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
After several unsuccessful attempts, a proposal to organize yoga classes
in Turin's prisons was accepted. I was asked to begin in the section housing
drug addicts, many of them HIV seropositive or with AIDS (Acquired Immune
Deficiency Disease). I had no experience in this field and doubted my
ability to cope with the combined problems of imprisonment and the drugs
often connected with AIDS. In the past, when I had asked Paramahamsa Satyananda
about the most useful yoga practices for physically and mentally handicapped
people, he had said that I would discover them by myself while practising
and being in contact with those people. That advice, like all Paramahamsaji's
other advice, consolidated into a successful and enriching experience.
The group consisted of fifteen male prisoners, aged between twenty and
fifty. Most were physically very weak, their percentage of lymphocytes
being at the minimum level established by the Italian Justice Department
for obtaining release from prison in favour of hospitalization. The proposed
program would last for four months and consist of a yoga class of one
and a half hours twice a week. At the first meeting I realized that the
participants would not be able to manage more than an hour of class and,
therefore, the whole program had to be revised.
I decided to have the group practise the pawanmuktasana part 1 (anti-rheumatic)
series, first of all because these practices require a minimum of physical
strength, and also because I remembered Swami Niranjan saying that he
usually made his disciples practise pawanmuktasana for a long time, even
if, as a result, some happened to run away. However, as nobody could escape
from jail, I thought I could run the risk!
Kirlian photographs show that a large quantity of mucus develops and
accumulates in the aura and nadis of drug addicts and people with serious
diseases such as AIDS and cancer. This mucus can be removed by the practice
of pawanmuktasana, which can restore a fluid and correct pranic circulation.
Moreover, the pawanmuktasana series helps to eliminateama(the
toxic waste material produced by the body's internal combustion and metabolism)
through the lymphatic system. As lymphocytes can also enter the bloodstream
through the lymphatic system, these practices can, therefore, strengthen
the immune response.
Apart from damaging the central nervous system, drugs also suppress the
immune response, probably because of the hyperstimulation of the glands
of the adrenal cortex. This problem, which is accentuated by prolonged
conditions of stress and depression, tends to further suppress killer
cells and to accelerate atrophy of the thymus gland. Situations of stress
and continuous reactions of the fight or flight mechanism bring about
excessive production of adrenalin and noradrenalin hormones and reduced
production of corticosteroid hormones. As a result, favourable conditions
are created for the development of many infectious pathologies.
In 'The Neuroimmunitary Way', Dr. Felten suggests that the immune
system can be conditioned and also reinforced without pharmacological
intervention by creating visualizations in which you are stimulating the
thymus gland. He also says that just one session of relaxation, combined
with regular physical exercise, can increase the production of killer
cells and of endogenous opioides.
Therefore, relaxation practices and yoga nidra were utilized frequently.
Shavasana was also utilized much more often than in normal classes, not
just to let the participants rest, but also to provide the opportunity
to recreate a physical self-image through rotation of consciousness around
the body. I also noticed that movement of the abdominal muscles hardly
existed due to somatization of tensions in this region. Therefore, I first
tried to make the group aware of the natural breathing process and then
introduced useful asanas. The aim was not only to develop a state of relaxation,
but also to relieve many problems of the digestive system such as constipation.
After the abdominal block was released, nadi shodhana pranayama was introduced.
A person who has used psychoactive substances for a long time, and is
hit by serious diseases like AIDS, experiences imbalance of the physiological
rhythms, circadian and ultradian, which has deleterious consequences for
the main physical and mental functions.
In India, yogis throughout the ages have understood the connection between
ultradian rhythms and the flow of the breath, while western medicine only
started research in this field in 1982. Results indicate that the activities
of the two cerebral hemispheres, the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous
system, and the curve 'Activity-Maximum performance-Rest-Recharging' are
connected with the passage of breath through the nostrils and with the
dominance of the flow in one compared to the other, continuously alternating
every 90 to 120 minutes.
