Meet Esther Nagle, a Yoga teacher, Stress Management coach and speaker at Balance and Breathe. She shares her story with DOSE about how yoga helped her to combat alcohol and marijuana addiction…
I have seven tattoos, all representing something transformative in my life. One of my favourites is this one I got in New Delhi in May 2016. This tattoo represents how I saved my life.
Asthmatic since childhood, my first major act of self-sabotage was to start smoking at 17, in a bizarre act of defiance not against my parents, but my boyfriend. Within 3 years, I had turned self-sabotage into an art form. By the age of 20, I stood in bewildered agony, looking at the charred remains of my life, wondering what the hell had happened. I had a few default coping strategies. Alcohol, drugs, cigarettes and casual sex. More self-sabotage piled on to a deep pit of shame did not make for a happy life, but I didn’t know what else to do.
I became what I would later discover was a ‘functioning alcoholic’
I didn’t feel like I was functioning, but I was. I managed to raise a child, get a good degree, forge some sort of career and maintain friendships. All my friendships had alcohol and drugs at their centre, and I risked my child, degree and jobs through my drinking, but I couldn’t see that there was a problem. My whole 20’s and 30’s passed in a haze of somehow functioning chaos, with many highs and lows, and very little in between.
At 40, life took me by the scruff of the neck and forced me to change. The breakdown which had been brewing for 20 years happened. I fell to my knees and accepted that I was a mess. It was the best thing that could have ever happened to me.
Jobless, fearful and lost, I realised I needed to change my life
I thought that if I changed my work, that would help, so I finally took steps to realise my long-held dream of becoming a yoga teacher. As soon as I registered for a course, I felt a weight lift off my being. I was so excited to start.
I had been going to Yoga classes for about 5 years. I had started because I wanted to learn to breathe better, but a permanently blocked nose due to a dust allergy meant that I found it really hard and hated having to do it.
Training to teach, of course, meant that I had no choice, I had to learn to do Pranayama. I was advised that cutting dairy products out of my diet would make a difference, so I tried it. I was delighted when in less than a week, I could breathe through my nose easily. I threw myself into learning the Yogic art of Pranayama and was amazed at the transformation that happened.
Within weeks, I found that I was less angry at the world
I stopped shouting at other drivers on the road. I was able to deal with my ex trying to bait me into arguments. I was able to sleep, a real boon after a lifetime of insomnia. I became a gentler, more patient mother. I found it much easier to deal with the world in general.
Most significantly, my relationship with cigarettes and alcohol changed. I stopped smoking marijuana first, finding that I stopped enjoying the dulled feeling I had once sought. As I learned to use my breath to manage my emotions and found a greater sense of peace and contentment in my life thanks to my practice, I found that I needed alcohol and cigarettes less and less.
Eventually, I realised that the pain and suffering I experienced ‘the morning after’ simply wasn’t worth it anymore. I felt much happier on days when I was able to wake up and practice Yoga. On October 12, 2014, with a hangover that made death seem preferable, I made a promise to myself that I would never make myself feel that way again.
I have kept that promise and have not drunk or smoked since. I was to later accept that I had, in fact, been an alcoholic with a strong marijuana dependency. I was never able to accept that before.
My recovery was entirely down to Yoga, and particularly to learning to breathe
Pranayama is a vital aspect of Yoga which often gets overlooked in modern Yoga, but it is a powerful healing aspect to this life changing practice.
The ancient Yogis knew, and modern science is starting to confirm, that the breath is a vital link between mental and physical wellbeing. When we breath deeply and slowly, as we do in the majority of Pranayama practices, we soothe the nervous system, and bring body and mind into a relaxed, peaceful state.
Taking a few deep breaths in a moment of stress can transform your response to the situation. Stress causes the logical part of the brain to step aside to let instinct take over. This is helpful in a life or death situation, but not when you are trying to manage day to day life. Those few deep breaths can be the difference between a helpful response, and a damaging reaction that you regret later. For me, it gave me the time to process my feelings and make healthier decisions. Instead of reaching for a bottle, I could tell myself, “No, I know that drinking won’t make this problem go away, I will find another solution instead”.
Learning to breathe well by working with a teacher is a powerfully transformative act, but you can achieve lots just by increasing your awareness of your breath, and consciously breathing deeper. Try it when you’re stuck in traffic, in a queue at the supermarket, washing the dishes…anywhere works, you need to breathe all the time!
When you can gain control of your breath, you can gain control of your emotions and your life. So, take a deep breath, and go live your best life!