April 26, 2015

Yoga & Addiction: A marriage of Tolerance & Acceptance.

yoga class

It’s Friday night again and I am back in the warm studio unrolling my mat.

I get in early tonight so I can practice a supportive back bend to ground and open my heart.

Slowly, students come in and begin to settle. Some walk hesitantly as they look around wondering “how am I ever going to get through this class?” Others walk in with a more seasoned stride smiling in that way that only they could. They tell the newcomers that all will be well and that they too just recently started practicing yoga.

I suddenly feel a love that comes over me like only a mother could feel for her baby. As I watch the scene of warmth, generosity and laughter, a tear comes to my eye but I hold back. Just like a child feels towards their mother, I don’t want to embarrass.

Instead I crack a joke, make people laugh and go about figuring out what music we will listen to as we move and breathe together. The room begins to fill as the community gathers.

The scene above is taken from my social action project for recovery, Soba Yoga. We began just over six months ago and our vision continues to unfold. Before I move on, I must answer a question that may be coming to your mind about our name. We call ourselves Soba Yoga because we are from Boston and we don’t pronounce our ahhhhhs! We are the first community yoga class dedicated to providing a wellness/spiritual community for people in recovery here in Beantown.

While the project was created for those in recovery, I now feel like “hey isn’t that all of us?”

We live in a culture that encourages numbing out by any means necessary; that is until you end up developing an addiction; at which time you are ostracized. We are living in a society that is under more pressure than ever before and we are often encouraged to not deal or feel. So I ask you, can you honestly in your heart say that you do not participate in this process? Hell, no!

Through this societal message we are taken on a never ending pleasure ride that ends in disease and destruction to various degrees. Substances of abuse such as alcohol, drugs, sugar and behaviors such as gambling, sex, shopping all trigger the same area of the brain: the ventral tegmental area (VTA) of the nucleus acumbus in the limbic region.

All this to say is the VTA is triggered when we engage in these activities and dopamine the feel good neurotransmitter is released and we get that oooooo, ahhhh feeling.

Since we all love that feeling, we do it again and again. The body continues to be drowned with dopamine, making it harder for your body to keep up. With abuse and addiction, it becomes harder for the brain to naturally produce dopamine as the receptor sites have been saturated by this pleasure seeking marathon.

Addiction is now being seen as a “spectrum disorder” which means that we are all somewhere on that spectrum.

Are we all just banished to a life of hedonistic pleasure that over time does not feel so pleasurable? No—here you come walking through the door with your yoga mat. Yoga practice helps us have the ability to shift the direction that we are all heading in. It comes to your side and says: breathe with me, sit with me, move with me.

Our class provides a flow yoga sequence that targets the areas of the body that are affected by stress, anxiety, panic, depression and trauma. Classes are taught with the understanding that yes, we all are affected by pleasure seeking and yes, we all have trauma to varying degrees, therefore class is not taught any different than I would teach other vinyasa yoga classes.

The power of yoga for addictions is that it builds bridges toward helping people tolerate and accept feelings that are uncomfortable. All that pleasure seeking has us constantly numbing and avoiding cravings and triggers which never allows for the possibility of transcendence.

My work in the field consistently had me witnessing the connection between broken spirits and addiction therefore classes are focused around a spiritual reading or theme that is presented in meditation at the beginning of class.

The community practices together how to approach fear and pain in a new and healing way.

Geenen Roth stated in her book Women, Food and God, “if you never allow a feeling to begin, you also don’t allow it to end.” Students are guided toward bringing their attention to breath and body to help them stay in the present moment and create a safe container for healing to occur. With each breath in and out they appear like a flock of birds directing each other toward the sun.

Someone sighs as they release and the class together responds as if being deeply witnessed for the first time. The class gives individuals the opportunity to release of the affects of the past through the body rather than talking about it. A student says “it is much easier for me to think about doing something that is not going to solely focus on me talking about what happened in the past. I am less interested in going over that over and over again. I want to move forward towards a better life.”

And I get it. I truly do. It is what causes me to begin to take a more holistic path for my own healing.

I just knew that I had reached the place where I had discussed the details enough and it was time to heal. Anyone affected by addiction, whether their own or that of a loved one, struggles with trying to control what ultimately is out of their reach. Yoga offers students a healthy way to practice self control through the breath and connecting with the body.

Since the individual is moving their own body, the changes that are made have an empowering affect on self esteem. In this way yoga and addictions become a marriage built upon tolerance, acceptance, trust and faith in the healing process.

Buddhist philosophy teaches us that life is ever changing, ever moving and it is our clinging, grasping and longing for safety that ultimately causes us to feel unsafe.

In class students get to practice how to be with this level of uncertainty and still feel safe despite the unknown.

It is the end of class and we are heading toward savasana. The room grows still and wave of peace sweeps in as if a window was suddenly opened. Some bodies are struggling to be still, others appear as if they have felt freedom for the first time and still others are noticing that emotions have come up to the surface for clearing in a new and different way.

We end the class taking this new found peace with us as we collect ourselves and our community disperses. Witnessing the affect that yoga has had with those who have always struggled with feeling safe in their bodies has been life altering.

I am forever grateful for the gifts that it has given me and the ways it has changed my life.

Relephant read:

108 Ways to Heal Your Chakras.


Author: Stephanie Troy

Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: Alma Ayon/Flickr

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