Sobriety’s mantra is ‘just for today, stay in the present, day at a time.’ The only way to maintain sobriety is the practice of continually letting go and re-entering the present moment.
On Thursday 8th August 2002, I sat in a meeting room of the Northlands Addiction treatment centre, having my last one to one session with my counsellor Mary Cooley. Her advice to me enthusiastically completing my residential rehabilitation treatment was that I should ‘take up yoga’ to calm me down. Cycling was my sport; it was challenging, adventurous and goal orientated. It offered me a sense of accomplishment. Four weeks after my final counselling session I was all geared up to go out on the bike, but the weather was terrible, too wet for cycling. There was a yoga class on in the gym so I thought I’d give it a go. I strutted into the class with my Lycra gear on and a bandana on my head. The instructor told me to go the ‘back of the class’ as it was an ‘advanced’ yoga class. Being so competitive I immediately hated the instructor, hated everyone in the class and hated yoga. My ego kept me going through the class, but I was vowing never to go back!.....then it was time for relaxation....savasanna....
.....it was the first time in 29 years that I experienced total peace! So I went back, addictively for 9 months. I was completely hooked!
‘What has kept many a man in complete ignorance is contempt prior to investigation.’
I was asked to do a yoga teacher training course by a lady called Majella McIntyre, but continually said no. I didn’t feel confident enough to take something like that on board. I was also selfish by nature, I enjoyed practicing yoga for me. Two days before the course was due to start I was asked again. Still saying ‘definitely not’, I was questioned,’ Would you not like to help people like yourself?’
‘Faith is our greatest gift; it’s sharing with others our greatest responsibility.’ Step 12 in recovery is ‘service’, passing on to others, so I decided that I would take the plunge and carry the message of yoga to still suffering addicts and alcoholics.
When I first qualified as a teacher I taught over 20 classes a week; basic yoga sequences in different venues, including the Northlands centre. My friend Michael McCann, an experienced teacher in meditation, had given me a book , ‘healing addiction with yoga’ written by Annalisa Cunningham. This book had such an impact on me that I contacted Annalisa and spoke for 2 hours on how she combined what she knew about yoga with what she knew about recovery. At the end of our conversation she said, ‘make your classes fun because we’ve been in pain long enough’.
I took this advice and incorporated itinto my regular classes, groups with mental health issues and extending to children in schools. I tried to put across the meaning of yoga with passion, creativity and consistency. At the end of each class I thanked the students for adding to my life...as I truly believed that they had. I couldn’t believe that so many different types of people were enjoying my class and continued to come week after week. Alongside my teaching I continued to practice and read about yoga. My friend Sean O Tuathalain (yoga centre Letterkenny) introduced me to Manju Jois. Manju is the son of Shri Pattabbhi Jois, the renowned guru of the Ashtanga yoga tradition. This was the first time I had practiced Ashtanga and loved it. It was here also that I met Joey Miles (Ashtanga yoga leeds), who became such an inspiring friend and teacher. I travelled to India where I practiced with Mr Shi Shadri, then continued to develop my learning of Ashtanga through various workshops. I incorporated what I learned in these workshops into my classes and developed a unique, non-traditional teaching method. Always remembering to keep it fun! My classes went from strength to strength. I started doing events such as ‘yoga in the Park’ and weekend retreats. I continued to work with groups from the Northlands centre and loved to see how much benefit they received from their yoga practice. The opportunity then came for me to get my own studio, Santosha Yoga studio, ‘Santosha’ being the Sanskrit for ‘contentment’, ‘coming together’ and ‘acceptance’.
I was then able to bring Joey and other teachers into the studio to deliver workshops to my students. The essence of fun and the relaxed atmosphere amongst my students seemed to attract teachers back. It was through Joey that I was introduced to John and Lucy Scott. I attended a few workshops in Cornwall and was delighted when he agreed to come to Santosha Yoga studio and deliver a workshop.
I was working alongside a friend Mickey Kerr, an Osteopath, on how to do adjustments safely. The key idea being that the body needs to relax before stretching to avoid injury. I studied primary reflexes and movement patterns of infants and this developed my teaching into adopting a ‘child-like attitude’ during practice. My classes weren’t all just about flexibility and strength. My good friend Michael McCann, who had inspired me from the beginning, helped me to promote the ‘non-doing’ element of yoga, through meditation practices, pranayama techniques and wisdom teaching. These teachings integrated into the 12 step recovery programme and also into my own Christian spiritual beliefs. Sharing these each class adopted a healing, mindful and compassionate environment which was accessible to all types of people, no matter their journey or background. Each day I remained grateful and felt honoured that there were so many different people trusting me to teach them yoga. One of the highlights was being asked to lead a yoga demonstration at the European convention for narcotics anonymous.
11 years after leaving the treatment centre I was asked to take on the Yoga Teacher Training. I said ’NO!’ straight away. I still thought of myself as the student, learning from others and passing the message on. I did not feel confident enough to step up to this position! At that time I had been discussing with my sponsor how I had been praying for guidance on a personal matter and mentioned about being asked to do the course. He was shocked that I had been asking God for help yet dismissed something that came knocking on my door. I contacted Yoga Alliance Professionals and became an accredited senior teacher. I had been studying a book on adjustments by Brian Cooper, and didn’t realise he was the director of Yoga Alliance Professionals. I asked him to come to the studio and share his knowledge. I loved the way he taught and most of all his honesty. I felt extremely privileged when he agreed to be the assessor for the course. If anyone had told me 14 years ago that I would be doing something like this I would not have believed them. I am so grateful to all the people mentioned above, my family and friends who have supported me and mostly my students, who have trusted me and believed in me.
‘Faith is our greatest gift; it’s sharing with others our greatest responsibility.’
John Bell is a senior yoga teacher at Santosha yoga studio in Derry, Northern Ireland.
He has been in recovery of narcotics an alcohol for 14 years
Today he has an inner peace and Is comfortable with himself he has a great support network and these people help him to remember who he is and where he has come from.
A life beyond his wildest dreams
This article has been taken from the 2nd issue of Amrita Yoga Magazine released in 2016. If you are interested in buying this magazine, you can do so from here!