High on Waves
New Year Message
From EYF Yoga and Addiction program, Greece, March 2000
Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati
Yogic Intervention in Rehabilitation Communities for Drug Addicts
Swami Ishananda Saraswati
Sannyasi Achyutananda & Sannyasi Indradeva
St George and the Dragon
Swami Savitananda Saraswati
Round Table Discussion on Addiction
In trying to overcome addiction, how does one start when the mind is
dissipated and addicted to so many bad habits, not only to drugs? What
are the first steps?
Dr. Karel Nespor: The first step is not to make things worse than
they already are, because sometimes the effort to cure one bad habit with
another even worse habit can be very destructive. For example, I remember
one middle-aged gentleman who came to us dependent on heroin, thinking
that alcohol would be a good alternative for him, and next time he came
with delirium tremens.
Generally there are two strategies. The first one is for people who are
very busy and think they can't afford radical life change, for example,
staying in an ashram or having in-patient treatment. For these people,
it is important to bring about some life change by introducing a new good
habit and sticking to it until it succeeds. In this way, slowly the lifestyle
can be reformed. Of course, the second approach may be more costly and
time consuming, but it is safer to come to an ashram environment or for
residential treatment, which is in effect easier and much simpler.
However, one rule which can't be bypassed, especially in severe drug
dependency, is that the efficiency of treatment is directly related to
the length of treatment and its intensity. This also applies to yoga therapy.
If somebody wants to overcome his habit through yoga, he will probably
have to practise very regularly, which means not once a month but every
day. So, I wish every success to the person who asked the question.
Swamiji: There is something else understand. The patient's or
sufferer's recognition that he is under the influence of an addiction
is one thing. The line of therapy that he follows, whether it is medication
or yoga, is another. But this recognition that one is suffering from an
addiction and the process adopted to overcome the addiction is not a complete
approach. Rather, a different understanding of mind has to be created
and instilled in the sufferer with the help of the therapist.
The common form of treatment is to go to a therapist or yoga teacher
and say, "Look, I have this problem. Can you help me?" They
will give some medication or a set of practices to do, and that is the
end of it. In both situations it is like saying, "If you have a headache,
take an aspirin and see me tomorrow morning." There has to be an
understanding of the functions of one's mind. We have to provide a direction
for that mind to express itself while it is undergoing therapy. That focus
should be on the positive aspects of life, where you can express yourself
So, along with therapy, if we can suggest the development of a hobby,
whether painting, music or sculpture, it will provide more focus for personal
expression. When you are fully involved and engrossed in the hobby, you
will not feel the need to take any stimulants that can be addictive. Having
a positive hobby also helps to manage various desires of a self-destructive
When someone takes psychotropic substances, why does he no longer have
the need for food or sleep?
Swami Ishananda: This question needs to be asked of somebody who
has taken psychotropic substances. However, all the physiological functions
are modified through the use of psychotropic substances. All the sympathetic
nervous system functions are overexcited. This acceleration automatically
inhibits these physiological functions and the individual then has no
need for food or sleep or any other physiological requirement. Other imbalances
in the physiological system are also generated. Finally, a circuit of
imbalances is created, like a dog biting its own tail. So, the first thing
is to bring some balance to the different imbalances.
Mike Hartog: I remember periods when I didn't eat for seven or
eight days. However, when there is still some self-control, your senses
seek the quiet places and quiet moments. For instance, you try to live
at night and walk down the streets at night, and stay as much as possible
in your own home while being high. When you are really in a vicious circle,
then you lose all control and take a lot of chances. But that is a different
story. The first step in getting rid of the addiction is an act of will
- you want to change.
Dr. Karel Nespor: There are some types of stimulant drugs which, after
use, may make people feel so hungry that they want to eat the entire contents
of the refrigerator. After that, they may sleep for two or three days
because of sleep deprivation during the time of using drugs. Therefore,
lack of appetite certainly is an important symptom, but it is not the
only one nor the decisive one.
