Fitness Magazine

Yoga and Recovery

By Ninazolotow @Yoga4HealthyAge
by Richard B

Yoga and Recovery

Quiet Pond in the Park of Appeal by Gustav Klimt

The first thing that comes to mind as I write about yoga and 12 Step Recovery is equanimity. 
My name is Richard B. I am an alcoholic and drug addict. I am addicted to substances I haven't even tried. As a child of the 60's I started drinking at 16. At 18 I discovered marijuana and various other available mind altering substances. I barely made my way through college, graduating in 1974. I drank and used a variety of drugs. I then “shaped-up” a bit as I thought about my future and had a better experience in law school, graduating in 1977. I passed the bar exam and started a law practice in 1978. I was married in 1980. We had daughter in 1982 and sons in 1984 and 1986. But my success as a young lawyer fueled my sense of power and I used cocaine from 1981-1996, drinking and smoking weed all the while. 
Cocaine use ended abruptly in 1996 when the fellow that I was buying from got arrested. The idea that I could just stop as I did fueled another and different sense that I did not have a problem. For the next two years life was simple—there was not much drinking and weed seemed okay. But in 1998 I was injured and introduced to narcotic pain relief. For the next eight years I was on the train of narcotic pain medication, and I shopped on the internet and from various doctors. In 2005 I had surgery, which gave me license for more drugs. I used alcohol and marijuana to detox from the narcotics so many times that I cannot put a number on it. 
In November of 2005 my father had a precipitous psychiatric crash and a feigned suicide attempt. I was angry—this was the first time I could recognize anger. This allowed me to start on the road to recovery. Ten months later I saw a psychiatrist to determine, from my thought process, if I was destined to turn out like my dad. Then, on September 18, 2006, I saw a doctor and told him the truth about my drug and alcohol use for the than last 36 years. I was taking what I now understand was a fifth step (a “Fearless and Moral Inventory”) by telling the doctor the honest truth. Miraculously, the compulsion to drink and use was than lifted. He advised me to go to AA. I did, and I have remained sober, drug and alcohol free since September 18, 2006. 
My journey into yoga as a way of life came about two years into sobriety when my son, who was a student and practitioner of the Iyengar method, offered a solution to a physical ailment with specific asana. I was hooked. I sought out local Iyengar teachers and started to go to many classes. I was overweight, stiff, and knew nothing about what I started. But although I began the journey to yoga through asana, I started to become interested in what Mr. Iyengar had to say. So I started reading on the internet and also read Iyengar’s books, including Light on Life, Sparks of Divinity, and Light on Yoga. I also studied Gheeta’s Yoga for Women and watched many videos to learn about the method. 
I also read various iterations of the Yoga Sutras and rely on Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali by Mr. Iyengar. I feel that my understanding of these materials is basic at best as I continue to learn and practice the yamas and niyamas as the daily focus at this time. I have had a meditation practice that comes and goes but I remain okay with what is. 
But reading and studying yoga philosophy brings me to a deeper understanding the 12 Step program. The 12 Step Program is called a journey—a path—a marathon that is ever changing. As I come to understand the spiritual aspects of yoga I am comforted by the experience of growing in yoga. A good yoga teacher is like a 12 Step Sponsor—they will show you, guide you, encourage you, and make suggestions. These are individual journeys guided by someone who has been there before. But no more can we practice yoga with a teacher by our side all the time than can we practice the 12 Steps with our sponsor constantly at our heels. 
With this understanding, I can find a peaceful acceptance in respect to my abilities as a student of yoga and a 12 Stepper. This (sometimes fleeting) sense of calmness is what I mean by equanimity. Can I go to a higher-level yoga class and be okay with younger men and women taking poses in a more traditional alignment with less or no props? Can I participate honestly in 12 Step Meetings and not feel better than or worse than others? The 12 Step and Yoga path are very similar in this respect and my answer today to both questions is an unequivocal yes. 
Expressed in one-word characterizations, the principles of Recovery’s 12 steps include: Honesty, Hope, Faith, Courage, Integrity, Willingness, Humility, Brotherly Love, Justice, Perseverance, Spiritual Awareness, and Service. In the Program of Recovery outlined by the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous there are what we call dozens of promises—things that we can be assured of if we take certain action. “The Promises” state:
"If we are painstaking about this phase of our development, we will be amazed before we are halfway through. We are going to know a new freedom and a new happiness. We will not regret the past nor wish to shut the door on it. We will comprehend the word serenity, and we will know peace. No matter how far down the scale we have gone, we will see how our experience can benefit others. That feeling of uselessness and self-pity will disappear. We will lose interest in selfish things and gain interest in our fellows. Self-seeking will slip away. Our whole attitude and outlook upon life will change. Fear of people and of economic insecurity will leave us. We will intuitively know how to handle situations which used to baffle us.We will suddenly realize that God is doing for us what we could not do for ourselves.
"Are these extravagant promises? We think not. They are being fulfilled among us-sometimes quickly, sometimes slowly. They will always materialize if we work for them." —Big Book of AA, pgs. 83-84

