Overcoming Addiction Program in the Ashram

Swami Vedavyasananda Saraswati, Greece

There are four causes of addiction. The main cause is a weakening of willpower. The second cause is feeling a vacuum in life, an absence of joy and happiness, and an absence of external, social and family support, love and affection. The third cause is not having an aim in life. This leads to an addiction to different forms of stimulation through which an aim can be created based on fantasy. The fourth cause is the desire to experiment with something new.

—Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

In 2000 a special rehab program, in conjunction with Greek psychiatrists, was commenced at the Greek ashram. The program had three main functions: (i) to provide the participants with the experience of an ashram lifestyle (ii) the application of Satyananda Yoga practices, and (iii) the provision of individual and communal support.

Ashram lifestyle

A typical day in the ashram begins at 5 a.m. with early morning class or shatkarmas, and breakfast at 7 a.m. From 8–11 there is seva yoga (cleaning) and departmental seva yoga or a lecture, followed by yoga nidra and lunch at 12 noon. In the afternoon there is cleaning at 1.30, seva yoga project at 4 p.m., with a gardening or meditation session from 5–6 p.m. Dinner is at 6 p.m. followed by the evening program at 7.30 p.m.

The ashram provides each participant with a safe environment to experience the many varying states (both positive and negative) of the rehab process. They live with people who are non-judgemental and supportive, and who come from a wide range of nationalities, educational backgrounds and cultures. Although they are expected to fit in with the basic ashram program, there is no undue pressure on them to conform to strict social norms that they may have encountered in the outside world. In the ashram they encounter a larger measure of freedom to express themselves creatively and to learn new skills and modes of behaviour.

It has been found that the rehab program works more successfully with no more than 10% of participants within the ashram. This ratio allows for an easier transition and assimilation into communal life.

Satyananda Yoga practices

In the ashram five different types of yoga are integrated within the daily program: (i) seva (or karma) yoga (ii) hatha yoga (iii) raja yoga (iv) bhakti yoga and (v) jnana yoga. In addition, daily yoga nidra sessions (deep relaxation) are held, as well as karate classes to build up stamina and release aggression. Various arts and crafts projects are also included to develop creativity and individual self-expression.

  1. Seva yoga is also known as karma yoga and is the yoga of action. In seva yoga one strives to work at allotted tasks with an attitude of service, selflessness and meditative awareness. Seva yoga provides many opportunities for each person to develop their ability to be aware of their own thoughts, words and actions.
    Awareness is the key attribute in all types of yoga. In seva yoga one gradually learns to interact with others in both calm and conflicting circumstances. Through understanding the nature of awareness, and also that of vairagya (non-attachment), participants are able to silently witness what is going on inside their minds and hearts without judgement or censure. They are encouraged to just observe themselves and try not to become attached to their passing thoughts or emotions, but to just let them pass by without involvement.
    Seva yoga also teaches them how to work with an attitude of service and to act without an obsessive concern for success or failure. As each person works in different activities, they acquire many varied skills which can be put to good use later when seeking employment. Some of these activities include cleaning, cooking, gardening, organic farming, building, computer work, library tasks, and general office work.
    There is a special focus on cleaning in ashram life. Cleaning does not just consist of the outer cleaning of the environment, but also of the inner cleaning or purification of our minds and hearts. As we involve ourselves in outer cleaning, we are reminded to be aware of the need for inner cleansing as well. The outer activity symbolically points to the inner one.
    The seva yoga program provides opportunities for both mental and physical activities. During part of the day one may work in the garden, or on the construction of a new building and then, later in the day, use a computer or work in one of the ashram offices.
    Seva yoga also helps to build up a sense of group spirit as team work is encouraged. This provides opportunities to learn about cooperation, tolerance of difference, listening to others, flexibility, adaptation, courtesy, anger management, and self-esteem. It also brings the participants more into relation with the ashram residents and much is learnt through their example, patience and support. Gradually participants learn to set aside their own ego and personal needs and focus on those of others. The development of this attitude considerably aids in the healing process, and in the transformation of old and restricting habits of emotion and mind. This shift in attitude and behaviour increases self-confidence and a sense of security, as each participant realizes the importance of their individual contribution to the welfare of the whole community.
  2. Hatha yoga consists of shatkarmas, asanas and pranayama. These techniques help to balance the physical and mental energies and bring about a better state of health and well-being. They also assist in the releasing and transmutation of toxins associated with substance abuse. The shatkarmas work on the digestive and nervous systems of the body. They help to transform a tamasic state of mind (apathy) into one with more stability and dynamism. This new mental outlook helps to activate and strengthen will power and purpose in life, and a possible tendency towards the negative is changed to a more positive outlook.
    Asanas balance the energies of the body and regulate the endocrine and nervous systems. They also work on the skeletal and muscular structures and build up general health, strength and stamina.
    Pranayama consists of breathing techniques which help to energize and balance both the mental and physical bodies. They provide a ready means to relax the body and mind and calm the nervous system. Owing to low energy levels, people often turn to drugs to increase their energy levels and achieve a high. Pranayama shows them that there are other ways to gain a sense of well-being and contentment, without being destructive to themselves or others.
  3. Raja yoga: Through meditative awareness, which is applied not only in set silent meditation, but also in external ashram activities, the participants learn to accept themselves without guilt or judgement. Self-acceptance and the avoidance of guilt is a large part of the rehab program. It is essential for each person to learn how to handle the excessive stress created by society’s expectations and pressures. Without a discipline and framework of reference, which is supplied in raja yoga through meditation and yogic codes of conduct (yama and niyama), devious and antisocial behaviour can be seen as the only way out.
    Many people also have a history of family conflicts or come from a broken family. Painful and destructive emotions, resulting from these situations, need a safe and supportive environment to be released and transformed.
    Raja yoga provides a comprehensive yogic code of conduct as well as a sound philosophical framework which gives a mature wisdom to build their new lives upon. It also encourages a more self-disciplined and simpler lifestyle. Participants learn how to change their negative emotions and thoughts through basic meditation practices, such as yoga nidra and antar mouna (inner silence).
  4. Bhakti yoga is an important part of daily ashram life. One learns how to channel the commotion of emotions into devotion to something higher than one’s own passing desires and cravings. Through kirtan one not only learns about devotion to a higher good, but also about forgetting the passing whims of one’s ego and becoming less self-centred.
  5. Jnana yoga is self-enquiry. One of the main practices in the Satyananda Yoga tradition is the SWAN principle, which has proved very useful for rehab participants. They learn how to assess their own strengths, weaknesses, aims and ambitions, and needs. This technique provides them with a psychological tool which they can use all their lives to develop self-awareness and understanding of their own personality and that of others.

