering in a way that overwhelms the sincere desire to not. I came into recovery because I’d had enough, and addiction followed me like a shadow. It was maddening. By then end of it, I didn’t know up from down or right from wrong. Clarity brought me into a relationship to the truth about what I really wanted, and I wanted to get and stay sober.

There is more to the relationship between clarity and recovery. Addicts have a difficult time remembering the nasty things that happened because of their using. Memory is an important element of our choice, or “executive function,” since we learn by making mistakes. Well, addicted people keep doing the same damn thing in part, because they quite actually forget what they just did. An addict’s memory is as impaired as he often is. Or she.

It is not surprising that there is an old AA cliché about a “moment of clarity.”

Yoga also strengthens body and mind. Through the practice I have developed a sense of comfort with myself. It gives me a quiet confidence. Through yoga I began to have slightly more meaningful conversations, interactions, and thus relationships. I listen to others more carefully and to care more about what people say.

Listening became an inward process as well and yoga and recovery gave me back my intuition. One of the results of this was that I became more sociable. I wasn’t social? After about two months of dedicated, three- times- a -week yoga, I noticed this peace and comfort with myself more, which was abetted by noticing that people liked me. (This is news to many addicted people in early recovery). Yoga has assisted me, in short, to be able to receive and to simply take part in other people’s lives.

The sense of strength and clarity wrought from regular yoga has also changed the way I perceive the world in general. It was small, simple things that my addicted mind did not really notice, value or enjoy. For example, in early in recovery, I was overwhelmed with stress in many situations that seemed very easy for others to negotiate. My mind raced all the time. Ironically, my angst was most acute in mundane social situations: Riding the bus, working at a job and even going to AA meetings.

The meetings were places that I could at least feel that others kind of “got” where I was coming from. Though 12 step fellowships have helped a great deal, a regular yoga practice has been indispensible for me to “reset” my confidence and resilience to stress in simple, everyday situations.

Yoga has revealed, much like formal 12 step work, strong and erroneous ideas about my own weakness, loneliness and lack of value. I lived in a fantasy that was often very much more like a nightmare. And all I had to do to confirm these poor beliefs was to look up and see myself addicted. What could be more of an expression of human aloneness than addiction and its general retreat from life?

Yoga, along with other recovery tools, gives me a feeling of excitement about life that is an antidote to poor beliefs about myself.

What is yoga? When I started, I thought it was a series of poses that I had to get right. Men often say to me that yoga is for women who want to be fit. They say, like I did, “I don’t know the poses and I’m not very flexible.” This relegation of yoga to mere physicality is interesting, since yoga is also a method to achieve freedom from what The Yoga Sutras call “samskaras.” The rough translation of the ancient word samskara is “a deeply ingrained, negative attitude and habit of the mind.”

How close is that to the definition of addiction? Yoga- along with fellowships like AA- are part of the long human tradition of creating systems, designed to free ourselves from suffering mind. In this sense, yoga predates (and predicts) fellowships like AA and other addictions healthcare practices by a couple thousand years. And here we in the West thought that we had cornered the market on addictions recovery!

Simply put, yoga means “to yoke” or to connect. The process is very similar to what one experiences in AA.

About the Author

Bob C. 39, is a happy member in AA who just celebrated six years sober. He has a regular yoga practice, a cat and a beautiful wife named Lisa. He writes regularly on addiction, mental health and recovery, as well as poetry and short stories. His cat co-wrote most of his stuffy university papers while drinking feline energy drinks such as Red Tabby and Catnip-Star. He has also written an article for AA Agnostica called, The First 164 Pages. Bob spends an inordinate amount of time in his car and often resorts to listening to country music on the drive home. He is a social worker practicing in addictions and mental health, and is interested in research about how the human body plays a key role in healing from mental health disorders. He lives in downtown Toronto.

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  1. Gerald May 30, 2018 at 4:11 pm - Reply

    That’s a good one, Man, “Five minutes after meeting my future wife for the first time, we proceeded to do something non-verbal for the next hour and a half.” Hey, that’s great. I’d call that love at first sight 🙂

    Well, I haven’t got on the yoga mat yet, but I see from your bio that we share an interest in the physical side of recovery. Like you talk about here, our memory doesn’t work right; we just don’t think right. Well, the Big Book calls it insanity. I think the 12&12 uses the word “mentally ill” at least once.

    I remained a depressive the first fifteen years sober in AA. Then I switched to ultra-low carb dieting in ‘09. Not a moment depressed since.

    I couldn’t think, act, pray, inventory, investigate childhood trauma, or hope my way out of my irrational depression. My irrational, lifelong depression had been caused by malnutrition.

    Of course the depression had been a big part of what was behind the addictions & the low self-esteem – simply, basic failures at life because my brain was malnourished (!) No philosophy or religious belief was going to undo malnutrition!

    And Bill W., too, he found a solution to his depression in mega-dosing vitamin B3. You can also google “AA + Bill W. + hypoglycemia.”

    … Wish I had received this information when I was new in AA. Not that B3 was going to save me. Tried it – like a cool, minty fresh wind blowing through the front part of my brain, but I tried it after I had already recovered from depression through dietary means. I was curious; could it make me feel even b.e.t.t.e.r.??? 🙂 No, just made me feel like a York Peppermint Patty commercial 🙂 plus the side effect of a bright red face.

    Bill W. swore by it and conducted experiments/ studies with M.D.’s on newly sober alcoholics to see if B3 would improve their chances of getting sober.

    But getting back into life, physically & bodily, has been an essential part of my recovery, too. There have been many other examples, but ‘09, again ‘09, I discovered a love for organic veggie gardening. You know, I’ve seen yoga up close as my wife practices at home. Me, I like to dig tree holes and veggie beds, get my hands in the soil, and be outside year ‘round. And that’s where I re-connect, me, the cerebral type, stuck in my head and running scared my whole life, from an early age. That depression went back to age four, at least, and the childhood trauma, domestic violence, all the way back to my diaper days, preverbal – good memory for the PTSD right, 🙂 , but not for how I made a fool of myself in a black out, again 🙂

    And yes, it’s an extra-big turn off, nowadays, from the Thumper crowd: j.u.s.t. follow the Big Book instructions. I say, don’t just follow those instructions but start there. It’s j.u.s.t. a beginning.

    So, we’ve been raising our five kids low carb, low carb for the younger four & the wife, ultra-low carb for me and the oldest, disabled, Down syndrome – he doesn’t do much better with plant foods than I do. And it is a daily joy to watch my kids glow with physical a.n.d. mental health, which I did not enjoy growing up, even though I grew up in a well-to-do neighborhood, and we had plenty of money for food.

    We just didn’t know any better, so we just ate a diet high in processed carbs, you know, j.u.n.k.! 🙂 Restaurant food, etc..

    Other parents, including professionals who’ve seen a lot of kids, are always telling us, wow, your kids are healthy looking. Yes, they are, and makes me happy, daily.

    … Alcoholism, mental illness, and poor nutrition – this relationship has been understood, and for quite a while. We can google these topics.

    It’s just that AA doesn’t know it.

    And that’s a shame!



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