Yoga and Addiction

Swami Sivamurti Saraswati

The word ‘addiction’ comes from the Latin root addicere (assign) and, according to the Oxford Dictionary means ‘the fact or process of being addicted, especially the condition of taking a drug habitually and being unable to give it up without incurring adverse effects’. An addict is ‘a person addicted to a habit, especially one dependent on a (specified) drug’, or ‘an enthusiastic devotee of a sport or pastime e.g. a film addict’. The verb ‘addicted’ means to ‘devote or apply habitually or compulsively; make addicted’.

Within the dictionary meanings we can already see the four components of addiction: compulsion, dependence, regularity and destructiveness (Hardiman, M. 1998, Addiction: the Commonsense Approach, Gill & Macmillan, Dublin, pp 2–3). Contained in these traits lies a misplaced attitude of surrender. Instead of surrendering to a higher good, as in bhakti yoga, we relinquish ourselves to a substance, to an activity, or to an object that will only result in enslavement and misery. In so doing we lose our self-control and harm ourselves, others and the environment in which we live.

Four elements of addiction

  1. Compulsion is a strong or overwhelming desire to do or to take something.
  2. Dependence is a need, rather than a desire, to take a substance; or to or behave in a particular way, with the accompanying thought that if I do not take the substance, or if I do not act in a certain way, then something negative, unpleasant or unforeseen will happen. It is an over-reliance on someone, on something, or on some object, which includes losing self-control, and therefore becoming destructive to ourselves and others.
  3. Regularity implies that we take the substance, or we perform the activity, on a regular basis; it becomes a habit. What may have started out as once a month changes into once a week, and becomes more and more frequent as we become more deeply addicted.
  4. Destructiveness is being harmful to ourselves, to others and to the environment we live in.

The state of addiction is a combination of these four elements. Addicts are not necessarily ‘good for nothings’, as many people think. Their behaviour and lifestyle are controlled by subconscious compulsions of which they are unaware.

Yoga and dependency

According to yoga, one of the causes of an addictive personality is dependency. Yoga practices act to break dependency by making the individual aware of this aspect of their personality. Dependence is only a part of the personality, not the whole of it. As the individual’s awareness is deepened, she or he begins to understand that the addiction is related to only a part of the mind, and not the whole personality. We all have a propensity towards some kind of dependence. A dependent personality has some of the following features:

  1. Weakened willpower and a feeling of emptiness due to a lack of direction and joy in life.
  2. Low self-esteem, timidity, a diminished sense of worth, a lack of self-confidence and an inclination towards shame and guilt (Hardiman 1998, pp 74–75).
  3. A lack of awareness of their mental and emotional states, of how their mind is thinking, and of how they feel at any particular time.
  4. Lack of self-control. They lack the ability to prevent themselves from reacting to certain provocations and circumstances. They tend to react rather than act and have little control over their reactions to certain people, situations and environments. They need to take something to enable them to believe they have the control they lack.

Yoga achieves success through finding a way to end the dependence, and purify the body and mind from the toxins gained through addiction. It works with conventional detox procedures to help each individual view themselves as healthy and whole, rather than as addicted. How can yoga do this? Through what could be called ‘spiritual detox’. Yoga is an ancient, holistic science and is not violent in any way. The results gained from yoga gradually accumulate in the body, mind and emotions, working on all parts of the personality.

How yoga works

Yoga brings about this spiritual detox or purification through nine main approaches: asanas, shatkarmas, pranayama, yoga nidra, meditation, awareness, ashram lifestyle, karma yoga, and yamas and niyamas.

