The word YOGA is derived from the Sanskrit root YUM, meaning to unite. The practice of yoga aims to create union between body, mind and spirit as well as between the individual self and universal consciousness. Such a union tends to neutralize ego-driven thoughts or behaviors. The act of seeking this union can, and often does, create a sense of a spiritual awakening.
But, if a spiritual awakening or the merging of your personal self into the shared universal cosmic conciousness is not your "thing", I would also like to mention that yoga can be a damn good workout.
I am in recovery but I am still addicted to one thing. Yoga. So much so, in fact, that I have put off a much needed shoulder surgery for several years because I’m afraid of what might happen to me physically, spiritually but most important mentally if I am not able to do yoga. Practicing yoga is that important to my sanity and my sobriety. In early recovery the only place where I felt okay, or at least mildly grounded, was on a yoga mat. On my mat I felt safe, protected, calm. And then, right after the final relaxation, my mind and central nervous system (still not fully detoxed from alcohol and drugs) would just start right back up. That chronic chainsaw of debilitating anxiety, cutting through my day-to-day life. So I went to yoga every day. Sometimes twice a day.
I first started practicing yoga at Jivamukti in New York City. I was still drinking at the time and I loved sweating out last night's booze in the early morning classes. Jivamukti means liberation while living. It is taken from the Sanskrit term "Jivanmuktih", which is used to describe a state of enlightenment or God realization. (Jiva means 'individual soul' and muKris means 'liberation'.) The first few classes I attended were held in Jivamukti's first studio which was a lower east side walk-up loft. This was back in the early 90s when the lower east side was still a dingy and relatively cheap (albeit drug-riddled) part of New York.
About 6 months after I started going to classes at Jivamukti they moved to a much larger space near Astor Place. They needed to; Jivamukti was taking off. All sorts of celebs were suddenly practicing yoga with David Life and Sharon Gannon, the founders of the studio. Madonna was a student. So were Sting, Russell Simmons, the supermodel Christy Turlington and a handful of movie stars. So with all these bold Page Six faces attending the classes, Jivamukti began to have a bit of a buzz.
I pretty much ignored the buzz and just went for the classes. The classes were truly wonderful but were getting more and more jam-packed as the weeks went on. Sometimes I would take class with David. David Life is an interesting man, physically attractive in a Jesus-y sort of way. I think if Willem Dafoe and Jared Leto had a love child he would look something like David Life. Handsome, ethereal, spooky, intimidating. The black eyeliner he often wore around his bright blue eyes helped contribute to his exotic appeal. David Life is American but his vibe is totally eastern. Kohl-lined eyes, Sanskrit tattoos, a sinewy strong body and lots and lots of jewelry. He had a cult-like following at the school and I think several of the students there regarded him and Sharon Gannon (the other co-founder) as something akin to gurus. But not me. I was just there to get the best yoga class New York City had to offer at the time and I found that at Jivamukti.
David's classes were the real deal. Spiritual, precise, and exhausting. Everything I love in a yoga class. And the students he attracted were impressive. Strong, supple yogis who could go through the vinyasa flow sequences without even breaking a sweat. I, on the other hand, would be sweating like a vodka-scented geyser and trying to keep up. One day the young man on the mat next to mine was doing a move before class to "warm up" that looked impossible but to him seemed as easy as taking a sip of water. He was sitting cross-legged and then, with very little effort, he placed his hands on the mat in front of him, tilted forward and then went into a full solid steady handstand. From the handstand he arched his back until his feet were resting on the top of his head. After a few breaths there he went back into the handstand. Then, he slowly lowered his legs and threaded them through his handstand arms, finally returning to his cross-legged position before doing the whole sequence over again. He did this several times as I watched, spellbound by his control, strength and flexibility. After several of these moves he sat still and noticed me staring at him. I was embarrassed and to excuse myself for staring I blurted out "Wow, I'm impressed! Did you grow up in the circus or something?" "Yes, I did actually" he told me. "My sister still works in the circus." Then he turned away and started doing some other insane contortions that are too complicated and unbelievable to even try to describe here.
So those were my classmates at the time. Christy, Sting, Madonna and circus freaks. But I would not be deterred nor intimidated. This was no longer a question of wanting to do yoga. As I was descending deeper and deeper into addiction, I needed to do yoga to prove to myself that I was not an alcoholic. Alcoholics don't do 12 hours of yoga a week (for that is what I was doing) I assured myself. I can't be an alcoholic, I'm a yogini. A yogini who likes her vodka, but still a yogini. Not a drunk.
