Yoga is an amazing practice. The physical postures energize at the same time they relax you, strengthen the body while adding flexibility and balance. Breathwork and meditation can be used at any time to recenter you, bringing you to present time awareness. Self-knowledge can be developed with an ongoing yoga practice that can lead you into a deeper understanding of the union of body, mind, and spirit; how you feel and what happens to you are recorded in the geography of your body and nervous system. Yoga can release these. Yoga truly can help you heal. It is NOT a remedy for all illnesses, it is not a panacea. It is an adjunct to any recovery process not a replacement for treatment.
Yoga teachers and the often associated healing modalities such as massage, acupuncture, nutritional counseling and so on, can promote a mistaken position that these practices can replace and supplant western or modern medicine. Some yoga communities eschew modern remedies to the point of shaming those who integrate medicine and medications into their healing. This is wrong headed, whether you are looking at physical illnesses or diseases of the brain. For the yoga students and teacher who do reach outside of yoga for help this shame is like the Buddhist’s “second arrow”; an injury upon the injury.
Lee Ann Finfinger is a well known yoga teacher based in the Philadelphia area. She has taught in many venues, in the states and internationally. Beloved by her students and she lives the ethic and values of yoga. She is the real deal. She has also been a victim of the “meditate not medicate” mantra of the yoga culture. Yoga culture can be pedantic when it come to illness. Unfortunately as the result of this Finfinger has felt the need to suppress her challenges with mental illness in order to conform to the yogic culture. Yoga culture can remorselessly maintain that whatever your challenge is “yoga” can address it. Insomnia? Do this practice. Hip pain? Do these poses. Mental Illness? “healing can come from holding crystals, chanting, or doing any special mood-elevating yoga poses” (Finfinger). Yogis can be quite dogmatic in their promotion of nutritional and asana (pose) remedies to illness and disease.
Yogis are not all purists, mind you: there are “Yoga and Wine” events, yogis who use cannabis (or other drugs), yogis who smoke, and not to overlook that yoga festivals in general can include parties of all sorts. Evidently that is “different”; it is RECREATIONAL and OK. People who practice or teach yoga do not necessarily abstain from all intoxicants and drugs.
Many yogis talk a lot about detoxing, cleansing, tongue scraping, lemon water and juicing. Others whisper to one another about non-gluten free treats and cups of coffee they have had as if there were truly forbidden fruits. We have our secret consumptions and yet become haughty over western medicine. With teachers who feel shame in reaching to western medicine there can be a schism between the private life and the presentation in the classes. This can be in response to the overall silence if not disdain for those who have an injury or an illness and cannot find a yoga-only remedy.
There can be pushback to taking care of yourself with ongoing medication, taken for anything from menopause to mental illness. Both the unspoken and the verbalized opinion is that there has to be something lacking in your yoga practice if you need medication. Herbs, oils, lotions and diet change should be sufficient. If you have a mental illness that requires a prescription you haven’t looked hard enough to find a yogic answer. The implication is that your yoga practice is imperfect therefore supplemental treatment is required. It is really the other way around: yoga completes the picture not replaces the treatment. Finfinger writes:
“When I found yoga at the age of thirty, my practice supplemented the care of my disorders. I cannot stress that enough. My yoga practice supplements my mental-health care. It is not a replacement for my psychiatrist, therapists, or daily medication.” (emphasis mine)
I am a person in long term recovery. I, too, have found yoga to supplement my recovery.
While I have not found any resistance in the yoga community regarding my recovery: bear in mind recovery from addiction only requires abstinence. I have not been urged to leave my meetings and to practice yoga exclusively to address my recovery and to prevent relapse. I have had many years to build up my shawl of comfort with my recovery and I no longer feel shame. Society on the other hand has an impact on others who are not yet ready to confront or address their addiction in a public way. Students who attend my recovery oriented classes are often concerned about having their name associated with the class, or to be seen coming into the class. This has more to do with society in general than with yoga in specific.
It is important for me to stress to my students and to other teachers that yoga does not replace my regimen of treatment: meetings, service, working my steps and continuing to be involved with my recovery community. Yoga augments the union of body, mind and spirit. Yoga leads me to be aware of my physical being, to sense my reactions and responses to life at a gut level. Yoga also give me a way to become and stay as well as I can, from both the exercise perspective and from the perspective of emotional balance and wellbeing. As I use the steps of my recovery program to work through issues of behavior, character and attitude; yoga helps me work through the issues as they stay lodged in my body; feelings of fear, insecurity or loss that tighten my structure and cause pain and loss of breath. In spite of these amazing benefits- yoga cannot alone sustain me in my recovery. I need my outside help- I need my program of recovery.
I do know of students who have come to classes hoping to burn away the toxins from a heavy night of drinking and using. I know students who come to yoga and meditation classes, to spiritual talks and sharing to address the longing within that drives them to use. They do this to avoid facing their illness and to avoid going to recovery meetings. Yoga cannot replace a program of recovery. It is folly to believe that a few hours on the mat can cure our disease. Even the full practice of all the limbs of yoga cannot replace a focussed practice of the principles of a 12 Step program.
Yes, like mental illness, addiction is a disease. Finfinger writes that there still remains a “stigma about mental illness”. Surprisingly stigma and shame remain in society regarding addiction as well as her terrible sister; codependency. Each of these illnesses require outside help. This help beings with a 12 Step Program (or other recovery based model) and can include therapists and for those who suffer from dual diagnosis, whose disease includes mental illness, medication. And there are more and more people who have been discovered to have mental illness as part of their challenge in recovery. We cannot take away a managed approach to stabilization due to societal stigma.
Yoga teachers cannot take on these issues for their students and, above all, they must address them in themselves. Taking spiritual or nutritional or chakra balancing bypass to avoid dealing with the disease does a disservice to the traditions of yoga and to the traditions of recovery. Yoga teaches strength, flexibility and balance. Take these practices off the mat and apply them to life. Yoga teachers can help by supporting one another in being open and honest that each may authentically demonstrate the self care they are trying to teach their students.
Kyczy Hawk E-RYT200, RYT500 is the author of “Yoga and the Twelve Step Path”, a leader of Y12SR classes, and the creator of SOAR(tm) (Success Over Addiction and Relapse); a teacher certification training.
Find out more about her, her classes and the SOAR(tm) training at yogarecovery.com
Response to the article in October 2014 MantraMag online publishing:
Bleow is my comment to LA Finfinger’s blog.
LA – There are so many SHOULDS that we pile on our heads as yoga teachers; we never have a bad day, nor are we low on energy, or get hurt practicing yoga (5th class of the day or not.) We are to feel kindly to ALL people all the time. At least that is what I have picked up – not from some secret yoga instructor handbook but by the silence of my co-teachers and steady practitioners. No one expresses their private difficulties. The mat is supposedly some kind of miracle space that cures all ills. BIG FAT LIE! It didn’t cure my addiction and it can’t overcome mental illness. It really cannot. Thank you so much LA for speaking honestly and openly. There is science and there are appropriate medical remedies. Yoga nidra and kale cannot cure all. By telling your story we can bring a new normal to being and to being a yoga teacher. Breaking the silence is the first step. You have taken this first step for so many.