9 Ways Yoga Helped Me Recover From Addiction
There isn’t an area of my life yoga didn’t touch, and I wouldn’t be where I am today without it
By Holly Whitaker
The first time I ever practiced yoga was 2000. I had just returned from a trip to Santa Cruz, California, where a dude in flowing peach robes had handed me some literature on it, and it called to me like a long-lost lover. I lived in Fresno, and at the time, there was only one yoga class. It happened once a week, and it was taught in a church by an older white guy who reminded me of the leader of Heaven’s Gate.
I walked out of those classes feeling new, grounded, balanced, alive and, more than anything, feeling like I was going to be OK. I loved it, LOVED it, but I wasn’t ready for it at the time, and after two months of that weekly practice, I lost touch with it for a few years. Then in 2003, in my last quarter of school at University of California, Santa Cruz, I started to have severe panic attacks and returned to the mat, this time practicing Bikram yoga. It turned around my anxiety entirely, and within a few months, not only was I was panic-attack free, but I was also somewhat of a new woman. I lost weight. I got the balls to end a seven-year relationship. I found solace and escape and calm, became more alive, and overcame a severe depression. Because of these things, it stuck with me, and over the next 10 years, I practiced both Bikram and Vinyasa flow regularly, though not religiously or with any real discipline or devotion. Mostly, it was a workout I did a few times a week that kept me off meds.
This all changed for me in recovery. My first attempt to quit drinking had mostly been sustained by my decision to not drink. But because I had failed to address any of the things that were driving the need to escape in the first place, that first go at ditching the booze crashed and burned. In early 2013, I switched my plan of attack. Instead of just going for sobriety, I began to go for healing. This approach led me down a lot of different paths to healers, to spiritual teachers, to books, to extreme self-care, to meditation and, notably, to a lot of yoga classes. It was during this time that yoga began to take on a whole new meaning for me. I wasn’t using it to simply sustain my life as I had all those years. I was using it as something I needed to change my life.
As my practice deepened, I found myself having near-religious experiences on the mat — moments of severe bliss and surrender; moments of connection to something beyond my small, finite self; and many, many moments spent processing grief and trauma, the years of abuse and neglect literally coming undone as I finally allowed them to become undone. I was evolving in these classes, and I couldn’t get enough.
I had never considered practicing yoga at home, but after a girlfriend turned me onto YogaGlo, an internet service that streams yoga classes, I began practicing from home on an almost nightly basis, skipping the studio altogether. On YogaGlo, there was an endless supply of classes from nearly every school of yoga, and like a kid in a candy store, I went nuts on them all. I tried every style, every teacher, every duration, every level. It wasn’t long before I took it a step further and transformed my apartment into a mini studio. I ran the bath and the oven to create a steamy, heated environment; diffused essential oils to create that yoga-studio smell; made new-agey playlists on Spotify, bought fancy new yoga clothes; and lit candles. It was divine. I began rushing home to my apartment after work to do yoga the same way I had to uncork the wine.
It wasn’t long before this became the keystone of my recovery. On business trips and vacation, my yoga mat traveled with me as did my iPad so I could access my favorite YogaGlo classes. I did it in hotel rooms. I did it at friends’ houses, Vinyasing and Downward Dogging as we caught up on our lives. I did it in my childhood home at Christmas as my family played board games. I did it in Fresno and Rome and Sicily and New York and Boston and Los Angeles and Hawaii and San Diego and Chicago and D.C. Everywhere I went, my practice came with me, and by the summer of 2013, I had signed up to train to become a teacher.
There are so many ways yoga supported me specific to recovery from addiction to alcohol, food, cigarettes and drugs. It would require a book to contain them all, so I’m sharing just a few here. The point is that there isn’t an area of my life and existence it didn’t touch, and there is no doubt in my mind that I wouldn’t be where I am today without it.
REPLACED ARTIFICIAL HIGHS FOR NATURAL ONES
I was the poster child of hedonism, and I chased highs and escape. I ate too much, I drank too much, I gossiped too much, I bought too much, I smoked too much, I worked too much, etc. Because I felt so empty on the inside, I used an insane amount of external things to fill the holes on the inside. Anything that fed my senses, I was hungry for. Yoga (specifically meditation, which falls under the yoga umbrella) teaches us to draw our awareness away from these external stimuli, detach from our senses and direct our attention inward. We are thus able to build a connection to our inner world and our higher selves. Over time, this practice of “turning in” to our innate wisdom and awareness teaches us to become more reliant on the peace within and less reliant on the stuff outside. In other words, we become less inclined to chase the longings of our senses outside of us — the longing for external pleasure — and more inclined to chase the pleasure that lies within. Although I am still an external pleasure chaser and numb out with a chocolate and coffee or other cheap thrills from time to time, I now crave the natural high I get from yoga and meditation more than anything else.
My reactiveness was out of control when I first embarked on this path, especially with my closest relationships and at work — the two places I seemed to be able to get away with it. At the beginning of my recovery, I was convinced I had borderline personality disorder. My mood was in constant flux. I went from love to hate in seconds flat, and when I was triggered or angry, like an angry pit bull, I’d grab hold of whoever had triggered me and bite until they bled out. I had absolutely no control over my reactiveness, and I felt almost a victim to myself at these times. The steady practice of yoga and meditation changed all that for me. It gave me space between my thoughts, centeredness in my response and awareness of the other person’s position. It also taught me that my power lies in my ability to control my reaction, not in the power of my words or defense. It is pretty rare that an encounter can provoke me to a state beyond my control, and even on these occasions, I am able to find my center pretty quickly.