  1. Asanas: Gentle asanas are taught initially and as the student becomes proficient, more complex asanas are incorporated. The pawanmuktasana series works to purify the body of toxins, and also works on the pranic (energy) and mental bodies. Other asanas are chosen to improve the functioning of the internal organs, especially the liver, spleen and kidneys. Gradually, more dynamic postures are selected to build up both physical and mental stamina and to strengthen willpower. The students are reminded to maintain their awareness and to observe what is happening in the body at all times. This focus on the physical helps to keep the student aware of the present moment and avoid the inclination to escape from reality. Gradually, this awareness deepens and the student is able to witness the thoughts and emotions as well as what is happening in their body. Specific asanas are selected to meet individual needs.
  2. Shatkarmas: These purification practices accelerate the removal of toxins from the body and are conducted under the supervision of highly trained teachers. The internal practices, such as shankhaprakshalana and kunjal, cleanse the entire alimentary canal from the mouth to the anus. Neti removes mucus and pollution from the nasal passages and sinuses. It has a pacifying effect on the brain and nervous system, and helps to return the sense of smell to those, such as cocaine users, who have lost this ability. The shatkarmas also purify the blood, encourage normal functioning of the intestines, regulate bowel movements, and tone the liver and other digestive organs and glands. They also strengthen the immune system, and recharge the pranic field. They alleviate skin problems which can manifest in the detox process and remove blockages from the nadis and chakras.
  3. Pranayama: The breathing practices do more than improve the oxygenation process. They work directly on the prana or life force in order to regulate the flow of energy and release any blockages. A depletion in energy devitalizes the body, and pranayama works to reverse this process. It builds up immunity and corrects metabolic dysfunction. Breathing affects the activities of every cell in the body and is intimately linked with the functioning of the brain.
    Most people, including addicts, have shallow breathing. The first stage of pranayama is to learn to deepen the breathing process and correct poor breathing habits. Breathing affects our mind and vice versa. If the mind is quiet and relaxed, the breathing is naturally deeper and more regular. However, when we feel tense and uptight, the breathing is shallow and fast. Breathing via the nostrils rather than the mouth directly affects the sympathetic and parasympathetic nervous systems, which are connected with the left and the right nostrils.
    Many addicts suffer from insomnia. Instead of taking sleeping pills, yoga offers an alternative: lie on your back, with your arms by yours sides and the hands facing upwards. Close your eyes and start breathing slowly and naturally. Begin to observe your breathing. Become aware of each inhalation and each exhalation, and encourage each exhalation to be twice the length of the inhalation, with no stress or strain. Breathe on your left side 32 times, and then turn on to your right side and repeat. Unless you are a chronic insomniac, you will fall asleep before reaching the end of the 32 breaths.
  4. Yoga nidra: Here the focus in detoxification turns to the psychological aspect. Yoga nidra is a specifically designed technique used in Satyananda Yoga to promote progressive and deep mental and physical relaxation. Psychological habits are harder to change than physical ones. Relaxation techniques reduce tension and anxiety, and allow subconscious problems to come to the surface of the conscious mind. This includes the compulsions inherent in a dependent personality which grow in the subconscious or unconscious areas of the mind.
    In everyday life we cannot always tap the unconscious or subconscious parts of our mind. Our conscious mind is too extrovert and concerned with what is happening in the present. Our senses also are extrovert. However, when we learn to relax, the impressions in the unconscious and subconscious come to the surface, and we start to see the underlying thought processes and motives behind each action and reaction. In this way, through awareness and impartial observation, we gradually and surely gain insight into our thoughts and feelings and more control over our reactions. This gives us the power of choice.
    The release of negative mental impressions leads to an increase in energy. In a deep state of relaxation, the mind is receptive to positive affirmations or resolves, which can replace the destructive mental tapes that have contributed to the addiction. The students are stronger and more balanced psychologically, and this new stability gives them more self-discipline and willpower.
  5. Meditation: There is a lot of talk these days about meditation and how it is used to reduce stress and, of course, in yoga we can use it for this purpose. However, several meditation techniques can also develop the ability to witness the workings of the mind with dispassion. When we start to learn how to observe the mind, we start to understand how the memory, the thinking processes and the ego work. We also gain insight into the workings of the part of our mind that is addictive. Through this observation, the realization arises: I am witnessing the addictive aspect of my mind. However, I am not that addictive aspect. I thought I was, but I have another ‘I’ inside me that is healthy and whole.
    In this process we are witnessing our addictive personality as only a part of our expression. This is a very important stage for addicts to reach, as they now have the opportunity to do something about this addictive aspect which they no longer regard as their total identity. It is only a wounded part of the mind, with a damaged or limited perception. Impartial witnessing of the mind is the key strategy in this meditative process. Through it we gain a more profound insight into what is happening in our mind and into the workings of our ego.
    The most effective meditative practice for people with addiction problems is antar mouna (inner silence). This practice has various stages to enable the student to deepen their understanding of the mind and gain more control over it and its effect on behaviour. The early stages are the most effective in the detox program. They train the student to be aware of the thoughts that pass through the mind spontaneously without any involvement. The aim is to be non-attached to whatever thought arises and to just observe it without judgement or criticism.
    As well as deepening the awareness, this technique also increases the ability to be dispassionate to mental turbulence. Again this gives the student more self-control and more power for change. As well as impartial witnessing of mental traffic, the student also learns how to deliberately create negative and positive thoughts and how to deal with them. They learn how to confront the long forgotten memories, fears and resentments. These thoughts and feelings come to the surface of the conscious mind and gradually, through not involving oneself in them, they are exhausted, and the mind becomes progressively tranquil and one-pointed. Antar mouna can be done anywhere, at any time and under any circumstances. It teaches us to know the processes of our own mind and eventually bring them under control.