Swamiji: What seems to stand out is that whenever we take any
kind of drug there is a chemical change in the body and brain. As Sannyasi
Swaroopmurti was saying, it can go either way, sometimes it is hyperstimulation
and sometimes it is a slump. Research which takes a topographical image
of the brain waves has shown that when someone is in a drug or alcohol
induced stupor, the brain's activities are highly disturbed. As the effect
of the drug begins to wear off, suddenly the person wakes up, comes out
of the stupor and realizes that he has not relaxed or slept, and once
again he is hyper. The chemical imbalances create a disturbance in the
normal biorhythms of the body. This is the basic knowledge. This situation
can be helped by learning to relax. Some people have used the practice
of yoga nidra to rectify such chemical, physiological and cerebral imbalances.
There is something we can try for our own particular condition and situation.
Please talk to us about the need for drugs in the treatment of mental
Dr. Karel Nespor: Mental illness is a very broad group of disorders.
As yoga teachers you should be aware that if you treat a patient with
schizophrenia or very severe depression, especially if the patient is
suicidal, you should never, never suggest they come off medication, because
these people are often on long-term medication which is not addictive.
I am talking about anti-depressant drugs and so-called neuroleptic or
anti-psychotic drugs. This is one end of the spectrum.
At the other end of the spectrum are mild mental problems, neurotic
problems, some anxiety, sleep disturbances and so on, for which people
often take medication where it is neither appropriate nor necessary. For
such people, yoga would really be the best choice. It is paradoxical,
but mild medication for mild mental problems is more addictive than heavy
medication for severe mental problems.
When someone is addicted but doesn't make any effort to free themselves
from their dependency, how can we help them? Just by practising yoga can
Sannyasi Mahimananda: There are a number of aspects to this question.
The first one is that nothing can really change until the persons become
willing to change themselves. However, that doesn't mean that you should
do nothing. If you are watching someone else in this situation, you can
become a role model without preaching. If you practise yoga yourself or
are attending to your own addictions, then just do that and then the other
person may notice and take some hope from your success.
If you find that your life is being taken over by worry about the other
person's addiction, so that you are almost addicted to their addiction,
then you should seek some help, perhaps from Alanon - just don't take
drugs to deal with it. There are programs for relatives, friends and children
of people who are suffering from addictions that help you to be whole
yourself and not see your life as being taken over by their problem.
Even if the person is in denial of his or her addiction, if they are
practising yoga, then I firmly believe that yoga does help. They are doing
something that is harmonizing the processes in their body, their spiritual
nature and their personality. Sometimes the light of hope is just so small.
Something like a yoga practice, or putting the person's name on a list
for Mahamrityunjaya mantra, or showing some example may be enough to light
a tiny spark in that person and to expose the denial of their addiction
If you are able to support them in the positive things they are doing,
which may be yoga or creative expression, then that encouragement is of
great benefit, but only as long as you do not force them. If you say,
"You are going to your yoga class, aren't you?" this may engender
rebellion and they might stop going in order to feel independent of you.
But true support and encouragement is of great benefit in this situation.
Swami Savitananda: The first step is recognizing that one is addicted
to something, followed by the will to change. However, in the course of
time this will is weakened by addiction. It is very important to find
a sankalpa, some way of strengthening the will, a positive thought, and
to repeat it every day in front of the mirror, before going to bed, before
walking the streets all night.
Dr. Karel Nespor: I would like to make a comment from the therapist's
point of view, because we often encounter people coming in a very disturbed
condition, who improve, are cured yet won't leave us immediately. It is
possible to use the technique developed by an American psychotherapist,
which is called Motivation Training. This technique is very gentle, calm
and not confrontational. You may ask very gently what kind of problems
the person suffers from because of drugs. How many of his friends are
dead or in prison? What kind of illnesses did he suffer from? At the end,
I may ask him to project himself into my position and say what he as a
medical doctor would recommend to me as a patient in such a situation.
Of course, as Swamiji and other colleagues have told us, it is possible
to work with positive motivations, to discuss the person's positive aim,
such as education or yoga or art. This may increase the motivation. I
know from the psychological view it is perfectly correct, but it is difficult
to grasp. To tell someone who is drug dependent that they have a weak
will is not the best thing to do. Instead, I say, "Your will was
very strong. You must have worked very hard to get your daily doses, it
is a full time and very difficult job. If you apply this strong will to
your recovery, then you will be successful."
