The Smoking Yogi
I once read Q&A with a guru where the student asked: Can I practice yoga and also be a smoker? The guru replied, “Smoking does not get in the way of yoga, but sometimes yoga gets in the way of smoking.” How true this would become was not known to me at the time, although I did feel a connection to this idea.
I was the smoking yogi.
I have been practicing yoga since 2004 and I smoked up to 30 and at least five cigarettes a day until 2011.
I had been a smoker since I was 16 years old. I learned to smoke in two ways: first, I watched my mother smoke and stole her cigarette butts from the ashtray. Second, a girl I went to school with literally taught me how to inhale and not cough. I was a good smoker right away. I barely coughed and managed to power through to become a full-fledged smoker. I smoked cigarettes whenever I possibly could. It was very accepted in my family and I was not questioned about smoking in my bedroom at my parents’ house and was even invited to openly smoke at my grandparents’ house. It was so deeply sewn into my family that the thought to tell me NOT to smoke simply was not there. And, to a girl who wants to smoke cigarettes, well, that’s about the perfect setup.
There was one moment between my father and me that has stayed with me. He and I would write letters back and forth telling each other how we felt about each other. He was in the house with me, but we couldn’t talk to one another. One time, he stole my cigarettes out of my nightstand drawer. I left him a note in that drawer telling him that he had no right to do that, and I received a letter from him that I have to this day. He said to me, “You have my blood and if you do not stop smoking, you will have the same health issues that I have now.” By this, he meant two heart attacks and lung cancer. I felt more outraged at his audacity to tell me what to do and not do, as he wouldn’t even speak to me in our home. I still have that letter, though. I’ve saved it for 19 years, and suspect it will always be with me, tucked in a box high up on a shelf to remind me of where I come from.
So, I smoked through high school and into my 20’s. I smoked in my apartments, in my cars, at bars and restaurants and anywhere else I could. I threw cigarette butts out the window of my car without a second thought. I fully embraced being a smoker in every way, that is to say I didn’t think twice about two cigarettes before work, four at work and seven to ten after work. These days went on and on. Weekends meant at least a pack of cigarettes. I would smoke myself hungry and then full again. I loved, loved, loved to smoke. I felt that it was something I excelled at, as it was.
As my 20’s came to a close, I began to not love smoking as much as I had. I began to feel and acknowledge the consequences of smoking. The catalyst was my father’s death in 2000 from lung cancer. I began to know that I did not want to smoke any more, however, there was always a reason to continue to smoke. I was stressed out, I was tired, I didn’t want to gain weight, it was something that brought my mother, my grandmother and myself together. It passed the time, it was part of me, I didn’t know who I was without cigarettes, it was too hard. It was too hard. Still, slowly, I began to become aware of cigarettes in my life. Although it took me a few years, I began to smoke less. I bought my first new car and decided not to smoke in it. Ridiculous, right? I didn’t want to mess up the interior of my new car with cigarettes, but thought nothing of standing outside of my new car and inhaling smoke and 40,000 carcinogens into my lungs and through my blood after work. Hindsight is so clear. At the time it made some sort of sense to me.
In 2004, yoga came into my life. I looked forward to yoga and thought: That’s it! That’s the thing that will take smoking away from me. It was just another way to give up my power. I made no effort not to smoke as I was thinking of coming into yoga. I imagined that I would be too embarrassed to smoke and take yoga, so I waited for my teacher training program to begin. I honestly thought that the urge to smoke would be magically taken from me.
To keep this short, and to not appear like a complete idiot, let’s just say that it did not magically take away an addiction that I had actively maintained for 15 years.
I smoked through teacher training (200 hours), then advanced teacher training (500 hours), DanceAwakening training, workshops and countless two hour yoga classes. I smoked before I taught yoga and after I taught yoga, but something had changed. I was no longer simply aware of my addiction. I was ashamed of it. I told very few people about it, and those people only learned I smoked if there was a bottle of wine involved and I absolutely needed a cigarette. Not only did I not tell, but I lied when asked. Once my hairdresser asked me as he smelled my hair, “Darling, do you smoke cigarettes?” I lied and said that I had walked though a group of smokers right before I came in. My shame was growing, and growing exponentially.
