June 29, 2011

The Moderation Trap: Yoga and the Alchemy of Restraint.

Photo: Justin Graham

A Response to “Crack Smokin’ Yoga Teachers.”

Candice Garrett’s revelations about bad days, booze, and yoga in her article, Crack Smokin’ Yoga Teachers (and its predecessor, Tomorrow Yoga, Today Gin) are, as she says, passionately honest.

And the responses—from what I’ve seen in my own social media-verse—have mostly been positive, with people praising her defense of a balanced and moderate lifestyle, and her courage in, as she puts it, ‘calling bullsh*t’ on the yogic fundamentalists of the world.

I fully agree that there is no reason for a yoga teacher to negatively judge another yoga teacher’s practice, their life, their choices or their relationship with themselves and the Divine. So critics who rush to turn a harsh lens of yogic purity on Ms. Garrett might want to take that lens and apply it to their own lives and their own practice instead of chastizing her.

However, the article does raise some interesting questions about the place of alcohol in spiritual practice and the much lauded lifestyle of ‘moderation’ that we practice in the west.

Given the historical context of yogic practice as a path of total spiritual commitment and strict discipline, for people to say things like, “If you’re drinking you’re not doing yoga,” is actually perfectly fair. Historically—with the exception of certain Tantric schools—anyone who was seriously working with a spiritual teacher within the Indo-Tibetan context and was practicing any of the thousands of disciplines loosely known as yoga, was doing so under a vow to refrain from drinking alcohol.

Yes, traditions change, value systems morph, and traditions liberalize. Certainly, it is not the current reality that all of the tens of thousands of yoga teachers around the world are refraining from drinking. And I’m not going to devote this article to bemoaning that liberalization.

But let’s assume for a moment that the reason spiritual traditions from around the world have all, almost without exception, required people to refrain from drinking while practicing is something more than arbitrary rules and regulations imposed by authoritarian powers in order to keep people from having fun or expressing themselves.

Photo: Alejandra Mavroski

Let’s assume for a moment that there are reasons for the collective ban on alcohol in spiritual circles, and let’s look at what they might be.

I won’t dwell for too long on the extreme examples. Suffice to say that alcohol abuse, in its worst form, kills people and destroys lives—lots of them. An exhaustive study that came out last year found that the effects of alcohol, in terms of individual deaths, wrecked relationships, broken homes, and disrupted communities are worse than crack cocaine, crystal meth, or heroin.

On an individual level, when we are drinking to the point of numbness or emotional obliteration every day or every other day, or using alcohol regularly to escape our selves or our lives, clearly, we aren’t on a spiritual path.

Of course, the reality is that most yoga teachers aren’t doing this. Most yoga teachers who drink do so, from my experience, as part of a self-termed lifestyle of moderation. And that’s where it all gets interesting.

“Everything in balance,” the statement generally goes. “I try not to be too extreme about anything.” Or: “Even the Buddha said to follow a middle path.”  (Of course, the Buddha himself did not drink, and for him, the ‘middle path’ meant not starving himself to death or driving a spike through his genitals for the sake of realizing God.)

The issue with this lifestyle of ‘moderation,’ as it is often called, is that, in relation to spiritual practice, it has basically come to mean a lifestyle in which we make all our own decisions about what we want to do and when we want to do it and we are therefore in control of our own lives and our own spiritual development from start to finish.

Moderation can mean that I go to yoga whenever I feel like it (Tomorrow Yoga, Today Gin). I meditate—or don’t—whenever I feel like it.

If I’m feeling like having a drink, I have one. If I’m not feeling like practicing, I don’t practice.