Swami Ishananda: In my experience many people sent to rehabilitation
communities do not really want to stop their addiction. To wait for them
to find the will to stop is very difficult. I remember a story about a
lady who went to Paramahamsaji saying that she no longer wanted to live
in the same house as her mother-in-law, because she always wanted to kill
her. So, Paramahamsaji instructed this lady to continue thinking that
she wanted to kill her mother-in-law, but to come to the ashram every
day for a period of time. Coming to the ashram regularly transformed the
original thought of killing the mother in law.
My approach in community treatment is to ask these people to join at
least four initial yoga classes, mainly based on relaxation techniques.
Due to these relaxation techniques, tey are able to find the will inside
to join the regular classes. This is the only way we channel or apply
any kind of direction or pressure to these people.
Swamiji: There is another approach also which is not scientifically
substantiated, but which seems to help. Yoga has said that everybody has
the power to project positive thoughts to help others, just as we have
the power to project negative thoughts to destroy others. This is seen
in the chanting of mantras and in the practice of prana vidya. If we look
at an image or photograph of a person and chant the mantra with a total
desire inside to help that person overcome certain problems, then the
positive support we are extending and expressing does create some sort
of psychological influence, and they begin to come out.
The practice of prana vidya, in which we awaken, channel and direct
our vital force, mentions that if we project the right form of energy
to a person over a distance of many, many miles, even hundreds and thousands
of miles, that energy can also help that person. This is not scientifically
substantiated, but in the ashram in Munger we chant the Mahamrityunjaya
mantra every weekend for those people who write and tell us they are suffering
and need help. Before chanting the mantra we read out their names and
problems. We have had reports from particular persons that they started
feeling better on the day and at the time the mantra was being chanted.
They did not know beforehand when the mantra would be chanted, but they
tell us the exact date on which they felt better and it corresponds to
the chanting of the mantra.
We should try to understand that not everything can be fitted into the
compartment of logic, but there are some non-logical things that help
transform and change us as well.
Many people try to stop an addiction on their own, marihuana for example,
or a different bad habit, and they manage for a while, say a month, then
their resolve weakens and they start again. What can they do to overcome
that point of weakness?
Sannyasi Indradev: I know an ex-addict in London who comes to
the yoga classes in the centre. He has come off drugs and he is healing
himself, more or less. He has some support and has found yoga and homeopathy
very useful. But the individual needs a lot of support. Ideally you need
medical support from a doctor. You need emotional support from friends,
family, communities and groups. When you are weak and your will is low,
you struggle on and either lose the battle or have to find help.
So individuals can either be guided or hopefully find a group to meet
with, like Alcoholics Anonymous. They may find themselves joining a therapeutic
community, or a rehab centre. The support is the net that stops people's
lives falling apart. Ideally, it should be at all levels: physical, mental,
emotional and spiritual.
Sannyasi Kriyamurti: It is important to share with others who
have had the same experience, especially at those times when they feel
like giving up. At that time someone who knows how it feels can offer
some suggestions or encouragement from a place of understanding and identification.
Swami Ishananda: In the United States researchers have found that
there is a spontaneous dropping of the addiction. They are trying to find
out what the mechanism is. So far they only know that at the end of nine
years some people automatically stop their drug addiction. The hypothesis
is that this is due to the seven or nine year cycle of renewal of the
cells of the body. But this is just a hypothesis.
Sannyasi Mahimananda: I would like to add two points. One is that
marihuana smoking is a symptom of addiction itself. Therefore, cessation
of the smoking behaviour itself is not enough without working on the mental
patterns connected with the addiction. You cannot change the behaviour
without changing the taproot that holds the behaviour and grounds it.
There are many yoga practices that would be appropriate to help the individual
loosen and release those patterns of mind. The symptom of marihuana smoking
then also disappears and there will be a sustainable recovery.
My second point is that having a sankalpa about overcoming the trigger
that leads to a relapse back into the pattern of smoking would be incredibly
useful in this context. Finally, there is a difference between one lapse
and a relapse. If you smoke marihuana again, that is one lapse, like revisiting
the addictive behaviour. It can be an extremely good learning experience
to look at what made one do it again and, therefore, be able to seek some
help to change those things. It may be professional help. Some old pain
or hurt may have been triggered and you may use a therapist to help you
work through it.
