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Yoga and addiction: my story, your story.

You've probably heard someone say 'I have an addictive personality', hey, maybe you've even uttered that sentence with caution and shame at some point? Whether it be drugs, alcohol, food, sex, work, social media, I believe that we all have the tendency to be addicted to something, whatever the object of said addiction, the energy of addiction is present for most of us at some point in life, especially when the going gets tough.

When I got sober nearly 3 years ago, I heard other people in recovery talking about how your addiction can 'change hats'. This describes the replacing of one addictive behaviour with another, slightly less destructive one. Once I stopped drinking alcohol and using party drugs, I found myself turning to food for comfort and also over-busying myself with work. These weren't necessarily new addictions (old habits die hard). Whilst you could argue that these 'substances' are not as harmful, they still kept me in my addict energy, an energy that takes you anywhere but here and now.

The hashtag #yogaaddict has 3.9million features on instagram alone, and its funny (although I realise hashtags are mostly gimmicks) because yoga, I think, is the direct opposite of addiction. Addiction has a way of taking you out of the present, it helps you to numb out from the intensity of the moment, which might be stressful, sad or even unbearably happy (celebratory binge drinking anyone?), and it helps us to time-travel; something our modern conditioning seems to celebrate, with the culture of instant gratification and near constant comparison to other peoples' lives.

My story

(Please be aware this mentions disordered eating, alcohol and drug use in detail, please take care whilst reading)

Since I can remember, I was addicted to sugar. Now I know what you're thinking, woah, big deal! Everyone likes the sweet stuff, especially kids! But here's the thing, sugar is a drug and it is actually a gateway drug for many addicts out there, and I've seen first hand just how much this is true within the context of a 12-step recovery program. As a kid, whenever we would bake a cake, I would make myself ill eating as much of the mixture as I could. I remember food being very clearly labeled as 'good' and 'bad' and each category having its designated area in the family kitchen, the former on a reachable level, the latter high up and out of reach; I'm pretty sure there's more than one childhood tale of me injuring myself trying to get to the 'bad' stuff. I was taught danger and fear around certain foods, and this made me want them all the more. It wasn't long before I fell into a scarcity relationship with food, despite growing up with no food insecurity whatsoever. I felt embarrassed when I was hungry and so I ate in private, and I didn't just eat, I binged. The bingeing made me numb which gave me temporary relief from my shame, but then I started to gain weight; something that almost immediately drew comments from my family and less loudly, but just as apparently, from my school peers. The pressure of not fitting in was too great, so I sought to starve in between my binges, which had such a devastating effect on my metabolism and blood sugar, that I craved the sugar high more than ever, and experienced diabolical lows when I cut myself off at the source.

Something weird then started to happen, I started to get as addicted to the feeling of emptiness and the frantic anxiety that brought, as I did the dozy numbness of being overly full. This addiction was no healthier, and yet I was praised, because I appeared thin. I was 14 years old at this time. The less of me there was, the more value I seemed to have; yet another feeling to chase and be addicted to. However, my still-growing body couldn't sustain this, and whilst I berated myself for not having better will power at the time, I am so glad my body's wisdom stepped in, overriding my addicted brain, and telling me to nourish myself urgently. There were spells of balance throughout the rest of my teens and twenties, but they were often interrupted by the dizzying swing between dieting and bingeing, often purging through vomiting, laxatives and over-exercise.

My relationship with alcohol was fairly standard (by the unhealthy norms of british youth) for a very long time, because of a need to control everything in sight, and I didn't like the out-of-control feeling that having one too many created. I would say that my drinking only became unmanageable from my mid twenties, when I would drink alone, and drink to withdraw myself from social situations, rather than use the extra lubrication to further ingratiate myself with the party. I remember the first time I took drugs, well actually, I remember the first time I enjoyed drugs. My first experience was weed and it was NOT for me, and I can vividly remember telling my then-boyfriend that I thought my head was coming off. A hard no and an experience I would not revisit for a while. I remember my first time taking an upper though, and that felt truly exquisite. It was MDMA and I was at university, and I had no concept of what a comedown was, so I thought I was in heaven and naturally told everyone that I loved them. I'm pretty sure that I almost broke my poor brain using such drugs throughout university. MDMA gave way to cocaine which is honestly such an ugly drug in every way. I actually feel embarrassed writing that I used to use it recreationally, and, I'll be honest, there were at least two instances where I also used it as a pick-me-up whilst trying to overcome a hangover. What I will add here is that, whilst I am clean and sober, I don't judge anyone who chooses to have fun with drugs and alcohol, it's your body and your choice, but for me it was the way I used these things, not the fact that I used them alone. I used like an addict. It was never enough.

