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
What do we mean when we talk about drugs? If we make a list of addictive
substances, what do we come up with? Heroin, LSD, alcohol, tobacco, marijuana,
hashish, cocaine, solvents like glue, prescription drugs like barbiturates
and amphetamines, coffee, food, sex, gambling, shopping, computers and
Internet, relationships and co-dependencies between wife and husband,
parents and children, work, distraction, money.
We discover that we can be addicted to a wide range of things from sugar
and caffeine to alcohol and heroin. We can also include behaviours such
as love, stimulation and emotional states. The point is that we all partake
of and use these things. Although it is convenient to narrow it down to
one group of substances, in actual fact the range is very broad. Most
of us will encounter most of these things in our day to day lives.
What image do you have of a drug user or addict? Pale, sickly, poor,
dirty and neurotic or rich, normal and artistic? Normally our first image
is a negative one. In reality this is true but everything else is also
true. You will discover that anyone can become an addict, that we all
have potentially addictive tendencies. Addiction crosses all social and
cultural barriers. You could be sitting next to an addict right now. They
can be very smart, very clean, very together. Any of us at any stage could
become an addict. Just because we are here now in a yoga ashram, we have
no idea what could happen to us tomorrow and what could drive us to become
an addict. We have to be very careful that our own prejudices don't create
divisions between people.
In actual fact we are all addicted to some extent. One person may use
a certain substance; we may use a different substance but be equally addicted
to it. Society has decided that one group of substances is illegal and
bad, whereas another group of substances and the way of using them is
OK and legal. All of this is to illustrate and make the point that before
we teach such a class we should examine our own perceptions and prejudices,
the preconceived images that we bring with us to the interaction. As far
as possible we should be open and realize that we are all in the same
All the Satyananda yoga techniques help in the process of healing and
returning to a balanced state of being. The following is selection of
techniques we have found effective when teaching in a rehab setting.
Asanas: A person entering a rehabilitation program could be initially
tired, physically weak and may have been through a detoxification program.
In the early stages the pawanmuktasana series 1 (anti-rheumatic) and 2
(digestive/abdominal) are excellent. The various movements loosen up the
joints and aid the detoxification process. One of the pawanmuktasana 1
practices is shoulder rotation. The shoulders are a major source of tension
and for people who feel they have too much to carry in the world there
can be much emotional release with this movement, like losing the feeling
of responsibility and being burdened.
As the students increase their energy levels and physical strength,
you can start to teach the shakti bandhas (energy block removers). These
practices work especially in the manipura area where there is a tendency
for deep emotions to be suppressed and where opiates seem to have an effect,
i.e. on willpower or lack of it. As the students release more energy,
they can work with this energy. Shakti bandhas increase stamina, strengthen
the abdominal and lumbar muscles, and massage the abdominal organs, increasing
circulation to these areas. This massage works well on the liver, an important
major organ for detoxification. Nauka sanchalanasana (rowing the boat),
for example, strengthens the abdominal and lower back muscles, and can
help to release anger and anxiety suppressed in this area.
Standing postures and surya namaskara can be introduced when students
are ready. Tadasana (palm tree pose) is a very good movement to warm and
loosen up the spine. Kati chakrasana (waist rotating pose) is an excellent
way to increase the circulation in the spine (and make people laugh!).
Hasta utthanasana (hand raising pose) expands the capacity of the lungs,
which might be tense and quite small. It also works to increase the oxygen
to the brain and other organs and to increase energy levels.
Pranayama: Abdominal breathing, like many techniques, can be
learnt and used at any time when needed, especially for insomnia and stress.
Nadi shodhana (alternate nostril breathing) is a crucial practice for
mental clarity, alertness, balance and purification of the nadis. Bhramari
(humming bee breath) is useful for mental stress. It increases inner calmness
and can quiet the noisy mind. If people have trouble going to sleep, you
can recommend a few rounds of bhramari and abdominal breathing. This is
very useful at the time of detoxification when many addicts cannot sleep
due to withdrawal. These are just a few practices but all are good in
a progressive way.
