Guest blog: How yoga became an essential part of my sober toolkit
Girl and Tonic’s Laurie McAllister shares why she replaced alcohol with yoga to help relieve her stress and anxiety.
I discovered yoga whilst at university. Two to three mornings a week you could find me sweating out the night before’s booze on a yoga mat in a carpeted room in Canary Wharf.
I liked the way I felt after a yoga class, like I had worked out but also gained a sense of peace. I found that the focus on breathing and moving my body with the breath calmed my racing mind. And savasana, the final posture in a yogi class where you lie still on the floor (blanket over you optional), was probably the only time in my student schedule of lectures, seminars, bar work and parties when I was truly still.
These benefits combined meant that for three years at university, I was reasonably committed to going to yoga. Fast forward three years post-graduation and yoga classes were a distant memory. The 9-6 office grind had taken over, and evenings and weekends were reserved for going out and recovering from going out.
When I started thinking about stopping drinking in 2015, I wasn’t sure how I would spend my time. What do you do if your whole social life has revolved around drinking? Who am I without alcohol? Will my friends still be my friends? All questions that swirled around my mind and made it hard to make the not drinking decision stick.
But then I remembered the feeling of zen I used to get after yoga, the deep rest I felt in savasana, and the boost I got from going to class regularly. After a bad day, I used to meet a friend for a glass (bottle) of wine to drown my sorrows – could I go to yoga instead? I didn’t manage to quit drinking until the end of 2016, but I got back on the yoga mat before that. I was reading lots of blogs online about people who quit drinking. They all said get hobbies that don’t include alcohol, some even said go to yoga. So, I followed the advice of people who had stopped drinking before me and booked into a class at a studio near my house that I found on Google.
The class was on a Thursday evening, a night of the week I usually reserved for going out for drinks, and I spent the entire day worrying about it. What if I was terrible at yoga now? What if I hated it? Would everyone look at me because I was new? I was used to using alcohol to boost my confidence before evening events, it had been a while since I had gone into a new social situation without a pre-drink to calm my nerves. But I did it. I arrived 10 minutes early and sat on a mat at the back. I put my hand up when the teacher asked if anyone was new to yoga, and felt soothed when they told me to take it easy, to not put pressure on myself to be perfect, to stay in the room and that in a few classes it would all feel much more familiar.
They were right, a month later I was no longer nervous before class – instead, I looked forward to it. Yoga was my time for me; an hour to reflect and do something good for my body and my mind. I blocked Thursday nights in my diary for yoga, and every week - no matter what had happened in the day - I went to class. Sticking to this schedule helped me build my self-trust too. After a few years of cancelled plans and Monday-morning-fresh-starts (full of good intentions but no real change), doing the thing I said I was going to do was powerful.
On the first day of my sobriety, the day when not drinking finally stuck, I went to yoga. A 90-minute class on a Sunday evening. From here on, yoga became an essential part of my sober tool kit. One of five tools I pull on regularly to maintain and enjoy my sobriety. Connection (sober friends), journaling, yoga, therapy and alcohol-free drinks are my top 5. Your toolkit might look different, but having one is something I recommend to everyone who is on an alcohol-free journey.
The benefits of yoga
- It’s great exercise (depending on the class you attend), releasing endorphins that make you feel good
- It’s a proven stress-reliever, if you have leant on alcohol to relieve stress – practising yoga can be a more mindful way to relieve stress
- It’s reflective. At the start of a class, the teacher often asks you to set an intention (a sankalpa). This time invites you to reflect on what you need from that yoga class, and what you need from wider life
- It encourages relaxation. Whether you go to a high energy power yoga class or a gentle restorative class, it will end with savasana – a time to pause and relax
- You can do it anywhere, at any time. Whilst I’d encourage everyone new to yoga to go to a beginner’s class in real life – a great way to meet people and learn from a teacher who can help you with the postures – you don’t have to. There are thousands of great classes online, many of them free, so you can give it a go from the comfort of your living room.
And the best bit? Anyone can do it. You don’t need to be young, fit or experienced to practice yoga – and you definitely don’t need to be flexible! I trained to teach yoga in early sobriety, and over the last five years have taught people from all walks of life. I’ve taught in a pub, at a rehab centre, at leisure centres and in fancy studios. I’ve taught 10-year-olds in school and 80-year olds who came to the pub on a Sunday morning. The only thing everyone had in common? They wanted to give yoga a try. Yoga isn’t a quick fix though. I’m yet to meet anyone who has found a quick fix to sobriety - but you can add it to your sober toolkit to help you build a happy, healthy alcohol-free life.
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