Founder of Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, outspoken teacher Nikki Myers is a powerhouse who leads trainings and builds communities around the world centered on combining the somatic approach of yoga with the cognitive approach of 12-step programs. Nikki is giving the Sunday keynote address at the International Association of Yoga Therapy’s Symposium for Yoga Therapy and Research (SYTAR) June 15-18 in Newport Beach. Nikki says, “No matter the form, addiction results in various levels of social, psychological and even physical harm. It affects people of all ages, backgrounds and socio-economic status. Addiction is an equal opportunity destroyer.” In advance of her talk in California, we discussed her commitment to practice and her platform for recovery.
LA YOGA: How is yoga a supportive practice for you?
Nikki Myers: The 12-step program saved my life and continues to be an important foundational component for what I call my “platform for sustainable addiction recovery.”
My experience is that there are stages of recovery. I firmly stepped into yoga when I experienced a relapse after eight years of abstinence. The story of that relapse is fascinating, but the most striking thing about it was how I quickly morphed into the old addict personality after years of abstinence.
After finding my way back to a 12-step program, I began an Ashtanga yoga practice and studied everything I could find related to yoga philosophy. After a while, I decided that yoga was enough and that I no longer needed the support of the 12-step program. Then after four years, I relapsed again. After the second relapse, it became clear to me that both yoga and the 12-step program were needed in my platform for sustainable recovery. It’s now been more than 16 years since my last relapse.
There are many ways that yoga is supportive for me: Asana, pranayama, chanting, meditation, and sangha (community) are all tools for deeper connection and integration of body, energy, intellect, behavior, and heart. When those align, my experience is that a shift occurs that orients every dimension of my being toward a state of balance and wholeness. Often, even a single shift in perspective, muscular/skeletal alignment, energy expansion or contraction, behavior, or connection will realign everything, internally and often externally. In that experience, I recognize that there really is no separation between mind and body, heaven and earth, or me and you. From that place, giving to and receiving from others is organic.
LA YOGA: The topic of your upcoming talk at SYTAR is related to the issues in our tissues and the link between the adjunctive therapies of yoga and 12-step recovery. What does this mean to you and how do you explain it to people?
Nikki: In Y12SR I like to say that we connect the dots. We connect the dots between the ancient wisdom of yoga philosophy and practices, the very practical tools from the 12-step program, the neuroscience relative to how addiction affects the brain, and trauma healing.
I assert that underneath all addiction there is some level of trauma. In a sense, we can think of trauma in the same terms as the Sanskrit term ama, used in Ayurveda. Ama refers to a toxic byproduct that lies somewhere in the five-body system in an unresolved, undigested, incomplete state. Beyond undigested food in the belly, ama is also the undigested experiences of our lives. When this energy doesn’t move, it stagnates somewhere in the body. This is what we mean by “the issues live in the tissues.” The beauty of a well-designed, trauma-informed, integrated yoga practice is that there is a possibility of releasing that energy without even necessarily having a cognitive association with it.
I’ve found that it’s not absolutely necessary to go into a great deal of technical detail about this with students. Instead, after doing my best to create a container of safety in the class, I encourage students to stay with whatever release is happening like the muscle tremor or tears that start to flow.
LA YOGA: How can this idea be helpful for students?
Nikki: One of the phrases often heard in 12-step meetings is, “You have to feel your feelings.” I heard that phrase for many years and had no idea of what it really meant. Knowing and experiencing that feelings can be felt and processed in a place of being detached from the story is a huge revelation for many in recovery.
LA YOGA: What do you suggest that people do with feelings or issues that come up from the tissues during practice?
Nikki: The invitation is to acknowledge the feeling, make a decision to experience it, and then to just notice any mechanisms the mind might use to escape. Then the student/client is invited to bring their attention and awareness to the physical sensations in the body and to become very inquisitive about the sensations, asking questions like: Do they have a texture, color, shape? Where are they in the body? Are they static or moving, et cetera. The person is invited to stay with the feeling rather than any story that the mind begins to make up about the feeling. Feelings are energy and the nature of energy is to move. Often with just this level of attention the feeling will move.
LA YOGA: What happens in yoga practice that is supportive to people in addiction recovery?
Nikki: One of the things I’ve found most useful for myself and students is the focus in the practice on synchronizing attention, breath, and movement. When my awareness is on my breath and my breath is guiding my movement, I am in the present time. The addictive mind time travels. The ability to consciously return to the present moment is a tremendous support on and off the mat.
LA YOGA: How can yoga be a helpful practice for maintaining sobriety?
One of the things we do in Y12SR is turn those often used program cliches, such as, “Keep coming back,” into embodied affirmations that are felt rather than merely spoken. For example, we might say something like, “I keep coming back to mountain pose on and off the mat, especially when grounding, strength, and self-containment are needed in recovery.”
For more information about Nikki Myers and Yoga of 12-Step Recovery, visit: y12sr.com.
Nikki Myers is speaking at the Symposium of Yoga Therapy and Research in Newport Beach in June. For more information, visit: iayt.org.
Thank you to the Recovery 2.0 community for the photos of Nikki by DJ Pierce.