Returning to Your True Self by Brian

Addiction, Trauma and Recovery Through Yoga

Artwork by unknown, via @metaanatomy

Artwork by unknown, via @metaanatomy

In a recent podcast interview, trauma and addiction expert Dr. Gabor Maté explains the relationship between addiction and early childhood trauma in a very clear and concise way that I can relate to from my own experience.

Here’s a summary of his theory, but I highly suggest listening to the interview yourself. There‘s a link at the bottom of this article.

Dr. Gabor Maté

Dr. Gabor Maté

  • Addiction is manifested in any behaviour that we crave, find temporary pleasure or relief in, but suffer negative consequences as a result of, yet still don’t give up.
  • These behaviours can include sex, gambling, food, shopping or substances such as drugs or alcohol.
  • The addictive behaviour is not the primary problem, it’s an attempt to solve a problem.
  • The problems can be things like physical pain, fear, insecurity, lack of inherent value, purpose or meaning, or lack of vital engagement with life.
  • The idea that addiction is a choice or brain disease misses the point. In many cases, addiction serves a function in someone’s life — to cope with problems that have their root in early childhood trauma.
  • These childhood traumas have the effect of disconnecting us from ourselves, from our inherent feelings of safety, value and wholeness.
  • We often recreate the emotional resonance of our home environment in our adult lives.
  • The root of familiar is “family”. The familiarity and comfort we have with feelings of stress has its root in our early family experience.
  • Childhood trauma is based on either things that shouldn’t have happened, like abuse and neglect; or things that didn‘t but should have happened, like being valued and accepted for who you are.
  • The essence of trauma is not the event itself, which can never be altered or undone. Trauma is the disconnection from Self that the event caused as an outcome or coping mechanism. The solution then, is to reconnect to, or “recover” our Self.

Dr. Maté’s view of trauma and addiction is in alignment with the core teaching of Yoga, which is that the root cause of our suffering is a disconnection from our true nature. The Yoga Sutra lists the five obstacles (kleshas) obscuring our authentic Self as: 

Illustration of the kleshas from TKV Desikachar's The Heart of Yoga

avidya: disconnection from our authentic self — who we really are.

asmita: identification with the egoic self — who we think we are, based on our ever changing attitudes, self-image, moods and habits.

raga: excessive attachment to objects or behaviours based on the assumption that they will contribute to our long term happiness.

dvesha: unreasonable dislikes or aversion based on painful experiences in the past, connected with particular people, objects or situations.

abhinivesha: insecurity and anxiety for what is to come, the most profound example being the fear of death.

As you can see, the kleshas that stem from the disconnection to our true nature (avidya) parallel some common symptoms of trauma: confusion/misperception, addiction/unhealthy attachment, fear and anxiety.

Fortunately, the yoga tradition offers a way out of suffering by regaining health, clarity, and skillfulness in our actions through the practice of kriya yoga, the ”yoga of action”. In the Yoga Sutra, sage Patanjali explains the three components of kriya yoga:

tapas: the reduction of physical and mental impurities through the practice of asana and pranayama as well as observing a disciplined lifestyle;

svadhyaya: self examination through the study of inspirational and spiritual texts, such as the Yoga Sutra;

ishvara pranidhana: literally, surrender or devotion to a greater power, but can be understood as letting go of the outcome of our actions, or “let go and let god” as the saying goes. This sutra suggests that since we have no control over the outcomes of our actions, we are better to let go of expectations and focus instead on the quality of our actions. 
— Yoga Sutras 2.1–2.9

The first time I was introduced to the concept of kriya yoga, it reminded me of the Serenity Prayer from the Christian tradition that says:

God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change,
(ishvara pranidhana, the surrendering of expectations)
Courage to change the things I can,
(tapas, discipline that develops inner strength and resiliency)
And wisdom to know the difference.
(svadyaya, self reflection that leads to wisdom)

As someone who has found recovery through a consistent daily yoga practice, it’s no surprise to me that the Serenity Prayer has been adopted by Alcoholics Anonymous and other 12-step programs, and I like that it starts with surrender. If we can let go of expectation and assumption, we also let go of self-judgment, self-abuse, and regret. As Don Miguel Ruíz says in his book, The Four Agreements, “Always do your best”.

