"Work is more effective than alcohol or morphine in helping to bear adverse conditions."

Dr Alexis Carrell

Alcohol, the end product of the fermentation of sugars, has always been known to man. For millennia, it has played an important role in religious ceremonies and the rituals of many esoteric cults as well as being part of the staple diet of millions all over the world.

Recently, however, alcohol has become a steadily increasing social problem. As its traditional roles are displaced, it is being used more and more for relaxation and pleasure gratification. Many people have become dependent on it as a means of continuing under the pressures and strains of modern life.

Although socially acceptable, alcohol is now recognised as doing more harm than good, especially by the growing numbers of people who have turned to yoga and the pursuit of higher consciousness. They are finding that yoga makes them feel much better and leads to more fulfilling experiences than alcohol or any other drug can possibly provide.

Alcohol is certainly a very controversial subject today and many people are wondering whether or not it can be used safely, even in moderation. In order to answer this important question for ourselves, we must first understand how alcohol affects the body and mind.

If used only occasionally and in moderation, alcohol does little or no harm to the body. However, abuse leads to the following stages of alcoholism:

  1. Acute alcoholism drunkenness due to excessive intake of ethyl alcohol, resulting in depression of the nervous system. One bout is usually not so harmful and the individual recovers within 24 to 48 hours. However, if continued, heavy drinking leads to definite physical and mental deterioration.
  2. Chronic alcoholism long continued and excessive intake of ethyl alcohol characterised by loss of hunger, diarrhoea, weight loss, mental deterioration, personality changes, nervous system degeneration, and fatty degeneration of the liver.

It is a well known fact that regular drinking leads to progressive brain damage. When alcohol is imbibed, the red blood cells become sticky and adhere together. This seriously interferes with blood circulation, and as the level of alcohol increases, many small vessels are plugged. Oxygen can only reach the nerve cells by way of the blood. Neurons, the tiny thinking cells of the brain, require a continuous oxygen supply. If deprived for even three minutes, they will be damaged, and if deprived for twenty minutes they will die. So, drinking progressively damages the brain by cutting off oxygen supply to the tissues, thereby killing large numbers of brain cells prematurely. It is also thought that alcohol acts as a direct poison to the neurons.

Brain cells are not replaceable, and regular loss results in the symptoms of premature ageing such as loss of memory, reduction of sensual acuity, loss of co-ordination and the power to reason clearly.

The brain is not the only organ to undergo fatal structural changes due to the poisoning of alcohol. The liver, heart, pancreas, kidneys and endocrine glands are also affected. Cirrhosis, a leading cause of death in USA and Europe, occurs because alcohol stops the liver from burning dietary and tissue fats in order to burn alcohol. Thus fat accumulates displacing liver cells and causing progressive liver degeneration. Fats also accumulate in the bloodstream, leading to hardening of the arteries and subsequent heart attack.

As liver damage proceeds, the liver loses its ability to break down the female hormone oestrogen produced by the reproductive systems of both male and female bodies. At the same time the liver enzyme which normally breaks down testosterone, the male hormone, is produced in excess. The net result is a relative build up of feminine over masculine hormones, causing the male body to undergo feminising changes such as loss of body hair, enlargement of breast tissues, and softening of the skin.

Anyone who is aware of the deleterious effects of alcohol, yet takes up drinking or continues to drink, is sinning against life. The drinker who chooses to hide from his troubles in the oblivion of alcoholic intoxication faces disease, disgrace and chaos as he sits in a dazed stupor watching his life fall apart.

Although alcoholism is not a serious problem here in India, it is classified as one of the major killers in all the industrialised countries. Alcoholism takes a huge toll in terms of personal suffering and loss of productive work time, far eclipsing the drug problem, which receives more attention in the press, media, judicial and governmental bodies. Perhaps alcohol is more socially accepted because it strikes closer to home. Also the economy of many countries depends to a certain extent on the taxation levied on such luxury goods.

