When we have an addictive nature, why does yoga, breathwork, and meditation help?
This is a really interesting question.
My name is Carolyn Cowan and I am 31 years sober from drugs, alcohol and gambling. I am also a yoga teacher, teacher trainer and a trauma therapist who specializes in addiction, anxiety in all its forms, pre and post-natal issues and more.
Despite getting sober in 12-Step-Recovery, I do not believe in the disease model. I believe that all addictive behaviors have their roots in shame, abuse, and trauma.
If you have woken up to wanting to change your relationship to alcohol that is an excellent start. Being aware that you’re creating suffering for yourself (or for others) is something very few are able to do.
When someone has a tall dark history (a euphemism I use for trauma, which is a term that is, these days, overused) a lot of their triggers for addiction, for anxiety, for self-harming… the acting out that they do, comes from experiences of childhood.
If you have grown up with very high levels of stress you will have developed coping skills. These coping skills, which I call safety mechanisms, change how your brain is wired.
Hypothetically, if you grew up in a house with a lot of shouting, a lot of shaming, and you had two siblings, the eldest might have found a way of coping that was to be sad, quiet, and to hide. The next one may have developed a coping mechanism to be extremely helpful, always lovely, always smiling. And the third may be rebellious and continually looking for ways to escape, abandon, jump away. As children we look at what is around us and we look for ways to cope. Once we have these safety mechanisms in place, and use them, the brain wires itself in this way, to use that mechanism whenever it wants to feel safe. Similarly, people often use things like drinking as a means to try and feel safe.
My experience over the last 30 years is that people who come to yoga often do have some kind of a tall dark history, and one of the things that people are very drawn to in yoga is that there is a possibility of transformation.
We come to yoga with long term effects of either consistent adverse experiences or, perhaps, a one off event with long-term repercussions. Because of this our brains are wired differently. This means that emotional regulation is almost impossible.
If you’re not aware of the pain body, if you’re not able to take care of the hurt inner child inside of you, if you’re not conscious of your primal wound, the emotional response that you have will be that of a child.
Of course, it is reasonably unlikely that, especially as a young child, you got drunk to escape, but this type of behaviour, this abandonment of the self, will often be added to the suit of armour we construct, one of many safety mechanism added to our lives to help manage our emotions.
To move through this we want to create neural plasticity. What we want to learn is to be able to choose to think, and to feel, and to behave, differently. When you have a tall dark history that is a monster. It doesn’t happen overnight. Yoga helps.
Yoga does help. When you start to understand that you can change how you feel, by stretching, by breathing, by releasing the major muscle groups, you then have another decision that comes along… do you deserve it? Choosing to get on your mat is to choose yes. I deserve to feel differently.
It is not an easy thing, to put down safety mechanisms. Simply deciding to replace drinking with yoga would be tough. If you do drink to excess, or anything similar, you’re likely using that to manage your relationships. If you’re constantly hungover, late, and someone is constantly having to sort things out for you, then you create change you have to begin to let go of some of your safety mechanisms. Bit by bit, recovery is about taking responsibility for yourself, for your reactions and your behaviours. Bit by bit, by choosing to stretch, by choosing to breathe consciously, instead of activating your safety mechanisms, you begin to create a new form of safety for yourself.
That’s a really interesting series to steps and it has to be bounded by the fact that when you first come to a class, your brain and body likely exist with a long held safety system that says "no, no, no, don’t trust this person.”
When people first come to yoga they may want change, but the first step is always working to begin to feel safe enough… just for the length of time that they are on the mat. This is facilitated by yoga’s role in releasing the stress system.
When we’re stressed and anxious our body tightens up. When we stretch we releases it. When we stretch the body kindly and slowly we release the fascia, the external route to de-stressing. When we can begin to relax our faces, our throats, our ears it trickles down through your body and everything changes.
When you do a pranayama practice you take over the diaphragm. You actually, literally, go into the system and say "you’re mine, I’m going to take control"
Let’s imagine we do a slow Spinal Flex, rhythmically flexing the spine, you go into the body and you reset the rhythms, you flex the internal organs, you stretch the vagus nerve, you stretch the spine, you massage the abdominal organs, you slow the breath down. You go into the stress system and you say "actually no I’m good. I’m going to take this time. My mat is a magical space and I’m going to let that happen.”
When we can allow this, allow the magic of the mat, when we find a teacher who helps us to feel safe enough, we open up to new experiences of the self by, slowly, waking up to the idea that we have so much agency in changing how we feel with no need for those safety mechanisms, like getting drunk, at all.
Breath-work, posture, chanting, mediation, when we choose to do these things we release the system. And when we repeat this, bit by bit, day-by-day, we begin to train the mind, the part of the limbic brain called the amygdala that is always looking for safety, that yes, actually, this feels ok. I feel safe enough. This is nice. I’ll do this again!
Perhaps I do not need to go and get drunk, I’d rather go back to mat again tomorrow.
My experience is that yoga and breathwork are fantastic tools in recovery. They are not the only tools, nor do I perceive they are all we need. But they do open us up to new ways to manage our emotions, new ways of experiencing ourselves, the body, the mind. Kundalini Yoga is something that can change how we feel so quickly, so effectively, and (and least in what I teach, Kundalini Global) so gently, that, even 31 years into sobriety and almost as long spent as a yoga teacher, its potency for those of us who are ready to put down those safety mechanisms and take ourselves on, continues to support transformation to very many who come to class, and train, with me.
Visit Carolyn Cowans website for more information - www.carolyncowan.com
Carolyn Cowan’s Kundalini Global yoga classes are an experience in learning to reset yourself, trust yourself, fall in love with yourself, and to do each of these things for yourself with Carolyn as your guide.
Playing with breathwork, posture and meditation, Kundalini Global is a spiritual practice that is informed by up-to-date physiological, psychological, and neuroscientific theory and research into the body and mind.
Carolyn is a yoga teacher and teacher trainer with decades’ worth of experience. She is also a therapist, specialising in trauma, anxiety, addiction, shame, pre-and-postnatal issues and more.
In Carolyn’s Kundalini Global classes, you will always begin with breathwork and, from there, posture is taught with variations available to suit every body. She encourages the use of props and is kind with timings. You will be guided through a series of postures framed around the intention for each class. At the end, Carolyn always allows time for a long relaxation.
Carolyn’s classes are born of the merging of her wealth of knowledge and experience in ancient spiritual and esoteric thought with her specialisms from her work as a trauma therapist. When this is added to the radically inclusive approach that Carolyn has fostered in Kundalini Global, and sprinkled with her sense of humour, excellent, eclectic music choices, and her unparalleled ability to build community, what emerges is something truly original and potent in its capacity to change how you think and feel.