Taking a quick break from the translation this week. Hope you enjoy this, and have a great weekend!
National Recovery Month
There is a good deal of cross-over between Yoga (Ashtanga and other systems/lineages) and Twelve Step programs. I’ve often said that ex-junky yoga teachers (and I count myself as one) are a dime a dozen. Some of my higher-profile colleagues have hanged their hats on merging Yoga and the Twelve Steps. Taylor Hunt, for example, is doing the Lord’s work with the Trini Foundation, which offers Ashtanga Yoga classes in those places like halfway houses and rehab centers where addicts struggle. There is also a woman named Nikki Myers, whom I haven’t yet met, who has synthesized Yoga and the 12 steps who teaches all over the country. I earnestly praise them both for their work. At the risk of effusive corniness, every person they’ve helped is a miracle. Truly.
Unfortunately, however, there is a significant number of disaffected Ashtanga Yoga practitioners out there, and therefore I feel obliged to share that the following seldom-addressed, inconvenient truth about 12-step programs also applies to Ashtanga Yoga— it is’t necessarily going to work for everybody. I remember hearing an NPR story a few years back about the 12 steps and I went back and looked it up. According to Dr. Lance Dodes, author of The Sober Truth: Debunking the Bad Science Behind 12-Step Programs and the Rehab Industry:
There is a large body of evidence now looking at AA success rate, and the success rate of AA is between 5 and 10 percent…. It's not only that AA has a 5 to 10 percent success rate; if it was successful and was neutral the rest of the time, we'd say OK. But it's harmful to the 90 percent who don't do well. And it's harmful for several important reasons. One of them is that everyone believes that AA is the right treatment. AA is never wrong, according to AA. If you fail in AA, it's you that's failed.
Damn. Pretty long odds. Lacking statistical data, I believe that Ashtanga Yoga is more effective than 12-step programs. That is to say, I believe more people get more benefit from Ashtanga. Still, does anybody else get a little deja vu from those last sentences? How long have we Ashtanga teachers held up the system, or rather, the Method, as infallible? In our defense, when we assign blame for somebody quitting or in any way not “getting” Ashtanga we as often as not put it on the teacher instead of the student. Like so many suffering LGBTQ kids, dissatisfied students get told they just haven’t met the right teacher yet. The Method, though, remains airtight and infallible. This is untrue, unfortunate, unfair. So many students have left our scene at worst physically injured and emotionally scarred, and at best feeling like they’ve wasted time and money with a collection of come mierdas whose physical flexibility is perfectly counter-balanced by their intellectual rigidity.
What a quandary! What to do? Let me be clear: I’m not trying to shit on Taylor’s fine work, or devalue anybody else’s recovery. I’m especially not turning my back on Ashtanga Yoga, as some of my colleagues have recently. On the contrary, Ashtanga Yoga remains, and will continue to remain, a pillar of support in my life. One from which I derive great purpose and happiness. Although neither Ashtanga Yoga nor the Twelve Steps will work for everybody, they can be absolute life-savers for some. I, for one example, have had mixed results. The Twelve Steps did not work for me. Fortunately enough I was able to wrest control of my life back from many years of drug abuse for various other reasons but NA (Narcotics Anonymous) was not really one of them. On the other hand, Ashtanga Yoga has worked for me. Put more specifically: for me, Ashtanga Yoga has delivered its promise of ever-refined self-awareness, peace of mind, community (despite the fact that we fight like any other family), and overall health (despite some injuries).