What might surprise you is that this whole time, I was doing yoga. I was also teaching yoga. I've been teaching yoga for almost seven years and three of those seven have been sober. I grappled with whether or not to admit this, because I worry about how irresponsible and phony I might have seemed as a y0ga teacher who got blind drunk and high at the weekends. But I also know that what allows me to share the power of yoga in a truly meaningful way is the fact that I can share from real, lived experience. Getting sober is no walk in the park, but I've used my yoga to help me, and I live this every single day, so therefore the advice, wisdoms and teachings that I'm sharing with you in class are the real deal. You might ask, why, if I have been teaching and practising for all that time, did it take me so long to get sober? Well, for one, I started practising yoga at 14 and had a hell of a lot of life to live before I could reach any kind of maturity to make such a life change, yoga or no yoga. I was also leaving my yoga practice as soon as I left my mat. I saw yoga as something that happened for the 75 minutes of class and maybe that pleasant feeling lingered for an hour after, two if I was lucky, but I never even thought about how I might integrate it into my whole day.

How to manage addiction through yoga

People bang the drum of 'yoga-is-more-than-the-poses' quite hard these days, but often don't offer up much explanation for what else is there, leaving newer practitioners feeling confused and possibly even a bit guilty for not 'getting it'. Yoga, in its fullness as a practice, philosophy, worldview, code of ethics, science etc. is endless and complex, but I find that breaking it down in terms of how it can benefit modern afflictions to be a helpful entry point.

As I mentioned earlier, yoga allows for presence, which is the exact opposite of addiction. Though beginning a yoga journey and how good it initially makes you feel might seem pretty addictive, the further down the path you go, the less high it makes you feel, the more it challenges you; physically, mentally, emotionally, spiritually, and this is the crucial turning point. Whilst I didn't turn my back on yoga when things got tough, I refused to go deep enough with it that I might actually start to transform my life. In spite of the pain it caused me, I was oddly comfortable in my addiction. And when I talk about 'going deep', I'm not talking about how deeply you can stretch your hamstrings here, but how deeply you can stretch your present awareness and then take an honest, unflinching look at all that you are, even the 'ugliest' parts, and hold them with full compassion. That compassion is also a present state, it isn't compassion for some future you once you get it all figured out, it's caring for you fully, as you are, right now, because you are inherently deserving of wellness, contrary to what you might think and we are often told; that you have to be 'good' to feel well. Yoga, after all, can't actually give you anything new, that you don't already have, instead it is a remover of obstacles; illusions and untruths (and addictions) that hold you back from living in the fullest expression of who you are.

So, practically, how does yoga remove these afflictions and addictions?

  • Asana (the poses) works on the body in a way that starts to rebalance the nervous system. It's very difficult to make big life changes with a frazzled nervous system, hence why asana is such a powerful gateway. I felt this change early on, I just didn't know how or why I felt it, but it doesn't really matter once you unlock this phase.

  • Pranayama (breathwork) continues that work of balancing the nervous system and helps you reverse out of fight/flight (the state that often triggers addictive behaviour). It's good to precede this with asana since you'll get a lot more out of this with a body that has been warmed up.

  • The Yamas and the Niyamas (from Patanjali's yoga sutras) constitute a list of suggestions for what you might think about removing from your life (bad habits) and how you might replace those with better ones. You don't have to follow these to the letter, but they make a good starting point if you're looking for guidance on how to start making small changes that lead to bigger and more profound ones. In these you'll get to observe the option of reframing negative thoughts into positive, compassionate ones and cultivate contentment instead of extreme emotions (which can create those addict impulses).

  • Bhakti (the yoga of devotion), can be expressed through chanting (which I highly recommend), or even something as simple as creating an intention or a dedication for your practice. This is akin to the concept of a 'higher power', which is a term that you hear a lot in recovery spaces; the philosophy that formed those spaces borrows heavily from yogic wisdom traditions. The spiritual component of healing can be challenging for some, especially if you've had a negative experience with religion, but in this instance it is more about surrendering and actually accepting that there is a constant universal support for you in your journey and its many challenges; a comforting reminder that we are never really alone.

These are just a few examples, but they're great ones to focus on if you're a yoga practitioner who would like to know how to get out of your addictions and stay out of them. It's definitely a daily practice, but it's a very worthwhile one.


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