About Julia Dillon
Julia Ruth Dillon is an editor for a foundational 12-step organization, Y12SR leader, and an RYT-500 with the New England School of Integrative Yoga. Julia has taught in studio, outpatient rehab, hospital, corporate and private settings, and holds a high honors degree in History & Literature from Harvard. She is deeply grateful to Nikki Myers and Y12SR for the opportunity to hold space for people in recovery.
What got you into yoga, and what does the practice mean to you?
I’ve often said that “I came for the asana and stayed for the yoga.” As a former dancer, in early recovery from a pretty low-bottom drug and alcohol addiction, I wanted to find something that would get me back “in my body,” and having moved across the country from San Francisco, where I’d lived for 17 years, it was hard to find the right dance class anywhere near my suburban home in New Jersey. At a local Twelve Step meeting I’d regularly been attending, we had a member visiting from San Francisco, in town to see his parents. He said he’d been to a local yoga studio and that I should really check out the vinyasa flow class of one teacher, who really had students moving. So I gave it a shot.
As it happened, I loved the class and continued to go back week after week. Over time, I began to love different things about the class — the energy, the teacher’s warm spirituality, the community, and most of all, the upwelling of emotions that I experienced during class and in savasana. I had certainly experienced some of this as a dancer, but in this class, I learned something new: I realized how much my habit was to be performing, both in class and in life. There is nothing wrong with performing in and of itself, but to be doing so without any awareness is a different thing!
From there, it seemed, my path was laid out. I became a yoga teacher, then got more into meditation, the texts, even some kirtan. And then it seemed every time I turned around, I heard the name “Nikki Myers” — in my yoga class, on my social media feed, after Twelve Step meetings, through other teachers. In 2013, I started my Y12SR training with Nikki, and by 2015 I was holding space for Y12SR meetings. (I also started helping the Y12SR team with some of their admin work and continue to do so.) I’ve had the pleasure of taking workshops with Tommy Rosen, Rolf Gates, and others in the yoga-meets-recovery world, and then from 2015 through 2017, I did my 300-hour training with Bo Forbes, where I focused on addiction (including addictive thinking), mindfulness and yoga.
When it comes to these practices and the spiritual path more generally, there’s just so much to learn, especially with respect to the power of these body-based practices (yoga and mindfulness in the body) on recovery. I continue to attend Twelve Step meetings (now in three programs, essentially). I find that my own practice has really changed, but what hasn’t changed is the degree to which getting on my yoga mat helps me, in the words you’ll often hear at a Y12SR meeting, to “root, ground and breathe.” I couldn’t be more grateful to Nikki Myers and Y12SR, and to all the paths that led me there.
Are there any small victories you’ve experienced recently that you’d like to share with us?
At an outpatient facility where I taught for several years, many times I had the great joy of looking, mid-practice, around a room full of students — a substantial portion of whom had NO interest in doing yoga — and saw a group of people completely in their bodies, if only for a moment, if only for a full breath. I’m not sure it was something I could see with my eyes; rather I think I felt it resonate in my own body. But every time it happened, it felt like magic, like the world just paused for a second.
It’s such a powerful thing, to hold space for people and witness them really in their bodies, perhaps for the first time in a long while. I was deeply impressed with their willingness to go there! They had said one thing with their minds, but their spirits and bodies told a different story. They were listening to their OWN body’s wisdom, which is the whole point. I can’t “teach” that; I can only offer a few ways to get there. So it was a real gift for me to see that; it took my breath away every time.
Another quick and fun thing: one of the young men I’d worked with at that outpatient facility later attended my studio Y12SR meetings because he found yoga so helpful to his recovery. A year later, he finished a 200-hour yoga teacher training in order to “pay forward” what was given to him. I saw him at Twelve Step meetings too, and he told me that the yoga we did at the facility made all the difference in his recovery. I recently learned that he has decided to go all in and open his own yoga studio.
We are constantly inspired by the ever-changing application of yogic practices driven by the needs of students and clients. In what ways is your work an art and a science?
I love studying neuroscience, and there’s a growing body of research around neural phenomena related to addiction, to yoga and meditation, and to the intersection of all of these. With respect to addiction (and in fact the struggles around just being human), the science around the default mode network (DMN) is particularly fascinating to me. The DMN is basically your “auto pilot,” the narrative framework through which you view the world. It’s that strongly wired area of our brain in the prefrontal cortex that is responsible for the unconscious assumptions/judgments we make about ourselves as well as the people around us, and, quite often, what leads us to think, say or even do things before we’re even aware of it I often pass this information on to folks I work with, but sharing data is very different from guiding people into an experience of healing: it may enhance self-awareness, but that only goes so far.
And that’s where the art (or maybe experimentation is a better word) comes in: I often have shared with my student/clients how my own default thinking shows up for me and leads to all kinds of trouble in hopes they recognize it in themselves. Addicts use their preferred substance to quiet the “voice” of the DMN, so once they put down the substance, the voice is especially loud. If attention can be brought away from the DMN for even a moment, it’s a win, really, as it helps loosen the grip of the default mode narrative, whatever that is, for example, the story “I can’t get sober,” or “It’s so-and-so’s fault,” or even, “ I need a drink.” Getting some distance from that narrative highlights the fact that the negative voice isn’t the capital-T Truth. The simple act of shifting attention away from that largely negative voice is the goal.
So to do this, I turn to body-based awareness practices, beginning with proprioception (Where is the body in space? What exactly is the body doing?) and moving into interoception (What are the sensations inside the body? In the belly, the chest area? Is there warmth, or tension, or hunger?).
Many of the folks I work with are initially resistant to even trying. So I focus on those who are willing, and while I might invite others to give it a shot, I never push. Bit by bit, more often than not, others begin to join in: they can’t help but notice the calm descending in the room. It’s not anything I can tell them about; it has to be experienced. And I have to allow space for that — which is challenge for me! Trust me, I learn more from those experiences than my clients do: of this I am sure.