Lindsey Clennell is a filmmaker and senior teacher of Iyengar yoga. In 2007, he created and distributed the documentary film Addiction, Recovery and Yoga, which he distributed for free online. The film includes in-depth interviews with people who struggled with serious addiction problems and used yoga and 12-step programs as a part of their recovery.
Tell us about your experience as a filmmaker, therapist and yoga teacher.
I’ve been practicing yoga since 1970, and I’ve found it to be really useful in keeping myself together in very demanding creative situations. When I began practicing yoga, I was making documentaries and music videos, running a production company and had a family. I found that practicing yoga was the best way that I could function well with that kind of life.
As a student of BKS Iyengar, I’d been to India more than 20 times and when he introduced a certification program, I became as senior teacher. While in India, I’d also photographed and documented the therapeutic aspects of yoga quite a bit and had become interested in this way of teaching.
When I retired from filmmaking around 1990, I decided that I would teach yoga and created a yoga therapy practice. I’d get referrals from medical doctors, psychotherapists, psychologists and such, and I’d teach yoga in a way that was appropriate for each student’s particular condition.
These days, I’m slowing down a bit; I teach less and am finishing off a film on BKS Iyengar which I’ve been making with my son and will be released this spring.
When you talk about getting referrals from mental health professionals and working with people who came with health and mental health issues, how did you know what would be good for a particular issue or ailment?
Experience and one’s own practice. But if you have a copy of Iyengar’s classic yoga text Light on Yoga, you’ll see that the book has a great deal of therapeutic information in it. Iyengar has also published other books—one specifically on therapeutic yoga called Yoga: The Path to Holistic Health—and so this aspect of yoga has been traditionally written about and taught.
At Iyengar’s institute in Pune, India, there were weekly therapeutic classes. Thirty or 40 people would gather in the hall, and there would be Iyengar, his daughter, and a couple of doctors from the local hospital, who were also students of his.
People would come in with different conditions—high blood pressure, cancer, injuries, spinal problems—and Iyengar would give instruction on different sequences of postures and so forth that could be done depending on the issue.
Through attending these classes over the years—watching, participating, photographing—one gets an idea of how to adapt asana to different conditions. To teach people yoga in such a way that they immediately feel better. It’s a way of fitting the person to the yoga and fitting the yoga to the person, if you know what I mean.
Did you ever experience any issues in the US not being a licensed therapist treating mental health issues?
I never had any issues with that because I was getting referrals from psychologists and medical doctors. I had known about and studied therapeutic yoga since 1970, but it was informal simply because it wasn’t formalized at that time.
Eventually, of course, the business of yoga expanded, with now some 30 million people doing yoga in the United States. The Yoga Alliance established a qualification to be a yoga therapist and a lot of younger people who were enthused with the impact yoga had had on them went about completing teacher trainings, yoga therapy trainings and so forth.
What that entailed or how substantial that qualification was may have been questionable to a lot of people, but it was the beginning, nonetheless. Sort of like how acupuncture was in the seventies; people were doing it, then training came together, then licensing, then it became what it is today. It became an add-on to conventional medicine.
That’s interesting, particularly for those who don’t have clinical training but want to work with people in mental health settings, still. So you’ve done a lot of film work around the yoga community, what is the role that film plays in getting this information out?
As far as I’m concerned, you have to respond to your experience in the way that you think is appropriate. And my experience has always been that it’s important to get yoga out there because it’s such a substantial benefit to people’s everyday lives.
With yoga practice, we’re a bit more energetic. We’re generally less difficult to get along with. Relationships blossom and we have a little bit more capacity to manage our heads. And people really need that, as we know. So I’ve always seen yoga as something which should be promoted in one way or another because of its general benefit.
Filmmaking came into this particular picture in a very narrow way. I had one or two students who had drug and alcohol problems. One particular person had an alcohol problem which interested me in Alcoholics Anonymous (AA). I’d never been to a meeting and didn’t know anything about AA. I’d never had a drug problem myself.
The Gay and Lesbian Community Center in Greenwich Village, where I lived at the time, would have AA meetings on Sunday at noon. Somebody I knew was doing sign language interpretation at the meetings and invited me along. So I went, and it blew my socks off. I thought, “Wow, this is so good.”
The meetings were so open, so dramatic, very nice people were sharing their experiences. It was an eye opener for me. The ethical structure of AA also really impressed me. It struck me as a good community thing. Healing, positive and just like yoga, it was relatively cheap.
So the idea of putting yoga and AA together was, I felt, an important thing to get out there. As a filmmaker, I do this by making a film about it and putting it out for free on YouTube. I felt that making a film about it would help reach the person with the drug or alcohol problem, or the yoga teacher who works with people dealing with addiction.
Why do you think yoga is such a good fit with addiction?
The thing is, yoga can make you feel good. Apart from detoxifying the body or giving you something to do or go to, there’s a very good chance that when a person goes to a yoga class they’ll leave feeling better. It makes you feel good.
So for a lot of people with drug problems, having a feel-good practice really makes sense to them. Addiction is such a difficult thing and yoga gives a person hope that they’ve got something—an agent of their own causality—which is effective. People are empowered with the realization that they can effect their own condition in another way, apart from taking a substance.
The thing about yoga is that unlike traditional talk therapy, you do it, you don’t talk about it. That engagement with the experience of being causative over one’s physical self provides a parallel and is similar to being causative over oneself at a psychological level. That is, being able to manage the mind, to some extent. Or simply establishing self-observation so that we become a bit more sensitive to when we are anxious or reaching for a drink, or whatever.
Through the practice of self-observation, the person who struggles with addiction becomes aware of those things which normally take them over. They establish a bit of breathing space as they become more self-aware.
Hope is a funny word and I don’t use it a lot, but there’s something in that process that I think revolves around the idea of hope. A person struggling with addiction finds some hope in yoga practice, whereas addiction for people can be very demoralizing. People often feel humiliated by their condition.
Do you think simply doing yoga is enough for addiction recovery? Or is it a complementary therapy?
I think in a therapeutic application, yoga is an add-on. It’s an add-on to AA or should be done in rehab center.
Yoga is not an exercise system, it’s a psychology. It’s a matrix for self-observation. Yoga’s initial assertion is that it’s about modifying fluctuations in consciousness, which firstly means being aware of fluctuations in consciousness, which means managing fluctuations in consciousness, which means observing fluctuations in consciousness.
So the primary fluctuation in consciousness—a change in head state that you want someone to observe—is that by doing yoga you feel better. I would always joke with people when they came to see me that “the only reason you are here is because nobody has fixed you yet.”
And yoga is not a punishment. Because punishment is so pervasive in this culture, people can’t really think outside of that particular equation. But to introduce yoga as a sort of feel-good game can get people started.
It can make you feel good, but ultimately it is a long-term game. It’s not something you do for a week and you’re fixed.
Lindsey’s film, Addiction, Recovery and Yoga is available to watch for free on YouTube. His film on BKS Iyengar is currently in progress and will be available this spring.