I began practicing Kripalu yoga nine years ago and from the first exposure, I felt the quality of my recovery deepen. The system of Kripalu yoga was brought to the west by Yogi Amrit Desai; he named it for his guru Swami Kripalvanandji. Desai went on to develop the Integrated Amrit Methods (I AM) of yoga, yoga nidra, and yoga therapy. Although the system bears his first name, it is worth noting that Amrit means nectar of life, and practitioners the world over have experienced the power of the I AM system to help them reconnect and renew the friendship with their life force. I first visited Desai’s ashram, Amrit Yoga Institute in Salt Springs, Florida, in 2015 when I was invited to guest teach for a recovery yoga retreat. Skeptical of anything connected to a guru, I hesitantly accepted the invitation. In the three years since, I’ve come to know Yogi Desai (Gurudev) as loving man and friend of recovery. He’s integrated his teachings personally to transform his own life, and this shows up in every aspect of his teaching. Desai supports the 12-step path of recovery. His 1993 book A Yogic Perspective on the 12-Steps reveals a deep regard for the program. Like me, Desai believes there are certain components of the program that are incomplete for healing addiction at its deepest levels. I am delighted that Gurudev, now one of my primary yoga teachers, agreed to talk to me about yogic perspective on recovery and the importance of both/and.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Thank you, Gurudev, for taking the time to talk to me today about recovery. What does recovery mean to you?
Yogi Amrit Desai: So, when I look at recovery, I see what 12 steps are aiming towards. They are aiming towards the recovery, so the drinking or smoking or food or work, all that has become like a habit pattern. And then everybody becomes why did it happen? Because there was some kind of a stress somewhere in life. That stress was creating so much internal turmoil and conflicts, stress, that they adapted something as a way to get relief from means of relief. It could be food, it could be alcohol, it could be drugs, work or it could be sex. These are the major known factors. So, whenever you are doing anything it you do is called reactive interaction with the stress that is happening within yourself. But it appears to be coming from outside you by the person, situation or event. that you are having within yourself. But it appears to be coming from somewhere else, or somebody else, you see?
Dr. Jamie Marich: Right.
Yogi Amrit Desai: What will you say about others who are hurting you, abusing you, or have done something to you in your childhood? It's all stress. So, stress and anything that you think about it is hijacked by the amygdala or the reptilian brain, which is animal and this is instinctive brain. It protects you from the real threat. But for humans beings, when the ego is under stress it is adapted to protect its life, not your life. And then, that's what the yoga that I teach is about. Yoga is how-to disengage from the cause of the stress, rather than its effects. Effects are stress symptoms, and everything that is adapted to get rid of stress, called addiction. How to get rid of from the cause, rather than the effects.
Dr. Jamie Marich: But what about people who have experienced trauma or abuse, who would say to you: Gurudev, that's so much easier said than done?
Yogi Amrit Desai: I know this is the real question. Almost anybody you said will, in their mind, have that question. Even if they don't ask.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Right. Because the limbic brain does get overridden in traumatic experiences, and I think a lot of what you teach can help heal the limbic brain.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Right, right. And whatever that happens in your childhood, when you have nothing to cannot protect yourself or defend yourself, , and that abuse has been done, or has happened to you, how do you deal with it? Well, there are many things, even now, are happening, that you are not able to defend yourself from. Actually, you're causing it to yourself. That is how far it is going.
Dr. Jamie Marich: But you're not saying that the trauma you did to yourself? It's the continuing-
Yogi Amrit Desai: Yes, it's the continuing thing mental and emotional dialogue about that trauma is something that is carried over from the past. The soul positions itself precisely at the place where they can continue their journey where it stopped somewhere in the past. Where gestalt was not complete.
Dr. Jamie Marich: What if the limbic brain isn't healed yet, and it tells you otherwise?
Yogi Amrit Desai: This is where it begins. Reason cannot reach it. That's why it says in 11th step, meditation and prayer. So that how to solve the problems stored in limbic brain that are immediate, and reactive, as the instinct for survival.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Exactly.
Yogi Amrit Desai: So, how do you work with it?
Dr. Jamie Marich: That's what I'm asking you.
Yogi Amrit Desai: The answer is, the 11th step. The 11th step says: Sought through the prayer and meditation…that is correct…to improve your conscious contact with God, as we understood him, praying only for knowledge, as we understood him. There is no such thing as understanding that part of you through the medium of the mind. There is no such thing. This God is not available through the mind. You can access god only by going beyond the mind.. And then, praying only for knowledge of his will for and the power to carry it out. But it is not his will, it is your own will. It's the God within you.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Tell me more about that, because I think this would be useful for people to hear more about.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Right, because, in the practice of yoga, God is not outside of you. If it was outside of you, and you can connect with him through the mind, you would believe in him or not believe in him. Mind cannot access god. Mind is doing its mind thing. Do you understand?
