Yoga For Drug and Alcohol Dependent Children

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati - A Satsang at Ganga Darshan 1989

In California there was a centre for the rehabilitation of alcohol and drug-abused children aged from about twelve to twenty two years. I went there with a doctor who used to be our student. He felt that the practices of yoga, specifically yoga nidra, would somehow help a person to come out of their addiction. So one day he took me there and we spoke with the different people at the helm of administration.

We devised a yoga program without actually knowing what things would be beneficial, just by looking at the type of personalities and considering their nature; whether they were violent and how they might react to not having any kind of drugs, injections or medications. We considered what kind of reactions we might expect from them, what type of understanding they had about certain practices of yoga, about yoga itself and whether they would be willing to accept yoga. For the initial teaching, I had to go. I would go in my orange skin, so would they accept me as a teacher or not?

Keeping all these things in consideration we devised a plan which initially consisted of the normal talk to encourage addicts to come out of their addiction. This was given by the doctor, Todd Mekuria, himself. He used to give an introduction which would last fifteen to thirty minutes, depending on the mood of the addicts. Then he would invite me as guest speaker, but of course I would not speak, Instead I would say, 'Let us do some things'.

Calming practices

We started off with practices in which we divided the whole group of children into two, one half having a violent nature and the other half a depressive nature. To the violent group we gave pranayamas:

  1. Nadi shodhana: just the simple alternate nostril breathing was given.
  2. Brahmari: we asked them to imagine they were driving a car and changing gear with the pitch of the brahmari sound.
  3. Ujjayi: we asked them to touch the back of the throat with their tongue in khechari mudra, without telling them what khechari mudra was.

After six sessions which lasted about forty minutes on a daily basis, the doctors found that the addicts became very quiet, passive, in fact docile. They would listen to things, they would discuss their problems, their family matters, social conditions, the environment or situation which forced them to take drugs or alcohol. And this was after just six sessions of pranayama.

After the sixth session they stopped pranayama completely and we introduced the concept of willpower and sankalpa in one session and from the second session we started with the simple practice of yoga nidra. We continued with the practise of yoga nidra for six sessions again. After doing this, the doctors noticed that these people who used to be dependent on drugs, both nicotine injections, which would create some sort of stimulation in the system, and other kinds of drugs which they used to give, reduced their intake by 30-40% on a daily basis. Of course I do not remember the exact figures now because it happened seven years ago.

The next step: in order to further enhance their mental awareness, to focus the mind, to develop concentration, we started the practice of ajapa japa. We practised ajapa japa without mantra. We used to say that they should simply observe the breath while sitting in a chair with the eyes closed, the body upright and straight, and try to listen to the sound of the natural breath. They just had to keep listening to the sound of the natural breath. The introversion used to be so powerful for these people that after the class, many used to say that they could feel and hear the blood flowing through their veins. Listening to and talking about the heartbeat is quite obvious because it is a major movement within the body, but they used to talk about the flow of blood and that means that their concentration was quite intense. And their violent nature subsided; they became more accepting and understanding.

After the third week I had to leave so I do not know what the report is now or whether they even continued with the practices. In the three week course they had eighteen days of practice: six days each week with one day talking. During that time there was a very great change which was felt by the practitioners and also by the people who monitored them.

Stimulating Practices

With the other half of the group, the depressive group, it was slightly difficult to get them to do anything. They would simply not do anything at all. So with these people we started off with yoga nidra, and not the common practice of yoga nidra. Instead we created a story and asked them to visualize the story. Maybe once we visualized a hike in the mountains, another time a boat trip on the ocean. Like this we created certain short stones which helped to focus their attention and their minds.

In fact we considered that the practice was not a yoga nidra but more like visualization in shavasana.

Gradually we started introducing the concept of different sensations in the body along with the visualization. 'The body is feeling light, so light that it is now flying, going up off the ground, flying. While you are floating up in the atmosphere, suddenly a bird passes you and you realize that you are actually floating. Then start to feel heavy, so heavy that you are sinking into the floor.' Then we gave that Jules Verne story, 'Journey to the Centre of the Earth'. As their bodies became heavier and heavier, we tried to describe parts from the story which they already knew and so could relate to easily. Then again we made the body feel light so that they came back to ground level.

Once they became interested in this form of storytelling, visualization and imagination, then we started them off with some pranayama combined with bandhas. Bhastrika was practised for a few days and later we introduced agnisar without the bhastrika. We told them that instead of actually breathing rapidly in and out through the nostrils, they should imagine that they are doing the same thing, without breathing, through the stomach. So the contractions of the stomach started while they imagined that they were breathing in and out, but without actually breathing. Why did we introduce bandhas? To stimulate the blocked centres of energy, for example agnisar kriya and uddiyana bandha stimulate the vital pranic centre. Nadi shodhana was the last pranayama we introduced.

After they had completed this set of practices we started meditation. This was more in line with chidakasha dharana, for with the depressive group we tried using only the visualization techniques for example, imagining that they were writing on a blackboard-different symbols, names, numbers and colours, shapes and sizes. Later we practised the advanced form of chidakasha dharana, where the brain is viewed as a room, and you go into that room, deep down.

Achieving balance

I'm not sure of the end result, but during the time we were there, conducting the course, the children became more outgoing and communicative. The depressive group asked better questions in the question and answer sessions, as if they were constantly thinking, due to their introverted nature. It felt as though they were more aware of their feelings, emotions and need in life than the group who were just reacting to situations violently. So eventually the communication was better with the depressive group.

The last communication that I had from this doctor was that he had trained social workers in the system that we had devised. These people were being sent out to teach in different rehabilitation centres in the Bay area in California, and they were establishing this yoga program.