Returning to Your True Self

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: