Yoga = Heroin.

Via Philip Urso
on Jan 13, 2011
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Do you treat yoga like an addictive narcotic?

You’re driving to yoga class and you’re running late.  You’re already full of anxiety when someone cuts you off.  You scream!

After class, you’re driving home and the exact same thing happens—someone cuts you off.  Except this time, you calmly say, “No problem, dude!”

You think you’re a better person because of the yoga class you just took. But what actually happened is: you got your fix, so everything is fine… for now.

What happens by the time you’re back home or at work the next day?  The mental sh*t begins to pile right back on to your beautiful, clean, empty canvas of sanity.  It starts all over again.  You bring all the worries and concerns right back.   Thoughts come by, and almost automatically you invite them into the living room of your mind to commiserate.  Voila: you are the same miserable bastard you were before that yoga class.  Almost immediately, you find yourself needing another class.  Yoga might as well be heroin: you take the drug, you get relief… and then it wears off and you need another hit.

Drinking, drugs, and orgasms try to answer spiritual impulses

It’s not just yoga. There are many other therapies, techniques, and meditations that can leave you feeling temporarily blissful.  They clear away the noise of your worries, which leaves you with the solid background peace of your self that feels calm and harmonious.  That background peace—stripped of anxiety, effort, and mental worries—is always right there when you manage to come to a full stop.

By seeking out yoga, you are responding to a very real spiritual impulse.  It feels wonderful—one might even say it feels “real”—when ego is cleared away, even for a few minutes.  Drugs, drinking, thrill-seeking, and orgasms try to answer this spiritual impulse in a surprisingly similar way.

Addictions are rooted in the belief that you are fundamentally unsafe, unworthy, unloved, and alone. The addict feels this deeply. Whenever he feels relief—whether from drugs, food, sex, or yoga—he clings to it. The addict believes the only way to satisfy his need is to fight for it and, when he gets it, to never let it go.

Different spiritual impulses may attract similar addictions. The spiritual impulse to be perfectly safe may be temporarily (and imperfectly) answered by an addiction to what seems to make you safe: money, power, control, neatness, or compulsive behavior.   The spiritual impulse for perfect worthiness, being good enough, being loved, may be answered by the addiction to status, fame, or even simply email, Twitter, or Facebook.  You get the idea.  


What does the addict really want?


What the addict wants more than anything is perfect safety, perfect worthiness, and a feeling of expansion beyond the body.  Who doesn’t want this?  This, to me, is the definition of Love.  If you step back and examine all the world’s trauma, isn’t it really the expression of people desperately wanting to be safe, good enough, and expansive (powerful)?  Unaware of what Love is and how to get it, people keep trying, sometimes resulting in desperate, violent acts. Often whole countries agree on a misguided plan to get the perfect safety of Love.  They will kill whoever they think threatens it!  For most of us it shows up in some small, personalized, twisted form that we hoard and try to possess for ourselves.

How many times and ways do we need to learn that Love cannot be kept?  Our Love expands only as we give it away, but in fear, we do the opposite and every time it disappears.  So we bargain and compromise with each other, we settle for less.  We hide our deep disappointment and sorrow.   We are all addicts.  We are unable to get the one thing we want.  We may show the world a happy face.  We construct a storyline that either proclaims we have love or explains why we don’t.  But we are left incomplete, unsatisfied, and believing that there must be something wrong with us.

The addict is desperate for the experience of Love.  The problem, however, is that this kind of Love, the real deal, can only be found in a relationship with the eternal, the divine, God.  Author Gary Renard said, “If you value anything that won’t last forever, you’re screwed!”

Yoga and orgasms

We are lured into an addiction because it offers a glimpse of Love.   It either mimics Love or gives a brief flash of it.

Yoga classes and orgasms have this in common:  they might not be mimicking.  They might be flashing the real thing.  You may experience a real clearing in a class where your awareness is consistently focused on what is happening now and not on ego.  You may also have a real clearing during orgasm.  The French call orgasm a “petite mort,” a little death.   It feels that good when ego disappears.  Both offer a real glimpse of what Love feels like without the little self that blocks expansive union with God.  On the other hand, alcohol mimics, it doesn’t clear; it numbs, but that mimics the clearing well enough to be convincing, especially after it impairs you.

You might think,Hey, yoga leaves me feeling pretty good and I get a yoga butt and toned arms.  And an orgasm isn’t so bad.  And, I’m NOT addicted to Facebook!   What’s the problem?”  


