Yoga and the Twelve Steps: We’re Powerless Over Our Monkey Mind

I teach yoga to recovering alcoholics and addicts at a residential treatment facility. I also owe my happiness — if not my sanity and my life — to the Twelve Steps. I’ve learned as much in 12-step meetings about yoga as I have in the studio, and vice versa.

This is the first in a series of my personal* insights about the parallel and complementary practices of yoga and the twelve steps.

*I am in no way representing any of the 12-step conferences, their literature, or their traditions. I am not advocating you join a 12-step fellowship. These are my personal thoughts; and I’m curious about yours.

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Step One: We admitted we were powerless…and that our lives had become unmanageable.

For most of us, our mind has spun in a thousand directions for so long that we take the spinning for granted. We’ve accepted the “monkey mind” or “hamster wheel” as a fact of life. We may already believe we’re powerless over this constant insanity… and yet, we try anything and everything we can to distract ourselves, to ease the discomfort of the laundry list of to-dos, resentments, annoyances and shame triggers that we live with on a day-to-day basis.

We eat. We drink. We tweet. We Facebook. We judge other people. We judge ourselves. We buy. We collect pins of things we might want to buy one day on an imaginary internet pinboard. We diet. We work. We get so busy — unassailably, unforgivably busy — so busy that even if we WANTED to slow down and look at this stuff (which we don’t), we wouldn’t be able to.

We’re trying to escape the constant spin of our mind by making it spin faster. We run away so fast that the running just fuels the spin.

And if someone suggests we slow down? Do less? HA! Fuck that guy. We’ve painted ourselves into a corner to believe that we don’t have another choice. When someone tells us “Happiness is a choice,” we resist the urge to punch them in the face. We think they just don’t understand. This isn’t a choice, this is just the way it is.

The addicts and alcoholics I work with are the lucky ones. Their brains got so twisted up that they no longer had a choice — they were forced to stop, drop everything, and slow down. They leave their homes, their jobs, their families, their phones, their email. For 24 days (fingers crossed), their days are scheduled from 6am to 10pm, right down to six cigarette breaks a day. And they begin to learn a new way to live.

For many of us, life never gets so bad that we fall off the hamster wheel. We keep accruing frequent flier miles, credit card points, and transferring our debt to the next 0% APR credit card. We binge on king cake, crawfish bread, and Popeye’s, and then spend all of Lent on Whole30, avoiding sugar, caffeine, alcohol, flour, and food. (In places that aren’t New Orleans, we drink quad-breve extra-pump cinnaspice lattes, deep-fried cheese, half-pound burgers, egg rolls, and Frozen margaritas, and then get on the wagon on New Year’s Day.) We leave CNN/Fox News/CNBC/ESPN/NPR on in the background, follow mass shootings live on twitter, read as much as possible about ISIL, Syria, Obamacare, gun control, and the 2016 Presidential election, and still somehow manage to stay one step ahead of a nervous breakdown. We’re secretly afraid that someone will realize we have no idea what we’re doing and revoke our Adult Card. And we’re also secretly hopeful that someone might do exactly that.

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The second line of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras (a fourth century yoga text often quoted in modern yoga studios) defines yoga as the “stilling of the mind into silence.” I have yet to meet someone who doesn’t want that. I have yet to meet someone who has achieved it. Go ahead, try it. Right now, stop thinking. No reasoning, no feelings, no memories, no plans, no judging, no stories, no evaluation of sensory perception.


Even if we could, I think we’re terrified of what might happen if we were to stop distracting ourselves and actually look at what’s inside that never-ending whirlwind of thoughts, feelings, judgments, fears, anxieties and regrets.

A 2014 University of Virginia study suggests we’d rather receive electric shock therapy than be alone with our thoughts. Two-thirds of men and a quarter of women. Let me say that again: a significant percentage of adults self-administered electric shocks instead of being alone with their thoughts for fifteen minutes.

So maybe we take that first step, as yogis or friends in recovery. We admit we’re powerless over that spinning mind, and that it’s making our lives unmanageable. That admission gives us permission to separate ourselves from the mind, to see the mind as not us, and to get some perspective about what’s happening. It’s the tiniest shift, the very beginning of the practice. Paradoxically, this admission of powerlessness gives us the power to do it differently. The power to change.

For the next week, when your own mind starts to spin off its axle, practice this thought: “I am powerless over this spinning mind, this monkey mind, this mental hamster wheel. The brain is just doing what it does.” Find a phrase to describe your own whirling mind that makes sense to you. And if saying you’re powerless troubles you, phrase it as a question: “What if I’m powerless over this spinning mind? What if the brain is just doing what it does?”

See what happens and let me know how it goes.