  6. Awareness: Those with a dependent personality often have little awareness of the fluctuations of their mental and emotional states. Most of us are not always aware of our present feelings and thoughts. In yoga, awareness does not mean knowing something, for example, that I am feeling angry or depressed. Yogic awareness means that we know that we know we are angry or depressed. It is impartial witnessing, which is able to separate the object of our awareness and observe it from a certain distance, rather than identifying with our passing thoughts or feelings. When we think or feel something, we are very much identified with it and believe that it is us. There is total identification. However, with the development of awareness, we start to dis-identify from our mental or emotional state and become non-attached.
    In yoga, this state is called vairagya, and we start to become less and less attached to our transient thoughts and feelings. Eventually, as we become more and more non-attached to a mental or emotional state, we can see it more clearly; we are more in touch with reality. We can see where the source of our problem lies. We are no longer confused and immersed in it. We may still experience the particular thought or emotion, but we are able to observe it and not get lost in its attraction; we have control.
    All Satyananda Yoga techniques emphasize this kind of awareness, and it is really the key to growth and healing, especially for those who wish to overcome any dependency in their personality. Awareness leads from dependence to independence, which leads to more self-esteem, confidence, control and freedom.
    One of the most effective Satyananda Yoga practices for developing awareness and self-knowledge is the SWAN principle. This is a gradual, evolving technique, which helps the individual discover themselves without judgement or censure. Through it participants find out their strengths, weaknesses, ambitions and needs. The SWAN principle helps us learn more about the inner workings of our mind and heart, and teaches us to act rather than react. It deepens the addict’s understanding of their particular dependency, and helps to transform weaknesses into strengths. It also leads to making suitable and healthy choices in life and, instead of turning outwards for fulfilment of needs, it shows the way to inner contentment. Once inner peace is experienced, one is able to expand outwards to others in a positive and caring manner. The SWAN principle deepens understanding and promotes compassion. Awareness is the key to everything.
  7. Ashram lifestyle: Spending some time in an ashram environment provides the addict with support, encouragement and guidance. One’s spiritual and psychological growth is accelerated through effort on both an internal and external level. On an inner level, one learns to observe thoughts and emotions with awareness. During the rehab process, within an ashram the mental impressions, especially the negative ones, can rise to the surface of the conscious mind and be observed, understood, transmuted and released. Through karma yoga the individual is taught how to act in relation to the self and others with meditative awareness. This not only deepens self-knowledge, but also begins training the person to live in the present moment and not dwell on the past or future. Participating in the varied daily ashram program affects the whole personality. Mental and emotional work is balanced with physical work. Hard work is balanced with recreation and relaxation. The food is vegetarian and chosen to complement the needs of the addicts at each stage of their developing health and well-being.
    Yogic philosophy is imbibed directly through talks and teaching as well as through the example of experienced teachers and ashram residents. This helps to provide a reference to base one’s life upon, and it gives their lives a meaning, significance and challenge they may not have had before. As well as gaining a philosophy to centre their future on, they also gain role models and compassionate people who are willing to listen and assist them as they struggle through the detox and rehab program. Many often gain a sense of family from living in an ashram, with an awareness of belonging and a source of constant encouragement.
    Through ashram life one learns to live with simplicity and meet others who have undergone similar struggles and problems, and who have succeeded in transforming their lives and contributing to their communities. One encounters people from different countries and walks of life and all these experiences build up an innate store of knowledge and wisdom to draw upon when the time comes to leave the security of the ashram. One does not go back into the world empty-handed, but armed with all kinds of useful and time-tested resources to assist each step of the way.
  8. Karma yoga, also known as seva yoga, can be understood as an active form of meditation. Paramahamsaji says that it is not the work we do in karma yoga that is important, but what we become through the work. In karma yoga we are provided with many opportunities to witness ourselves in thought, word and deed, and observe our actions and reactions as we live and work with others.
    Each day in the ashram program, residents and visitors participate in work with meditative awareness. Each person is given a balanced work program which includes utilizing both physical and mental skills. On a practical level, this leads to each person acquiring a great many job skills, which can lead to a broader range of employment opportunities outside in the wider community. Often people find skills they did not realize they had. They are given the chance to develop these talents, which builds confidence as well as creativity and a sense of contributing to the ashram community and its welfare.
    Karma yoga works on character-building and develops the will, self-discipline and responsibility for self and others. Living with others often gives rise to conflict and one learns how to deal with this in a mature and responsible fashion. Again awareness is the key which leads to both self-knowledge and understanding of others. One develops not only vairagya, but also compassion and insight. One’s character matures and a more inclusive and caring attitude to self and others is attained.
  9. Yamas and niyamas: The yamas are the external restraints, disciplines or ethics of yoga philosophy: satya (truthfulness; being straight and aware of what is correct, right and true from within and the ability to express oneself truthfully), ahimsa (non-violence; absence of violence in thought, word and deed; abandonment of hostility), asteya (honesty; non theft; the awareness of hidden wealth; sincerity), aparigraha (non-possessiveness; non-attachment; non-greed) and brahmacharya (established in the higher reality; sexual control).
    The niyamas are the internal restraints, disciplines, inner observances or ethics to achieve. They harmonize one’s inner feelings and create self-discipline. They are: shaucha (purity; cleanliness), santosha (contentment), swadhyaya (self-study, self-knowledge), tapas (simplicity; asceticism, austerity) and Ishwara pranidhana (cultivation of faith, belief in a higher reality; self surrender).

