Addiction Workshop

Sannyasi Achyutananda and Sannyasi Indradeva, UK

What is an addictive substance?

What do we mean when we talk about drugs? If we make a list of addictive substances, what do we come up with? Heroin, LSD, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana, hashish, cocaine, solvents like glue, prescription drugs like barbiturates and amphetamines, coffee, food, sex, gambling, shopping, computers and Internet, relationships and co-dependencies between wife and husband, parents and children, work, distraction, money.

We discover that we can be addicted to a wide range of things from sugar and caffeine to alcohol and heroin. We can also include behaviours such as love, stimulation and emotional states. The point is that we all partake of and use these things. Although it is convenient to narrow it down to one group of substances, in actual fact the range is very broad. Most of us will encounter most of these things in our day to day lives.

What is an addict?

What image do you have of a drug user or addict? Pale, sickly, poor, dirty and neurotic or rich, normal and artistic? Normally our first image is a negative one. In reality this is true but everything else is also true. You will discover that anyone can become an addict, that we all have potentially addictive tendencies. Addiction crosses all social and cultural barriers. You could be sitting next to an addict right now. They can be very smart, very clean, very together. Any of us at any stage could become an addict. Just because we are here now in a yoga ashram, we have no idea what could happen to us tomorrow and what could drive us to become an addict. We have to be very careful that our own prejudices don't create divisions between people.

In actual fact we are all addicted to some extent. One person may use a certain substance; we may use a different substance but be equally addicted to it. Society has decided that one group of substances is illegal and bad, whereas another group of substances and the way of using them is OK and legal. All of this is to illustrate and make the point that before we teach such a class we should examine our own perceptions and prejudices, the preconceived images that we bring with us to the interaction. As far as possible we should be open and realize that we are all in the same situation.

Some useful techniques

All the Satyananda yoga techniques help in the process of healing and returning to a balanced state of being. The following is selection of techniques we have found effective when teaching in a rehab setting.

Asanas: A person entering a rehabilitation program could be initially tired, physically weak and may have been through a detoxification program. In the early stages the pawanmuktasana series 1 (anti-rheumatic) and 2 (digestive/abdominal) are excellent. The various movements loosen up the joints and aid the detoxification process. One of the pawanmuktasana 1 practices is shoulder rotation. The shoulders are a major source of tension and for people who feel they have too much to carry in the world there can be much emotional release with this movement, like losing the feeling of responsibility and being burdened.

As the students increase their energy levels and physical strength, you can start to teach the shakti bandhas (energy block removers). These practices work especially in the manipura area where there is a tendency for deep emotions to be suppressed and where opiates seem to have an effect, i.e. on willpower or lack of it. As the students release more energy, they can work with this energy. Shakti bandhas increase stamina, strengthen the abdominal and lumbar muscles, and massage the abdominal organs, increasing circulation to these areas. This massage works well on the liver, an important major organ for detoxification. Nauka sanchalanasana (rowing the boat), for example, strengthens the abdominal and lower back muscles, and can help to release anger and anxiety suppressed in this area.

Standing postures and surya namaskara can be introduced when students are ready. Tadasana (palm tree pose) is a very good movement to warm and loosen up the spine. Kati chakrasana (waist rotating pose) is an excellent way to increase the circulation in the spine (and make people laugh!). Hasta utthanasana (hand raising pose) expands the capacity of the lungs, which might be tense and quite small. It also works to increase the oxygen to the brain and other organs and to increase energy levels.

Pranayama: Abdominal breathing, like many techniques, can be learnt and used at any time when needed, especially for insomnia and stress. Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is a crucial practice for mental clarity, alertness, balance and purification of the nadis. Bhramari (humming bee breath) is useful for mental stress. It increases inner calmness and can quiet the noisy mind. If people have trouble going to sleep, you can recommend a few rounds of bhramari and abdominal breathing. This is very useful at the time of detoxification when many addicts cannot sleep due to withdrawal. These are just a few practices but all are good in a progressive way.