The shame was still not enough to get me to stop smoking, although it did take nearly every bit of enjoyment out of smoking for me. Every cigarette I had would go something like this: Me, on the back porch (I had stopped smoking in my house as well). Enter weather. Sunny, rainy, or blizzard, it didn’t matter. I would literally shovel a spot for myself to stand in if the snow was too deep to stand on. Commence light up. As soon as I took the first drag of smoke into my lungs, I felt home. By the second time I pulled smoke into my lungs, I felt like a worthless liar who would never, ever, ever be able to free myself from this addiction. That also had the feeling of home in it. I had smoked nearly every single day for 20 years of my life. My mother, grandmother and father all smoked themselves ill. I felt as if I was tied to train tracks and seeing the light of the of the oncoming train in the distance.
I vowed to cover it up better so that I wouldn’t have to lie. I wouldn’t have to lie because no one would know, not because I had decided to be truthful.
During this time of absolute shame, I received confusing mixed messages from others. There were those who told me that being a yoga teacher who smoked made me interesting. That I found very appealing, as I wanted to be interesting.
As an addict of nicotine, as I imagine an addict of anything else would do, I looked for reasons to get my drug of choice into my system, and to keep it there. I was never disappointed. Someone hurt my feelings, Work was difficult, I was celebrating something and alcohol was involved, I was running away from something, I had just eaten, I was bored, it had been two hours since my last cigarette, and the most unbelievable, yet powerful one of them all: I was feeling stress because my family was dying of lung cancer before my very eyes.
So began the most painful part of my journey. I smoked while knowing the two women whom I loved more than anyone else on the planet were fighting for every breath, fighting for their lives because of a lifelong addiction to smoking. Let me be clear: I was disgusted with my addiction and my actions. During this time, I was teaching yoga and telling the students that they were precious. I was desperately trying to listen as I spoke these words. I finally, finally, FINALLY admitted that I needed to give this addiction up after my mother and grandmother passed away. Still, it took three more months for me to ask the Universe for support. I am not religious in any way, but I thought of the Serenity Prayer that is spoken in AA meetings around the world. Although I do not pray in this way, I did acknowledge that this addiction to nicotine needed to me ‘handed off’. In my mind’s eye, I imagined myself in a backbend, heart open to the sky. The words came to me, ‘please, take this desperate need to smoke away. I will handle the rest.’ Something was different. I didn’t expect that I would never think of smoking another cigarette. I just needed to give up the absolute fingernail dragging desperation that comes along with needing to reaffirm shame in order to stay in it. I asked for it to be taken away, but in reality, I gave it up, not to anyone or anything. I simply, finally, gave up the battle, and began to accept that I was also precious, just like the people taking yoga with me.
I am now sixty some odd days into my new life.
My new life is so fantastic. I, for the first time, feel that I am honoring myself and the two women who meant the world to me.
I breathe clearly every moment of every day. I no longer cough in the middle of the night or in the middle of teaching a yoga class. I am no longer shameful of something that I do about five times a day.
There are moments when I really think that I want to smoke. It’s Spring now, and that was the best time for me to smoke on the back porch. These moments hit me like a spear in the heart and I catch my breath. Usually, with a few breaths, this feeling passes. It happens about three times a week. I can live with that.
I want to live, and I want to live well. This want propels me to say no to the twinge again and again. I know this is my heart: if I was to continue to smoke, it eventually would have taken my life, the same life that I deeply want to live. I have always had a flame in my heart that burns brightly. I am passionate, I am loving and I am a woman who was a wounded girl. I have found through my own experiences that wounded girls need to fight to understand how important they are. The practice of yoga has helped me become a warrior, and by that I mean that I am a woman who stands very proudly in her entire life, including mistakes made and years and years of not understanding how precious I was.
Now, I get it. And incidentally, I love every single one of the five pounds I’ve put on since I stopped smoking. I’m enjoying losing them through things I never could have accomplished as a smoker, like Zumba and Boot Camp. And I’m breathing deeply all the way through.