Listening in Yoga and 12 Step Recovery

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LISTENING in yoga and 12 Step Recovery

“You say I only hear what I want to.” -Lisa Loeb

If you would have asked me before recovery if I was a good listener, without hesitation (or listening), I would’ve given you a resounding YES! But the truth is that I’m only now beginning to understand how to listen, and accept that I struggle with it.

My listening journey began when I first started practicing yoga. In the method of yoga that I practice, Baptiste Power Vinyasa Yoga, teachers are encouraged to teach with their words and not their bodies through modeling yoga poses. 

I can tell you that teachers modeling yoga poses is something that held me back from yoga for a long time. Anytime I’d take a yoga class the teacher was always at the front of the room teaching from their own mat. As a beginner, I was constantly cranking my neck in downward dog to look up and try to understand what the fuck was going on. How am I supposed to do the pose and watch this person do the pose at the same time? I found this to be aggravating. Not to mention the teacher was usually much thinner and more athletic than me so most of what I was doing looked nothing like what she was doing.

At my first yoga studio, the teachers didn't practice the poses with students, so with the added support of the teacher walking around the room, I started to learn the poses. I am also a person who wears glasses and contacts. I am very bitchy about my contacts being dry. In hot yoga, the warm environment in the room coupled with massive sweating made the contacts very uncomfortable to wear. On the other hand, wearing glasses that were hanging off the tip of my nose and fogging up was equally terrible. I decided the best I could do was learn to practice without glasses. As an aside, I can’t see shit without glasses on. 

So, this was really when I identified that listening was an issue. The teacher would speak the instructions, and at first it was hot yoga hell, literally 100 degrees. My sight is so poor, I couldn’t see the other students in the room either, so I just kept listening. My ability to listen and take verbal instructions continued to grow and strengthen in ways that served me on and off the mat. 

About a year after I started practicing yoga, I started attending Alanon meetings. Since I had been practicing my physical listening skills, I was better equipped to be in meetings. Meetings are mostly listening. We have our 3-5 minutes to speak, and the rest of the meeting we listen for experience, strength, and hope through others sharing. Meetings became another practice in how to listen. 

This is an area of my life where yoga and recovery have intersected to sharpen my interpersonal skills. Having grown up in an alcoholic household, we didn’t listen, we screamed at each other. There was always so much yelling, and yet no one was listening to anyone. 

I was also not trained to listen to myself. We grew up with lots of food issues in our household. Both of my parents were overweight, and so was I. Frequently, if I told my mother I was hungry, she would tell me that because she wasn’t hungry there was no way that I could be hungry. I was derailed from listening to my own body. Who could I trust? Eventually, I would rebel against this notion of my hunger and I would gorge myself on food whenever I had the opportunity. I abused myself for a long time with food, mostly because I couldn’t listen for when I needed to stop eating.

As I gathered a sense of how to listen, through listening to my yoga teacher and listening to my fellows in meetings, I began applying these principles for myself. I learned the skills to listen to myself. I learned to listen for what I need, and how best to take care of myself. It started with a physical practice of learning how to listen.

Listening In Yoga

Aside from learning to listen to the yoga teacher, we are learning to listen to ourselves on the mat. Arguably, the most important thing we are doing in our yoga practice, and what we are striving to listen to is our breath. Breathing on purpose and with intention is a game changer

When you’re first beginning a yoga practice, there are so many things to learn that it’s obviously overwhelming. The teacher might offer you a specific breathing pattern or pranayama technique like ujjayi. Don’t let this scare you. Developing precision in your breathing comes with time. The first thing you can do to help yourself is concentrate your breath in and out of your nose. If you do need to breathe out of your mouth, do it on purpose. Open your mouth only for the exhale, and use it to slow your breathing down.

Learning to listen for our breath is a mega off the mat, life saving skill. Our breath is a mirror to what is happening inside of our bodies and minds. When the breath is choppy, jagged, and short this is usually a reflection of what’s happening internally as well. When the breath is long, smooth, and calm our bodies are more relaxed. When our breath is relaxed, we are sending signals to our nervous system that all is well.

I try to especially focus on my breath in stressful situations. If I’m anticipating something stressful like a confrontation, or even heavy traffic when I’m driving, I focus on long, slow, deep breathing to keep my mind calm and clear. If my heart is racing fast, I can slow down my heart rate with calm breathing. These de-escalation skills that I’ve discovered came together through repetitive practice. To be very clear, I did not wake up like this. Some of my most profound moments in learning to breathe, happened when I was about to explode or go off the chain. Listening for our own breath is visceral.

Listening in 12 Step Recovery

Learning to hear my story through the words of other folks has been an incredibly healing part of my 12 step journey. Even when I can’t listen to my mom, I can hear my mother’s struggle through the sharing of other moms. Or when I listen to the ways in which other folks struggle and how they are using the principles of the program to help themselves. I’ve learned so much in listening to people younger and older than me. I’ve learned to listen to what is true for others even if I do not share their views.

No crosstalk policies are one of my favorite parts of sharing and listening space. I love the comfort of knowing I can speak without someone trying to fix me. I love knowing that I can listen and that I’m not being asked to fix or change someone else. I’m learning the art of listening with loving detachment. I’ve learned that when anyone, anywhere shares something with me, I can simply say “thank you for sharing” and take in what they’ve said. It used to be a major controlling impulse to believe I needed to comment on everything someone shared. I would feel compelled to share my thoughts, experiences, or offer advice, and suggestions. Now, I do that far less often. It is not my job to fix others. It is my job to listen. When I listen, I’m practicing my recovery.

Yoga and 12-Step Recovery Integrated

Becoming a well-rounded listener means I am able to hear myself and others. I think about the words of the serenity prayer: the wisdom to know the difference. I am constantly in a dance between listening to the needs of others and balancing that with my own needs. Whether it’s running a business, being in a romantic relationship, a business partnership, or having friends, I’m still learning how to listen.

My boyfriend does not think I am a very good listener. He has mentioned to me several times before that I don’t multitask well. In my mind, I’m watching tv, texting, checking email, and talking to him with a skilled ease. From his perspective, I’m always saying “huh, what did you say?” This is usually because I’m not listening. He recently said it again, that my multitasking was getting to him and creating distance. This time, I heard him. I think I am being mindful, but I’m not. As a mindfulness teacher and practitioner, I have a desire to do better. I am my best self when I’m being present with others.

When I’m doing a bunch of things at once, I’m actually wearing myself out. It’s not a good form of self care, and it’s not a great way to nurture intimacy in relationships. I’ve started having more mindfulness around this. One technique I’m trying is to communicate what I need better. Recently, my boyfriend wanted to tell me about something that happened in his day, and I was almost finished working on something. At that moment, I tried a boundary. I asked him if I could finish the email I was sending and then he would have my full attention. While I was finishing the email, he started talking anyway. I lovingly re-presenced the boundary and reminded him that I was going to finish my email and he would have my full attention. We both laughed, and he said “oh, yeah, my bad!” I finished my email, and made a point of actually closing the computer down. I listened to his story in full and felt more connected and engaged in what he was telling me. I was able to care for myself and in the midst of it, someone else too.

It works if you work it.


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