From the last chance bar to the yoga shala

My friend: I need to drink right now. It's the only thing that helps me deal with my problems.

David: Yoga stopped me going back to booze. And I finally understood alcohol doesn't make anything better. I'm not kidding.

In the past ten days I've recommended yoga to two people who admitted to me they had a problem with alcohol. They said they'd go to a class. See what happens. I can only hope yoga works for them in the way it did for me. Right now, I'd like to look at how yoga can enable an addict to get past two of the major barriers to quitting.

The will never triumphs over booze

When I was drinking I would stop for months at a time and be congratulated on my will power. So when I fell off the wagon, as I always did, it  my will had failed me. Which, of course, added to the shame I felt. It was only when I stopped drinking for good that I truly understood that 'trying to use will power is like trying to lift yourself by your bootstraps', as Alcoholics Anonymous (AA) puts it.

In my periods of will power induced hellish teetotality I thought about booze every waking minute.

As anyone who's ever come into contact with AA knows, the organisation believes that the first step to recovery is admitting you're powerless over alcohol and surrendering to a higher power. I completely agree with this but, like many alcoholics and addicts I've spoken to, I know that AA would never have worked for me.

Before I go on,  I'm not knocking AA and I may well not be right in some of the things I say about the organisation, but here goes. AA seems too rational, too structured. There are always 12 steps, for instance, and you have to do them all or you'll supposedly never be free of alcohol. 

I could never have stopped drinking by being rational about it. I knew what I was doing to myself. Leaving aside the fact that I was obviously massively deluded because I'd chemically altered my body to the point where every cell was a mouth, I simply liked being drunk more than being sober. 

Reality hurt too much and I wanted to get out of it.

Getting sober, for me, started with my consciousness being rewired during a spiritual retreat. I had a psychedelic experience without drugs. I symbolically died to my old self and was reborn. This too had its own consequences which I'll get to later. 

Now, when I'm congratulated on being sober for coming up to ten years, I always make it clear that I'm not a poster boy for will power. I stopped drinking because I went somewhere else in my consciousness, a place where reason and logic didn't exist, where perhaps I tapped into the universe in myself.

Bill Wilson, who founded AA, believed that a psychedelic experience in the form of LSD could help alcoholics. When it came to finding a higher power, 'The vision and insights given by LSD could create a large incentive – at least in a considerable number of people,' Wilson wrote. To the philosopher and scientist Gerald Heard, he admitted after an acid trip that 'I find myself with a heightened colour perception and an appreciation of beauty almost destroyed by my years of depressions.'

This is exactly how I felt in the weeks after I left the spiritual retreat sober. After I stopped drinking, there was a period of a couple of months when I walked around in a complete daze. By accident or serendipity - I'll never know - I found Kundalini yoga.

For me, yoga is all about surrender. When I practice, I'm not using my rational, conscious mind. I'm being led by my physical body. I have come close to leaving my body in savasana, the guided relaxation at the end of a yoga class, although that doesn't happen so much now. Because, although I love floating in a place where I'm not aware that I'm thinking, I no longer have the overwhelming need to escape myself or what I understand as reality.

Of course, the practice of yoga does take will power. I need it to show up at my mat. But now, after all these years, I nearly always fall into a state of just being in my practice and not thinking. While I appreciate that this might not be so easy if you haven't had some sort of awakening of the spirit, I'd say that if it can work for me it can work for you.

Who will I be now?

I credit the spiritual retreat for getting me sober and, without being too melodramatic, saving my life. The experience did, however, leave me profoundly confused. I would lie awake at night with my eyes closed, staring down at an abyss inside me searching for my self.

I never found me. Because there wasn't a me to consciously find. There was, however, a me to create.

This will sound stupid to anyone who's never been an alcoholic or an addict but one of the reasons we don't stop is alcohol has become who we are. Being alcoholic is also our work. I congratulated myself when I survived a day that began with a hangover so bad I was sure I was going to die. Getting to the end of days like these was far more important than mundane stuff like doing a proper job, cleaning my apartment, paying my bills or whatever. 

When the sun went down on another day spent battling my hangover it was, of course, time to reward myself with a cold glass of wine.

Yoga helped me become someone else. It took me some time to admit this because it sounded corny to snarling, cynical barfly David but I became a yogi. That is, someone whose practice of yoga helps define them, give them a path of sorts. One that might seem a wee bit precious on occasion but which certainly does me no harm.

And here we can touch on obsession. I was certainly obsessive about yoga in the beginning but then, like a lot of addicts, I'm obsessive about everything. My idea of balance is your idea of excess. My obsession has been partly because caused by the fact that, like many recovering addicts,  I started with Kundalini yoga and was thrilled to find out that it got me stoned. Kundalini practitioners are understandably coy about the effects of this form of yoga but it's definitely the case that it gives you a natural high. Better than brandy for breakfast, wouldn't you say?

My obsession with yoga also helped me sneak up on improving my health. If I'd gone on a diet after I stopped drinking it would have been a rule too far. I changed the way I ate after I started yoga because it irritated me that my gut got in the way when I was in certain poses. I lost weight and became fitter because I wanted to enjoy yoga more.

Today I've managed to reconcile the old me who loved to escape from daylight into dark bars and swim with the pale fish who float in that beer light with the me who is at home in any yoga shala in the world. 

Yoga saved me from going back to alcohol. I know that. Now I have a duty to share my experience with other addicts. If that's you, I hope you find a way into a practice of your own.