Because I didn’t go the Alcoholics Anonymous route, community has been a bit of a rough spot for me. I have more than enough friends and loved ones, but I’ve missed feeling like I’m part of a tribe. Yoga has provided this for me. Through classes, teacher trainings and workshops, I have made some of the deepest connections of my life within a community where everyone seems to know everyone. Like-minded individuals who are working on themselves in the same way I am, who have similar outlooks on health and life and spirit, who I can say things to like “I think my third chakra is out of balance” or “I have interference in my magnetic field” and still be seen as normal. I can’t express how extremely important this has been to me on my path. I need these people, and many have become like family, people I feel I was always meant to meet and go through these things with.
DEVELOPED CONTROL OF MY MIND
Meditation (which IS yoga) is for the mind what a free weight is for the bicep. It is strength training. Specifically, it aids in the development of the prefrontal cortex, the part of the brain responsible for choice and also the area that is most compromised by alcohol and drug addiction. Having practiced meditation on a consistent basis, I have experienced a total flip. I am no longer a victim to the whim of my mind but rather the captain of the ship. Yes, it escapes me at times. Yes, I downward spiral. But I never feel out of control. Not in the way I used to, where I felt like a balloon tossed around in a wind current. I hold the string now, and I can reel the balloon back in. This control has been crucial in my recovery. I literally have created a strength of mind that I have never had before in my life and further repaired the parts of my brain that were directly compromised by my addictions.
INCREASED CONTROL OVER STRESS AND ANXIETY
Kundalini yoga is primarily responsible for this. Because it works with the nervous system and glandular system, there are many kriyas (sets of postures and meditations and breathing exercises that are designed to bring about a specific outcome) and meditations that go to work on the nervous system directly. These kriyas make us shake, make us sweat, and trigger and test our nervous system. The result of these types of practices is magic. They literally reinforce our nerves and our stress response, giving us nerves of steel. Not only have I repaired a severely depleted nervous system, but I have also been able to overcome panic attacks and fear using specific meditations. Over time, I’ve learned to manage my stress immediately through specific breathing exercises and meditations.
OFFERED THE ULTIMATE HEALTHY COPING MECHANISM
In the early days without alcohol and later without pot, the biggest gap I had to fill was the evenings home after work. Where before I could take the edge off a day or escape from the world by smoking a joint or drinking, I began to turn to my yoga mat and meditation pillow instead and get the same effect of escape and de-stress without the consequence. And it didn’t stop there in its handiness. If I had an encounter that shook me, I had yoga as an antidote. If I felt unsafe or deep in self-pity, I could pull myself out of it on the mat. If I had a big meeting or a presentation or knew I was going to be in a stressful situation, I alleviated the stress and prepared for these things in asana and meditation. Yoga became my pot, my alcohol, my food, my cigarette — without the downside.
HELPED CONQUER INSOMNIA
For the better part of my adult life, I’d used pot and alcohol to fall asleep at night. Because I was such a type A and because I would go go go up until my bedtime, the thought of turning it off naturally and without the aid of these substances completely freaked me out. To prepare for this transition, I began doing yoga sets that were meant to prepare for rest and induce sleep, specific Vinyasa flows, guided meditations, Kundalini practices such as left-nostril breathing and a practice called Yoga Nidra that uses
progressive muscle relaxation to take you into a yogic sleep. Getting familiar with these practices before ditching the pot and alcohol made me a lot more confident that I could fall asleep naturally, and when I was completely sober, I relied on them entirely at first. I am now able to fall asleep naturally without any aid, but on the occasions where I do need a little something, I turn to yoga. It also is my No. 1 tool if I wake up with the 4 a.m. cold sweats. It fixes everything. Seriously.
ENCOURAGED FIERCE DETERMINATION
Whether it’s holding a terribly uncomfortable posture in Vinyasa, keeping my arms up over my head in a Kundalini posture for 20 minutes or holding a meditation for longer than I wish to, yoga is constantly forcing me to my edge. And it’s at this edge where the real transformation happens — while we are riding the burn, when we resist giving up, when we resist giving in. Time and again yoga, specifically Kundalini, has transported me to the places where I would normally give up and given me the opportunity to not. In doing this on the yoga mat — in holding my resolve to finish the posture or the meditation regardless of the discomfort and regardless of how much I want to quit — I’ve learned to do it off the mat. It’s translated into real-life results, not just yoga results, and carried me through the times I have wanted to give up along this path. It’s made me strong.
GIVEN ME SPIRITUAL TEACHERS
Yoga has brought me into contact with a number of spiritual teachers who have helped inspire and guide my path, helped me to make sense of the crazy that is this journey, taken me beyond my limited understandings, opened me up to texts and teachings and sacred practices, held me in my darkest hours, pushed me when I needed to be pushed, and have become my real-life role models: my Kundalini teachers at the San Francisco ashram, including Awtar Kaur Khalsa, Seva Simran Khalsa and Saram Singh Khalsa; my Vinyasa teacher, Stephanie Snyder; Kia Miller, my YogaGlo Kundalini teacher who was with me in my darkest hours (though she has no idea who I am); my first meditation teacher, James Baraz, who opened me up to this world in January 2012; Gabby Bernstein (who also has no idea who I am) and Gurmukh, who both introduced me to Kundalini; and Sat Siri, who I met at a Mastin Kipp retreat and is now my forever Kundalini teacher. All of these individuals are powerhouses of knowledge and have shaped me in some form, but more importantly, almost all have come to where they are from some sort of traumatic beginning and used yoga to transform their suffering into service to others.
Holly Whitaker is a sobriety coach, teacher, speaker, co-host and co-producer of the Home podcast, and Kundalini yoga and meditation instructor. She writes about addiction and addiction recovery on her 1-888-PURPOSE website, Hip Sobriety.