Yoga Healed My Addiction - An Interview with Taylor Hunt

By Nathan A Thompson 06/10/15

Taylor Hunt is one of the foremost practitioners of Ashtanga yoga—an intense and athletic form of mysticism. He shares with us how the practice transformed his addiction.

Taylor Hunt
Taylor Hunt

Having learned at the feet of his Indian master, Taylor Hunt now leads a burgeoning community of yogis in Columbus, Ohio. But it wasn’t always this way. Hunt was once a wealthy executive obsessed with drugs. He was soon bankrupt and living life at the sharp end of a heroin needle. How did yoga help transform his life? The Fix finds out. 

When did you start taking drugs?

I started drinking when I was 15 on the day my parents got divorced. I drank a fifth of Beefeaters Gin and blacked out. 

What did the worst of your addiction look like?

I eventually became a junkie. I went to a treatment center to deal with my addiction to pain pills and fell in with the crowd of people who weren’t willing to get sober. We started getting high together. I remember watching one girl inject heroin and I was in a place where that seemed like an OK thing to do. I stuck my arm out and told her to take care of it. I liked it so much I died. Literally. I woke [up] and paramedics were cutting off my clothes and restarting my heart. 

Why did you feel it was necessary to take that amount of drugs in such a reckless way?

It was an incremental process that started because I didn’t have the tools to live life and needed drugs to cope. At one point, alcohol worked and when it stopped working I thought, OK, let’s try cocaine. Cocaine made me a hot mess so I moved onto opiate medications like Percocet, Vicodin and OxyContin. I managed for a while on pills but my tolerance grew until I couldn’t afford to stay high. So I moved onto heroin because it was cheap and easily available.  

You mentioned you had success working for your dad’s company around this time—how did that square with your addiction?

I was vice president of sales for my dad’s food distribution company. To do that job, it took someone who was extremely confident but also unsure of themselves—like we say in AA, an egomaniac with an inferiority complex.

Or “the most important piece of shit in the world.”

[Laughs] Absolutely. I would pick up million-dollar deals and half of my six-figure bonus would go on drugs. I think having access to big money actually saved my life because it fast-forwarded my addiction and brought me to a place where I had to change or die.  

How did you hit rock bottom?

My own dad had to fire me because I couldn’t function at work anymore. I was an animal. My only priority was getting high and then eating and sleeping. My (now ex) wife kicked me out and I began staying at dope houses in really bad neighborhoods. I was just doing drugs day after day.  

How did you come to start yoga?

First, I had to go to another treatment center and get serious about recovery. After I was six months sober, I met an old friend. She suggested yoga. I declined. She appeared six more times over the next couple of weeks, which was weird because I’d usually only see her every few months. Each time, she’d suggest we do yoga. In the end, I realized if I wanted to change, I had to step out and live in the space of change, curiosity and action. That Saturday I went to my first yoga class.

You’ve written about hearing a voice during that first class saying, ”you’re perfect how you are”—where did that come from?

[Laughs] I’m not sure it was a voice; maybe it was an acknowledgement that yoga works. At that point, I thought I had a bunch of black marks on my personality and I became aware that yoga was part of the process of cleaning them up. 

How is yoga different from normal exercise?

There’s a spiritual component in yoga that isn’t necessarily there in normal exercise. We use the postures to still the mind and understand the true Self. In Ashtanga yoga, [the type of yoga that Taylor practices] every breath is counted in order to pull your experience inwards. In the gym, the focus is more external; it’s about building muscle and looking good. I’m not against that, but if you want to understand what it is to be human you need to look inside. 

So what is the internal experience of yoga like?

For a beginner it’s chaos. You’re trying to slow down the internal dialogue and sort it out. In the middle of the practice—which is where I place myself after 10 years—there is spaciousness or emptiness; a meditative loss of ego. 

What’s unique about Ashtanga as opposed to other kinds of yoga?

Ashtanga is taught in a way known as "Mysore style," named after the town of Mysore in India—the birthplace of modern yoga. A Mysore class is a group setting but each person receives individualized instruction to help them access the internal experience. 

How does Ashtanga yoga relate to your recovery today? 

It’s an opportunity to clean up my perspective, see who I am and how I am living life. On any given day, I can see with a glaring defect, a big happiness or work with bodily energies.  

Ashtanga has an ethical training aspect—what effect does practicing ethics have on your life?

Ethical principles like non-violence and truthfulness are the bedrock of any yoga practice. If you build your house on sand, it’s going to wash away, so you need to be grounded in purity and surrender to the divine. These principles are more important than the physical postures because nothing is possible without them.

You’ve taught Ashtanga in rehabs—what was that like?

Yoga didn’t make sense to the clients there. The whole nursing staff had to herd them into the auditorium for the class. But once they began, you could see a profound shift take place. After a few weeks, they were questioning their lifestyles—what they were eating and whether or not they should be smoking. Over the months I taught, I could see the fog in their heads lift. It was inspiring to see what the 12 steps and yoga can do together.

Aren’t you just chasing another high—a spiritual one?

No, I don’t crave yoga like I used to crave drugs and it’s not an obsession of the mind either. Maybe in the beginning there was a draw to experience that feeling I had in the first class but I’ve moved beyond that now.  

But then again, you’re a person who rises at 3am every day in order to do your own practice, then you teach yoga, then you go to an eight-hour job as well as having a young family—some people would say that’s obsessive…

That’s legitimate. But I don’t rise early for myself, I rise for my students. I don’t feel it’s obsessive because it’s my responsibility and discipline as a teacher to make sure my perspective is open for the class. 

Because Ashtanga is a very structured system it tends to attract people from chaotic backgrounds who are looking for stability. These people can take the practice and make it obsessive and damaging. In fact a blogger recently coined the term “Ashtangarexia”, how do you avoid crossing this line?  

An addictive approach would be feeling like you had to give it 100% or you’d be failing, or getting obsessed with achieving an advanced pose. For me, that kind of hard edge and grasping isn’t there. My focus is my children, wife, and students in that order. If that means the time isn’t there to do a full practice, I don’t beat myself up.

You have said yoga is like holding up a mirror to yourself—what do you see in your yoga mirror?

I see all of my perfections and imperfections. It reveals the temperature of my mind, whether it’s angry, happy or sad. For a long time I was disconnected. My behavior would show anger but I wouldn’t know it. Yoga provides a window to see what’s really going on. Ashtanga yoga is a controlled experiment and the variable is life.

Nathan A. Thompson is a journalist and poet. He has written for the Telegraph, the Guardian, Vice and Slate. His debut poetry collection, I Take Nothing Strong, Only Lightning is out soon on Wow Books. Follow @NathanWrites. He last wrote about the Cambodia needle exchange.

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