Meditation is the only doorway to witnessing presence, to get back to the power of God that always dwells within you.
Dr. Jamie Marich: So, talk to me more about meditation. If an absolute beginner to recovery was saying Gurudev what is meditation? Where would you begin?
Yogi Amrit Desai: Meditation means you are witnessing your own thoughts, feelings, and emotions that flow from your mind. So where is it coming from? Your ego has adapted that, and it's addicted to its addicted to thoughts, dialogues, and emotions as a way to protect itself in the reptilian brain, that you are not. You are not your reptilian brain. You have created an independent entity as if it is you. God cannot get rid of it, mind cannot get rid of it, because you are it. So, how do you get back to who you really are, which is God, the consciousness, the holy spirit, and this wholeness that you are? God is whole and complete. It is omnipresent, it's everywhere. And, there is the space, I am, is that God.
Dr. Jamie Marich: So, then, here is my devil’s advocate question.
Yogi Amrit Desai: I like that!
Dr. Jamie Marich: There's this concern when we talk about God within you, our inner power, that it's feeding the ego. Because so much of the terminology with higher power is it must not be you. But what I'm hearing you say is that you are not your ego mind.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Right, right.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Help me understand a little bit of that, people that have the concern that this teaching would feed the ego more than liberate the ego.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Ego mind has no life. It is the carrier of the traumatic painful, as well as blissful, pleasurable, experiences it had in search of her love from external relationship, and external material resources. Pleasure will come with pain. There is no such thing as success will come with failure. When you seek it from the external relationship, or external material resources, it automatically comes with opposite.
Right now, every time you are in a fight with your reactive thoughts about yourself, other, or the world, you are divide yourself as for me, or against me. The mind is designed to see only friends or enemies. That's it. It doesn't see anything else. It is not selectively neutral. It's selectively either for it or against it. That makes a division. To go beyond the division that is created through the thoughts like I love myself, I don’t like myself, I am addicted, I don't like to be addicted, I hate it, I'm afraid of it, you let go of all such thoughts when you meditate. You are just saying, I let go of my thoughts, of my past. I let go of the blissful experiences I had in my relationship, and the same husband I got divorced. I let go of the business that I thought would bring me great fame, wealth and success, but made my life miserable.
This is meditation. Your entire past that is full of conflict, stress producing experiences we called bliss and traumas. Happiness and unhappiness has no existence in meditation.
Dr. Jamie Marich: So let's get practical, because I've heard you talk about meditation as a solution. How to. If a beginner came to you and said Gurudev, how do I meditate?
Yogi Amrit Desai: First of all, meditation is to clear the mind. And, so the mind cannot be cleared without clearing body as well. So body, mind are very deeply interconnected. And the connecting link is prana, or the breath. So, breath acts as bridge, because breath is grosser than the mind, and is simpler than the body. It's in between.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Right.
Yogi Amrit Desai: So you can use breath to go up to the brain and change it, or go to the body and relax it.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Yes.
Yogi Amrit Desai: You can bring peace in your mind, relaxation in your body. So we use breathing techniques, as well as diet and purification of the body. But you are still seeking you’re so heavily engaged in making a relationship work, and when tit doesn’t you blame others or shame yourself. You are using relationship to find a solution, but you are creating more problems through the stress around it.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Right.
Yogi Amrit Desai: You're trying to get the business, you are building stress along the way, and you say, I will be happy when I get what I want. That is living through the ego mind in the dimension of time. Meditation is how to go to the timeless dimension, so that in the present you’re relaxed.
Dr. Jamie Marich: I'm hearing you say, correct me if I'm wrong, but all life, everything in our lifestyle is a chance to practice meditation?
Yogi Amrit Desai: Right. Everything, the great ancient Yogi Patanjali says yoga is “witnessing the modifications of mind.” He doesn't say yoga means to know God.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Right.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Even though yoga means union of soul with super conscious or the higher power. It's the same thing.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Right.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Meditation, that's all yoga is about. Yoga means union with the soul, or Oneness. God is oneness. Only you can enter yourself in the experience of oneness that God is you. You cannot enter into oneness by finding God outside. The more relaxed you are, the more integrated you are, the closer you are to the oneness God that you are within yourself. Oneness, relaxation.
Dr. Jamie Marich: I guess then, that naturally leads me to the question, so what have you personally learned about recovery in your own journey?
