By Dori Digenti ©2021 All rights reserved
Yoga could save your life if you are dealing with addictive behaviors that have hijacked your well-being and are putting your life at risk.
Right now, yoga is being offered in prisons, rehab centers, and mental health institutions throughout the United States as “recovery yoga,” and it’s helping, but it is not considered a main recovery method. But it could and should be.
The current understanding of recovery yoga is that it is a complement and add-on to mainstream recovery methods, such as 12-Step and medically assisted treatment. This reflects a limited understanding of the power of yoga, especially when yoga is combined with earth-based practices.
How could yoga potentially save your life if you are in the throes of addiction? Or save your life when you are in recovery, but know that any day could bring a risky level of drug or alcohol use back into your life? Please read on to find out.
Right now, we are all living through a time of extreme stress – an awakening about racial violence, a pandemic, an ongoing climate crisis, the rise of authoritarianism, and upheaval in our economic and healthcare systems. These are all related. And the stresses of this meeting of crises is adding to our addiction crisis as well.
Now is surely the time to bring to bear all our resources to generate creativity, peace, resiliency, and adaptability. I believe that yoga is a central practice in our endeavor to survive and build a new way forward. Yoga, particularly in connection to liberation movements and earth-based practices, can lead us to new, resilient, and lasting solutions.
This book is an exploration of how we can recover from harmful addictions, restore balance, and begin to heal our world. I believe that it is possible to overcome addiction and find a sustaining recovery through understanding the links between trauma and addiction, and the need for embodied and earth-based practices in recovery. Beyond the individual who recovers, however, we must also bridge individual recovery to community, and beyond to the societal and natural world imbalances that lead us to addictive behaviors. Finally, we can find healing by reaffirming and acting from our true identity – as an inseparable part of the earth’s living systems. To this end, I offer the embodied practices of Root & Branch yoga to link us to the energy, connection, and identity that can lead us to a sustained recovery, and outline a framework for what I have termed the emerging “Fourth Wave of Addiction Recovery.”
Before diving into what addiction is, how it relates to trauma, and how our methods of treatment and recovery have evolved, I will explain how I came to understand that yoga, mindfulness, and earth-based practices can be seen as a path to sustained recovery for those afflicted by addiction.
This book is based in part on a personal journey.
My journey to develop the ideas in this book came from personal experience, study, and observation. My first encounter with yoga was at age 19. It was 1971. I remember riding my bicycle to the local health food store and seeing a poster for yoga. I had been meditating on my own, reading books, and going to new-age, then called “Psychic,” conferences. During a time of daily marijuana use and other addictive behaviors (See Appendix 1 for My Recovery Story), and dissociative confusion about my early life, I found my way to a yoga class. This was my first contact with a mindful, embodied practice. I learned the basic poses, I did headstands, and I was able to release and relax my hypervigilant mind for the first time without substance use. Yoga helped me to find some ground in those turbulent days of early adulthood.
From yoga, I found my way to meditation practice and study of Buddhism, starting in the late 1970s. In the US, we think of meditation as being a different stream from yoga, but both traditions are based on finding wholeness and contentment through uniting body and mind and discovering inner wisdom. We now encounter Buddhist teachings frequently, in the form of the mindfulness movement. It seems like everyone meditates these days, or at least has downloaded an app for meditation. In the 1970s, though, it was a rare thing to be a meditator. Being a meditator was something that you didn’t share with others freely, less they think that you were weird and didn’t believe the same ideas as other people. Despite big changes in the 1960-70s and the rise of many liberation movements, there was still strong societal pressure to conform, especially in the workplace. When I asked permission in the early 1980s to get time off from my job for a meditation retreat, I was told that “professional people don’t do that,” and that “I would never get another professional job in the publishing industry.” That kind of attitude wasn’t all that unusual in the 1980s Reagan era of Yuppies and careerism. Now, mindfulness is so pervasive in society. Your therapist says to meditate, your Congressperson meditates, celebrities meditate, even dogs and cats are said to meditate!
