How yoga became my addiction
Moderation is not my go-to place. When I’m into something, I’m really into it. And so it was with yoga for more than fifteen years…until I finally put it in a healthy place.
What’s that? A yoga teacher is supposed to be passionate about it?
It’s true, there has to be a degree of passion about any subject for a teacher to be effective, but in my case it hid something deeper.
I loved yoga, and did many hours each week — my own practice and plenty of classes. For a large chunk of my teaching career my lifestyle was pretty clean, too. I had one or two glasses of wine and only one half-strength coffee each week.
Before yoga, there was alcohol. I was immoderate at best, addicted at worst. But yoga is not a hangover-friendly activity. So I stopped.
I gave up smoking because I was terrified my students were going to catch me at it. (Incense covers a multitude of sins.)
Mostly though, I gave up my unhealthy habits when I got addicted to yoga. The endorphins are incredible. I ended up with what I call ‘stretch hunger’. I couldn’t handle more than three or four waking hours without yoga. Even now, nothing comes close to the high that an intense yoga practice generates.
And then there’s the semi-altered states from pranayama (breathing practises). Whoa.
I figured I was doing okay because I’d deftly, and only semi-consciously, transferred my unhealthy addictions to a perfectly acceptable substitute. Yay, me!
“Every form of addiction is bad, no matter whether the narcotic be alcohol or morphine or idealists.” ~Carl Jung.
Eventually I was forced to grow up. Teaching at lunchtimes, after work, and evening classes took their toll. Yogic wisdom says, don’t eat two hours before a yoga session, and not for one hour after. When does a busy yoga teacher eat?
My teaching day was full. My belly wasn’t.
Yogic wisdom says, a relaxation session is vital at the end of a physical practice so the benefits of poses can be integrated. Otherwise, you can leave feeling ‘jangled’ and on edge. But how does a teacher do the relaxation when she’s leading it?
I was so zealous in my physical practice that I was demonstrating to my students how not to do poses, as well as the correct way. My knees, hips, nervous system…did not thank me.
Then came an extraordinary blessing: labrynthitis.
Somehow, I got it into my head that I should add swimming laps to my already busy schedule. On the second day, I woke up to find the room spinning so hard I couldn’t sit up. Water in my ear had led to an infection.
I took a day or two off work but as the sole breadwinner I didn’t have the luxury of extended recovery. My then partner drove me to the workplace I was teaching at and set up the room for me.
The students filed in. And I taught them from my chair at the front of the class. Without even moving my head.
I discovered I could teach without my body. I used words. Lots of carefully chosen words. It also meant I could fully concentrate on the students. In that moment, I matured as a teacher.
My yoga practice became my own personal journey again, not something of a performance for my students. If I wanted a pose demonstrated, I’d ask for a volunteer.
Slowly, surely, I found my balance again — physically and psychologically.
“An addiction keeps us navigating on the boat of fear. It doesn’t allow for vulnerability.” — Anne Falkowski
Yoga has been found to be helpful for addiction. The physical practice can provide discipline, energy, stability and structure for a recovering addict.
But it is not a cure.
When practised respectfully, yoga cultivates body awareness in a nurturing way. Connecting with their body and breath, yoga practitioners learn to sit and look within.
Yoga can help you find compassion for yourself, and new ways to deal with stress. As I discovered, however, it is not as straightforward as heading for classes (or becoming a teacher) and frantically doing yoga.
Being brave and strong in virabhadrasana (warrior pose) is one thing, but I’ve seen students crack under the pressure of supported relaxation poses. Lying back over a bolster, heart open, nothing but you and your breath…That is tough.
Facing your vulnerable self, calling time out on your zealous habits, knowing when something has gone from being helpful to the answer to everything, that’s where the real learning lies.
And don’t forget, like I did, that the first guiding principle of yoga is ahimsa. Non-violence.
Inhale deeply. Exhale completely…and do no harm.
Thanks for reading!