Dr. Karel Nespor: To overcome the typical smoking habit needs four
or five attempts. The message is - try again and again. Increase the external
support and intensity of therapy.
If one fears losing a loved one and gets panicky about it, what should
one do? How can one deal with it?
Swami Savitananda: We all have losses in our lives - friends,
family members, loved ones, maybe children. We should never be panicky
about it. In order to bear the possibility of death we need support from
others. Death confronts us with our own fear of mortality. Just as we
need support, so we have to support the person who is dying. Instead of
fearing we must be strong and open our hearts. We should open ourselves
to trust that there is some divine being who is always there when we most
Dr. Karel Nespor: There is a technique called applied relaxation,
which means that you learn to relax and are able to induce the state of
relaxation immediately. From yoga, you may use observation of the movement
of the abdomen during inhalation and exhalation, or a mantra may induce
deep relaxation. Western psychotherapists teach some relaxation techniques,
which they associate with gestures. Making a gesture induces relaxation
immediately, because these two things are associated. The advantage of
applied relaxation is that you can apply and use it at the time the panic
starts, in everyday life situations.
Sannyasi Mahimananda: We are talking about losing someone to drugs.
Sometimes the feeling of panic comes from the belief that we should be
able to do something to save this person. It is very difficult to accept
that we do not have the power to stop them from what they are choosing
to do. As well as these practical ways of helping, relaxing and using
yogic techniques, there are also support groups for people who relate
to someone using drugs. There is a world-wide network of Twelve Step recovery
programs, which work very well with yoga to help people to look after
themselves. It is also important to remain loving and compassionate towards
the person we fear losing. We can then offer support when and if the person
asks for it.
Swamiji: If it is not a problem-related fear, then see it from
a different angle. When it is a natural or spontaneous attachment to oneself,
and the fear is because of the loss of attachment, our approach and attitude
have to be different. There is a continuous disparity or imbalance between
the reality which surrounds us and the attachments and aspirations which
we develop within us.
There are some realities in life which are universal. Birth is universal.
Sickness is universal. Decay is universal. Death is a universal phenomenon.
We know all this. Yet the greatest surprise in life is that despite knowing
the reality, people do not wish to accept it. Knowing that death is imminent,
people do not want to die, and try everything possible to remain alive
and become immortal. Despite knowing that things come and go, we cling
or latch onto them and do not allow them to go.
Many different answers can be given. There has to be an understanding
of our aspirations and responses to how we wish to direct our life. In
problem-related situations, this attachment takes the form of compassion.
In self-oriented situations, it is an attachment. The sense of insecurity
and loss disturbs the human mind. Losing somebody we love affects our
mind. Our inner clarity becomes even more clouded. How to avoid being
panicky? Through meditation. Meditation has to become a process of acknowledging
the reality. Meditation should also become a process of adaptation to
one's attachments so that the loss, insecurity and fear do not create
an obsessive, psychotic state of mind, but are understood in the right
Our families often ask us if there is a way of overcoming addiction
to yoga. How should we answer them?
Swamiji: There are two types of addiction, the positive uplifting
and the destructive negative. Art is a positive addiction for artists,
but if it becomes the cause of financial loss and disturbance in the family
environment, then art can also become a destructive addiction. Science
is an addiction, music is an addiction. The desire for happiness is an
addiction. The desire to avoid suffering is an addiction.
What is an addiction? It is a condition of mind which propels your behaviour
and actions. In the negative aspect it is bad, in the positive aspect
it is creative. Even yoga can be a positive addiction for some and a negative
addiction for others. If you are planning to rob somebody's house, you
do not declare your intention beforehand. But if you are planning to find
some jewels within by practising meditation, you declare your intention
beforehand by saying, "Look, I am practising yoga and becoming a
saint." When we think that some thoughts or actions will increase
our prestige on the outside, we start talking about it right from stage
one. Paramahamsaji used to say that you don't have to declare that you
practise yoga. Make yoga a natural part of your life.