Yoga V smoking
6 ways yoga helped me become a non-smoker. By Jade Windle
You are doing the best you can right now with the awareness and skills you currently have; you do not need to become better in any way, you just need to update your toolkit.
A couple of years ago I had the revelation that, instead of vowing to break bad habits, I should focus on taking up positive habits which intrinsically oppose the bad. I found yoga to be powerfully discordant with eating badly, drinking too much, and, most crucially, smoking; the underlying values of yoga with which we align in our practice strongly undermine those of unhealthy habits. By taking up yoga I was doing more than getting some exercise and stretching my muscles a few times a week, I was reconstructing my outlook on my body, identity and life; each minute spent on my yoga mat was reinforcing a self-love, loving-energy and appreciation for the world around me. To practice yoga was to practice a way of thinking based on gratitude and trust, exercising and strengthening not only the body, but also those neglected areas of the mind, and equipping myself to respond to everyday situations with optimism and compassion. It is in this way that yoga supported my journey to becoming a non-smoker and helped transform my entire life.
Through focus on my yoga practice, I was no longer creating a negative relationship with myself through self-imposed rules and prohibitions, but gently and uncritically exploring the source of the problem to alter the thoughts and emotions which led to harmful habits and addictions. This was a journey which took a lot of time and patience, as well as courage to feel and release emotions which I would normally avoid confronting by way of these compulsive tendencies.
1. Conscious breathing
Through focusing and exercising the breath, I brought an awareness to my respiratory system which increased the more I observed and consciously experienced my breathing. I learnt to notice days when my chest felt tight or my breathing would be more difficult to control, no matter how subtle the differences, and brought this underlying awareness and appreciation of my body’s efforts to inhale and exhale into my everyday life. This awareness and appreciation began to effortlessly counter my desire for a cigarette.
2. Stress and emotional release
Yoga provided me with an alternative means of managing negative emotions. Previously, when stress accumulated, I would smoke to deal with the distress. This in the long run only made everything worse, as I would then feel guilt and regret for having smoked, increasing my stress levels and never really escaping or breaking the cycle of negative emotions. Since developing my yoga practice, I have discovered how effective yoga can be for overcoming negative emotions. The stretching, poses and flows provide a mental break from incessant and unhelpful thoughts and allow for emotional release at the physical level. As well as exercise simply releasing endorphins, tuning into the cognitive dimension of yoga by focusing on self-care and self-love is highly therapeutic for dealing with stress and sadness. It can be so hard to find the motivation to do anything positive or vaguely energetic when we feel rubbish, but in spite of this, the repeated experience of feeling so much calmer, happier and more balanced after attending a yoga class has improved my ability to push myself to practice yoga when feeling stressed or low, instead of aggravating everything with negative habits.
3. Heart openers
Many yoga poses — often referred to as ‘heart openers' — physically stretch the muscles in the chest and around the ribcage. The body language involved in these poses, in which the chest space is opened and offered as vulnerable to the external world (rather than withdrawn by a protective and defensive hunched posture), sends a message to yourself and to the universe that you are open to offer and receive love, and that you are full of love for yourself and trust for the world. This is a very different message to that communicated by smoking. Further, the sensation of physically stretching the major muscles of the respiratory system is energetically the inverse of smoking, releasing the tightness of the chest area and giving a sense of clearing and cleansing the heart space, rather than tightening and polluting, and further reinforcing a sense of care for your respiratory system which counteracts any inclination to smoke.
4. Another extrinsic motivation
When it comes to addiction, I find extrinsic motivators — such as health issues, family pressure, money, and so on — are of limited influence. An addiction develops due to internal factors — such as dealing with emotional pain and the mental and physical dependencies which develop — and whilst external incentives are useful for rationalising the need to quit, the subconscious and physical addiction can easily overpower these. As far as extrinsic motivation goes, however, I found my enjoyment of yoga itself to be a highly helpful addition to my own reasons to stop smoking. I took pleasure in improving my abilities, which naturally required an increased fitness and bodily strength, and therefore had further reason to value the health and strength of my body.
5. Bodily respect and admiration
Similar to the previous point, yoga led me to develop a love for my body and admiration for what it can do for me. I was frequently surprised by my own abilities, and by how quickly I would witness improvement, and this helped support an underlying self-love which proved powerful for quitting smoking. Just as I wouldn’t give a baby a cigarette in all their sublime perfection, I developed a similar love for myself and my own cosmic completeness as a miracle of nature.
6. Practice and development of willpower
Yoga pushes and challenges the practitioner. From finding the courage to attend a class when I didn’t feel like doing anything, to holding poses for just a little longer and using the breath to increase my resilience, I gained confidence in and familiarity with my own willpower and mental strength. This crucially supported my endeavours to stop smoking; where before I had told myself a narrative in which I had no willpower and would never be able to quit smoking, now I recreated a sense of self in which I was strong, empowered and in control of my life.
It is never too late to begin the path to self-love and non-smoking. Be patient, gentle and persistent; begin where you are and allow yourself the time to practice not only the physical postures, but the new ways of thinking and the intention to take care of yourself. Know that each time you practice you are reinforcing these skills and be grateful to yourself for committing to the rewards, challenges, setbacks, and achievements of the journey. You are doing the best you can right now with the awareness and skills you currently have; you do not need to become better in any way, you just need to update your toolkit.
Jade Windle is a yoga teacher based in Brighton @jadejasmineyoga