Four years sober: Alcoholics Anonymous helps but it’s not the only weapon a recovering drunk has in the armoury

Demons & angels

From a deep inner darkness I emerged to find myself lying on my back on a pavement, bewildered and lost. The street was silent, iced in deep-winter frost, the night hazed in the orange light of the early hours. I had no idea how I had ended up here, or where I was.

Staring into the black hole of my memory, I faintly recalled sitting in a pub near Victoria station slamming down umpteen pints of Guinness and large Jameson chasers. Now here I lay. I made it on to my hands and knees, blinked at the world around me, and shuddered with relief when I realised I was a mile down the road from home.

Somehow, I had managed to cross a vast swathe of London. For all I knew, I had tripped through a rift in the fabric of space and time, but it seems more likely that, guided by the mystical forces that frequently watch over drunks, I traversed a couple of lines on the Underground, missed my suburban stop and got out at the next one down the line before falling to the pavement, where I had lain for an unknown period. This is speculation, though, because those few hours of my life are a void.

Some of that mile home I crawled on my hands and knees, some I stumbled sideways, hands scrabbling at walls, lampposts and hedges for support. I may have shed a tear or two – frozen to the bone and feeling broken, I wasn’t sure I’d make it home. I was relieved enough when I finally lurched through my front door to take a large whiskey before dropping back into that deep inner darkness.

This is not the beginning of a drunkalogue. It is a tale of sobriety.

That night was just one blackout among many over 35-odd years of remorseless drinking, but it was my last; my last blackout but not my last drink, because I carried on for another month or so.

Towards the end of those final weeks, I played the cruel trick – not for the first time – of passing out so deeply one evening that my wife and son, unable to detect any obvious signs of life in me in the morning, were considering whether to dial the dreaded three digits when my eyes flickered open and I blinked back from the abyss. This was not precisely a blackout, but it felt like something worse – like a premonition, as if the Reaper had breathed dank breath on to the back of my neck.

I had been warned and I knew, with a sense of certainty I had never experienced before, that it was time either to pay attention or prepare for the end.

And so to my first Alcoholics Anonymous meeting. It felt like a desperate measure but also inevitable. I had known for many years that I had a problem, (more…)

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Donald Trump? Brexit? Whatever. Try this meditation to put things into perspective

Dance of Shiva

If you’re feeling a bit freaked out by the machinations of mankind this morning – Donald Trump as US president… what?!? – treat yourself to five minutes of quiet time by yourself and try this:

Lie flat on your back on the floor, close your eyes, relax your body, take a few moments to become aware of your breath and be with its rhythm. Imagine looking down at yourself lying there, your consciousness like a camera hovering above you.

Slowly, slowly pull the camera, your consciousness, back and upwards towards the sky, still focused down on you, observing how your body gets smaller and smaller; as for your thoughts, fears, dreams, etc, they don’t even register in the lens. Keep pulling back with that camera and observe how everything in the world around you as you lie there on the floor gets smaller too, increasingly insignificant.

And just keep going, slowly pulling your consciousness up, looking down; aeroplane height, eight miles high, you, and everything else around you, are already reduced to patterns. Keep going, through the stratosphere, and soon you see that iconic image of the Earth. You and the weirdos who run the Earth? From this perspective, they don’t even exist.

Still let your consciousness retreat, and by this stage even up and down become meaningless as space engulfs all; the Earth and its inhabitants are reduced to a speck, and eventually nothing, in the vast, black, star-speckled cosmos. Hang out up here for a bit. You, and everything around you on Earth, are a part of this, but not a very significant part in the bigger picture of this beautiful universe.

Appreciate this, don’t worry about this. Bring your consciousness back to Earth when you’re ready and carry on with your day with a renewed awareness of how insignificant the contortions of the world really are.

Take care; don’t let the madness freak you out. It’s nothing.

[ Picture by Prabhu B Doss, via Flickr; used under Creative Commons licence ]

Why a book that warns how yoga can kill you is essential reading for anyone who spends time on the mat

Sarvangasana, the classic yoga shoulder stand, has been associated with pressure on arteries passing through the neck to the brain, with potentially devastating consequences

Sarvangasana, the classic yoga shoulder stand, has been associated with pressure on arteries passing through the neck to the brain, with potentially devastating consequences

Book review
The Science of Yoga: The Risks and the Rewards, by William Broad

Yoga can lead to strokes, or even kill you; it doesn’t happen often, but enough for it to be statistically significant. The available figures (from American emergency wards, and on the conservative side) suggest at least 300 US yogis a year might suffer strokes as a result of doing poses that damage vertebral arteries feeding the brain, with around 15 of those dying.

Extrapolate that globally, and this ancient practice – now an industry worth billions – looks a lot more dangerous than we might suppose from its blissed-out, cure-all image. Strokes and deaths are at the extreme end of a scale that takes in a much wider and more prevalent range of injuries affecting the musculoskeletal system, often cripplingly so. For many yogis, getting hurt occasionally comes with the practice.

This is a dirty secret of yoga, one that countless studios springing up relentlessly across the world would prefer was not highlighted; and William Broad’s excellent book, from which the above figures are quoted, has attracted more than its fair share of industry critics who accuse him of exaggeration.

It is worth noting, though, that the clamour that greeted the book on its publication in 2012 has died down somewhat; calmer minds seem to have prevailed and it is already clear that Broad’s work is influencing yoga for the better, highlighting the need for a greater awareness of safe practice. The Science of Yoga is increasingly recommended as essential reading for teachers and students of yoga, and so it should be.

It is hard to fault Broad’s efforts. A respected science journalist on The New York Times, he is a committed yogi who spent years researching and writing this book, one of the most impressively referenced I have ever read. Should you be inclined, you can double-check just about everything he presents as fact. This is science writing of the highest order.

While I have messed around with yoga for many years, I have been practising with commitment for a relatively short time, but am grateful to have read this book now before thoughtlessly blundering into, or embedding, potentially dangerous habits. Simply knowing that there are risks is almost enough, but the information Broad offers is sufficiently specific to apply to your practice straight away, or at least give you what you need to ask the right questions of teachers.

When I first started reading the book, I feared it might put me off my newfound passion, but this didn’t last long. For even in the scariest passages, (more…)