Nadi shodhana pranayama can restore the balance of ultradian rhythms
and consequently of the physiological rhythms. It can also integrate and
harmonize the different tendencies, complementary and antagonistic, of
the human being. In this case, nadi shodhana pranayama is particularly
useful because psychoactive substances stimulate the activity of ida nadi
abnormally and in a regressive way and inhibit the activity of pingala
The practice of yoga nidra is very delicate and presenting it to those
who have been drug dependent requires care and caution. Therefore, I proceeded
very gradually, initially introducing short sessions of breath awareness,
breath counting and rotation of consciousness around the body, so that
I was able to evaluate the reactions to the practice and to proceed systematically
and cautiously. As the classes progressed, I introduced the sensations
of hot/cold, heavy/light, leaving out those of pain/pleasure. Then simple
visualizations were added that contained self-recovery images linked with
a sankalpa (resolve) that had been previously agreed to by the whole group,
and was directed towards an improvement in physical balance.
After the first month almost all the prisoners attending yoga classes
reported that they were feeling better, with more physical energy, improved
digestion and sleep, and a reduced level of anxiety. During this period
no one was admitted to hospital because of an immuno-compromise state.
Unfortunately we were unable to involve either the medical or psychological
teams in the project. A proposal to have the prisoners fill in a health
questionnaire was not accepted. As a result, confirmation of the benefits
could not be officially recognized, although the Italian Justice Department
wrote a letter thanking and congratulating us on our work.
Towards the end of the four months, the prisoners who had been practising
yoga organized a revolt in protest at the indifferent, inadequate and
harsh treatment that the prison management was reserving for AIDS afflicted
persons. During the revolt all the non-prisoners present in that section
of the prison, including some doctors, nurses, educators, a lawyer and
myself, were shut inside the corridor leading to the cells. When the director
of the prison arrived, the prisoners' spokesman explained the uncomfortable
conditions and how little was being done to alleviate their suffering.
He also said that the only, and disinterested, help they had received
had been during the yoga classes.
This first experience with drug addicts was not easy, but it was very
important because, as a result, the entire section has been reorganized
and the director replaced. The new director asked us to continue with
the yoga classes in the isolation section.
In Italy, therapeutic communities for the rehabilitation of drug addicts
are mostly managed by private institutions receiving state or local funds.
The staff must be professionally qualified as doctors, psychologists,
educators or nurses. One percent of the staff can be made up of former
drug addicts who have completed the rehabilitation program and a specific
Yoga can be included only as a voluntary activity and as social support
intervention, not as a rehabilitation instrument, unless those who propose
it belong to one of the above categories. In these communities, yoga programs
can be more diversified compared to the prison program. This is mainly
because only a few people are HIV positive and, therefore, usually in
quite good health. One works with male groups and/or mixed groups aged
from eighteen to forty and over.
The yoga class lasts for one and a half hours, once a week, for a period
of eight months. The course is open to drug addicts who have already overcome
the crisis of abstinence, and in whom the psychologist has seen the integrity
of some parts of the ego and the willingness to attend yoga classes.
The yoga teacher must spend some time observing all the members of the
group in order to establish a global profile of the drug-addicted personality,
to discover blocks and physical rigidities, breathing quality and to be
informed of past and present pathologies. An introductory meeting attended
by the social workers is necessary to explain the meaning of yoga and
its benefits. It is also very important to remove prejudices and to clarify
misunderstandings regarding comparisons made due to misconceptions about
yoga and psychoactive substances.
The Vedic tradition mentions a herbal mixture that can modify the structure
of consciousness. Its meaning is known only to a few gurus who keep it
secret because it is to be utilized only for purposes prescribed in the
ancient texts, under their direct guidance and only with disciples who
are spiritually prepared. So, in today's society, drugs lead to experiences
that cannot be considered purely spiritual; they do not produce any change
in the level and quality of consciousness and they interfere with the
individual's natural process of evolution. Drugs also eliminate the natural
barriers which prevent the passage of repressed psychic material from
the unconscious to conscious level of mind, thus eliminating the automatic
defence mechanism. This eventually leads to psychic imbalance and confusion,
and regressive and aggressive tendencies.
Many rehabilitation communities are in the countryside, in quiet surroundings,
and offer the opportunity of outdoor work. However, others are being created
more and more frequently in towns where there are fewer opportunities
for physical exercise. Therefore, especially in the latter case, it is
very useful to begin with more dynamic practices, also because the reduced
quantity of negative ions present in the polluted air of towns tends to
increase the tendency to apathy and depression that is already so marked
in people who have been taking drugs.
