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Everything a Yogi Would Ever Want to Know About the 12 Steps by Joe Lewis

Compassion: something Yoga and 12 Step Recovery both emphasize

Unless you have been living under a rock (or maybe in an isolated ashram in India) for the past 30 years you have probably heard of the 12 Steps. I say this because in our society 1 in 3 people are addicts or are  affected by addiction. The 12-Steps– and the meetings, fellowship, literature, and ideas of addiction that surround them–have allowed more people to get sober and stay recovered more than any other modality that exists today.

We don’t know exactly how many folks have recovered through the 12-steps in fellowships such as Alcoholics Anonymous, Narcotics anonymous, Overeaters anonymous, Debtors Anonoymous, Gamblers Anonymous, Codependents anonymous… because these programs are anonymous. What we do know is that the 35 billion dollar treatment industry and 14,000 treatment centers in the US use the 12 Steps as a backbone of their programming. In addition, courts around the country are referring offenders to 12-step meetings in record numbers and our war on drugs that costs us trillions has our prisons overflowing with addicts and petty drug offenders. It extends to the yoga room, too: that student in the front row or next to you on their mat is possibly an addict of some kind. I know because I was. So here it goes…

As a spiritual path the 12-steps are not that different from a yogic path. The main difference between the 12-Step path and a yogic path can generally be understood as one of emphasis and language. The 12-Step groups, much like psychotherapy, focus heavily on storytelling and cognitive narrative techniques. Much of this happens in hour increments during meetings in church basements and strip malls worldwide. The formats change slightly but the foundation remains the same; one addict (used generically to include all “A” programs) talking to another and sharing her experience, strength and hope to help another recover from their disease. This spirituality of imperfection, through listening, bearing witness and storytelling, is a powerful force and can profoundly change lives. I have seen people come to 12 Step meetings so sick they could barely sit still through their first meeting…only to see them three months later engaged, making eye contact and laughing with fellows. This is even without working the Steps sometimes.

The Steps themselves are a suggested program of recovery. After a newcomer has been to some meetings they might want to get a “sponsor” or guide for working the steps. Much like the Yamas and Niyamas in yogic philosophy, the 12 Steps themselves are a specific set of guidelines to help one to clear out negative behaviors and emotions, establish connection to ourselves and our higher power/dharma, and to live by spiritual principles. What happens in this process if done thoroughly is that the obsessive thinking and compulsive behavior in the addict eventually dissipate through a “spiritual experience of an educational variety.”

As an example one of the most powerful Steps is the Fourth step where we take a personal inventory. If you told your father you hated him and never wanted to see him again you start to look at that and revisit it. Maybe your father did injure you but in looking at this resentment (a feeling re-felt) we start to see that maybe he was sick or maybe we did something to put ourselves in a position to be hurt. We can say a prayer for him recognizing he too was ill and trapped in negative patterns and learn from our mistakes. We can start to drop the victim story and practice non-violence, Ahimsa, towards ourselves and others (the first Yama). The Steps give us a sangha, a guide, and specific techniques to help us walk a yogic path.

One of the most misunderstood Steps is the First Step where we admit we are powerless over our addiction and our lives had become unmanageable. This step is why the program helps so many people to find a spiritual path but also the reason so many people mistake 12-Step groups and their conception of “dis-ease” as disempowering, shirking responsibility, self-help mumbo jumbo or at worst a cult of some kind. This is a paradox for sure because in order to admit complete defeat, a spiritual perspective is needed-surrender is different than submission and power is an illusion anyway in the grand scheme- yet to get his spiritual perspective one needs to take this first step.

In yoga we talk about samskaras or negative unconscious patterns in our bodies and as Nikki Myers the founder of Yoga of 12 Step Recovery puts it “The issues are in our tissues.” For what is addiction if not samskaras that has come to dominate one’s life? If you have any time on the mat at all you know that patterns of body and mind are not easily changed yet slowly and through the awareness yoga brings, bit by bit, step by step, breath by breath they can. Yet sometimes they are so ingrained that facing them head on with support of a 12-Step group might be the next step in your practice; as it was for me when I realized I couldn’t stop drinking and my life had become truly unmanageable.

For many who are addicted, yoga classes are intimidating. Sitting in a chair for an hour and listening to stories is about all that one can manage. Hopefully many of these people do eventually get into their bodies and breath in a class but unfortunately many do not. If more yogis knew the 12 Steps and spoke the language, then this might change. We can always practice increasing our compassion for those suffering the most–and in turn, for our own humanity. For many in 12-Step recovery, Yoga is their practice of and expansion on the 11th step which states “Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God. Asking only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.” As with Yoga, the 12-Steps are a transformative spiritual path which teaches us the language of the heart and how to connect to ourselves, others and our higher power.

We hope you will join us at Grassroots Yoga Sundays in March for The Yoga of 12 Step Recovery that combines these two potent spiritual paths. You will get a taste of an actual themed 12-Step meeting with honest sharing (with no pressure to share or claim a program) and a yoga practice to embody the 12-Step and yogic spiritual principles to aid in all of our recoveries and compassion practices.

Oh yeah…I forgot to mention…Obviously this is not “everything.” Just the first step towards understanding.  Really just a primer. We can only pray that more will be revealed.

“Practice, Practice, Practice. All is coming” -Sri K Pattabhi Jois





-Joe Lewis 2/16/15



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