Yoga nidra: Yoga nidra is a very important practice. It allows the body to heal and to rest completely. Being in drug or alcohol rehab, the students are under some stress. They have a lot of therapy, one to one counselling and group sessions, and it can all be quite exhausting. Yoga nidra gives them time to step back and gain a wider picture of what is going on. As you gain the trust of your students, you can introduce positive visualizations and imagery, but keep them simple, realistic, practical and grounded otherwise they can become distractions and the students can drift off on a tangent.

Emphasis on the use of sankalpa, resolve or affirmation is very important. Sankalpa is maybe the most useful and important part of the practice that students take with them. Always encourage them to discover their own sankalpa.

Meditation: Meditations such as antar mouna can be introduced after a few weeks or months. Antar mouna allows the students insight into their thought processes. With this awareness they can learn to accept their strengths and weaknesses and to resolve any internal problems as they focus on one problem at a time.

After class, allow time for students to talk and discuss personal issues, whether physical, mental or spiritual. They may not have spoken to anyone before about their experiences. You need to be honest, empathetic and understanding. Remember your limitations, you may not have all the right advice. Counselling skills are useful at this time.

How should we proceed with recall of events in yoga nidra?

First go back through the day from the morning up to the present. Then go back another day. When you have the confidence of the students, you can go further back, like one week, one month, one year. It is quite important to go back to childhood. Recall is a useful technique for showing that there was a time before drugs were used, that the stage of using was just a middle stage, a period in their life, and did not last forever. It is quite useful for bringing up memories which people who have been using drugs didn't recall before, just to acknowledge "Yes, I did this," without guilt. It is very beneficial to clear out these mental images.

What about other types of visualization?

In general keep the visualizations very simple. In other situations we may have visualizations like walking on rainbows, sitting by crystal lakes, etc. However, under the influence of certain drugs you actually visualize certain things like that, so the association with that type of visualization would be drugs, a drug induced experience. We want to avoid any association between yoga and taking drugs, therefore, we try to keep the visualizations very grounded and practical.

Acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses is the first step in addiction. Can you tell us more about that?

All the techniques work on self-acceptance. You could just be teaching pawanmuktasana. The students say that they just can't do it, but you know they can, so you encourage them to do it. The whole class is working on that level, just as any yoga class is working on self-acceptance.

Where do you run these classes?

We have run these classes in various therapeutic communities in London, UK. Some were private, others were government funded. Normally people attend voluntarily. There tend to be three stages in drug rehabilitation. First is a detoxification stage. Then there is a middle stage where they are involved with group and personal sessions in a therapeutic community, which is structured in a similar way to an ashram. You get up at a certain time, go to bed at a certain time, you are locked in, can't make telephone calls easily or have other people in your room. The third stage is when the people go back out and become involved in society again, doing voluntary work or educational/vocational courses. This is called re-entry, like astronauts coming back from the moon.

What is the feedback from the students in your yoga classes?

It ranges from, "I hate this, I never want to do this again," to "I love it." It is just like when we do classes. The responses are our responses. In a lot of places the classes were compulsory, which is actually very useful and positive because there is a sense of involvement, everybody is doing something as a group. It allows us to push against any resistance and it allows the clients to push through any initial resistance to the idea of doing a yoga class. Usually the best students are the ones who put up the most resistance to begin with.

In our country there are rehabilitation centres funded by the government. We approached such places and asked about teaching yoga classes, but they were not positive. Do you have any proposal about how to approach such centres?

Firstly, wear your best clothes, perfume, whatever, and look very smart - no malas, dhotis or even geru colour! Secondly, do not mention the word 'yoga' - say 'relaxation techniques', 'stress management', 'body work', etc. You still teach asanas, yoga nidra, etc., but call it something different. Once you start the classes and the feedback from the residents gets to the managers, then there shouldn't be any problem.