Yogi Amrit Desai: I didn’t know how much I have recovered from the past, because hardly anything caused me so much stress that I had to adapt some vehicle of food, or sex, or alcohol or drugs. I wanted to find out if there was something that I had not yet released from my past that I’m still carrying internally, unknowingly and unconsciously, in how I live with myself, with the world and external relationships. So, I saw that when you are living in harmony with the presence that you are, that God is, then your energy is not abusively used. The most abusive use is when you’re stressed. Stress creates more stress.
So the real recovery, it's called enlightenment. Recovery from the past is called enlightenment.
Dr. Jamie Marich: That sounds like a big task Gurudev, so break it down. Let's talk a little bit more about the specifics of how.
Yogi Amrit Desai: So as first change the company you keep. If I’m looking for health, I look for gymnasiums, yoga teachers, meditation teachers, books, healthy people. So I want to be free from the company that also triggers by own past. So company is first. Then reading about these teachings. How this works. They should know exactly that God is within you.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Right.
Yogi Amrit Desai: And you are not your reactively processed memories of the past. That's very important. When you believe that everything that you think about yourself, others or the world is real, you cannot practice this. It’s all the lies. That’s why psychologists say almost every thought you think is repetitive. Means it has no meaning. And it changes nothing. On the contrary, it has made things worse.
Dr. Jamie Marich: I like what you're saying, because I've long believed lifestyle change is the key. Because there's so many different approaches and philosophies on recovery, but the one common denominator I've discovered in my work seems to be is it getting you towards some type of meaningful lifestyle change.
Yogi Amrit Desai: They can change their diet, they change their company, they exercise, they do yoga, they go jogging, all those different things could be adapted to change. Not just attending meetings alone. So it is very important.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Oh yeah.
Yogi Amrit Desai: So your diet, your sleep, your routine. When you sleep, when you wake up, who is your company, what are you reading, what kind of classes are you attending? So all those things must be changed. And sometimes, if you change even the job if it is stressful that can be a big change in the way you feel and think. The problem with many people is that their beliefs in sex or security keep them tied to situations that create stress. The belief system needs to be addressed whether the fear of insecurity or the addiction to sex.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Sure. So do you think people may need to change, you know, get out of a marriage, or is it all about changing what is within you?
Yogi Amrit Desai: If anything that is creating you a lot of problems in your life and in other person's life. So people are addicted to sex and security. So sometimes people continue to create, have stress, but their security or addiction to sex, and the belief system is working. So you have to break the belief system, secure fear of insecurity, and this addiction to sex.
Dr. Jamie Marich: In my experience the bigger addiction is to the security. I'm glad you worded it that way.
Yogi Amrit Desai: So we have explained different resources of stress and conflict. We are reducing what is creating mental and emotional conflicts and stress externally.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Right, right.
Dr. Jamie Marich: It's both. It's a both/and. The external and the internal. So one thing I wanted to make sure I asked you about is the expressive arts in recovery. You are a very gifted painter, as I have seen. So, painting, and drawing, and dancing, and writing; how that can help with what we're talking about, lifestyle changes?
Yogi Amrit Desai: In any creative endeavor the mind can become absorbed. When that happens the body becomes relaxed. The physiological changes that come from dancing and singing helps purify the body. Sculpting and painting why you are totally absorbed takes you beyond the mind and there are chemical changes happening. Cardio is a good starting point, because anyone can do that . That will begin to clear the body. Then diet- simple vegetarian cooked vegetables. I don’t support a raw diet because in Ayurveda raw foods create a vata (air) disturbance that influences mental and emotional distress. Then meditation.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Beautiful.
Yogi Amrit Desai: So that's called direct change. This is linear change is also necessary. Like, you can do some of these changes, these steps are also good. That can be included. But with this understanding, God is within you.
Dr. Jamie Marich: Both/and.
Yogi Amrit Desai: Both/and. Yes.
To read more from Yogi Desai on this topic:
Desai, A. (1993). A yogic perspective on the 12 steps. Originally published by Kripalu Yoga Fellowship. Now available from Amrit Kala, Salt Springs, FL (www.amritkala.com)
When I was twenty years old, I woke up one morning and knew I had to get a tattoo. I made the decision in a blend of peer pressure (my childhood best friend just got several) and being hungover. I knew that, whatever I got, I’d have to place it somewhere I could hide it; I chose my right hip. My friend Heather and I made our way to Artistic Dermographics in Boardman, OH and I looked through scores of design books. I asked myself: “If this thing is going to be on my body forever, what wouldn’t I mind having on me at 90?” I found a lovely design—a purplish peace lily growing out of a peace sign. I loved it because I love peace. The image also represented a bit of rebellion against an Evangelical church I was just coming out of that condemned the peace sign as somehow anti-Christian.