Practicing yoga with mindfulness in respect to the Yoga Sutras and the yamas and niyamas has provided for me similar promises and freedom. I can go almost anywhere in Mr. Iyengar’s “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali” for a corollary to the principals of the 12 Steps. For example, in program we speak to character defects, which, in a nonreligious sense, may be equated with the seven deadly sins. An alcoholic may be angry, violent, dishonest, greedy, covetous, jealous, or glutinous to varying degrees. Sutra II.30 says:
"Non-violence, truth, abstention from stealing, continence, and absence of greed for possessions beyond one’s need are the five pillars of yama."

In program, we practice honesty, service to others, giving without expectation of reward or recognition, and wanting what we have as opposed to wanting something else or more. The disease of addiction has been said to be a disease of perception—wanting something other than we have—wanting more of what we think we need. Once we have what we call a spiritual experience—a psychic change—our whole outlook on life changes. We become accepting of the world the way it is: “right sized” as we say in program. Not better than others, not worse—we become workers among workers.
When the principles of the 12 step program began to appear similar to what I was learning about the yamas and niyamas, I began to see where the principles of yoga philosophy aligned with what I was doing in recovery. The yamas as precepts for social discipline and the niyamas as touchstones for individual discipline are illustrative:
Yama-asteya (non-stealing): While this may seem as simple as don’t be a thief, I find that it equates much to program suggestions of step 9 of making amends—make things right where we have harmed others. Many alcoholics stole the peace of mind of family, for example. In my case I stole my children’s mother from them. Their mom, in worrying about me, was not free to be herself. I also stole a present dad from their lives. In making amends, we admit our wrong and change our behavior—sometimes no small order after perhaps decades of self-indulgence. 
Niyama-svadhyaya (self study): Spiritual self-education and the contemplation and application of the spiritual principles and literature of our chosen paths. Because I choose to take the yogic and recovery paths, I study both recovery literature and yoga philosophy.
Now ten years plus in recovery, I continue on the lifelong journey of both recovery and yoga. It requires, for me, a daily application of action by staying involved in my recovery with meetings, sponsorship, and the sponsorship of other men in recovery. I go to several meetings every week. I actively sponsor those who ask to be sponsored. Today I am free. I ask for and accept help.
My yoga practice is a daily practice as well. I read the literature of yoga, go to classes., and practice at home. I am blessed with a well-appointed studio at home with yoga ropes and a variety props. Props are an ever-expanding idea as at nearly 65 years old I appreciate the opportunities that props allow me to learn asana. And I plan on taking teacher training as I come to retirement of a 40-year law practice as I want to teach yoga if there is a place for me to do so.
Some of the benefits of the asana work and philosophical studies include that seemingly, otherwise elusive, sense of peace and well-being or equanimity. Spiritually, yoga allows me to rest easier in the moment without regret or self-pity. It is only now—now will be different soon enough. I am assured by all of this that the horizons yet seen are brighter than I could imagine. As Mr. Iyengar states: 
“Yoga allows you to find a new kind of freedom that you may not have known even existed.” ― B.K.S. Iyengar, Light on Life
Alcoholics Anonymous promises similar freedom. I am grateful.
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