Drug and Alcohol Dependent Children

Swami Niranjanananda Saraswati

When I was living in California I went to a drug and alcohol rehabilitation centre for children aged from about twelve to twenty-two years. The doctor, who was our student, felt that the practices of yoga, specifically yoga nidra, would somehow help a person come out of his addiction. We spoke with the different people at the helm of administration.

We devised a yoga program without actually knowing what would be beneficial. We looked at the type of personalities and considered their nature, whether they were violent and how they might react to not having any kind of drugs, injections or medication. We considered what kind of reactions we might expect from them, what type of understanding they had about certain practices of yoga, about yoga itself and whether they would be willing to accept yoga. I had to go for the initial teaching. Would they accept me in my orange skin as a teacher?

Taking all this into consideration, we devised a plan which initially consisted of the normal talk encouraging addicts to come out of their addiction. This was given by the doctor, Todd Mekuria. He used to give an introduction which would last fifteen to thirty minutes, depending on the mood of the addicts. Then he would invite me as guest speaker, but of course I would not speak. Instead I would say, "Let us do something."

Calming practices

We divided the whole group of children into two, one half having a violent nature and the other half a depressive nature.

To the violent group we taught pranayamas:

  1. Nadi shodhana: just the simple alternate nostril breathing was given.
  2. Bhramari: we asked them to imagine they were driving a car and changing gear with the pitch of the bhramari sound.
  3. Ujjayi: we asked them to touch the back of the throat with their tongue in khechari mudra, without telling them what khechari mudra was and then breathe with ujjayi.

After six sessions which lasted about forty minutes on a daily basis, the doctors found that the addicts became quiet, passive, even docile. They would listen and discuss their problems, family matters, social conditions, the environment or the situations which forced them to take drugs or alcohol. This happened after just six sessions of pranayama.

After six sessions we stopped pranayama completely and introduced the concept of willpower or sankalpa. From the second session we started with the simple practice of yoga nidra, which continued again for six sessions. The doctors noticed that these young people who used to be dependent on drugs, nicotine injections, which created some sort of stimulation in the system, and other kinds of drugs, reduced their intake by 30 to 40% on a daily basis.

In order to further enhance their mental awareness, to focus the mind and to develop concentration, we started to practise ajapa japa without a mantra. They simply observed the breath while sitting in a chair with the eyes closed, the body upright and straight, and tried to listen to the sound of the natural breath. They just had to keep listening to the sound of the natural breath. The introversion was so powerful that after the class, many used to say that they could feel and hear the blood flowing through their veins. Listening to and talking about the heartbeat is quite obvious as it is a major movement within the body, but they talked about the flow of blood which means that their concentration was intense. Their violent nature subsided as they became more accepting and understanding.

In the three-week course they had eighteen days of practice: six days each week with one day of talks. During that time a great change was felt by the practitioners and the staff who monitored them.

Stimulating practices

With the depressive group it was slightly difficult to motivate them to do anything. They simply would not do anything at all. So we started off not with the common practice of yoga nidra, instead we created a story and asked them to visualize it. They visualized a hike in the mountains, or a boat trip on the ocean. Different stories were created which helped to focus their attention.

It was more like visualization in shavasana than a yoga nidra. Gradually the concept of different sensations in the body along with the visualization was introduced.

Once they became interested in this form of storytelling, visualization and imagination, some pranayama combined with bandhas was added. Bhastrika was practised for a few days and later we introduced agnisar without the bhastrika. They were told that instead of actually breathing rapidly in and out through the nostrils, they should imagine that they were doing it, without breathing, through the stomach. The bandhas were introduced to stimulate blocked energy centres. Nadi shodhana was the last pranayama to be introduced.

After they had completed this set of practices we started meditation. This was more in line with chidakasha dharana, for with the depressive group we tried using only the visualization techniques for example, imagining that they were writing on a blackboard – different symbols, names, numbers and colours, shapes and sizes. Later we practised the advanced form of chidakasha dharana, where the brain is viewed as a room, and the practitioner goes deep down into that room.

Achieving balance

While conducting the course, the children became more outgoing and communicative. The depressive group asked better questions in the question and answer sessions, as if they were constantly thinking, due to their introverted nature. It felt as though they were more aware of their feelings, emotions and needs in life than the group who were reacting to situations violently. The communication was better with the depressive group.

The last information I received from this doctor was that he had trained social workers in the system that we had devised. They were being sent out to teach in different rehabilitation centres in the Bay area of California, and were establishing this yoga program.

1989, Ganga Darshan, Munger, printed in YOGA, Vol. 1, No. 3 (May 1990)