About a year before I quit drinking for good I arrived a few minutes early for a class with David. It was packed. There had been another article in yet another newspaper or magazine about the wonders of Jivamukti yoga and the classes were feeling less and less like a yoga class and more and more like trying to stretch in a sardine can, one with way too many other sardines.
But I didn't care. I learned to close my eyes and just go inward and that was helpful. If I had compared myself to the the other students and their annoying rubbery-ness, I surely would have left. At the beginning of this particular class, David was walking between our mats as if balancing on a tightrope. That was hard, given the way we were jammed in there, about 70 of us in a room made for 50. But David was doing it. Balancing and tiptoeing around the rooms in his loincloth and bangles and eyeliner. He was lecturing us (in the best possible way) about a teaching from the Bhagavad Gita. David would sometimes talk about God, but it was never a man on a throne kind of thing. In the largest yoga studio in the new space there was a beautiful shrine, always filled with flowers, incense and flickering candles. There were many photos of saints, both eastern and western, as well as images of Buddha, Christ, Martin Luther King and John Lennon. I got the feeling that for the Jivamuktis, God was more a term for joy. The joy that is flowing within us if we are able to pry ourselves away from our mind and our ego. I often felt, listening to the pre-class lectures, that the Jivamukti teachers were trying to help us to realize that we all have that joy flowing within us. And that through practices like yoga, chanting, prayer and meditation we begin to open up the pathways that have been blocked. Blocking us from joy, peace and God.
So there we were, all sitting on our mats. My eyes were closed to avoid feeling claustrophobic as I was hemmed in on all sides by fellow Jivamukti devotees. Suddenly I felt something on my mat and I opened my eyes. David was standing there, looking down at me. With his mythical status and cult-like following at the studio I wasn't sure if I was even allowed to make eye contact with him but as I tried to look away his eyes locked onto mine and I froze. He was standing ON my mat. I had never seen him step on a student’s mat before and I certainly had never spoken to or made eye contact with him. I felt a strange bolt of something like electricity run through me. Ostensibly David was speaking to the class but in truth I felt as if he was communing only with me. He raised his voice, held my eye, and said, clear as day,"If there is something in your life that is blocking your connection to God and you are aware that this thing is blocking your connection with God, you must give it up. You must!!! It's the only way." Then he broke his magnetic eye contact with me, stepped away from my mat and started the class in earnest.
I was shocked, stunned and a little angry. Did I smell like vodka? Did he know my dirty little secret? Was he calling me out in front of a group of strangers to shame me? Was I just being paranoid? At the end of my using, I was incredibly paranoid. Most addicts will know that feeling. The relentless paranoia of getting found out.
After class ended I could not get out of there fast enough. I ran home and made myself a vodka tonic. It was “only one drink”…but in a 32 ounce plastic cup that I filled with one or two ice cubes, a splash of tonic, and the rest with my trusted medicine, vodka.
I was screwed. I had been found out. By David freaking Life of all people. And worst of all I knew he was right. Any tenuous-at-best connection I had with my Higher Power had disappeared years ago. My Higher Power had become alcohol and it was starting to not work. I felt real fear then, but also a glimmer of hope. Maybe I COULD stop drinking. Maybe I could "give it up" as David had told me I must.
About a year after that class with David, I finally did give it up. After a few months of sobriety I felt my connection to a Higher Power begin to flow back into my life. I began to feel my joy again. I'll never forget that class with David. I doubt it meant anything to him. He was standing on my mat because there was nowhere else to stand. He looked at me and spoke directly to me because I was sitting there. And his message about giving up whatever was blocking me from God was meant for everyone. He could have been talking to all of us.
But I know better. I know that 24 years ago my Higher Power sent me a message in that class. A message that it was time to get serious about cleaning up my act. That if I ever wanted to feel the energy of God or joy again I had to stop drinking. And even though that message pissed me off at the time, I have come to realize it for what it was. A blessing. Yoga means union, and in my fractured alcoholic state there could be no union. I had even lost connection to what I knew was the truth, that true joy and active addiction cannot co-exist. That message was a wake-up call. A call to reunite myself with the God that I had drowned in booze. A call to reunite myself with my Higher Power, with my joy, with my spirit, and most importantly, with my self.