Support group

A support group is a very necessary part of the detox and rehab process. Each person is practising the same techniques and discovering new aspects of themselves. It is also a means to form friendships that are based on a very profound and shared experience, and that will continue once the program is completed and the members move from the ashram back into society. The support groups also continue once the individual has left the ashram and they provide ongoing assistance and direction. The ashram support group is comprised of yoga teachers and some ashram residents who formerly had addiction problems.

Overcoming Addiction Program

The Overcoming Addiction Program at the Greek ashram is under the medical supervision of a psychiatrist. Yoga teachers work with the participants, who are aged between 19–25, and who have completed a detox process. As well as shatkarmas, asanas, pranayama, yoga nidra, meditation, seva yoga, and SWAN principle sessions, the participants are involved in creative and artistic projects. The program lasts for one month and then there is a 15-day break. The aim is to incorporate a rehab program based on yogic techniques within an ashram environment. As well as the ashram setting and yoga practices, the success of the program has been due to the effectiveness of the support group and the overall spiritual orientation of the program.


Yoga provides many techniques and opportunities to help people overcome their addiction by working specifically on the dependency aspect. It also provides a means to inner and outer health and stability, a balanced moral and philosophical foundation to base one’s life on, insight into the workings of one’s own mind; and a deeper understanding of human nature. Ashram life provides support and encouragement for change and growth of character and personality, a wide range of potential job skills, and an insight into the benefits of a simpler and holistic lifestyle. Through its focus on awareness, each individual gains a centre of self-knowledge and inner strength that leads to a sense of meaning in life. Many former addicts find in yoga a fulfilment and inner wealth that transforms their life so profoundly that they are able, in time, to help others through both their own example and also through their vision of how rich life can be lived under yogic principles.