Alcoholism is a disease which afflicts men and women of all economic, religious and cultural backgrounds, Statistics give a glimpse of the extent of the problem, but the real cost to the community in terms of money, family and social disintegration, accidents, loss of mental and physical health, can hardly be gauged. In Europe 5% of the population are alcoholics. In France alone, there is an estimated 6 to 7 million alcoholics. Figures from UK, Germany, Italy, and Scandinavia all range between 1 and 2 million. In USA the number of alcoholics is well over 20 million.

An increase in adolescent alcoholism has also been reported, not only in the west but here in India. A recent study confirmed that 36% of the college students in Bangalore had tried alcoholic beverages at least once, and 9% were heavy drinkers. This study suggests that the adoption of western attitudes amongst students will eventuate in the same type of problems prevalent in other countries today, unless a better alternative is provided before it is too late.

The alcoholic problem is a very difficult one to deal with, for the alcoholic himself as well as for all those in his immediate family and community. Because of its deep rooted psychological nature, it is generally termed as a recurring and incurable disease. Most doctors are really not equipped to deal with alcoholism and it is usually handled through various clubs and associations such as Alcoholics Anonymous. Now, however, the use of yoga and meditation has been reported by researchers and scientists to be of great value not only in stopping the alcoholic from drinking, but in removing his desire to drink by replacing the anxieties which lead to alcoholism with the peace and bliss of meditation.

On the physical level, the alcoholic has an actual dependency and craving for drink due to the build up of enzyme systems in the liver designed to metabolise alcohol. Withdrawal of alcohol results in the breakdown of the system and symptoms such as shakes, convulsions and hallucinations. This life threatening situation is better dealt with through 'drying out' sessions in a hospital.

On the psychological level, however, alcoholism is a disease associated with deep, unresolved social or spiritual needs that have not been satisfied in one's life. The alcoholic personality has been generalised as one of repressed anger and frustrated ambition. The alcoholic is lonely. He hates himself and feels like a nobody. Initially, alcohol enables him to shed his inhibitions, complexes and fears; to express himself; to be friendly; to feel like a somebody. But the euphoria and false confidence are short lived, because alcohol is actually a depressant. It causes depression and to get over that depression, more and more alcohol is consumed. This is where yoga steps in, to provide a practical, effective and long term solution for the growing problem of alcoholism in the world today.

Yoga not only rehabilitates the alcoholic physically and psychologically, but gives him a way to overcome the incessant compulsion to drink by offering a replacement which is actually a better experience than alcohol. Through regular practice, yoga purifies and harmonises the whole psycho-physiological system, giving the alcoholic better health and a greater vision of life and of himself. This is what makes yoga so effective. An alcoholic who practises yoga will definitely find the nectar of spiritual practices far more intoxicating and rewarding than the drinks which he procures from a shop.

What is even more interesting is that the immediate and long term effects which alcohol has on the brain and other organs of the body, can be partially, if not completely, reversed. This process is initiated when the alcoholic first takes up yoga, and becomes an ongoing continuum as the practices are integrated into his daily life. This leads not only to a healthy, positive outlook, but develops within the alcoholic those very qualities, such as self-confidence and the ability to cope with people and situations, which he sought in drink.

It has been seen that the practices of yoga provide mental stability and safeguard the alcoholic from fluctuating and depressive moods which often weaken his resistance and lead him to drink. After all, man is but a creature of habits. The habits he forms are subject to his thoughts and desires which are completely ruled by his emotions and moods; by the way he feels from moment to moment. By balancing the alcoholic's endocrine and nervous systems through the various practices of yoga, we can balance his emotions and mind, change his habits, and revolutionise his whole way of life. This is not just tall talk, it is an established fact.

Why does the alcoholic drink? Because he is desperate; unable to face reality, and his body is full of toxins. If he can learn to manage these conditions, then he can manage the habit of alcoholism. Many people say that alcohol is bad; they are the first to admonish others, yet they drink themselves. It is not enough to criticise or analyse a bad habit; one must have the willpower to eradicate it. Once the alcoholic has developed sufficient willpower to take the first step and say to himself, 'I am not going to drink today!' he is ready to start the yogic practices. These will develop his confidence in the decision he has made, and help him to realise that he does not have to escape from reality but face it.

