Most of us tend to think of addiction and alcoholism recovery programs as being based entirely on spirituality.
I want to challenge your thinking a bit today, though, and point out something rather interesting: There are entire programs of recovery that are based entirely on physical exercise.
Given that such programs exist and persist, we must conclude that there is at least some merit to them. In other words, those programs based on physical exercise must be working for at least someone, right?
And because those programs continue to exist we must know that there is something there, there is something to this idea.
And what I am telling you today is that physical exercise has become a huge part of my own recovery, to the extent that at times it has been my primary vehicle of sobriety. In other words, working out and being in shape is the main pillar of what keeps me clean and sober at times.
Now the interesting thing is that it wasn’t always like this, at least for me. When I started out in recovery I was working a much more traditional program of recovery and I was introduced to the spiritual based program that is much more common in AA and NA. I would go to meetings, some of which even allowed smoking in them, and I sat around and drank coffee and smoked cigarettes and never really gave much thought to the idea of physical health. I believed at the time, as I was instructed by most everyone in recovery, to pursue spiritual growth exclusively. I was taught that spiritual growth was the key to maintaining my sobriety.
So the first thing that I discovered was that pursuing spirituality worked in terms of recovery. It worked. I am not saying here that pursuing spiritual growth failed for me, because that is not the truth. The fact is that the pursuit of spiritual growth was enough to keep me clean and sober.
However, that does not mean that this pursuit of spirituality led me to an absolutely perfect life with no room for improvement. I could quickly tell that I was lacking certain elements in my life, and I knew, for example, that my cigarette smoking was probably not exactly “spiritual” in terms of what it was doing to my health, nor was it a very good coping skill to be leaning on.
So after a year or two of spiritual pursuit, I started to investigate other principles of personal growth in recovery.
To be even more specific, what I did was to start examining “the winners” in long term recovery, and seeing what it was that they actually did in order to live an effective life.
What I found was that spiritual principles and practices only made up a small portion of their daily actions and habits. A lot of what real successful people in sobriety were doing each day had nothing to do with traditional prayer or meditation, for example.
The biggest example of this, by far, was that of physical exercise. I quickly learned and discovered that if someone in recovery is not getting whipped into good physical shape and moving their body in a healthy way then they are missing out on a big key to recovery.
Not only that, but I would argue that being in great physical shape is a spiritual endeavor in itself. There are many different types of monks that used physical exercise and even some that preferred it to prayer or meditation, as they argued that physical exercise was superior. One is quoted as saying “If you can meditate and exercise, do both. If you cannot do both, then just exercise.” The reason they say this is because the physical exercise often includes the mental benefits of meditation. In other words, when you exercise regularly, you drop into that mental and emotional zone in which your brain shifts to auto pilot and you just kind of blank out for a while during an intense workout. If you are way out of shape then you cannot get into this zone because you are basically in agony from the workout.
On the other hand, once you get into great shape and you are just maintaining that fitness through your usual workout, the workout itself becomes your meditation session, because it is light and easy and you will mentally slip into this zone. The benefits of this are huge and cannot be stated enough. Just think, there are entire programs of recovery that exist based on the idea that you can get into shape, exercise on a regular basis, and maintain your sobriety based on these regular workouts.
So in my opinion, and in my experience, the connection between the body and the spirit is very significant when it comes to recovery from addiction. A physical relapse with an addictive drug or alcohol is a physical based event, and yet this will instantly compromise all spiritual progress that has been made up to that point. And yet it also seems to be the case that if you tap into physical exercise, to include anything from weights to cardio to yoga, all of this has an undeniable spiritual component to it that is only really understood by those who are already in great shape.
It’s like when you are out of shape and you go to the gym for the first time in a long time and suddenly you look up and there is someone walking by who is obviously in fantastic shape. And you think “What are they doing here, they should be all set! Go home!” But that is exactly the point–that person who is in great shape “gets it.” They obviously thrive on being in shape and they get huge benefit from it and they could never fully describe those benefits to another person. So they just keep showing up and working out, because it works for them.
The same thing seems to be true of someone who really “gets” spirituality, or that connection with a higher power, or prayer and meditation. They are not going to be able to convince anyone else to do anything as enthusiastically as they do, unless that other person “gets it” as well. Once you have the fire, so to speak, you are sold on the idea, and it becomes effortless. For me, jogging is effortless, and I actually get anxiety when I get into a situation where I cannot jog for too many days in a row. I have to jog, because it is a part of my routine, my habits, my lifestyle. It has become a part of my healthy living in recovery, and it is part of my sobriety itself.
I don’t believe that you can completely separate body and spirit, even though we compartmentalize these things all the time. The truth is that a holistic approach involving all areas of your health is the best way to go in recovery.