• terry-lynn hemmerling

Yoga and alcohol: achieving ahimsa?

I would like to offer a perspective regarding the increasing trend of intersecting yoga practice with alcohol consumption. Whether this intersection takes the form of drinking culture dialogue making its way into the studio during class, advertising yoga and wine events during class, or hosting events in the studio, wine and beer seem to be making their way onto the yoga mat in a world where they are already over-represented. With the rising popularity of both yoga and wine, finding common ground between the two as a way to connect with students or sell events is prevalent. I get it. Two things that many people love, let’s combine them and call it a great idea.

My observation on this trend comes from the seat of an educator. I was trained in my undergrad and graduate degrees in education that earning the title of “teacher” comes with great responsibility. As teachers, our purpose is to create intentional learning opportunities where students can take the next steps of development in whatever discipline being studied, wherever they are on that continuum, in a safe and inclusive environment.

We were taught that the creation of a lesson plan must begin with a clear learning objective. We needed to constantly assess whether it would help our students learn or was it “fluff” meant to distract or entertain rather than educate. The latter was frowned upon. We also had to consider who would potentially be engaging in the learning and what their needs might be. Did the plan support the variation of learners in the class, and most importantly, ensure student mental, physical and emotional safety was addressed. We were trained to be very aware of languaging and communication style during instruction. A very tall order. Nonetheless, consideration of these components is what being called “teacher” demands no matter the discipline being taught. 

When teachers of yoga weave the alcohol culture into their classes, dialogue and offerings I wonder about the integrity of the learning objective. It feels like a contradiction. Yoga is a path to self-realization, it wakes us up to our lives. Alcohol is a depressant. It numbs our emotions and dulls our senses. It seems counter intuitive to why we come to the mat in the first place.

Ahimsa, the first yama, literally translates to "do no harm." It is the foundation of all the other yamas and niyamas providing a guide on how to approach not only our practice on the mat but also how to approach our life off the mat. By pairing yoga with alcohol, we may be both inadvertently causing some of our students harm and degrading the integrity of yoga. A significant population that finds their way to this healing practice are those who suffer with their relationship to alcohol. This demographic is a quiet bunch for a variety of reasons including social stigma, shame, fear, isolation and the very real possibility of losing a job or extended health insurance by labeling themselves as having an alcohol misuse disorder. Quiet as they might be, never for a moment doubt that every single yoga class has representation from this group. Yoga meets these sisters and brothers right there in the midst of their suffering. Breath by breath, this ancient practice provides a healing path to a better, more awake way of being in the world.

Consideration for those students who are just beginning their journey of examining their relationship with alcohol is imperative. For them, the yoga studio becomes a safe space, an alternative to environments less supportive of their journey. Yoga can and does provide a pathway back to wholeness. As teachers, our responsibility to the practice of yoga and to our students is to do no harm and consider who might be in our class and what their needs might be. As harmless as it seems, perhaps we are not serving our students with dialogue that references the glass of wine we will have “earned” after completing the practice. The title of teacher comes with great responsibility.

I offer this perspective as a reminder that the teacher’s influence matters. Their words matter. Their offerings matter. If we do use alcohol to build rapport with our students, can we likewise include dialogue normalizing the choice not to drink. At our wine/yoga events can we be sure to include a kombucha or herbal tea offering so that those students who may be seeking recovery are reassured that they too are welcome. As teachers of yoga, can we consider whether this beautiful, healing practice needs alcohol at all or is it enough on its own. The title of teacher comes with great responsibility.

photo credit: from internet images

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