However, when we ‘practice’ like this, we are skipping over a huge part of the essential experience of practice—working through those moments of obstruction, those obstacles, those discomforts—practicing exactly when we don’t feel like it—holding that pose for ten breaths longer simply because our teacher told us to, or not taking that drink even when we had the bad day—methodically breaking down the child mind in ourselves that, whenever given the opportunity, will say: “I want this!” or “Why do I have to do this now? I don’t feel like it…”

Being a mom, Ms. Garrett knows more about the process of turning oneself over to someone else’s schedule, and letting go to physical forces beyond our control than I probably ever will, but from my limited experiences with yoga practice, and not-so-limited experiences with alcohol abuse, I can offer this: simply put, there is a whole lot of yoga waiting for us right in that exact moment where the impulse to escape our bad day drives us to want a drink.

Photo: lululemon athletica

In that small, subtle instant, there is the opportunity to know a lot more about ourselves and to transform our habitual behavior.

In the practice of recognizing an impulse for what it is, truly breathing into it and exploring it, and setting it against a larger context of our long-term practice and our long-term relationship with ourselves and with the Divine—we have the opportunity to directly practice the transformation that is yoga.

On the flipside, even the knowledge that the possibility of escape through a strong drink at the end of the day is there, has subtle and not-so-subtle effects on the nature of our mindset and our practice. What would we change in our lives, what would do differently if we knew there was no option at all of escaping? If we knew that drink was never going to be there for us, how would we align our lives differently?

It is a given that if yoga is followed as the path of spiritual transformation it is intended to be, it will take us to places ten or twenty or thirty times worse than the bad day described in Tomorrow Yoga, Today Gin and, while holding us there face down in the mud, will demand that we not take an easy out.

It will demand that we keep our drishti strong, that we keep practicing, that we keep breathing, and that we work through it. It will demolish “us” as we are comfortable knowing ourselves, and it will do this over and over and over and over and over again. Gradually, over many, many years, if we open ourselves to this process, a little bit of transformation starts to happen.

Transformation in yoga and in all spiritual practice, as in physical alchemy, involves a tremendous amount of friction.

The source of that friction is the conflict between where our reactive self-serving minds want to take us, and where our commitment to practice—or if we are lucky enough, our actual teacher—demands we stay. If we don’t have that commitment, or we don’t have that teacher, then we don’t have the friction, and we don’t get to do the practice.

We need something or someone to tell us precisely not to do that thing that we have told ourselves its okay for us to do. We outgrow our need for physical parenting; we never outgrow our need for ongoing spiritual guidance and accountability. This is the role of our community, this is the role of our teacher, this is the role of the ground-rules we set before we even start down the spiritual path.

Personally, it is important to me that anyone I take on as a yoga teacher follow these ground-rules. There is value in our teachers being peers we can relate to, but there is also value in our teachers providing examples for us when we are in need of spiritual direction.

As a yoga teacher, Ms. Garrett may be approached by students who have faced problems with addiction. People may look to her for guidance in how to deal stressful situations from the yogic perspective. Honesty in relation to ones own practice is admirable—but it is also important for anyone who calls themselves a yoga teacher to be able to speak clearly about what traditional yoga teaches in regards to these same issues.

And there is no school of yoga that I am aware of in which the practice of restraint—nirodah—is not absolutely central.

My direct experience along the path of yoga has been that the spiritual fortitude we gain from continuing to build these delicate structures of restraint over long periods of time is very, very real. It becomes palpable in teachers who have practiced for many years and exude the soft and strong prana of a deeply committed sadhana.

I’m not speaking of the pedestal-perched, holier-than-thou yogis. I’m speaking of the truly golden, the truly humble. The benefits of yama and niyama practice are, in a word, beautiful. I aspire to be like the few that I’ve seen, and so I practice the fundamentals, as best I can.

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Josh Schrei

Josh Schrei is a producer, writer, athlete, and yoga instructor who splits his time between New York City, Santa Fe, and India. Through his teaching and practice he hopes to help others open the door to the real promise of Yoga—the total transformation of the human individual through physical practice, meditation, ethical conduct, and alignment to the Divine. Josh currently travels the country teaching and his writings appear frequently in Huffington Post. / Follow Josh’s writings and teaching updates at facebook.com/crucibleyoga