Stop Four on this journey was the Yoga, Meditation and Recovery Conference at Kripalu in May, the fifth annual five-day event bringing together yoga and meditation to support recovery from addictions. Envisioned by nationally recognized yoga leaders Rolf Gates and Nikki Myers, this spring conference (and its sister conference in the fall at Esalen on the West Coast) offers people who are dealing with any addiction—alcohol, drugs, food, work, sex, gambling—a chance to practice yoga and meditation together while communing in Kripalu’s spacious beauty and sharing delectable food. This year, 106 of us came together, from Canada, Europe, and across the United States, as we sat each morning for a collective twelve-step meeting; practiced slow and flowing vinyasa to the resonant music of Rolf Gate’s harmonium, brought breath-of-fire to a whole new level with early morning Kundalini; got to hear Nikki Myers’ stunning work on co-dependence as a dis-ease based in shame; and watched the provocative film The Anonymous People in an evening viewing.
When Rolf Gates asked me to do a reading from Survivors and an author Q and A, it was several months before the conference, too far away to really understand how very nervous I would be. It wasn’t until a few days before the conference, when I was at my home twelve-step meeting that the fear finally fully announced itself as I cried my way through my three minute “share.” I say this since, among the many gifts of the conference was the chance to be real with each other—to get to be who we are, even when we are a bundle of emotions. What was both exciting and scary for me was realizing that I wouldn’t need to be split to give this talk—my yoga training in one place, my history with trauma in another, my work in twelve-step programs in another, my work as a scholar and writer in another. There is something so freeing about bringing all of ourselves to work we are doing, a lucky chance to be whole.
The days leading up to the talk were nerve-wracking. Thankfully, by the time I had rehearsed the talk many times, slept and prayed on it, and arrived at Kripalu, the nervousness had been replaced by a willingness to let a loving presence guide me as I talked. It helped, a lot, that Rolf Gates and I drove from Boston to Kripalu together, a two and a half hour drive where we got to feast on a number of conversations—writing, sexuality, book contracts, long term recovery, and family of origin complications. Rolf agreed to read the foreword he had written for Survivors as the way of introducing me. He also played harmonium while leading us through three long “oms.” After his introduction, he turned to me and whispered, “can I hug you,” even in that moment respectful of survivor boundaries. As I said yes, whispering in his ear that I loved him, he whispered the same back.
From there the talk ran away with itself. I opened by talking about lineage – that Survivors was modeled after Gates’ Meditations from the Mat—a book I have carried with me all over the world, most especially to read to my grandmother in her last five years of life, with penciled comments she made about specific entries now gracing my copy even as my gram has traveled to another realm. I also talked about Gates’ and Nikki Myers’ lineage – that of Harriet Tubman, Martin Luther King, Malcolm X, and Buddha – two Black leaders who are upholding the multiracial roots of yoga with their visionary plans. Then I shared about how the book came to be, some of the lessons I have learned, and the brilliant links that exist between the twelve steps, yoga philosophy, and Indigenous healing tools. I loved being able to deliver the talk barefoot, sitting cross-legged with my notes on a meditation cushion in front of me, but what really helped me relax was the discussion. Since this was my first formal talk on the book, I could barely wait to hear what resonated with people, how they responded to the stories I shared, what they were willing to share about themselves.
I had no idea that they would be so enthusiastic about the book. I was completely taken aback by their embracing of the project. And, I was fascinated in how many talked about not having thought of themselves as trauma survivors before. One woman spoke about how, although she was diagnosed with PTSD a decade ago, it wasn’t until that evening that she considered herself a trauma survivor. Several people talked about being afraid to name the traumas they have faced, not sure if they had the right to do so. Others said they resonated with what I had to say about having missed the developmental stage of “object permanence” when I was a child—not learning at the time that when people disappear from view, that doesn’t mean they are gone forever. This blew me away. Until they talked, somehow I thought I was alone with that dilemma. Even though I wrote about it in the book, part of me still thought I was making it up.
Lucky for me, I got to stay for the rest of the conference after my Tuesday night talk, which meant that I could have one-on-one conversations with people for the rest of the week. One woman in her late forties came up to tell me that she has never shared this with anyone, even her therapist…that she was sexually abused when she was eight. And that only now, she is reckoning with this as she is working with an eight-year-old girl rape survivor. A long standing yoga practitioner shared that while she is currently clean and sober, her husband is still “out there using,” a reality that puts her at great risk for blowing her sobriety. She is used to acting like everything is okay, even when her world and sobriety are falling all around her. Another woman share about how her daughter, who is a recovering heroin addict, is currently clean but is now seeing a man who has many of his own addictions. The stories were multiple, fragmented, painful, and intense. I was struck again about how trauma survivors can make things look okay for years, sometimes decades at a time. But we are not meant for such delayed gratification.