Thought is the most powerful weapon in the fight against alcoholism. If you know how to think properly, you know how to break the addiction. Once the body is freed from toxins by proper diet, hatha yoga shatkarmas, asanas, pranayama, and positive thinking, the alcoholic can definitely free himself from this habit. As his body and mind become harmonised, he begins to feel better. The compulsion to drink falls away by itself as he moves into a new and vital phase of living, free from the heavy weight of toxins, imbalance and inhibitions.

The practices of yoga completely restructure the alcoholic's way of thinking and living, and help him to resume responsibility as a contributing member of society within a relatively short period of time. I have several reports before me which state that alcoholics can definitely succeed in making a new start in life through the regular practice of yoga.

Now yogic training programs are being incorporated into many sanatoriums in Europe with excellent results. In Czechoslovakia, Dr Karel Nespor, MUDr, Prague, reports that decreased consumption of alcohol was found in yoga practitioners. Consequently, a yoga training program has been set up at the Alcoholic-Treatment Centre in Prague to meet the needs of alcoholic patients after discharge from the hospital.

Presently, the Bihar School of Yoga and its branch ashrams all over the world are conducting and correlating various programs for alcoholics with encouraging results. Recently, the Yoga Clinic in Hobart, Australia, affiliated with BSY, began a scheme for the rehabilitation of alcoholics in conjunction with the John Edis Hospital and the Mental Health Commission. Classes commenced with a group of alcoholics who were drying out at the nearby hospital. Dr Ken Williams, a medical practitioner attached to the Alcohol and Drug Dependency Association, checked the participants regularly and recorded their medical progress. The results of this program are highly encouraging, and I would like to quote here some of those cases reported by Dr Williams.

"Terry Williams, age 45, a compulsive, heavy drinker, was first seen in a state of complete physical, emotional and mental dehabilitation. He was suffering from severe malnutrition, edema of the legs, ataxia, slurred speech, serious memory loss, great difficulty in walking, BP 240/140 and pulse 130.

After a drying out session in the hospital, he came to the Yoga Clinic, still grossly disturbed mentally and physically. Here he continued regularly with yoga classes and showed marked improvement. After one month his BP was down to 140/90 and pulse 72. Edema of the legs was only slight, balance and muscle tone were greatly improved, and he was able to walk well with much less fatigue. His anxiety level dropped remarkably, and sleep patterns stabilised. He was eating well and not yearning for alcohol, countering seriously and conscientiously with yoga involvement.

After two months, his clinical condition showed continued improvement, following regular yoga practices and a walk of 1½ miles daily. Tone and feeling in the legs were almost back to normal. He has made remarkable progress. His self-confidence, outlook, and ability to make decisions, show steady and marked improvement, and he states that he has not felt better for years."

"Norma Paynter, age 45, was a heavy drinker, suffering from acute anxiety and depression due to family problems. After commencing yoga classes her progress accelerated greatly. Her anxiety level dropped steadily and her ability to cope with problems and make logical decisions greatly improved. As depression lifted, she found answers to what seemed insoluble problems and started working creatively towards her goals."

"Christopher Donnelly, age 34, had a history of chronic alcoholism. He suffered from acute loneliness and depression which led him to commit crimes and make several attempts on his life; psoriasis covered his arms and legs. He found yoga practices, especially relaxation, were very helpful. Within two months, healing was taking place on all levels and he had come alive."

In a personal report submitted by Christopher Donnelly, he states that:

"I am really starting to reap the benefits from yoga practices. The main thing that yoga does for me is what alcohol used to do. Yoga gives me the confidence to handle situations and mix with people, but with a lot more understanding and control. Yoga has certainly opened up the way to a new life for me. I intend to continue with the practices. For me, things can only get better."