Yoga nidra: Yoga nidra is a very important practice. It allows
the body to heal and to rest completely. Being in drug or alcohol rehab,
the students are under some stress. They have a lot of therapy, one to
one counselling and group sessions, and it can all be quite exhausting.
Yoga nidra gives them time to step back and gain a wider picture of what
is going on. As you gain the trust of your students, you can introduce
positive visualizations and imagery, but keep them simple, realistic,
practical and grounded otherwise they can become distractions and the
students can drift off on a tangent.
Emphasis on the use of sankalpa, resolve or affirmation is very important.
Sankalpa is maybe the most useful and important part of the practice that
students take with them. Always encourage them to discover their own sankalpa.
Meditation: Meditations such as antar mouna can be introduced
after a few weeks or months. Antar mouna allows the students insight into
their thought processes. With this awareness they can learn to accept
their strengths and weaknesses and to resolve any internal problems as
they focus on one problem at a time.
After class, allow time for students to talk and discuss personal issues,
whether physical, mental or spiritual. They may not have spoken to anyone
before about their experiences. You need to be honest, empathetic and
understanding. Remember your limitations, you may not have all the right
advice. Counselling skills are useful at this time.
How should we proceed with recall of events in yoga nidra?
First go back through the day from the morning up to the present. Then
go back another day. When you have the confidence of the students, you
can go further back, like one week, one month, one year. It is quite important
to go back to childhood. Recall is a useful technique for showing that
there was a time before drugs were used, that the stage of using was just
a middle stage, a period in their life, and did not last forever. It is
quite useful for bringing up memories which people who have been using
drugs didn't recall before, just to acknowledge "Yes, I did this,"
without guilt. It is very beneficial to clear out these mental images.
What about other types of visualization?
In general keep the visualizations very simple. In other situations we
may have visualizations like walking on rainbows, sitting by crystal lakes,
etc. However, under the influence of certain drugs you actually visualize
certain things like that, so the association with that type of visualization
would be drugs, a drug induced experience. We want to avoid any association
between yoga and taking drugs, therefore, we try to keep the visualizations
very grounded and practical.
Acceptance of our strengths and weaknesses is the first step in addiction. Can you tell us more about that?
All the techniques work on self-acceptance. You could just be teaching
pawanmuktasana. The students say that they just can't do it, but you know
they can, so you encourage them to do it. The whole class is working on
that level, just as any yoga class is working on self-acceptance.
Where do you run these classes?
We have run these classes in various therapeutic communities in London,
UK. Some were private, others were government funded. Normally people
attend voluntarily. There tend to be three stages in drug rehabilitation.
First is a detoxification stage. Then there is a middle stage where they
are involved with group and personal sessions in a therapeutic community,
which is structured in a similar way to an ashram. You get up at a certain
time, go to bed at a certain time, you are locked in, can't make telephone
calls easily or have other people in your room. The third stage is when
the people go back out and become involved in society again, doing voluntary
work or educational/vocational courses. This is called re-entry, like
astronauts coming back from the moon.
What is the feedback from the students in your yoga classes?
It ranges from, "I hate this, I never want to do this again,"
to "I love it." It is just like when we do classes. The responses
are our responses. In a lot of places the classes were compulsory, which
is actually very useful and positive because there is a sense of involvement,
everybody is doing something as a group. It allows us to push against
any resistance and it allows the clients to push through any initial resistance to the idea of doing a yoga class. Usually the best students are the ones who put up the most resistance to begin with.
In our country there are rehabilitation centres funded by the government. We approached such places and asked about teaching yoga classes, but they were not positive. Do you have any proposal about how to approach such
Firstly, wear your best clothes, perfume, whatever, and look very smart
- no malas, dhotis or even geru colour! Secondly, do not mention the word
'yoga' - say 'relaxation techniques', 'stress management', 'body work',
etc. You still teach asanas, yoga nidra, etc., but call it something different.
Once you start the classes and the feedback from the residents gets to
the managers, then there shouldn't be any problem.