Yoga and Addiction

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

What is the cause of addiction? There are different reasons, no doubt, but the main cause of addiction is a weakening of willpower. The second reason is feeling a vacuum in life, an absence of joy and happiness, a lack of external, social and family support, love and affection. The third reason is not having an aim in life. This leads to an addiction to different forms of stimulation, by which an aim can be created based on fantasy. The fourth reason is the desire to experiment with something new.

There are two parts to the human personality, one which expresses happiness and creativity, and the other which is depressive and introverted. These two aspects are part and parcel of our nature and behaviour.

The three gunas

In yogic terminology the three qualities which influence the mind are the sattwic, rajasic and tamasic gunas. On the minus side these three qualities are stagnation, aggression and the desire for change: tamas, rajas and sattwa. On the plus side tamas indicates recognition of the state in which we are at present; rajas represents the vitality which can help us transcend the stagnation; and sattwa is the achievement of transcendence. If we consider rajas (vitality, dynamism, motivation) as being common to every human being, then it seems that we only have to move between the two poles of tamas (stagnation) and sattwa (transcendence). Sattwa represents a pure, transcendental, balanced and harmonious approach to life.

The nature of the human personality is drawn to the tamasic aspect, or stagnation. Look at your own lives for a moment and tell me whether it is possible to learn anger, hatred, jealousy or greed in any school of philosophy or academic institution? You will reply that you do not learn it anywhere. But these emotions are the spontaneous expressions of human nature. There are people who go to different schools of thought in order to learn how to be loving, kind and compassionate, or to learn how to find a transformative balance. This indicates that the negative trends of our personality express themselves naturally and spontaneously, while the positive trends have to be worked on. By nature we have a negative mentality or pull in our personality. Yoga attempts to convert this negativity into harmony, equanimity and balance - sattwa. In relation to human nature and personality, yoga works to convert the negativity into positivity. At the physical level, yoga works to remove the imbalances and to provide an experience and understanding of health.

Stabilizing the mind

We come back to our subject of the weak mind. Why does our mind become weak? From every angle, whether we look at it from the psychoanalytical or from the personal point of view, we can see that we are governed by distractions. These distractions do not allow our mind to become stable and peaceful. In yogic terminology the distractions which affect the mind are known as vrittis, and the state of peace and stability which we experience in yoga is known as samadhi.

It has been stated in the Yoga Sutras that when you begin to focus or concentrate the mind, then each stable nature of the mind represents a meditative state. The processes of mind management in the Yoga Sutras are pratyahara, dharana, and dhyana. Pratyahara, in this context, represents the state of mental and psychological relaxation, and external and sensorial harmony. Perfection of pratyahara is determined not by how long you are able to meditate or remain focused, but by how well you can develop the natural skills to remain relaxed and focused in all adverse situations. So the more you are at peace with yourself in the most difficult and adverse situations, the more you perfect pratyahara. It is said that if you are able to maintain a state of pratyahara for three hours continuously, then you will move into the state of dharana, which is deep concentration. The tradition says that three pratyaharas equal one dharana; three dharanas equal one dhyana; and three dhyanas equal one samadhi.

What are these three pratyaharas? I won't try to define or describe them, but let us begin our understanding by saying that three hours of the same state of mind - a continuity of experience - leads to a deepening of concentration. Three hours of continuous concentration, in which there is no fluctuation or dissipation of the mind, leads to deep meditation or dhyana. Three hours of continuous dhyana, or absolute identification with the inner nature, leads to the state of samadhi, fusion or union with the inner nature.

It is easy to say these things but hard to do them, because the nature of the mind is distracted or dissipated at all times. Imagine a monkey that cannot sit still. We cannot compare our mind to a monkey because sometimes it is possible for a monkey to become quiet. Now imagine the same monkey drunk. The monkey becomes hyperactive. We cannot compare our mind to a drunken monkey, because a drunken monkey can go to sleep. Now imagine a monkey that has drunk a full bottle of champagne and has also been bitten by a scorpion. That monkey is our mind. We are dealing with such heightened monkey activity! However, the monkey can be controlled by some means, it can be held down, but there is no way to hold down the mind. Therefore, the system of raja yoga indicates a process by which we can avoid the distractions and deceptions of the forces and energies of the nature of the mind.


