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Yoga, Addiction and Mental Health

May 21 2021

Why do I pair yoga with sobriety? This is one of the most common questions I recieve about Sober Curious Yoga School. In this episode, I discuss some of the research on why yoga is beneficial for our mental health in general - and when on a sobriety journey. I discuss the sometimes harmful culture around mental health in the yoga world and how we as yoga teachers can support and respond to our clients who struggle with mental health. I'm launching a Sober Curious Yoga School on July 4 - if you are looking into a sober journey, yoga can be a huge support as outlined in this episode! Check out and stay tuned to my social media for more information on Sober Curious Yoga School coming soon.

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Welcome to the “Sober Yoga Girl Podcast” with Alex McRobs, International yoga teacher and sober coach. I broke up with booze for good in 2019 and now I'm here to help others do the same. You're not alone and a sober life can be fun and fulfilling. Let me show you how.

Hi, yogis. Welcome back to another episode of Sober Yoga Girl. I am super happy to have you here. It is Monday, May the 24th. Happy May two four to all of my Canadian listeners. For those of you guys that don't know, it is Victoria Day in Canada, which means that it is a public holiday. It's a long weekend that everyone looks forward to every year. And the whole thing of May two four, I believe it stems from the two four is referring to you drink a two four of beer. And so, this was a big holiday when I was young, big holiday when I was a teenager, you know, big party weekend. People in my community would often go up to their cottage and party. So, if you're enjoying me two four, I hope you're super enjoying it. And here's just a little kind of side note on that. I actually even forgot that May two four was happening. I only know because I tried to schedule a meeting with someone and they told me that they couldn't make the meeting because it was a holiday. And it was so funny because I hadn't even occurred to me that it was a holiday, and that just shows how home and normal becomes different over time as you move abroad. Right? Like, growing up, Victoria Day weekend was totally normal to me, and I would never think that I would forget that Victoria Day weekend was happening. And now it's like, I don't even remember when Easter is happening. I've just gotten so into the rhythm of the Middle East holidays, right? So, Ramadan, Eid, Prophet's birthday, National Day, those are all my holidays now. And so, it just shows how home and normal can change over time and life based on the culture that you're part of. So, I wanna just give you a little rundown on what's been happening, catch you up on what's been going on this week, and then I'm gonna jump into today's topic, which is yoga and mental health. So, what's been going on? Well, first of all, I am in the middle of planning a big event for June here in Abu Dhabi, if you haven't guessed it already. I was up in Al Ain last week and just by chance, I ended up meeting the management of this hotel I was staying at and I am gonna be partnering with them to plan my first retreat in the UAE next month, which is really, really super exciting. So, we are ironing out all the details. We're locking at Al Ain. It's gonna be announced on social media very soon. And I'm super, super pumped about that. So, if you are UAE based, stay tuned for that. Gonna be an amazing weekend getaway. Also, the new website is gonna be launching in a couple of weeks, and we are ironing out all the details of classes and booking and structure. And there are nine new classes, which is gonna be huge. And so, we are gonna be posting a little bit about this every day on Instagram, so stay tuned for all our new posts. Cannot wait for that. And we also have launched our Sober Curious community, which has been fabulous. We have some leaders and mentors who have been doing the Sober Curious Yoga teacher training with me. They've been learning coaching skills, powerful questioning skills, silent listening skills. They've been learning how to facilitate a group. And it's just been amazing to be part of it. It's been amazing to watch them step into these roles after participating with me for so long this year. And so, there's free sessions and we've had a bunch of new faces showing up on the screen, showing up in the community, which is super, super exciting. So, if you are someone that is silver curious and you're looking for a community to lean on and to connect with, Sober Curious community is for you. And we have daily sessions live on Zoom. They're free. Just go on the website 03:50 you booked in, you get a code sent to you. It's going to be amazing. So, that's that, that kind of runs down everything going on for me right now on like, in my life. And we're gonna jump in today's topic, which is yoga and mental health. So, I have shared a lot about the role that yoga has played in my personal mental health journey. As you guys know, it's