“Under any circumstance, always do your best, no more and no less. But keep in mind that your best is never going to be the same from one moment to the next. Everything is alive and changing all the time, so your best will sometimes be high quality, and other times it will not be as good. When you wake up refreshed and energized in the morning, your best will be better than when you are tired at night. Your best will be different when you are healthy as opposed to sick, or sober as opposed to drunk. Your best will depend on whether you are feeling wonderful and happy, or upset, angry, or jealous.”
— Don Miguel Ruiz, The Four Agreements

A personal yoga practice, when guided by an experienced teacher, is an ancient remedy to the modern epidemic of disconnection, depression, anxiety and addiction so often caused by early childhood trauma. I believe that yoga is a complete recovery method on its own, but I have also experienced that it can be helpful to find a supportive community, whether at a yoga studio, church or within a 12-step program.

A yoga practice that is calming and centering is something that, when practiced first thing in the morning, helps us to do our best throughout the day. And really, that’s all we can hope to do. And that might be just enough.


Listen to the original interview with Gabor Maté on Aubrey Marcus’ podcast:




Be Your Own Shaman by Brian

Painting by Pablo Amaringo

Painting by Pablo Amaringo

In one of his presentations Dr. Joe Tafur, an American medical doctor and co-founder of Peruvian healing center Nihue Rao, relates that from the indigenous shamanic perspective, issues such as anxiety, depression, PTSD, addiction, autoimmune disease and psychosomatic illness are caused by an accumulation of negative energies due to physical and emotional traumas, environmental toxins, poor diet, grief, sadness, anger and related blockages.

Shaman Ricardo Amaringo, Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Chris Kilham © 2010

Shaman Ricardo Amaringo, Peruvian Amazon. Photo by Chris Kilham © 2010

In the indigenous context, it’s the healer’s work to remove these malas energias (bad energies) and oscuridad (darkness) through limpieza (cleaning) with diet, plant medicines, healing songs and the other therapies that make up Traditional Amazonian Plant Medicine (TAPM). If not treated, these blocked energies result in illness. Dr. Tafur’s teacher and resident master healer at Nihue Rao, Ricardo Amaringo, stresses that if we don’t have a shaman to clean those blockages, over time they start to manifest as physical illness. Ricardo says that the work they do in the maloca, the ceremonial long house that acts as a sort of jungle hospital, is primarily limpiar, centrar, y abrir — to clean, to center, and to open. 

This approach is in alignment with the path of yoga, where the initial focus is on first clearing and purifying the physical and energetic bodies through postures and breathwork, allowing the practitioner to establish their awareness in the heart center, which opens them to an experience of unity, wholeness, joy and unconditional love. Both traditions recognize that in order to truly love another and live a creative and fulfilling life, we need to first know and love our self on the deepest level.

The problem for those of us living in a secular, materialist, consumer culture is that we’ve become disconnected from our own shamanic traditions and don’t have someone to clean us out when we need it. Modern allopathic medicine doesn’t have the answer for much of the physical, mental and emotional illnesses that many Westerners are suffering from, so we’ve started to look elsewhere for healing. Many people have found help in travelling to places like South America where shamanism is still actively practiced, but that’s only an option if you can afford the time and expense to make the trip. Besides, an over-reliance on something like ayahuasca tourism raises a myriad of other complex sociological and ecological issues.

The thing that makes yoga such a valuable gift is that it enables you to clean and center yourself on a daily basis wherever you might be, with nothing more than a little space to move and sit comfortably, so that you can remain healthy and open to the fullness of life.

Travelling to South America and participating in ayahuasca ceremonies may, in cases of physical/emotional/spiritual crisis, be necessary to receive an initial deep cleaning — like an emergency treatment — but it’s not financially or ecologically possible to rely on it to maintain our mental and physical health long term. Also, because shamanism and yoga work in much the same way, engaging in a regular personal yoga practice helps to integrate the peak experience of the plant medicine ceremony and bring the magic, mystery and inspiration of the jungle into your everyday life. All of this points to yoga as a valuable complement to any shamanic healing work, specifically because it is an ancient shamanic healing technology itself. 

Based on the problems that we’re seeing in the wake of the global rise in ayahuasca and other plant medicine use, it’s imperative that we city-dwellers find some way, in the absence of the local village healer, to be our own shaman and take a proactive role in our ongoing health and healing that is financially and ecologically sustainable.

You can watch Dr. Joe Tafur’s excellent presentation in full on YouTube:

Yoga and Ayahuasca by Brian

Brian and healers at the Temple of the Way of Light, September 2017

“You gotta have some practice. Otherwise, it’s just going to become a memory. And practice means daily — doing something that evokes something of that experience, connecting to what you saw there.”