Addictions hijack spiritual impulses

The problem is that addictions hijack real spiritual impulses.  Spiritual impulses are simply the urge to return to self—the state of Love.  You could say that all spiritual impulses are the urge to go to God.  They are yearnings to answer our only problem: our apparent separation from self, the divine, from God.  The source of all addictions is the belief that we are separated from self, from God.

Addictions are all lined up, alert and ready to hijack our journey back to God. Addictions try to replace God.  The addiction, in fact, becomes god, and we defend it as if it really is our god.  This is the ego’s best way to perpetuate itself.  In an authentic return to God, ego would fade to nothingness, no longer meaningful in the full experience of Love, where all spiritual impulses are wholly answered.

Yoga and alcohol

It may be helpful to compare yoga with a more familiar addiction: alcohol.  Since I’ve personally been addicted to both, and once made each my god, I can serve as your friendly tour guide. I have learned a great deal through these addictions and my spectacular failures!  Let me take you on a cheery walk down the steps of becoming addicted:

  1. First, you place a very special value on the thing that provides a temporary feeling of clearing—be it yoga or drinking.   In this first step, you decide that only alcohol—or, if it’s yoga, then, only a yoga class—can give you this special feeling.
  2. You make the decision that this thing provides the only real life you have. It starts like this: Yoga keeps me going!  I need a class. Or Yeah, A drink after work is just what I need! But this thing you are giving so much attention is now edging into God’s territory!
  3. The rest of your “life” becomes a form of enduring until the next fix (be it a yoga class or the next drink). .  Now, there’s your life (that sucks), and the addiction (that is great). You have walled off the addiction from the rest of your life.
  4. You might look fine to others, but you are not so present, not so available to them. This is because you are always anxious and thinking about your next fix.  You have no interest in dealing with the rest of your life—it just sucks—so your anxiety grows between classes / drinks.  That’s all you have.
  5. After a while, the drinking or the yoga takes up more time in your life in order to keep working and to provide relief, and so you practice more… maybe you even become a yoga teacher, knowing that this will allow you to make your entire life about yoga.  And if your drug of choice is alcohol, one six-pack a day quickly becomes two.
  6. You plan out your defense to any attack on your drug of choice.  If necessary you will lie about what you are doing (more likely with alcohol) and defend your lie, making every concerned loved one your enemyThis is all I have in my life and they want to take it away! Since yoga wears a spiritual halo, it enjoys some protection here.  It takes a particularly astute and brave friend to question you.  (Their timing might be best if they wait until you are in a fit of rage while looking for your stuff to go to class!)
  7. Once defenses are formed, you are fully addicted. The circle is complete.  Your defenses obliterate any possibility of examining the addiction.  The addiction is now safe.

The addiction isolates the addict. This is, in fact, the opposite of spiritual awakening, which could be described as opening to everything, everywhere, all the time.  The addict says, “I don’t want everything—just this one little thing, and I will defend it with my life.”  Your “life” is limited to a painful enduring until the next class / drink, which provides the only real “meaning.”   

Defenselessness is the only safety

Once you begin defending the addiction you enter a state of denial.  You might as well stab out both of yours eyes; you cannot see what you have done.  The only hope is to lay down your automatic and volatile defenses.  This is nearly impossible because you have deluded yourself into believing the addiction is your only real life.  You protect your “fix.”  “Don’t you dare challenge my yoga!”  Or, “Are you counting my drinks again?”


To paraphrase A Course in Miracles:

  • You make (create) what you defend against.
  • By your own defense against it, you make it real and inescapable.
  • Lay down your defenses, and only then do you perceive it false.

Notice if you are feeling defensive about your own yoga practice right now.

But take heart, it’s not hopeless. Yoga can be a drug, but it can also be the cure.

Focus, witness, and forgiveness

The good news is that yoga itself leads the way out of its own addiction, and quite possibly, out of many others as well.  (Disclaimer: I know there are many types of addictions and many excellent programs that successfully heal them.  Here I am focused only on my own experience.)

My own yoga did start out like an addiction.  But through yoga practice itself I learned three things that shifted it. These three things provided the means to permanently clear my canvas and extend yoga into the rest of my life.  This was the beginning of a real relationship with my self, with the divine, and with God.

  • In yoga, I discovered that I could focus my awareness on my body or my breath and did not need to listen to my every thought.
  • I discovered witness.   While focusing my awareness on my breath and body while practicing, I noticed that I could just watch my thoughts.  Now, I was watching what I had thought was my voice.  I then needed to ask, “Who or what is this ‘new’ part of me that is doing the observing?  Is this witness really who I am?  What is that other voice?” In meditation, it’s simply called “The Witness.”
  • From this place of witness I could see my thoughts as not mine, not so personal, and not needing any defense at all.  That voice—those thoughts— were not really me. I did not need to defend them.  Now defenseless, I could evaluate the troubling thoughts as separate from me.

