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This is the seventh in a yearlong series of interviews conducted by guest editor Shane Corn, co-founder with Suzanne Sterling and Hala Khouri of the yoga service organization Off the Mat, Into the World, each featuring a different leader in yoga service and social-justice work.
This month, Corn interviews Nikki Myers, the founder of Yoga of 12-Step Recovery (Y12SR), a relapse-prevention program that combines the wisdom of yoga with the practical tools of a 12-step program.
Seane Corn: Tell us about your journey and how yoga fits into your addiction recovery.
Nikki Myers: It has been a big journey to reintegrate all parts of myself—to accept without judgment all the various experiences that make up my whole—and come to radical self-acceptance. I’m a drug addict. I’m an alcoholic. I’m a codependent. I’m the survivor of both childhood and adult sexual trauma. I’m a love addict. I’m a recovering compulsive spender. I’m a yoga therapist. I’m a somatic experiencing practitioner. I’m the founder of Y12SR. I am the mother of two living children and one deceased child. I’m the grandmother of five. All of this is true, and I say that with gratitude and grace. I’ve discovered that if I exalt one part of myself and diminish another, I create a separation that becomes a war inside me, and that’s the antithesis of yoga. Yoga is union, integration, wholeness. Until I accepted all these experiences, I was unable to achieve wholeness.
SC: How did you find yoga?
NM: Initially, in 1987, I found a 12-step program for my addiction recovery. During my first eight years in the program, I finished my undergraduate degree, and then I completed my MBA. I went on to work for a corporation in IT [information technology]. In 1994, on a business trip to Germany, I was served orange sherbet with champagne. I made a bad decision to drink the champagne. Back in my hotel room, I ended up drinking from the minibar like Denzel Washington at the end of Flight. I got up the next day and did what I needed to for work, but within a week I found my way to Amsterdam. I had been clean for eight years, but even in a foreign country I knew exactly who to become, what to do, where to go, and how to talk to get my drug of choice: crack cocaine.
I had little experience with yoga at the time. After Amsterdam, I got back into a 12-step program in Boston. It was then that a work acquaintance reintroduced me to yoga. At first, I practiced Bikram and then Ashtanga. My Ashtanga teacher taught yoga in an urban school, and when she went to India each year, I would sub for her. The school administrators would tell me, “When you leave, we have a two-hour window when we can do our jobs because the kids have a sense of focus.” I had personally experienced a calm from yoga practice; however, I got curious about how yoga made kids respond this way. I studied yoga philosophy with book recommendations from others, and started seeing all the similarities between yoga and the 12-step program. I made a decision to let go of the 12-step program, and thought a daily Ashtanga Yoga practice would be my way of dealing with my addiction issues. I stayed clean for four years. Then I relapsed again in 2ooo.
SC: What put you on a path toward sustainable recovery?
NM: I realized I could not put the 12-step program, which gave me a cognitive base for recovery, in a separate box from yoga, which gave me somatic tools. I independently studied neuroscience, and received training in trauma through the Somatic Experiencing Trauma Institute (trauma healing.org) and in yoga therapy through the American Viniyoga Institute (viniyoga .com). In 2oo3, I created Y12SR (y12sr.com), which combines cognitive and somatic practices for sustainable recovery, to offer to others those things that benefitted me.
Y12SR is based on the Yoga Sutra II.16, which suggests that future suffering can be avoided. The program is designed to give us tools to help avoid the future suffering that accompanies a relapse. The first part of Y12SR includes workshops to connect the dots between neuroscience, trauma healing, the 12-step program, and yoga philosophy. The second part is leadership training to teach people how to take Y12SR meetings back into their home communities to support addicts in recovery.
At first, a Y12SR meeting looks like a regular 12-step group discussion, but the discussion is followed by a trauma-informed yoga practice to find ways to release the issues in our tissues and to give people practical coping tools, such as listening to their breath to know what’s going on in their bodies. If the breath is jumpy, fragmented, or irregular, they learn to pause and focus on steadying the breath and coming back to the present moment. For instance, a young mother in recovery from drug addiction who attends Y12SR said that after a really bad day at work, then a challenging experience with her kids, she could feel heat, which she identified as anger, welling up. Before reacting in her usual abusive way toward her kids, she paused, took the kind of deep breath that we do in Y12SR, and didn’t hit her children.
There are now 3oo-plus trained Y12SR leaders, with more than 125 meetings held regularly across the United States. Last year, we went international with meetings in London, Nicaragua, and other locations.
SC: Your honesty about your own struggles with addiction helps take away the denial and shame around the chronic disease. Why do you think this is important?
NM: Two-thirds of American families are either dealing with an addiction themselves or are affected by someone in their lives who has an addiction. That’s why I’m a big proponent of taking the stigma out of not just addiction but any kind of mental illness; otherwise, all those people won’t be willing to get help. For relapse prevention, people need to find ways to express their emotions, which have identifiable sensations inside the body and have to find a way out. These emotions are energy in motion. The nature of energy is movement. Whenever we ignore, deny, or repress feelings, they can come out of us inappropriately. Unexpressed anger can become rage; unexpressed pain can become hopelessness; unexpressed fear can become panic; unexpressed shame can become worthlessness; even unexpressed joy can become hysteria. I’ve come to realize that no feeling is good or bad or right or wrong, and that’s the beautiful part of this journey for me.