kind of one of the things that saved me, and it's been a life raft, and it's helped me massively on my personal journey with my mood disorder. And I wanna start this off by talking about the culture around mental health and yoga when I first started yoga. So, I became really regular yoga student about ten years ago. And around that time, you know, Instagram is popping up. Instagram yoga influencers were first kind of hitting on the scene. And there was like, this whole rhetoric and this whole conversation going on around the yoga world about how we shouldn't use medicine, we shouldn't use Western medicine for our mental health, and we should just do yoga. That was kind of the attitude. And I can think of one yoga teacher who, even as recently as 2017, I was on a yoga teacher training and a yoga teacher said to me, when I said that I had a mood disorder, he said, You know, if you're taking medicine for your mood disorder, it means one of three things. Your practice isn't deep enough, consistent enough or the duration hasn't been long enough. So, he said basically, if you're struggling with your mental health and yoga hasn't fixed it, it's because you're not doing yoga properly. He said it's because you're not practicing for long enough. You're not practicing deep enough. You're not consistent enough with your yoga. And, you know, I ended up biting my tongue because I had paid to be on this yoga teacher training. But I was like, I've been managing my mood disorder for my entire life. And at certain points in that journey, I have been practicing yoga two, three times a day. And it still hasn't cured my mood disorder. Right? And I swear by my mental health meds. And so, I think that it's a really harmful idea in the yoga world that yoga alone can cure mental health because that's just not true. Right? People are born and their brain and their genetics might be different than someone else's, and that's what makes them have anxiety disorder. That's what might make them have a06:10disorder. That's what might make them have a mood disorder. And yoga alone cannot cure that. Right? Yoga can be a massive, massive support and tool as it's been for me. But I often talk about it as like almost looking at your mental health recovery as a pie chart. That's how I viewed it. And yoga is one slice of that pie chart and therapy is one slice of that pie chart, and exercise is one slice of that pie chart, and counseling is one slice of that pie chart. Right? There's a ton of pieces, community, belonging, you know, feeling happy in your environment, having a good job. There are so many things that make up one's mental health. And it's sometimes not only one simple answer as just do yoga. And so, I just wanna preface this whole conversation by saying that, you know, we really need to get rid of that idea. And I think that every single person intuitively should know, you know, what's right for them. And I often say, you know, sometimes you need Western medicine, sometimes you need Eastern medicine, and you shouldn't let anyone else tell you how to heal. Right? That's a choice for you. So, that being said, if you're a yoga teacher and listening to this, if you're interested in learning more about the field of yoga and mental health, I just wanna give a little bit of a reminder that, you know, yoga teachers and even yoga therapists, we're not trained, we're not licensed to diagnose injury or illness or disorder, and we need to be very clear about that with our students. I've had tons of situations where students have asked me, you know, my leg hurts, what could be wrong with it? And in my early days of yoga teaching, I used to, like, make up answers to this because I felt like I had to know all the answers. And now I realize that I don't know. Right? I'm not a doctor. And I think as yoga teachers, we need to be super confident in order to say, you know, I'm not trained or licensed to diagnose injury or illness or disorder, and I'm gonna refer you to an expert. And that's the case for physical health. That's the case for mental health. Right. Yoga is an excellent supplemental resource for students, but we have to be cautious and we have to be clear about this. Yoga support should never be a diagnosis. Yoga support should never be a prescription. Yoga should never be a recommendation for sole treatment. And I think that's one of our biggest flaws and our biggest struggles as a yoga industry. We need to acknowledge that mental health disorders are as real as physical health, and we need to be open to the idea that there are so many ways to heal. So, that being said, people always ask me, what's the big deal with yoga and sobriety? Why do you pair yoga with the Sober Girls Yoga challenge or with Sober Curious Yoga school? What's the point? So, I have done a lot of research into why we do yoga and meditation every day as part of Sober Curious Yoga school. Because the truth is like, you know, I just started doing it and I realized that it works. And that is why it became a huge component of my programs. So, I have come up with some of the research as to why yoga is helpful for