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 23). 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
- Compulsion is a strong or overwhelming desire to do or to take something.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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 individuals 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:
- Weakened willpower and a feeling of emptiness due to a lack of direction
and joy in life.
- Low self-esteem, timidity, a diminished sense of worth, a lack of
self-confidence and an inclination towards shame and guilt (Hardiman
1998, pp 7475).
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
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
- 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
- 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
- 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
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 addicts 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.
- Ashram lifestyle: Spending some time in an ashram environment provides
the addict with support, encouragement and guidance. Ones 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
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 ones 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.
- 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. Ones character matures and a more inclusive
and caring attitude to self and others is attained.
- 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 ones 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).
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 1925, 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 ones life on, insight into
the workings of ones 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.