“I have to do what?!?”
My gut squelched as I voiced my protest in the form of this question. For years I yearned to take a full 200-hour yoga teacher training. Because of my hectic schedule with my own training work, arranging one never seemed possible. In the interim, I committed to taking many weekend modules in trauma-informed and recovery yoga, in addition to deepening my own practice. In 2015, I formally discovered the Amrit Yoga system developed by Yogi Amrit Desai, carrier of the Kripalu lineage to the United States. Having been invited to Amrit Yoga Institute (AYI) as a guest teacher in a recovery program, I immediately fell in love with the Integrated Amrit Method and knew that when the time came to take a full teacher training, it would be at AYI. Several amazing things fell into alignment and I was able to take the full 200-hour program in the Summer of 2018, split into two, ten-day modules. When I presented for the first module, my teachers informed me that when returning for the second module, I would be tested on the Amrit method script… and 70% compliance was required to pass!
After my initial question, more protestation flowed: “They can’t box me into a script!,” “I am anything but a scripted person, what the hell did I get myself into?!,” “I haven’t had to do this kind of rote learning since graduate school…what do they expect me to learn from this!?!” Then it dawned on me: the teaching methods employed by the AYI team are not too dissimilar from what I ask my eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR) trainees to do. In EMDR therapy training, even in a system as mindfulness-infused as my own Institute for Creative Mindfulness curriculum, trainees are asked to stick to a script. In the heart of EMDR therapy, often referred to as the trauma reprocessing stages, the script is very precise as required by the EMDR International Association. While there is room to adapt in some of the other phases, we still ask our trainees to follow a prepared script as we have found this to be the most solid method for educating the majority of our adult trainees who pass through the program. A key difference is that I was being asked to memorize the Amrit Method script and we don’t expect memorization from our trainees, simply that they read from the prescribed script until it becomes second nature to them.
While my challenge felt slightly more difficult, I knew the process would allow me to step into the shoes of what I’ve been asking my trainees to do over the years. A key factor in what helped me to stay optimistic about learning the script is that I as the teacher was allowed to use my own words to teach what is called the second part of the pose in Amrit Yoga. The second part of the pose is the artistry—giving students the time to bask in the stillness of the pose after taking deliberate movement in the first part of the pose (what I had to memorize). A similar process occurs in learning EMDR therapy. There is room for bringing your own clinical judgment and artistry into the practice of EMDR; yet this ought to only come in the context of first assuring a solid technique in one’s set up.
In my several month process of studying on my own and then returning for the second module of intense practice before being tested, I threw every tantrum possible. In addition to the standard issue “I can’t do this” and “I’m incapable,” I found myself beginning to resent the yoga method that I really loved very much and credited with changing my life. I did not feel the same allegiance to Yogi Desai that many of my fellow students and teachers felt and the challenge to “respect his words and his language” didn’t particularly resonate. I did, however, resonate with an explanation given by a teacher that the scripted portion of the pose is designed for us to know how to get people into and out of poses safely. By learning time-tested language for this, the burden of having to grasp for optimal language was removed. As Kalindi, my small group mentor whom I resented many times during the process, taught: “When you don’t have to worry about the language you’re using, something Higher will come through.”
I fought the notion that using someone else’s words—granted words and concepts that I liked very much—would allow my Higher Self to come through in my teaching. By the end of the training process I realized that my dear Kalindi was right. The moment of realization didn’t even come when I took my exam. Although I got through it well and was even able to correct an error that I made with a reasonable degree of elegance, it was in our final class for the whole community that the magic happened. Each of us in our group got to teach a pose and at the relative last minute, I was assigned what I perceived to be one of the more difficult poses in the Amrit sequence: Warrior I. There are a lot of moving parts in the script for Warrior I even though this is a yoga pose I’ve practiced for almost a decade. Getting up in front of my entire cohort and other members of the community, I breathed into it and didn’t experience a shred of nerves. The pose just flowed through me and the experience in my body was one of the most powerful I ever felt as a teacher. And I teach for a living! By time the second part of the pose rolled around and I shared from the organic learning of my own practice, it clicked why Yogi Desai and the entire AYI team put me through this process. I felt a freedom within the structure, and it was glorious!
Throughout the process, and especially in that final class, I realized the power of why we have EMDR trainees learn from a script. For many years I bristled against this teaching methodology. Sure, I learned from the script when I did my own EMDR training in 2005-2006 because I had to. From that initial learning, I found myself resisting the technique of it and improvising a great deal. Much of this adaptation was clinically justified, artistic, and especially needed in serving the most complex clients whose processing work in EMDR therapy will not be very likely to follow a textbook flow. I had a fabulous early consultant who helped me to navigate the finesse around adaptation and modification. After I finished my consultation period, however, I was drawn to other approaches to EMDR therapy that were even more modified and less structured. There was a period of a few years where I taught and even advocated for many of these less structured approaches to EMDR therapy. In becoming an official EMDR trainer, a role that I resisted accepting for years out of fear that I wasn’t “technical” enough, I learned to fall in love with the scripts and the protocols of EMDR in a new way. I discovered that in working with the majority of adult learners that we serve, having the scripted core protocol as the base is the foundation from which a successful EMDR practice in built. As I discuss with my co-author Stephen Dansiger in my latest book EMDR Therapy and Mindfulness for Trauma-Focused Care (2018), the standard protocol is rich with mindful language and concepts, evidence of Dr. Shapiro’s own foundation as a mindfulness practitioner. Granted it took years to work through my initial tantrums about not being a person who exists well in a box to see the beauty in the technical aspects of EMDR. I learned to appreciate that the principles, techniques, and protocols were not the boxes I once feared them to be. Rather, they are tools like paintbrushes, paints, and canvases that allow my clients, with my guidance, to create works of art.
The words of Nirali, my lead teacher throughout the yoga teacher training experience at AYI, sum up what I’ve come to learn as both a yoga teacher and an EMDR therapist/trainer. In one of our closing classes she said, “Learn the rules so that you know how to break them elegantly when you need to. But if you don’t learn the rules you just come off as amateur.” For anyone currently struggling to learn any system that makes you feel boxed into a script, I encourage you to consider this wisdom. If years down the road you are still feeling boxed in and stifled there may be a larger issue to consider here about whether the approach in which you’ve been trained is right for you. My hope is that after an initial period of practice in any scripted or protocol-driven approach you will feel more liberated to be yourself instead of less liberation. This is the art of allowing your Higher Self to shine through in your work, in your life, and in all that you do!
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)
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.