At 22 years old, I was a veteran of two inpatient drug addiction treatment centers.
I had strung together nine months of sobriety, during which time I attended daily yoga classes and developed a dedicated personal practice.
I was a waitress and college drop-out, but I was sure I’d found my path: I would save money, go to India, and do a residential teacher training program.
Spiritual experience was what I craved. I was sure that in India, something amazing would happen to me.
For a month, I lived in ashram. I resolved to do whatever the guru advised, relinquish my will to the rhythms of ashram life. I chanted in the morning, ate a bland yogic diet, did asana for six hours a day, completed chores, participated in cleansing exercises, and meditated silently at night.
My understanding of yoga’s history and the proper execution of poses grew exponentially, but in the hours spent with mantra or in the quiet of my mind, I grew impatient for psychic change.
I began to feel restless, irritable, and discontented. I sat waiting for an inner burst of light, a sudden reorganization of the broken pieces inside me. And it never came.
I still had hope. Armed with my teacher certification, I went next to the Osho meditation retreat in Pune, India. There, I joined the other devotees in matching robes, watched videos of Osho on a huge projector screen, and danced wildly to kirtan music.
I stayed a couple weeks, but still no burning bush. I stuffed my man-size backpack again and forged ahead on my own, traveling by bus from small city to city.
In my hotel room one night (near Ahmedabad I think), it occurred to me that because I was a drug addict whose primary problem was drugs, I might safely enjoy some Kingfisher beer.
The next day found me buying both liquor and cigarettes.
I spent the rest of my trip in a bit of haze.
I do have one vivid memory of myself, squatted over a hand-dug toilet hole in the countryside, pouring rice liquor down my throat as urine poured from me. I had the sense of being a glorified filtration system, a being made purely of meat and chemicals.
I don’t remember the names of the towns I visited as I made my way back to Mumbai. I was lonely and unmoved by temples and tourism. I stopped taking photographs. I just wanted to go home.
Over the next five years, I passed through four more inpatient rehabs, no longer classified primarily as an addict but as an alcoholic as well. Each time I was released, I started practicing yoga again, put together a few sober months, and found myself slipping into the delusion that I might both control and enjoy my drinking.
I continued to think that because I was a yoga teacher I could heal myself with yoga and cleansing techniques and meditation.
In child’s pose, I could often smell booze leaking out my pores. I taught sporadically in-between rehab stints but could never grow a class or keep a following. My dependence on alcohol got worse each time I relapsed, and I required Valium or Librium to prevent seizures while I detoxed. I was kicked out of three halfway houses for drinking or drugging, and, after replacing booze with cough syrup for a time, passed through two locked psychiatric wards.
Yoga is a wonderful system of personal transformation and optimal health, but expecting it to cure the disease of addiction inside me was a mistake.
I had to surrender to the fact that yoga alone would not help me keep the drink down, that I needed to walk the path of recovery so many before me had successfully tread. This meant going to 12-Step meetings, getting a sponsor, and working the steps. It also meant seeking therapy to work on deeper issues.
Yoga could help me along, but it wasn’t and never will be, the magic pill to make me well.
We have to watch our expectations of yoga and seek outside help when problems are too large to self-heal. In the beginning of my yoga journey, part of the appeal was its focus on the individual and the inner divine. I liked the idea that everything I needed was already inside me—it helped justify my resistance to outside help.
The feeling was always, “I’ve got this.” But I didn’t.
It is painfully obvious to me now that yoga is not the solution to any serious behavioral or mental health problem, at least not on its own. Today, yoga is still my passion, but I do not turn to it to stay sober. I use yoga as a tool to promote my physical health and mental well-being, but I also integrate other tools that have worked for people before me.
I read recovery literature. I take suggestions from others in sobriety. I go to meetings where we share our experience, strength, and hope. I don’t pick up a drink or drug one day a time, and I haven’t had to do so for years.
Before I got sober, my relationship with yoga was strained by disappointment and unmet expectation. It was like loving an emotionally unavailable man who could meet none of my needs.
Today, because I don’t go to yoga for help in recovery, my engagement with the practice is more fulfilling than I ever imagined possible.
I am able to teach people in my community, write honestly about the tradition, and maintain a personal practice that helps me feel whole. Counter to what I once thought, the less I lean on yoga to heal me, the more it supports me in healing myself and letting others help along the way.
Also, my mat no longer stinks of booze-sweat. Which is nice.
Author: Mandy Learo
Editor: Renee Jahnke
Image: Courtesy of Author