Yoga and Buddhist meditation use mindfulness as both a method and a result of practice. A succinct definition of mindfulness is placing the attention purposefully on our moment to moment experience, and cultivating the ability to let go of the reactions and thoughts that we tend to filter our experience through. When we practice mindfulness over time – through specific practices that we repeat regularly – we are able to expand our awareness of self and others, and experience an increase in contentment, compassion, and peace. We engage in yoga with mindfulness, then, by noticing bodily sensations and breath, as well as the mental and emotional effects of the practice as we move from pose to pose. And in meditation practice, we allow thoughts, feelings, and sensations to arise, notice them, and release our reaction to them by intentionally but gently letting go. By practicing both yoga and meditation, we complement and enhance our ability to be both mindful – paying precise attention to experience in the present moment – and aware – the experience of clarity and openness – free of filters and judgments.
My practice and study of Buddhism led me to a further journey. From 1984-1986, I lived in Japan, a developed country where spiritual traditions such as Buddhism and Shintoism are preserved and honored. There, I immersed myself in traditional culture through Japanese archery (Kyudo) and the Tea Ceremony (Chanoyu). These practices, developed during the flourishing of Zen Buddhism in Japan centuries ago, are fully embodied. Each practice requires precisely choreographed, repeated ritual movements, learned over time, to accomplish very ordinary tasks of daily life: shooting an arrow or serving tea. During those years in Japan, I spent many hours at Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines located in Kyoto and surrounding rural areas, studying the gardens and rustic buildings. Japan is a land of the Shinto religion, which is based on the belief that trees, rocks, animals, mountains, art objects – all embody an internal spirit called “Kami.” This spirit of Kami that I encountered in these sacred grounds seeped into my pores in subtle ways, attuning me to landscapes, the seasons, and the unity of human design and nature. My studies and experiences in Japan created the ground which later led me to further understand our interdependence with the earth as a living system.
After I returned to the U.S. in 1986 and for the next 30 plus years, I spent weeks each year at rural retreat centers, practicing and studying meditation. On retreat, I began to experience a shift, a merging of my mind and senses with the flow of nature around me: in bird song, wind patterns, in the changes in light throughout the day, rocks and soil, sky and cloud, how water flows across the land, the behavior of animals, the joy of observation. This felt like a natural expansion of what I had learned through yoga, meditation, and my time in Japan.
On a return trip to Japan in 2012, I visited the Kurama Temple in Northern Kyoto, the birthplace of Reiki,[i] and during that afternoon visit I felt a further shift in boundary and connection to the natural energy — “Kami” — of that ancient place. This shift called up for me the nature-inspired works of Annie Dillard, Wangari Maathai, David Abram, Lao Tsu, Joanna Macy, and Wendell Berry, among others. Thich Nat Hahn, the Vietnamese Buddhist teacher, calls this identification with the living spirit of the earth “interbeing.” This sense of interbeing is not limited to being in a Japanese temple, it is all around us and available to all of us. And it is deeply healing.
In 2018, I decided to attend a seminar led by Dr. Joanna Macy on the Work that Reconnects. [ii] Macy is a Buddhist philosopher, deep ecologist, and systems thinker. There, I found that another piece of the puzzle had fallen into place for me in my search for the linkage between yoga, meditation, and identity with nature. After that seminar, I asked myself the following:
My answer to these questions is yes, and is expressed in the Root & Branch Yoga practices and models offered here.
Now there is a special urgency to add whatever insights we can to the movement for life-giving communities and projects. As climate change is upon us, we can only through willing blindness separate the suffering of racial injustice, natural disasters, the rise of authoritarianism, and the epidemic of addiction from our short-sighted and cruel treatment of the earth, the source of all life. It’s late, but it’s not too late. We need all hands on deck to save our living earth, and to save ourselves, and so there is even a more powerful motivation to overcome addiction. We can Rise Up Rooted, to meet life and live it fully as the embodied wisdom of the earth expressing itself through us. And then, we can gather new seeds to regenerate and heal our world. These concepts underlie the emerging Fourth Wave of Recovery, in which yoga, mindfulness, and liberatory and earth-based practices unite to save lives.
[ii] Macy, Joanna and Molly Brown. Coming Back to Life. Canada: New Society Publishers, 2014.