It is fairly well known that Yoga is a valuable tool to help in addiction recovery. Most people know that it helps us to relax, to release tension, to become more flexible and strong, and more focused. What is less well known are the non physical ways that Yoga can help us.
The Yamas and Niyamas are the first two of the Eight Limbs of Yoga. These Eight Limbs are the steps along the Yoga path to enlightenment. These steps can also be of great help on the path to recovery from addiction.
The Yamas and Niyamas teach us how to behave in a way that elevates us beyond our animal instincts, and guide us to become a better human.
The Yamas are the ‘don’ts’, they help to curb the base, animal instincts in us. The Niyamas teach how to be the very best we can be. They all have a lot of teach us as we walk through our recovery.
Ahimsa means non violence. It is mostly thought of as being about not harming others. It is linked to certain ways of thinking – veganism and pacifism are ways of practising Ahimsa. Ahimsa is not just about our actions, but our words and even our thoughts. Passing harsh judgement on someone else in your mind is, in Yogic thought, an act of violence against them
It is also about how we relate to ourselves. If we want to practice Ahimsa, we must try to ensure that we are not harming ourselves either. This applies to what we do to our body, what we allow others to do to us, and what we tell ourselves with our internal dialogue.
Yoga offers us many ways to curb our violence to ourselves, through altering our thoughts, our responses, teaching us awareness of our emotions and much more.
When I began my Yoga teacher training, I was told that Swami Gitananda’s ‘rules’ of Yoga were ‘do not judge, do not compare, do not beat yourself up’. This is Ahimsa in practice, and an excellent motto to carry at all times in recovery.
Satya is truthfulness. One characteristic of probably every addict on the planet is a spectacular ability to deceive both others and themselves about the nature of their addiction. I didn’t even acknowledge that I had an addiction until I stopped drinking!
Satya teaches us to be truthful to ourselves and others. It is not always easy, it may result in some difficult truths face, but developing the ability to face the difficult truths without retreating to the comfort blanket of our addiction is what real recovery is all about.
Through practices such as quiet sitting and Swadhyaya, which I will discuss later in this post, we develop greater self awareness and recognise when we are not being truthful to ourselves.
Asteya is not stealing. This is something we will all be guilty of in our addiction. While many of us may think ‘I never stole anything’, I am willing to bet you did. Things I stole in addiction include
- My children’s happiness when I was rushing to get them to bed so I could go downstairs to my wine
- My children’s safety and wellbeing
- Money from friends when I allowed them to buy me drinks and cigarettes all the time
- My health and risked depriving my kids of their mum too early
- Drinks from friends, sneaking some of their drinks when mine was nearly gone
- Time from my life, time when I could have been achieving the things I wanted
- The chance to have holidays and other experiences I wanted because I always prioritised drinking over saving
Asteya is about what we steal from ourselves as well as others. Through our addiction we steal much from ourselves, Yoga can help us give back and stop this practice.
Brahmmmacharya is ‘control of desires’ and is often translated as celibacy, or sexual restraint. It can be related to more behaviours than simply our sexual behaviour.
Brahmacharya teaches us not to indulge our desires, to learn delayed, or even denied, gratification. It is about feeling that craving for something and not acting on it.
I wrote a blog about how Yoga can help us control our cravings recently, these practices can help whatever the craving.
Aparigraha is non possessiveness. This relates to objects, people, thoughts, emotions. When we are in addiction we can develop strong attachments to people, things, thoughts and emotions.
When I was stressed and angry I had an excuse to drink, so I always found a reason to be stressed and angry. An emotionally damaging relationship I thought was based on love was, I now suspect, nothing more than another addiction. I craved him, I placed all my happiness in him, I felt incredibly posessive of him, and ultimately, the story I was telling myself about what the relationship could be was nothing more than a story I had created, just like the story alcohol told me about its ability to help me.
Yoga teaches non attachment. It teaches us that happiness and contentment do not exist in things or other people, and it teaches us to let go and release the things that don’t serve us.
Saucha is ‘cleanliness’ and teaches us to make sure that we are living in a clean manner. This is not just related to the body, although personal hygiene is important, and one that many addicts struggle to maintain, but, as with all things in Yoga, to our whole being, to our whole life, It relates to our external environment, as well as our internal one. It means having a clean body on the inside as well (so not putting harmful substances into it, ensuring it is well hydrated, fed well etc)
It is about our thoughts and words as well, are we thinking clean thoughts, speaking in a clean way. Gossip, negativity, judgement, criticism all ‘dirty’ our thoughts and language, whether is they are directed at ourselves or others.