Medical and psychiatric assistance

The program is assisted by the ongoing input, support and contribution from a psychiatrist who monitors each participant’s medication, and who liases with ashram personnel regarding the daily dispensing of medication and any other medical needs the participants may have.

Duration of stay in ashram

The time that people spend in the program varies according to need. Each participant is accepted individually and their program is supervised on an individual, not group basis. This means that people enter the program at different times and via varying circumstances. Some participants are more advanced in their rehab program than others. It has been found useful, to both those more advanced and the newcomers, to let the more experienced assist the beginners. Often a kind of mentoring occurs, which is beneficial to both parties and builds additional self-confidence, esteem and support.

The healing and rehab process is allowed the time and space it needs to unfold, and no undue pressure is placed on the participants to speed up their progress. The coordinator sannyasin of the project contributes in any discussion regarding duration of stay, but the final decision is made by the individual participant. Although they are encouraged to feel part of the wider group of the ashram community, nobody is forced to conform to group activities if they are not ready to do so. Participation is regulated according to individual skills, talents and needs.

Family support

The ashram also includes families in the rehab process. When people enter the program, they are required to be accompanied by a member of their family. This is not because the family is considered responsible for the addiction, but because we consider a family contribution can greatly assist the healing process. The family member, as well as the participant, signs an agreement regarding the rehab program, which states that the person agrees to abide by certain conditions during their stay in the ashram. The family is encouraged to visit the ashram once a week, and the program coordinator keeps in regular contact with them about their relative’s progress.

A support group for families has also been set up which meets at the ashram once a month. This group is for the families of current and past participants, as well as for parents who are seeking advice on how to help children in a drug abuse situation. The three hour meetings include yoga practices, information on addiction and relevant talks from medical practitioners or ashram staff. There is also a time for questions and general discussion, and a healing meditation is also conducted.

The aims of the group are: to provide parents with ways to ease their pain and to promote their own healing; to enhance their awareness about their own personal and family problems; to encourage them to express themselves in a non-judgemental and supportive environment where they feel comfortable; and to encourage them to seek healing through sharing their pain with others.

This part of the rehab program leads to a transformation in the parents which is as profound as the change that takes place in their children. It is remarkable how quickly parents, with no yogic background, readily take to the ashram environment and spontaneously join in the various activities. Many continue to practise yoga even after their children have successfully left the ashram program.

The success of the Overcoming Addiction Program

We believe that the key to the success of the ashram program lies in its holistic approach. It also depends on each person’s determination, effort, courage and resolve to overcome their drug addiction. Those who cannot manage to stay for a lengthy time, find it hard to transform their old habits and continue with their former addiction. However, those who do follow through with the program, and allow the transformation to take place, succeed in changing their lives. They are able to return to their families and society to begin or resume their work or studies.

From 2000–2004 twenty-one participants were involved in the ashram program. Of these, nine people successfully completed the program and are now leading healthy and fulfilling lives in the community. Nine participants stayed for no longer than one month and unfortunately resumed their drug addiction. Three people were still undergoing the program, as well as a sannyasa training course, and we are confident of their future success. Out of the nine successful participants it is encouraging that three decided to return to the ashram and offer their help to others on the program. They also decided to undergo sannyasa training and serve the guru and his mission.

The other six were working or studying and were free of any drug addiction. They and their families keep in contact with the ashram and practise yoga regularly. Three have undergone the Yogic Studies course and have resolved to become yoga teachers. All successful participants, as well as their families, are engaged in some kind of service to their community. They actively support and encourage the ongoing activities of the Overcoming Addiction Program.