We begin, therefore, with pawanmuktasana part 1 (anti-rheumatic) and
2 (anti-gastric) and the shakti bandhas (energy block removers), and we
soon introduce surya namaskara, which we ask to be practised quickly.
As a vegetarian diet is not followed in any of these communities and as
drug addicts are allowed to smoke cigarettes as a substitute for the non-consumption
of drugs, we increase the number of rounds of surya namaskara gradually,
to avoid a too rapid release of toxins which would cause bouts of fever
or troublesome rashes.
In all drug addicts, the liver, kidneys and spleen have been damaged
by drugs. Most have been infected with one or more types of hepatitis.
Therefore, all asanas that can improve the function of these three organs
such as paschimottanasana, ardha matsyendrasana, halasana, ushtrasana
and merudandasana have been included in the program.
Many women who are drug addicts suffer from amenorrhoea (absence of
menstruation). Some specific asanas acting on the reproductive system,
such as kandharasana, sarvangasana and vipareeta karani asana, if performed
regularly outside the weekly session, have led to the re-establishment
of a regular menstrual flow.
During the performance of asanas, practitioners are continually requested
to keep their attention on the movements they perform and on what is happening
in their physical body. This focusing of the mind on the `here and now'
prevents any escape from reality. It also develops awareness of the physical
body and the bodily sensations, a capacity that drug addicts have lost,
especially during their numerous abstinence crises. Moreover, as each
movement is a consciously performed action, the willpower is automatically
trained and progressively strengthened.
Shatkarmas, the purification practices of hatha yoga, are not easily
accepted. Drug addicts generally tend to draw back each time they face
a problem, however small. In our experience we have succeeded in having
kunjal practised only a few times, by persons suffering from asthmatic
crises and who therefore had strong reasons for seeking relief from their
Although constipation is a frequent problem, mainly caused by consumption
of psychoactive substances but also increased by wrong diet and sedentary
lifestyle, most of the drug addicts refused to practise laghoo shankhaprakshalana.
The few who expressed interest in the beginning gave up the idea after
being influenced by the others in the group. Thus we fell back on the
sequence of asanas used for this practice, suggesting they drink unsalted
water. Of course, the result was not quite the same, but they did have
some benefit from the practice. On the other hand, neti was almost always
accepted and for those who had sniffed cocaine for a long time it proved
particularly useful in recovering the sense of smell.
Beside abdominal breathing and nadi shodhana, we introduced other pranayamas.
Kapalbhati proved useful in reducing the quantity of recurrent obsessive
thoughts; sheetali in preventing and reducing the intensity of panic attacks
experienced by some; bhastrika in continuing the process of purification
from toxins; and bhramari and ujjayi for relaxation.
Experts in rehabilitation of drug addicts agree that it is relatively
easy to eliminate chemical addiction to a substance from the cells of
the physical body, whereas it is not so easy to eliminate psychological
addiction. In traditional rehabilitation programs, intervention of a psychoanalytic
type has proved difficult to apply. However, the practice of yoga nidra,
which is a simple and indirect method to contact the preconscious and
unconscious mind, has turned out to be practical and easily applicable.
In yoga, samskaras are defined as one's cellular memory, the store of
sensory impressions a human being receives at a conscious as well as a
non-conscious level, and also from each life experience. These samskaras
influence and condition a person's behaviour without him/her being aware
of it. Through the practice of yoga nidra, it is possible to bring the
preconscious and unconscious material to the surface of the mind, without
having to analyze or elaborate on it. Yoga nidra can lead to the release
of energy imprisoned in the mind in order to hold conflicts, frustrations,
sense of guilt, etc. in check, and thus repressed.
As the mind is in a state of receptivity during the emission of alpha
waves, the suggestions sent to it through the pronunciation of the sankalpa
(resolve) find fertile ground and can thus reach the pre-conscious level.
