Yoga and the Twelve Steps: One Truth, Parallel Paths

Richard Jonas

Consider the path outlined in Patanjali's Yoga Sutras. Then think about a twelve-step program for recovery from addiction.

When you come right down to it, says Senior Iyengar Yoga Teacher and filmmaker Lindsey Clennell, they're quite similar.

Modern twelve-step programs, says Clennell, director of the film Addiction, Recovery and Yoga, "present many ideas which are basic yoga principles." The new film is a fascinating look at the intersections between twelve-step programs and yoga, mostly Iyengar Yoga, in the lives of seven practitioners, including three Iyengar Yoga teachers, who talk on camera about their experiences in in-depth interviews that are funny, moving, provocative, and heartbreaking. The 85-minute movie can be viewed or downloaded free at To download, click on the Google logo. The film is also on Google Video, Veoh, and Yahoo Video.

"When you talk to someone who's done twelve step and yoga, you see how yoga principles have come alive to them through the window of twelve step," Clennell says. "They see the possibility of freedom from affliction. The program said to them, 'Admit you can't control your behavior and acknowledge that the only way to overcome your difficulties is by surrendering to a higher power.' Yoga addresses the same subject in a different way."

The interviewees discuss their own histories of addiction and the way yoga and twelve-step programs together led them to recovery. In the film, each is identified only by their first name, in the tradition of twelve-step programs.

They include three Iyengar Yoga teachers: Father Joe Peirera, the distinguished Senior Teacher from Mumbai who has achieved near-miraculous results treating HIV-positive and drug- and alcohol-dependent students with yoga via the Kripa Foundation; Kevin Gardiner, Intermediate Junior III, of Budapest, Hungary, and the Iyengar Yoga Institute of New York; and Tori Milner, Intermediate Junior I, also of the New York Institute. Since being interviewed for the film, which had a premiere this fall at a New York Institute event she hosted with Clennell, Milner has begun teaching a regular monthly series at the Institute entitled "Happy, Joyous and Free: Yoga for People with Addictions."

Several students, most from the New York Institute, also tell their stories.
Besides discussing their problems with addiction and the steps to recovery, each participant is also shown performing part of a yoga practice.

The movie came about "by accident," says Clennell, Intermediate Senior III, also a teacher at the New York Institute. "I went to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting because a number of my students were in recovery and I thought I should find out what AA was. I was very impressed: the atmosphere and the way people were conducting themselves was exemplary in terms of community action. I mentioned it in my class at the Institute."

Three months later, a regular student approached Clennell, saying, "Thank you for saying that about AA. I am now 63 days sober."

"It was clear to me that this was a turning point in her life," he remembers. "It was a poignant moment, and it made me think it might be possible to help more people by making the connection between twelve step and yoga."

Clennell's own first step was to interview Father Joe, then in New York teaching a workshop at the Institute and staying at the apartment where Clennell lives with his wife, Bobby, also a Senior Teacher. "Father Joe is an expert on this subject," Clennell says. "He further inspired me, and I realized that the combination of yoga and twelve step was unique and effective."

A writer and filmmaker in his native England, with documentaries featuring Muhammad Ali and Mikhail Gorbachev and more than 200 music videos and concert films to his credit, Clennell "didn't see it as a commercial project. I saw it as something to distribute for free, to people who might be helped by it."

Clennell produced the film, which was shot over a year's time by his son, director and cinematographer Jake Clennell, a longtime Iyengar Yoga practitioner who is currently filming a documentary about Guruji in India. The movie was edited by Hisayo Kushida, another New York Iyengar Yoga practitioner.

Clennell consulted with Mary Dunn, Senior Teacher at the New York Institute, not long before her death, and received her enthusiastic support. "I am glad it has been finished successfully," he says, "but sorry she is not here to see it."

"In some ways the film is quite entertaining," Clennell told me before we watched it together a second time. "If you don't know anything about the psychology of addiction it's very revealing."

Addiction, Recovery and Yoga is "completely about subjective psychology, not action," he says, "and subjective psychology as articulated by people who have had extreme experiences." The film, though, avoids sensationalism. "That's how addiction problems are usually treated on TV and in films. So in a way, our film is attempting to break new ground. It's not exploiting the interviewee by getting them to reveal something sensational. There were actually things people revealed which I didn't use in the film. I was very careful not to exploit peoples' experiences."