our mental health. First of all, it helps us slow down, helps us reconnect with ourselves. And the very purpose of yoga, according to the Yoga Sutras, was to bring about a cessation of the fluctuations of the mind. And it only dawned on me super recently that this pretty much refers to mental health. Right? And it's so fascinating to realize that yogis, thousands of years ago, had the same problems as we did. They had worry, they had stress, they had fears, they had self-doubt, they had depression. And yoga was something that they created to help improve their mental health. And so, here are the main reasons why. To start us off the bat, yoga balances the nervous system. Okay. So, there's been several studies that show that yoga is proven to impact the nervous system and to bring about stress release. The second thing is that yoga actually affects our brain chemistry, it can alter the biochemistry of the brain more directly and more efficiently than regular exercise. And this was said by Dharma Singh Khalsa, who is an M.D.. So, not only does yoga stimulate the relaxation response, it invokes a balance of stimulation and relaxation with glandular secretions of endorphins and adrenaline. And that's by expert Amy Weintraub. Yoga brings us back to the present moment. Okay? And present moment awareness is a key element of relieving anxiety because anxiety is about worry. Worrying what's gonna happen in the future. Worrying about things we did in the past. And yoga gets us away from that and into the present moment, which is a huge, huge tool. Yoga also cultivates our self awareness without judgment. Okay? So, yoga helps us step out and view what's going on. And sometimes you really need this observational distance to release your identification with emotional patterns. And I wanna give you an example of this. Okay? I have this inner loop that I fall into in my brain a lot. That's the I'm a bad person inner loop. It's where I get caught up in these thoughts that I am bad. I wanna give you an example of this, Christmas of 2019, it was my first Christmas home in Canada in like, six years, and I didn't come with Christmas gifts. We had done Christmas in Jamaica for a few years. I had traveled around Southeast Asia. We hadn't given each other Christmas gifts in almost seven years. So, it didn't even occur to me to bring Christmas gifts. Showed up at Christmas, felt like an awful person because I didn't have gifts. There were a lot of other things going on in my life at that point. My relationship was breaking down. The Mindful Life Practice business was failing. I was super stressed about the future and I was getting actually into suicidal thought patterns with this thought loop going, I'm a bad person. I'm a bad person. I'm a bad person. I don't deserve to be here. And what would have really benefited me, I don't think I was doing a lot of yoga at this time, you know, because vacation rustles up my regular routine. And so, I ended up, I don't think I was practicing every day. But I think what would have really, really helped me would be to get into my body, get into my breath and then be able to identify that thought pattern. Okay? Because it took me almost three days in conversation with my sister where I actually it occurred to me. So, what actually really, really sadly happened is that one of my best childhood friends actually committed suicide during this holiday, that I was home in Canada where I was having these suicidal thought patterns. And it really jolted me and it really made me reflect on like, Wow, holy shit. Like, life is so fragile and so short, and it was so heartbreaking. And I was able to take this gigantic step back and observe what was going on in my own head and realize, Wow, that's a negative thought pattern that I'm stuck in. This, I'm a bad person thing, that is within my own head. Right? And I'm not a bad person. My family doesn't wanna disown me because I don't have Christmas gifts. Right? They still love me. But all of us have these things in our minds, these thought patterns, these tornadoes, these things we get swept up on. And yoga helps us step back and have self awareness without judgment, you know, and if you're willing to take this step back and observe your mood, your practicing self awareness, and you need this to release identification with your emotional patterns. Otherwise, you'll be connected to them and you won't see how they are something that you're creating within your own mind. Right? So, from here, once you develop this yoga practice that helps you cultivate your self-awareness without judgment, you can manage and even overcome your mood disorder feelings by developing a practice that suits your feelings. The final thing I wanna share about yoga is that it leads to an embodied experience, and embodiment is key to yoga's impact on our sense of well-being. So,13:55Bell Forbes, who is a clinical psychologist, she says that embodied insights have a lasting effect on emotional balance and mental health. So, I wanna talk a little bit about yoga and addiction. So, Tommy Rosen, who is one of the leading experts in