So just when do these paths work? For whom are they appropriate? This brings up an uncomfortable, inconvenient hypothesis I’ve developed in my years of practice and teaching: long-term success in either program ultimately hinges on metaphysics. That is to say, unless one falls somewhere in the spectrum between belief in God and acceptance that there may be more to reality than what is measurable (you could say “hopefully agnostic”) these programs will ultimately fail to deliver. This is seen more starkly in 12-step programs. Six of the Twelve Steps reference God directly. Use of the term Higher Power, and of the clause “as we understood Him” (note the capital H) are unfortunately really clumsy attempts to tap dance around the religious nature of the Twelve Steps. But not everybody is religious. My mother was raised as an Irish Catholic in the 1950’s. Safe to say that it wasn’t necessarily the most gentle or nurturing institution for children, and so she decided to spare me and my brother from what she endured. We were raised in a secular household, for better or worse, and I’m convinced that this is part of why NA didn’t work for me. If you don’t believe, you don’t believe. How can something you don’t believe is real save you? My best friend Eddie was also raised Catholic. I’m not sure if he still goes to mass, but I know he earnestly believes in God. He also happens to be Joaquin’s godfather. With his hard work and the help of NA he has been sober for ten years now. If you knew the places Eddie has been (sometimes I was right there with him) you’d be astonished that he’s still alive. To all my mathematically literate readers out there: two examples do not a sample make, I know. I can only remind you that this isn’t a scientific journal. I do believe I remember hearing of or reading about a study in which it was confirmed that whether or not one came from a religious or secular household had great bearing on his or her success in Twelve Step programs, but I’ve forgotten when and where it was exactly. When I turn these essays into a book I’ll have to track it down for real.
The stakes are not as high in Yoga as they are in treatment for various addictions. If Yoga doesn’t work for you the consequences are nowhere near as dire as an unsuccessful treatment for addiction. These two practices, if you will, are different in degree but alike in kind. Because here’s the thing— if Yoga is just a means of exercising for you there will eventually be a type of reckoning. At some point you will find that the physical aspect leaves you wanting. You will have to fish or cut bait, so to speak, when you realize that what really makes Ashtanga Yoga challenging has nothing to with the body. It isn’t a perfect exercise system. An entire cottage industry has sprung up devoted to pointing out its various flaws (repetitive motion! bad cueing! Incorrect biomechanics! Blah blah blah). An army of contortionists, gymnasts, acrobats, and other fitness types are all over social media taking great delight in showing that compared to what a human body is ultimately capable of, even some of the most advanced Ashtanga postures are relatively pedestrian. There’s even a hashtag called #notyoga. What a collection of totally-missing-the-point-assholes! Seriously. But then again, maybe Ashtangis have nobody to blame but ourselves for this blowback. We probably started it.
I digress. While the armchair physical therapists out there may know something more about kinesiology than I, and while contortionists and their ilk can certainly do cooler stuff with their bodies, I teach the Ashtanga method in order to help people find a different type of satisfaction. But ultimately this requires an openness on the part of students to seek things that cannot be measured or quantified. This is where it links back to the Twelve Steps. Just as the Steps hinge on acceptance of the existence of God, Yoga hinges (at the very least) on acceptance of the existence of the Soul (in Yoga parlance it’s called the Self with a capital S), which can be defined as a sort of consciousness that continues to exist after the physical body expires. I’m seeking knowledge of my Self and liberation from suffering and from the fear of death. Decidedly metaphysical things. Infinitely more rewarding to seek than fitness or even health.
A good teacher and a loving sangha are also great anchors for your practice. Here, too, is another similarity with Twelve-Step programs. The unconditional love and acceptance you can find in the rooms is so beautiful and so humbling. This is uncommon in Yoga shalas but it can happen if the teacher has skill and gravitas.
If you came to the practice to get fit and you’ve come to the fork in the road mentioned above you have choices. You can cut your losses and move on to a different style of Yoga, or Kung Fu, or some altogether new movement-based exercise system. No hard feelings. Or you can lean into the fellowship aspect of it if you’re lucky enough to have found a good people with whom to practice. This can sustain your practice for a long time, perhaps even indefinitely. Or you can take the mantle of a lifelong pursuit of self-knowledge and liberation. Paradoxically, this choice is the most difficult one, but it is also the surest way to a truly sustainable practice.