I recently attended the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum through the Trini Foundation, a training program for yoga teachers who would like to help people who suffer from drug and/or alcohol addiction use ashtanga yoga as a tool for sustained recovery. The Trini Foundation was created by Taylor Hunt, who credits ashtanga yoga with saving his life. His foundation is endorsed by Sharath Jois who is the current head of the Shri K Pattabhi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore, India.
Ashtanga yoga is a system that has been passed down for many generations, designed for healing and self-realization. One of the most fascinating aspects of the Ashtanga and Addiction Forum was a continued discussion we had about why this particular style of yoga, especially Mysore style practice, might be so useful for folks in recovery. There is research underway, but we don’t currently have strong scientific evidence to support these observations. In his book, A Way From Darkness, Hunt outlines some of the reasons the method resonated with him. I will also add here some of my own thoughts, as a psychologist and a yoga practitioner, on why this system may be a powerful ally in sustaining sobriety.
Ashtanga Yoga is Healing
The primary series of ashtanga yoga is called Yoga Chikitsa, yoga for health or yoga therapy. Along the difficult road to recovery, the abused and neglected body and mind require healing. Yoga reconnects us with our embodied selves, which is useful because the body is often the harbinger that signals trouble ahead. Neglected muscles are re-awakened and stiff joints are brought to a therapeutic edge. The foggy mind is sharpened via single pointed concentration developed through the tristhana – a coordination of breath, postures, and gaze. A sort of “internal cleansing” begins to occur and we see how we treat ourselves has a direct correlation to our experience in the practice. We discover a compelling reason to treat ourselves better, changing our diets, sleeping habits and schedules to improve our experience on the mat. The deep shame and self-loathing that often come along with addiction may be replaced by newfound self-care, self-compassion, and self-respect.
Ashtanga Yoga is Challenging
This healing system demands much of its practitioners physically, cognitively and emotionally. Memorizing the sequence and maintaining the tristhana require sustained focus and concentration. The cardiovascular system is taxed through deep breathing coordinated with flowing movements called vinyasas. Strength, balance and flexibility build through continued practice. The practitioner “earns” postures as they are mastered and this tends to be both motivating and intriguing. As abilities increase, hope is cultivated. Practitioners develop greater independence and take personal responsibility for their personal practice. We become curious about our capabilities. A sense of excitement about the possibilities encourages us to adopt a beginner’s mind, allowing us to loosen the grip of ego and open to present moment experience. We find ourselves continually surprised and delighted by what we are capable of.
Ashtanga Yoga is Spiritual
Because it has remained relatively close to its lineage, ashtanga yoga continues to be a largely spiritual practice. Spirituality involves an openness to the immaterial – that which is immeasurable. When we are willing to consider that there may be something greater than ourselves, something we cannot detect with our senses, we don’t have to take things so personally and we are better able to tolerate ambiguity.
Spirituality also also involves a recognition of the fundamental interconnection of all things. When see ourselves as interconnected, we recognize both our smallness and our vastness – we see that we are not in control and yet we are responsible to do the best we can. We discover that our own wellbeing is inextricably bound to that of others and our environment. To mistreat ourselves is to mistreat others – to destroy our environment is to destroy ourselves – and vice versa.
These spiritual understandings begin to free us from some of our self-imposed suffering. We come to understand that everything is part of a greater whole; therefore, everything is workable. We don’t need to fight so much, run away or hide from our difficulties. We don’t need to keep acquiring more and more material things, chase after intensifying pleasures, or strive for external validation to find happiness. We begin to realize we are enough and we are not alone.
“In ashtanga yoga, the only variable is you.” – Taylor Hunt
Ashtanga yoga consists of set series of increasingly difficult postures and transitions choreographed to a specific rhythm. A clear pathway is laid out for us from which we need not vary. Because the series is the same each time we come to the mat, the only variable in the practice is ourselves. For this reason, the practice acts as a mirror, bringing us face to face with our afflictive emotions. The mat becomes a laboratory in which we can experiment, gaining wisdom, objectivity and clarity about ourselves, our habits and patterns. We learn to face difficulty with more patience and less reactivity. We become more attuned, which allows space for wise consideration. Over time we develop new ways of responding and relating that are healthier, kinder, and more balanced. The effects of these changes ripple out beyond us benefiting everyone we touch, creating a self-reinforcing, life affirming cycle.
Yoga is not meant to take the place of a comprehensive addiction treatment program for recovery, but it may be a helpful adjunct. I look forward to the day when there is a bibliography of peer reviewed research to support these observations about the effectiveness of ashtanga yoga as a tool for sustaining recovery. In the meantime, I am eager to be a part of the solution. If you’d like to join in this effort, please contact the Trini Foundation for opportunities near you.
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