Stronger: On Yoga As A Healthy Addiction

It’s almost like a cliché at this point:  you quit drinking (or drugs or gambling or any addiction) and take up yoga. Yoga becomes your new addiction, your lifesaver, your replacement. Instead of reaching for a drink when you’re sad, stressed, or angry, you reach for your yoga mat. Instead of losing yourself under the waves of alcohol, you lose yourself to movement and breath. Both are a kind of escape, a reprieve from over-thinking. But while drinking enables the drinker to escape from her feelings, yoga enables the drinker to really feel his feelings. To sit with them, move with them, acknowledge them. I think this is why so many people, myself included, turn to yoga when they give up something that no longer serves them. Yoga serves us well.

Almost as soon as I quit drinking I began practicing yoga in earnest. Whereas before I had dropped in on classes here and there, this time around I committed to it on a weekly basis. I realized that it provided me with an outlet, a way to work through my feelings rather than drowning them. This was an exciting but also scary discovery. Scary because I had never been one to work through my feelings before. Before I had pretended they weren’t there, drinking to quell them, until they burst out under the influence via hurtful words or even more hurtful actions. Before I hadn’t known how to deal with feelings, to examine them and name them, to figure out why I was feeling the way I was. Why was I so sad? Angry? Stressed?

After I quit drinking, it became very clear that I had some emotional work to do. I had to learn how to address my emotions because I didn’t really have another option. I had to get comfortable with the discomfort, which is something yoga has taught me how to do. Rather than edging away from the discomfort, you sink into it. You find that sinking into an uncomfortable feeling causes it to feel different. It causes you to discover what you can handle, which is usually more than you thought. Whereas before I felt like I couldn’t handle anything (and I actually couldn’t because I wouldn’t allow myself to in a healthy way), yoga taught me that I could and can handle more than I think. All I have to do is listen to my body while simultaneously not shying away from discomfort.

It’s okay to be a little uncomfortable in a yoga class, but it’s not okay to be in pain. Knuckling down and pushing through pain doesn’t make you a badass, it just leaves you injured. Forcing yourself to grin and bear it is far different from assessing the situation and discovering what action will best serve your self: Today, in the moment, now. Some days I can do inversions and backbends with ease, while other days I can barely get my butt off the ground to do a bridge. Some days I am giddy with happiness, while other days I feel like I’m slogging through mud. And that’s okay. It’s called being human. A perfectly imperfect human being who feels a spectrum of emotions and whose body is capable of numerous feats. How cool is that?

Yesterday, my friend told me something her favorite yoga teacher said to her recently:  The universe never throws anything at us that we can’t handle. I like this interpretation of the world. If we can maintain our cool under pressure, like how we endeavor to be on our yoga mats, then we often find that we are capable of so much more than we thought previously. I’m not saying to never get angry, that’s impossible, but yoga has taught me that funneling that anger into something worthwhile yields far better results than blowing up in the heat of the moment.  And because I’m not perfect, I can and do still blow up from time to time, but much less since yoga became a mainstay in my life (I’m sure this makes my boyfriend very happy).

In the past, if I wasn’t blowing up, I was letting things fester beneath the surface because I didn’t know how to articulate what I couldn’t bring myself to face. But yoga doesn’t let things fester. Yoga forces energy and stored emotion to surface, to sometimes even manifest through tears. I recall recognizing this power for the first time when I saw a woman beside me cry in a yoga class. The teacher had let us know that this might happen; we were moving through hip opening movements and were told that the hips hold a lot of emotion. I was skeptical, I had probably even rolled my eyes at the time, but then I saw this woman with tears streaming down her face. I have yet to cry in a class or practicing at home, but I’ve come close. I still, and always will, have work to do.

Many people come to yoga for fitness, and that’s great, but I’ve come to yoga because I needed something else. Something more. Something to help me stay booze-free, something to calm my mind, something to articulate my deeply hidden emotions. I didn’t know that this was what I was seeking, what I needed, but I recognized it when I took a yoga class with a local teacher I hadn’t tried and left the class feeling more relaxed than I had ever remembered feeling. I knew a sign when I felt it.

I had done yoga before, but I had not been in the emotional place It was last February, when I felt vulnerable and scared but also excited about my decision to quit drinking. I had also tried hot yoga before, which I had absolutely hated. In hindsight, I had hated it because I didn’t yet have the tools of sinking into discomfort, of using my breath to calm my anxiety. But at the time, I had hated it because it was way too hot! No one was supposed to sweat that much! It was way too much! I still carried this condemnation of hot yoga with me up until last night, when I decided to try my yoga teacher friend’s heated vinyasa class another time.

It had been years since I had done one of her classes, and I admitted to her that I was scared. I was scared of the heat, of the discomfort. Though my mind and body are in a different place now, though I have slowly built strength and resilience, I was scared it would still feel like too much. I was happy that I arrived at the class early with my friend, that I was able to pick a spot near her mat and get situated, to settle in and stretch while she greeted the other students as they entered.

I lied on my mat, eyes closed as I stretched my hips, listening to people say hello to one another. When I opened my eyes, suddenly the room was packed! I took a deep breath, endeavoring to remain calm. I knew that a packed class meant a hotter class, with more bodies giving off more heat. Oh, well. Too late to back out now! I remembered my ujjayi breath, the “victorious” breath of yoga practice, where you inhale deeply through your nose and exhale just as deeply through your nose, constricting your throat so you can hear the breath. It sounds like the ocean. It sounds and feels peaceful, rhythmic, strong. I could do this.

And an hour and a half later, I had done it. I had conquered my fear of the heat and the discomfort by sinking into the discomfort, by returning to my breath in times of intensity, by trusting myself and my body to do what felt right. And I felt amazing. I felt rejuvenated, alive, happy, at ease, calm. Yes, my body was stronger this time around, which gave me more stamina, but I knew that wasn’t the only reason. I felt amazing because facing my fear allowed me to see and feel how much stronger I’ve become over the past year. And more than just physically strong. Mentally, spiritually, and emotionally strong.

I wish you a wild, free life.