We should also know that, as we relax, there is an increase in self-awareness. Possibly self-awareness is the key in yoga because, as we become aware of the functions of our nature and are able to guide it properly, we experience harmony. As we learn how to relax a bit more, we are able to differentiate between our strengths and weaknesses. Normally we desire strengths, but we identify with our weaknesses. This is a point of conflict in everybody's life.

We desire something, but we are restricted by the same quality and nature of the mind. We desire security and safety, but insecurity does not allow us to find security in life. So, it seems that there is a continuous conflict between strengths and weaknesses at deep conscious and unconscious levels. We desire love, appreciation and security, but we cannot find them within and so we search for them outside. When we begin searching outside we lose contact with our inner source. Our mind becomes clouded and we adopt different measures which we feel will help us attain safety, security and comfort in life.

Be objective not obsessive

Another important point to understand is the ability to be objective with oneself. Objectivity does not mean a controversial or an obsessive, compulsive analysis of oneself. The drive to find comfort, safety and security in the outer dimension leads to the generation of compulsive and obsessive behaviour. So what we see here, for example, is the desire to be happy. We desire to be happy, but when we see that there is nothing inside to be happy about, then we look outside.

The outer search becomes an obsession and it compels us to look in different directions. Obsession is a state of mind in which we crave ego fulfilment and satisfaction, and compulsion is the drive to achieve that obsession. Compulsion is the motivation to fulfil what we lack within ourselves. It seems like a vicious circle, from inside to outside, to compulsive and obsessive behaviour. The first thing that happens is the destruction of inner peace and harmony. However, if we can maintain that inner harmony, then all our habits can change.

Let me give you an example. Suppose you smoke cigarettes and want to give them up. It may be the statement on the box which says 'smoking is injurious to health', or it may be because you know that smoking causes lung cancer, or just a simple thought like, 'Why should I blacken my lungs with smoke?' Whatever the reason, you find that you are unable to stop smoking, that you have become addicted. If you try to stop smoking, then the mind goes to that desire again and again, unless you have very strong willpower and do not think about it. Therefore, we say that habits die hard, because that desire for another cigarette is due to a weakening of willpower. Once your willpower is weakened you cannot come out of that state of mind. So, the first thing you need to do is to generate willpower and vitality, which can alter the mental state of desiring and craving.

Research into yoga and addiction

You will find that in most of the research in which yoga practices have been applied to overcome different forms of addiction, several principles are the same. The common practices are asana and pranayama, which lead to vitality of body and brain; the techniques of deep relaxation which aim to relax the inner agitations of the mind; some of the techniques of pratyahara, which help to focus the mind; and some of the more advanced techniques to analyze the mental expressions.

Research done in America and India indicates that where there is a heavy dependence on alcohol, we use very strong asanas to overcome that dependence. Where there is a desire not to smoke marijuana for some time, we use very light, gentle yogic techniques to create a change. Dr Karel Nespor (Sannyasi Swaroopmurti) and other scientists have carried out investigations into the effects of yoga on addiction. Their research is invaluable for our body of knowledge. However, one point I feel that modern researchers have missed is the view or perception of human personality and the depth of compulsion and obsession which alters our desires and behaviour. Therefore, in our research we tried to look at the obsessive nature of the students before teaching them yoga. There was a distinct and definite difference between the approaches we adopted for a gentle personality, a growing personality and an established personality. This, I hope, will act as a reference point for further research into yoga, because right now we are using the same twenty pound sledgehammer to hit all kinds of addictions. Light addictions only need a small gentle hammer, and heavy addictions need maybe a twenty pound sledgehammer.