addiction. He defines addiction as any behavior that you continue to do, despite the fact that it brings negative consequences to your life. And Nikki Myers, who is another one of the leading experts in addiction, she says that, Anything that we use to escape reality is something that could lead to an addiction. Right? So, it can include, but it's not limited to food, sex, exercise, work or activities, caffeine, the media, alcohol, shopping, OCD behaviors, nicotine, gambling, relationships, power and control, even illegal prescription drugs. And Tommy Rosen says, you know, Any behavior with negative consequences constitutes addiction. He has the big six, which are drugs, alcohol, food, money and technology. Tommy Rosen says that addiction is the greatest social problem of our time. Right? You might not be a fall down drunk, addicted to painkillers, a gambling addict or a chronic pot smoker or addicted to porn. But you might struggle with addiction in other ways workaholism, overeating, shopping behind your means, engaging addictively with technology like, video games, texting, social media. And if you don't think that you suffer from addiction in any way, chances are that you know and you care about someone who does. So, something I think is super interesting that Western and Eastern perspectives when it comes to addiction can be very different. So, Western stereotype almost sees addiction as a failure on the individual. Right? We have these stereotypes. We have these misconceptions. People with addiction are often judged as moral failures, and we treat the addict as an other, this person making poor choices, and then it makes the rest of us feel superior. And something I learn from my yoga teacher, Ralph Gates, who is also an addictions counselor. He explained that in the Western model, addiction is treated like something out of the ordinary, right, the other, the alcoholic. But in the eastern approach to suffering, attachment to the pleasant, an aversion to the unpleasant, it's a constant. Right? So, addiction is just an extreme manifestation of an ordinary tendency of life. And so, in this view, we can observe our substances or our activities, you know, as something that's fallen just out of a healthy realm of engagement. Right? And if we're willing to examine and identify our own addictive behaviors honestly and compassionately, we can start to soften the stigmas around all types of addiction. So, I know there's a lot of stigma in the alcohol world, a lot of stigmatization around alcoholics, a lot of shame, a lot of people who don't wanna admit that they have a problem with alcohol because they're afraid of how it would affect their career, their lives. And I think this is one of the most problematic stereotypes. And I love this Eastern model that it's just on the spectrum of human behavior. Right. Humans got addicted to things all the time, and alcohol is just one of those substances. And so, we don't need to other people. We don't need to stigmatize them. We don't need to shame them. And I think one of the most important things, too, is that there's this idea that, you know, you hit rock bottom and then you got sober. And I think one of the most important things to know about addiction is that, you know, you don't have to hit rock bottom. And sober coach Bell Robertson, she says, you can reach a high bottom, in which you ask for help before the behavior reaches a devastating result. You know, and you don't have to wait until you reach bottom before you look for support. So, how can yoga help with addiction? I think something really important to know is that, you know, like, mental health, it is not a cure for addiction. It's a tool in the sobriety toolbox, and a lot of sober influencers speak about this on Instagram their sober toolboxes. For people who are part of 12 Step, you know, I'm not part of a 12 Step, I'm not part of AA. But I've heard, you know, that experts warn against using yoga as a substitute for meetings. And while our yoga practice can enhance our recovery, missing 12 Step meetings can be a big ingredient in the recipe for relapse. You know, I personally am not part of AA. I'm not part of the 12 Steps. But I do say often, you know, if you feel that you have an addiction where you need something like, rehab or AA or the 12 steps or substance abuse counseling, you should 100% do that. And then, Sober Curious Yoga school can be an excellent supplement to that. Right. Because I am not a trained addictions counselor. I'm not a substitute for that. I don't have the qualifications to do that. But Sober Curious Yoga school can be an excellent support to people that are part of those programs. And I've had lots of people as part of my community that are part of AA that lots of people in my community who, you know, you've heard on the podcast, I've talked to people who have been to rehab. I've talked to people who have had different relationships with alcohol, and then I've talked to people who have not joined one of those programs at all because it didn't feel right for them. But I think it's really important that we're never, again, it's