I loved getting my first tattoo! Call me weird, I found the pressure of the needles very relaxing; it put me to sleep! While others have hurt like hell (the foot and upper middle back being the worst), there are such wonderful memories accompanying every tattoo—beautiful connections to their meanings, and what I was going through in life during each of them. To look at me you wouldn’t think I’d be too into ink. All my tattoos are in places I could cover if I had to although the older I’m getting and the less I care what others think, the less I want to cover them!
My latest tattoo led to a fascinating discussion with a friend that got the wheels in my head turning about tattoos and their meanings to the individual. Tattoo #8, on my left upper back, is my favorite poem “Blessed is the Match” by Hannah Senesh. I’ve written about my connection to her and this poem on the blog before. Quite frankly, I’ve yearned for some reminder of this poem and its meaning to me on my body for years. I thought about getting a match tattoo, a flame, or the poem in English, but nothing ever resonated. On a recent visit to Israel, a friend shared an online photo of the poem in her original handwriting from 1944. As soon as I saw it, I knew that this was the tattoo. This experience parallels the one I’ve had with every other tattoo on my body. I typically sit with an idea but then wait until the exact design hits me like lightning!
It’s not lost on me that tattoos are generally taboo in traditional Judaism. Between their forbiddance in strict interpretations of kosher law and the historical associations around tattoos as branding emerging from the tragic legacy of the Holocaust, I did reflect on what it would mean for me—a non-Jew—to get this piece permanently affixed on my body. And from these contemplations and meditations arose many of the thoughts I share in this piece.
In my reflections, it dawned on me what all my tattoos have in common. They all represent protector figures—people or ideas that I know exist within me and in the spiritual realm that support me in my healing journey. We talk about protector figures quite a bit in trauma-focused therapy. It means a great deal to my expressive arts therapist soul to have several of my figures literally with me on my body—the peace lily which I came to associate with St. Therese of Lisieux (“The Little Flower”), the Blessed Mother (my foot), St. Hildegard of Bingen (upper back and left forearm), Khaleesi from Game of Thrones (back of the neck), and the ideals of music, art, dance, and yoga (upper right back). The next one I am planning (the art is still in process) will likewise reflect the wisdom of another protector figure.
In addition to the protector figure quality, all my tattoos represent a life credo, a sacred message that transformed me when I received it and highlighted itself as a truth I needed to embrace. The most powerful example is a Latin saying on my left forearm: vis medicatrix naturae (the healing power of the natural state). I received this teaching in Bingen, Germany while on a Hildegard retreat and pilgrimage in 2016 and I knew instantly that I had to get this anthem of authenticity placed on my left side (where we in the West wear wedding rings), right along the heart line. I see the message often on my arm when I dance and practice yoga. I smile at the reminder that embracing the fullness of my authentic self ultimately freed me from bondage. When people ask me what the saying means, I delight to share the translation and its teaching. The unexpected gift of tattoos is to educate others when curiosity leads them to ask questions, just as I have learned much from other people when I ask about their tattoos. In the two weeks since I got “Blessed is the Match,” I told Hannah’s story to dozens of people who asked about it. Not enough people know about Hannah and her heroism and more people need to, and if my tattoo can help me to share it, I am glad it can serve that higher purpose.
In my reflections I also realized that if I were to die tomorrow, whoever found me could look at my body and know what I stood for. In these scary times in which we find ourselves, where the different are persecuted—where a Hannah Senesh-level stand may be required of me someday—there is no hiding who I am and what I am about. I strategically placed the tattoo on my neckline for this reason. My neck bears the phrase Be a Dragon, the guidance given to my favorite feminist icon Daenerys Targaryan (Khaleesi) in the televised Game of Thrones saga. I’ve long adored dragons as misunderstood wonders of the mythological realm, and when George R.R. Martin literally gave me a badass dragon queen to admire through his work, the universe smiled upon me.
In Season 7 Lady Olena, another badass feminist, warns Daenerys not to play small for the men. She declared, “The men of Westeros are sheep. Are you a sheep? No. You’re a dragon. Be a dragon.” I wept, trembled, sobbed, and ugly cried in every possible way when this scene played in the early summer of 2017. I knew that if the current U.S. political regime and the forces it represents would ever come after my head either literally or figuratively, I want this message to be the last thing that they see. Many others around the globe choose the neckline for this reason and I take great pride in following their example in honoring my life path on my body, in my heart, and with my soul.
Many of you reading this piece have your own stories of experience, empowerment, and meaning connected to your tattoos. Please consider sharing them in the comments below or, if you wish, submit your story to me as I work with expanding this series on Tattoos and Trauma Recovery. Please send any submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org. You may choose to be credited for your contribution or remain anonymous.
Photography: Mary Riley
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.