Instead, he "tried to make a film which engages the viewer purely through subjective psychology. For yoga students, this is something of interest. A person in a twelve-step program or a person doing yoga–both get a practical understanding of their mental processes."

Addiction is clearly an affliction, Clennell points out: "In the Yoga Sutras, afflictions are illustrated so clearly."

However, he continues: "Most of our afflictions are too obscure. We can't quite see when we're acting them out or when we're engulfed in our negative characteristics. With addiction, the person knows: 'I'm drinking.' Or, 'I'm not drinking.' Watching this film, the nonaddictive person starts to see how his behaviors might be similar. From that point of view, it's an education in self-awareness, in affliction, and in the difficulties in achieving freedom from affliction.

"Looking at the way interviewees have tackled something as difficult as addiction opens up a set of possibilities about self-study. You could look at something in your life as an affliction and, like people in twelve-step programs, work systematically, one day at a time, to overcome it.

"The mechanics of denial which underpin addiction are also very much part of our behavior as nonaddicts. The line between someone who has an addiction problem and someone who thinks they don't gets a little blurred," says Clennell, who has no firsthand experience with twelve-step programs. "That's why I don't call myself an expert. The process of twelve step is a unique experience, and that comes across in the film. Those are the people who can help others, especially yoga teachers who have gone through the process. This makes the film especially useful for yoga teachers who have students with addictions."

Clennell has for many years encouraged his students to cultivate a personal meditative practice based on the three-fold remedy of Patanjali's yoga, by being friendly and not being driven to perceive only others' negative characteristics. "You can say, 'I'm not violent, I'm not eating hamburgers,'" he jokes. "But it's not about your external condition; it's about your internal demeanor to other people. I tell my students, 'Be friendly. Don't withdraw affection from people.'

"This is a real practice that is one way of understanding Bhakti Yoga, or devotion
to God, or surrender, or a sense of connection," Clennell says. "God isn't an abstraction; as they say in Jamaica, 'Jah Liv.' We can really bring the element of Bhakti into our practice with something within our immediate range of perception. Interestingly, in twelve step, surrender to a higher power comes right at the beginning of the program."

The way addictive behavior controls us is not always obvious, Clennell says, "even when you're doing something that's crazy and self-destructive. Think of an alcoholic crashing around. He's lost his job, his marriage is in trouble; but only when he finds himself in the hospital does he realize what's happened. Finally he realizes, 'I'm an alcoholic.' You hear stories like that all the time at meetings. Only after years do people come to
terms with their addiction because denial is so powerful."

Even for nonaddicts, though, "it's easy to acquire and maintain negative mental patterns–and to be unaware, in continual denial about them. When a nonaddictive person realizes that denial is part of all of us–and how strong it is–you start to look at what's really going on, and self-study takes on an additional dimension.

"You have a choice of how you perceive others," Clennell continues. "Often our reactions are hostile, because of status anxiety, jealousy, because we're conditioned to look for what is threatening, to look for some aspect of the other person which reduces them in our view. That's what makes it possible to do all the terrible things we do to each other."

By contrast, he notes, "The twelve-step maxim of 'Happy, Joyous and Free' seems a pretty good state of mind to work towards."

Key to this practice of internal nonviolence and friendliness, says Clennell, is "noticing when you're taken over by an afflictive emotion like anger or fear. But much better, noticing when you're taken over by a positive emotion, which we're even less used to noticing. At the point when you feel elated or affectionate, when you admire somebody or feel attracted to them or like them, you should allow that feeling. We don't trust that feeling; we trust anger or fear more.

"When you feel affectionate to someone, allow yourself to feel it. It may not be appropriate to act on it or make a remark. But to feel affectionate to other people is not a dangerous event," he laughs.

"People spend a lot of time in a state of isolation and withdrawal," Clennell says. "With yoga, people can move forward to new behaviors and new ways of being."

Even for those seemingly lost in their addictions, yoga and twelve-step programs beckon a way back.

Richard Jonas, certified at the Introductory level, is a faculty member at the Iyengar Yoga Institute of Greater New York. He is also a writer and Vice President of the IYNAUS Board of Directors.