— Gabor Maté, on integrating the ayahuasca experience into daily life

Ayahuasca Integration

As I see it, there are two aspects of integrating the Ayahuasca experience. First, staying connected to the sense of unity and wholeness that we experience in ceremony, even after we return home, and second, taking action on the insights and guidance we received to create positive change in our life. The first aspect, connection, gives us the inspiration and energy for the second aspect, action. Both are essential to fully integrating and making the most of the Ayahuasca experience.

When I do integration work with people, I strongly recommend developing a daily home yoga practice because it’s the most effective tool I know for maintaining the energetic opening, mental clarity and heart-connection that we often experience following a good Ayahuasca ceremony. Yoga also helps keep your body strong and healthy so you can do the work you’re inspired to do and serve the greater good, manifesting change on the personal, community and planetary levels.

The Heart of Yoga

The teacher of my teachers, the legendary Professor T Krishnamacharya (1888-1989), recognized the evolving needs of modern people (especially busy householders) and developed an efficient and effective method called “Vinyasa Yoga” that integrates movement, breath, mindfulness and meditation in a seamless practice. His teachings are based on the fundamental principle that yoga must respect and be adapted to the needs of the individual, making it an inherently trauma-sensitive and inclusive approach, which feels especially relevant in the current zeitgeist.

Just as the Ayahuasca experience is different for everyone, the daily practice you take up should be unique to you, based on factors like your age, physical condition, cultural background and interests. Although everyone’s yoga practice may look different on the outside, when the essential principles of Tantrik Hatha Yoga are established it catalyzes an alchemical process that leads the practitioner to the mystical realization common to all spiritual traditions. Through the breath and postural exercises that are designed to purify and balance our energy, our mind becomes still and clear, revealing that which lies beyond the mind — the spiritual heart, the home of our true nature. Being connected to our heart allows us to relate and act from a place of non-reactivity, compassion and care. My teachers called this individual journey to our source the “Heart of Yoga”.

Ayahuasca is Yoga

When I spoke with a Shipibo ayahuasquero and explained to him this approach to yoga, he nodded in recognition, saying “Yaaaaaah, yoga es concentración… kushishinan!”, pointing to his heart, his mind and then to the sky. The Shipibo, like the yogis and mystics of all traditions, recognize that our mind, heart and source are all one. You could say that Ayahuasca and Yoga share a common goal — to heal our body/mind so that we can recover this connection, and in doing so, recover the sense of wholeness and basic goodness that is our birthright.

“I participated in a yoga course for the first time… and that’s made an enormous difference (in my own transformation), more than, for me, drinking the plant has ever done. Plants are exciting and kind of sexy these days, but it’s not the only way.”

— Gabor Maté on his recent dedication to a daily yoga practice

Yoga is Integration

The discipline of maintaining a daily practice as well as the quality of attention we cultivate within the practice empowers us with the clarity and energy to take appropriate action on the positive changes we want make in our life. These changes can include diet and lifestyle choices, the way we relate to self and others, or our career and creative pursuits.

Practicing in the morning is a great way to perform a daily comprehensive check-in with yourself on the physical, energetic, mental/emotional levels. It’s an opportunity to ask, “how am I doing today?”, and draw on that insight to guide your decisions for the rest of the day.

I often recommend journaling as part of your yoga practice. Writing your thoughts and feelings down can help clarify them and perhaps give you some helpful perspective on whatever you’re dealing with at that time. In addition, reading inspirational books or studying the classic yoga texts can provide inspiration and useful insight.

Other aspects that you might incorporate into your practice might be prayer, chanting, building an altar, drawing or painting, listening to music, singing or playing an instrument. Whatever helps you create a devotional, sacred mood will enrich your practice and ensure that it’s fulfilling on every level.

My goal when working at the Temple of the Way of Light is to teach the pasajeros how to practice real yoga in a way that’s right for them, not only as a support while in ceremony, but as a way to integrate the experience into their daily lives and continue the healing process long after they return home. It’s my hope that by the end of our time together at the Temple, the participants will understand what I mean when I say, “Ayahuasca is Yoga, and Yoga is Integration”.

I'll be returning to teach at the Temple in early 2018. Please sign up for my newsletter to stay informed of upcoming workshops and retreats. I'm also available for psychedelic integration sessions, to help you prepare prior to ceremony and integrate the experience post ceremony. Contact me at for details.

This article was originally published on the Temple of the Way of Light blog.