From there they are then transferred to the conscious level in the form
of willpower. Yoga nidra can become, therefore, a very powerful instrument
to facilitate a process of moral restructuring, to train drug addicts
to have confidence in their ability to free themselves from their addiction,
and to face the difficulties they will meet in their efforts to transform
their tendencies and habits.
Those who have been dependent on psychoactive substances have vivid
memories of the `fantastic journeys' and troubled mental states caused
by these substances. Therefore, the visualization phase in yoga nidra
is a very delicate stage. It is necessary to avoid suggesting any visualizations
which cause the practitioner to `fly away' and stimulate such memories,
and to choose those which relate to reality and are linked with everyday
In our yoga sessions, we have used visualizations connected with the
sequence of asanas performed, or which were likely to improve the functioning
of the physiological systems and organs, i.e. those directed towards the
attainment of a definite practical objective. We have avoided those hinting
at any dependence or on any external help. We have used those in which
it was quite clear that success in anything only depends on one's will
and personal efforts in order to improve the internal locus of control,
removing any references to transcendental aspects.
A particular form of yoga nidra (which Robert Assagioli called `desensitization
technique') can be used with good results, but only after a suitable and
specific preparation has been made through the first stages of antar mouna,
such as developing and stabilizing the attitude of a neutral witness,
with non-involvement and non-identification of the ego.
In yoga it is explained that the energy of a human being can be expressed
in various ways according to one's level of evolution. In a drug user,
prana is likely to be crystallized in mooladhara and swadhisthana chakras.
It is possible that, when control over the substance is completely lost,
the prana is pushed down to even lower levels than mooladhara, which represent
evolution in animals. Mooladhara and swadhisthana have tamasic qualities.
All the passions, complexes, anguish and desires have their roots there.
If the energy of these two chakras is not purified, freed and transformed
by passage to the higher chakras, the impulses and experiences which guide
a human being will be influenced by the qualities of these two chakras.
Moreover, not only ida nadi but also ajna chakra is stimulated by psychoactive
substances in an anomalous way. The ensuing pranic imbalance creates energy
fluctuations in the nervous system, which may be the cause of the visual
and auditory hallucinations experienced.
After introducing the concept of the psychic energy centres, in order
to begin a process of pranic rebalancing in the chakras, students practised
the initial stages of nadanusandhana, a practice in which the seven notes
of the scale are sung in Sanskrit. Apart from moments of initial embarrassment,
due to having to `make their voice heard' in a group, this practice was
welcomed. It represents the last stage of yogic intervention in a rehabilitative
community and a connection for the possible continuation of a less rehabilitative
and more spiritual yogic path, which some persons may choose to follow
at the end of the protected period spent in a community.
In conclusion, despite the fact that yoga practices are not officially
accepted as a rehabilitative or therapeutic instrument, the teams of psychologists
who have followed our projects and their development with some interest
have particularly appreciated the yoga practices that release stress and
reduce anxiety levels. These techniques have proved to be doubly useful
because, besides benefiting those who directly use them, they indirectly
make the operator's task easier. As the resistance which develops towards
the rehabilitation process is reduced, the subjects become more available
for collaboration, and the individual capacity for insight is strengthened,
thus speeding up the alleviation of individual problems.
In my experience, those who have been using psychoactive substances
have very sensitive, curious and receptive natures, and a great quantity
of energy that has been blocked by the use of these substances. The fire
of inner search is always alight in them and they want to widen their
self-knowledge, to discover the unexpressed potential of the mind, to
understand the meaning of existence and of the transcendental and divine
Therefore, in my opinion many people who have become addicted to psychoactive
substances are spiritual researchers. What makes them take one course
rather than another probably consists of a complex set of circumstances
which western psychology identifies as being due to a family environment
that is uninteresting and lacking in values, in deviant friendships and
in psychological frailty. All this can be explained by yoga through the
concept of karma and through the fact that, at a lower level of evolution,
one feels the need to resort to alcohol or drugs and, at a higher level
of evolution, to search for divinity. For such persons, yoga might represent
the possibility of tripping the switch in the right direction.
I would like to conclude with C.G. Jung's description of an alcoholic
patient, in which he compared the insatiable and uncontrollable desire
for alcohol to the thirst for and the search after completeness, in other
words, to the union with God which certain mystics so eagerly long for.