The physical practices of Yoga help our body to cleanse itself. Through good breathing we release more carbon dioxide from our lungs when we exhale. But the cleanliness of Yoga has to start inside ourselves.
This is contentment. Santosha is acceptance of where your life is right now. It means appreciation of the good things that you have in your life, feeling and expressing your gratitude for these things, and not wishing life was different. This doesn’t mean that you have to stay where you are, but it is an acknowledgement of where you are NOW.
This is a crucial aspect to recovery, and is a fundamental part of the 12 steps of Alcoholics Anonymous
And acceptance is the answer to all my problems today. When I am disturbed, it is because I find some person, place, thing or situation — some fact of my life — unacceptable to me, and I can find no serenity until I accept that person, place, thing or situation as being exactly the way it is supposed to be at this moment.
When we are caught up in our drama it can be very easy to take the victim stance, to think “this is all terrible and it is happening to me because my life is awful“. If we adopt a position of Santosha, it can be easier to bear, and we can instead look for the lessons and opportunities for growth that exist in the situation. A regular gratitude practice can really help with this.
Tapas is discipline. Like developing a regular Yoga practice, recovery takes discipline and commitment. In the face of cravings, peer pressure, habits, stress, emotional turmoil, boredom, and all the other things that trigger relapse, staying strong and disciplined can be a gargantuan task. Self control is an essential aspect of recovery, and developing this discipline can be life saving. Through regular practice of Yoga, a sense of dicsipline develops quite naturally,
Self discipline means developing the ability to practice delayed gratification. It is about recognising the cravings that arise, the desires to indulge in harmful behaviours, and not allowing these desires to control actions. There are many practical tools that Yoga gives us to help with this, I discuss several in this blog post.
This is self study, and it is essential to ensure that we are able to move on from our addiction completely,
We act, most of the time, completely unconsciously, driven by habits and patterns that we don’t even know we have. I remember many times when i was smoking, suddenly realising that I had a cigarette in my mouth, not having really noticed that i was taking it out of the packet.
We cannot truly change anything until we really understand it. When we are attempting to defeat an addiction, we have a much better chance of doing so if we can really get to the heart of where it came from, what drives it, what the triggers are, what emotions we are trying to mask with it.
There are many ways we can dig deep and get to know ourselves. It is not an easy path to tread. When you have been anaesthetising yourself against the emotions that you don’t want to face, forcing yourself not just to look at them but to really dig deep and understand them can be painful. Ultimately though, it is incredibly rewarding, as it becomes possible to let go of things that have passed, to make peace with events, people, emotions, and break free of the patterns you have created.
Alcoholics Anonymous talk about surrendering to your Higher Power. This is the essence of this Niyama.
Ishawara Pranidhana is acceptance that we are bound to a bigger Self than our individual egos, souls and bodies. Phrases like ‘God moves in mysterious ways’, or ‘things happen for a reason’ reveal some degree of this surrender.
That is not to say that we don’t have our role to play, that we should just shrug our shoulder and do nothing. Ishawara Pranidhana reminds us that we cannot ever really create the end result; we can only take the required action with the best effort and accept the consequences as they come. As Swami Gitananda used to say ‘do your best and leave the rest’, the universe will take care of the results. Often the results that we want are not the results that we get. This can lead to stress and upset, but if we surrender we can be happy that we get the results that are meant to be.
Swami Gitananda talked of it as Atman Pranidhana, referring to the fact that we are part of that higher power, that the Self which resides in us all. I liked this interpretation for my recovery, it helped me see that I had complete responsibility for my life, and my recovery. I remember aving a real ‘lightbulb moment’ in a class one day, when I thought “That is it. It is all down to me, it isn’t about anyone else. If i want my life to be better, I have to do it myself“.
Use all the tools
Yoga can make recovery from addiction much easier. But if we are not using the full range of tools it offers us, we deny ourselves a great deal of potential help. The Yamas and Niyamas are powerful tools to help us create the life we actually want to live. Focusing only on Yoga’s physical aspects deprives us of a vast toolbox that can help us to live to our fullest potential.
Learn more about how you can harness the power of Yoga to make life in recovery easier in Bent Back into Shape, Beating Addiction Through Yoga, by Esther Nagle. Learn more about the book here