kind of goes back to what I said at the beginning. You know, we're never telling people this is the cure for your problem. And you should always seek advice, you know, from a counselor or a doctor about what ingredients can I put into my recovery toolbox. So, with that being said, here are some of the ways that yoga can help with addictions in general. So, yoga can help us prevent relapse. Yoga can reduce withdrawal symptoms and cravings. And yoga can provide a healthy outlet to cope with potential triggers, potential life stressors. So, how it can help specifically. So, I'm gonna start off with mental health. Research indicates that yoga and mindfulness practices used in conjunction with other treatments can be helpful in addressing substance abuse disorders in the same way that they're helpful in managing anxiety and depression, which are to mental health disorders that commonly occur alongside addiction. It can help us with our brain help. Addiction can alter neural pathways related to feeling pleasure, regulating emotions, making decisions, controlling impulses. But yoga can balance these parts of the brain in a noninvasive way, and yoga can help and heal and rebuild brain circulation that can be altered by substance abuse. All right. How else can yoga help? It can help us tolerate sensation and respond mindfully. Right. So, the goal of practicing yoga in recovery is to give people skills they need to manage uncomfortable feelings and sensations that can lead us to wanna drink again. So, practicing yoga can help us become aware of our bodies, can help us learn to regulate our breath, can help us listen to our bodies, can help us create a nonjudgmental awareness of sensation of emotion that is a huge contrast to how we deal with things when we drink, which is we numb, we're in denial of our bodies signals. And by focusing inward, we can learn to take ownership of the way we feel and we can respond to stressors with more awareness. Now, I think one of the most important things in recovery is spiritual well-being. And Kevin Griffin, who is the author and the co-founder of the "Buddhist Recovery Network", he says that addiction itself can be a misguided spiritual search. And Kripalu teacher Aruni Nan Futuronsky agrees. She said a longing for something lurks at the bottom of the issue of addiction. And I think this is certainly the case for me. Right? I was searching for answers. I was searching for purpose. I was searching for more in my life. And the spirituality of yoga is something that really, really helped me. Now, some other considerations I wanna throw in here, like, if you are overcoming an addiction to alcohol, if you're overcoming an issue with alcohol, you know some other things that can really help our nutrition, right? Eating food that is healthy, paying attention to how food makes you feel, choosing food that makes you feel energetic, healthy and vital. And I think that's super important in the recovery journey or in the sobriety journey. And then, there's also things that you can take like, mantra and meditation, like, tons of other things that you can do as well to kind of supplement this spiritual journey. So, if you're someone that is looking at getting sober, you're looking at solutions, you're looking at things to put in your toolkit, I highly, highly, highly recommend checking out yoga. And I know the idea of quitting alcohol forever can be overwhelming. And so, a lot of experts say start small or start with 100 days off. See how you feel. See how your body reacts. See what life is like, without alcohol. And if things are getting better, you can choose to keep going and you might have accountability and support behind you. Okay. So, if you are considering sobriety, if you are considering this, I highly recommend checking out yoga and coming up soon, we have a Sober Yoga school, which is gonna involve a lot of skills from yoga, a lot of practices. It's gonna be amazing. And so, stay tuned. That is coming July 4th and that might be the perfect opportunity for you to give this all a try. So, I'm wondering how yoga has helped you with your mental health? How has it helped you with your well-being? I would love to hear from your personal perspective if you wanna drop me an email at, I would love to have some guest input or insights on the podcast about how yoga has helped you with your mental health or your sobriety. Thank you so, so much for tuning in and I look forward to seeing you all soon on yoga, hearing how you're doing. By the way, I have Zoom yoga every single day on the Mindful Life Practice. So, do check that out if you are looking for a yoga practice for your sobriety. All right, guys, that wraps this up. I will see you soon. Make sure you, like, share, subscribe and connect with me on social media. Have a great Monday. Bye.

Thank you so much for tuning into this episode of Sober Yoga Girl with Alex McRobs. I am so, so grateful for every one of you. Don't forget to subscribe so you don't miss the next one and leave a review before you go. See you soon. Bye.

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