Yoga and Addiction Recovery: A Road Less Traveled
How yoga practice helped me recover from body image issues, an eating disorder, and a drug addiction.
As a body image obsessed sixteen-year-old, I entered my first yoga class with the hopes of becoming thin, toned, and fit. You know like the beautiful people in the tabloids — that was my motivation.
Being the mid-2000’s the yoga trend was all over Hollywood and creeping into everyday mainstream American cities. I had first read about yoga in some celebrity magazine that dishes weight loss secrets of the rich and famous. So I thought it was something I had to try in my quest to achieve perfection.
The Body Image Obsession That Brought Me to the Mat
I took my first class at my local gym and practiced there on and off the next year. Thinking back I was so focused on every other woman in the class that I barely remember my first few classes. Shortly after I learned about yoga studios and transitioned from the gym to the studio. The gym classes offered more of a fitness focus which attracted me while the studio classes had more frills and a zen vibe which made me feel uncomfortable.
If you haven’t yet practiced in a studio because you feel intimidated or costs, I highly recommend finding some intro classes and looking at donation yoga as an option. Perhaps you have written yoga off based a class session that wasn’t what you expected, come back and try it again somewhere different.
I happen to prefer studios to gym yoga and as you practice you will learn why it has to do with the atmosphere and experience of the teacher. Although some gyms offer fantastic teachers and studio-like rooms —many hire fitness trainers who took a yoga certification online and will stick you in the group fitness room.
The main thing is that you show up and if you don’t connect to a particular teacher or style, that’s okay…try something else.
The Physical Practice Kept Me Coming Back
I mentioned above that I was image-obsessed as a teenager. That might have been putting it mildly. I was a practicing bulimic who cared more about what people thought of me than anything else on the planet. I craved attention and acceptance above all else, and to me, that meant being thin and beautiful. I was entirely self-absorbed, in a very negative light as I only saw my flaws — the too big thighs and flabby stomach mainly.
The honest truth is that this delusional, sick thinking is exactly what brought me into the practice of yoga. It was no different at the time from my juice cleanses, kickboxing tapes, or Zumba classes. It was another way to achieve the perfection I so badly craved but unlike all the other exercise fads, yoga not only stuck with me, but it became so much more than a workout.
Little did I know, that I came to the practice for a six-pack but would wind up getting an instruction manual for living and the cure to my addictive, self-obsessed persona.
At that phase of my life, I only noticed the physical benefits of becoming stronger and more flexible. I also found I gained mental awareness of my non-stop thinking, which at first just frustrated me that I couldn’t control it. The spiritual and enhanced mental focus would not come into the practice until several years later.
Yoga Stuck Around Despite Addictions
In college and young adulthood, I continued to incorporate yoga into my life, but I still wasn’t really living yoga. I would take a Saturday class to sweat out the vodka from Friday night. I was hard partying every chance I could, and my practice became my way to ‘balance it out’ — however again, I was after the physical element.
This went on for several years, along with the eating disorder and I would get into a good groove of practicing and then stop for a few months. Like everything else in my life, my practice was chaotic.
“Some beautiful paths can’t be discovered without getting lost.” ― Erol Ozan
I did try a lot of different yoga styles at this time, which looking back, I’m really grateful for. I learned I enjoy Hot Yoga but don’t like Bikram style and that I really enjoy an active flow class. It allowed me to experiment, as many college kids do, with my yoga practice.
My experimentation with drugs and alcohol was another thing and continued until 2015 when I entered recovery.
Chasing the Yoga High
By this time, I started having those “Ah-ha!” moments and walking away from certain classes on that natural Yoga High. That feeling that I was connected to it all — and I began to crave it. It was spot and go at first, and I only found I would have these feelings when I was really dialed into a class or teacher’s style.
One thing that would make or break my experience was the music. There still is nothing better than flowing through a class with an amazing soundtrack. In fact, just today my teacher opened class with a track from sigur ros which brought up intense emotions and even a few tears.
Music to me is a huge element of connection and healing. I have found music to be incredibly powerful when combined with the practice of yoga.
I then was introduced to different meditation practices at this time and was blown away at the power of focused attention. Kundalini Yoga and chanting meditations were what I found to leave me with the strongest vibration post practice. I still remember the first time I learned the “So Hum” meditation because it was a high unlike any drug I had ever tried.
Lessons from the Mat — for Recovery and Life
Over time I would learn many lessons on the mat which I was able to apply to my life and my recovery from drugs, alcohol, and an eating disorder.
I learned the art of (mental) flow and finding that sweet spot between strength and flexibility. That if you are too rigid, you will fall but if you can remain both strong yet flexible — watch out life! That principle I take off the mat with me every day.
I also learned that you can fall or ‘fail’ 8,000 times, but you get up 8,001 times. I’m still working on overcoming my fear of certain poses like headstand but I’m finding falling isn’t nearly as much drama as I make it out in my mind. I also know this to be true of failures and mistakes in life, they are never actually as bad or scary as my mind wants me to believe and so far I have survived every mistake.
The lesson of radical acceptance without judgment was also learned on the mat. Learning to be at peace with my body slowly came over time, but it came. I learned to accept my body and am even warming up to the idea of embracing it.
Then for me, one of the biggest lessons I learned in terms of recovery was to see that comparing nature and obsession for perfection that followed me since my youth. I was able to not only overcome my eating disorder and all addictions but release that obsession with my body image.
I remember when I first started my practice as a teen, I would constantly look around at everyone else. “She can do THAT pose?” “Were they thin?” “Look at her arms!” And so on. Now I keep my eyes closed for the majority of the class and if I do open them, I make sure I see myself smiling back in the mirror.
While I won’t kid you that I am immune to jealousy and comparing, I have come a long way to be able to recognize that line of thinking and ask myself one very big question…
“Do I know this to be true?”
I have found that reminding myself to get back to the truth and out of my ego has been the key for eating disorder recovery.
My Practice Today
I practice flow yoga around two to four times a week, attend twelve-step meetings, and practice mindfulness meditation. I’m active in both the yoga and recovery communities. I find that the two compliment one another in such a way that they are inseparable for me.
My recovery and yoga practices are day-to-day choices and a living commitment to living a full and happy life.
I still have times when I make it to yoga class less but I catch myself in weeks instead of months. I have moments where I catch my ‘old thinking’ in action, but I’m able to correct it as false before I believe it as fact, most of the time.
“People often say that motivation doesn’t last. Neither does bathing. That’s why we recommend it daily.” — Zig Ziglar
Despite what motives you may have for practicing or what confusion you may hold about the spiritual stuff involved, just show up.
Let the yoga strengthen your body, calm your mind and connect you spiritually.
All I can share is my experience of having yoga be instrumental in changing my life. If you’re considering trying it my advice is simple:
Just. Show. Up.