This is how I got my eyes back.  I could see that I had made a spiritual tool (yoga class) my god. And I had thought a buzz (alcohol) was true union.  In my defenselessness, I could now finally see the truth:  My safety is in my relationship to my self and to the divine—not in these shabby substitutes. Now I can ask my higher intelligence:  Help me to see this in a new way. Finally I am connecting to the actual divine—not an imposter.  I call this stage forgiveness.

Once you get to the forgiveness stage of this process, you may become aware of the source belief, the foundation of all addictions.    You may awaken to the truth that you are not separate from God, from self.  Once the source belief is weakened, all addictions are just let go.  They are not wanted. They are not true.  Under your defense, they seemed as solid as a whole city rising, but in truth, were simply vapor, and could not stop “a button’s fall.” (A Course in Miracles)

Wholehearted desire for change

I still practice yoga, but now I see it as just a tool. In itself, it is not awakening.  It is not sacred.  It is just a temporary tool that can help you see clearly and practice distinguishing true from false.  Yoga is a nice way to practice connecting to self and to God and applying it to your whole life.  But any tool can be put down when the job is done. If you’ve become addicted, you are fooled into worshiping the tool.  While this is happening and you are unaware of your addiction, permanent change is impossible.

In my own life, I knew something was wrong and I wanted change.  I recall the instant that I wanted change wholeheartedly.  I realized that my desires up to that moment had been half-hearted. Only wholehearted desire for change produced immediate results in my life.

I’ll leave you with this from A Course In Miracles

I want the peace of God


To say these words is nothing.  But to mean these words is everything.  If you could but mean them for just an instant, there would be no further sorrow possible for you in any form; in any place or time.


Heaven would be completely given back to full awareness, memory of God entirely restored, the resurrection of all creation fully recognized.


No one can mean these words and not be healed.  He cannot play with dreams, nor think he is himself a dream.  He cannot make a hell and think it real.


-Beginning of Lesson 185


About Philip Urso

Yoga Teacher Philip Urso loves to train yoga teachers how to teach exhilarating and unscripted vinyasa yoga classes. He co-founded Live Love Teach Yoga Teacher Training School with fellow yoga teachers Deborah Williamson and Stacy Dockins. His two 5-star podcasts on iTunes — A Crash Course in Miracles and Yoga Classes, Live Love Teach — have over two million downloads. Philip studies the dynamics of love and fear and teaches practical, reliable and lasting methods for choosing between the two. His Elephant Journal column explores these very themes. More info at


12 Responses to “Yoga = Heroin.”

  1. […] Yoga = Heroin | elephant journal A Very powerful article about how addictions of any kind can become a barrier to us uniting with our true, higher selves. via […]

  2. YogaGoggles says:

    Very insightful. I've had similar thoughts about yoga and how I used to practice. "If you’ve become addicted, you are fooled into worshiping the tool." – I really liked this part. It reminds us of the difference between the means and the end. Thanks.

  3. keely says:

    Thank you for your wise writing. I was thinking today how I need a yoga class to help me remember god and the divine. You captured that and added so much. 🙂 Shanti!

  4. TamingAuthor says:

    Philip, very keen insights. Enjoyed your writing. Hope you write more for Elephant. You have a gentle touch that allows the spiritual to seep through the page. Loved the following excerpt. Definitely quotable.

    "The problem is that addictions hijack real spiritual impulses. Spiritual impulses are simply the urge to return to self—the state of Love. You could say that all spiritual impulses are the urge to go to God. They are yearnings to answer our only problem: our apparent separation from self, the divine, from God. The source of all addictions is the belief that we are separated from self, from God."

  5. Nadine says:

    Wow, I definitely need to re-read this one. Undoubtedly a powerful and confronting piece; threw me right back in my chair. For now, here are my initial feelings: Personally, I'm very 'protective' of yoga and do view it as the gateway to my sacredness. Am I attached to it? Perhaps, yes. Could I just as easily function without it; i.e., the asana elements? I'm not there yet.

    However, I totally 'get' what he's saying and oftentimes when I teach, I invite students to consider the possibility that their practice mightn't make them feel 'good.' For me, feeling 'good' is right up there with just wanting to be happy. For me, yoga remains absolutely the most confronting, conflicting and comforting thing that I've engaged in my life to date. And yes, it's taught me how to focus, bear witness and forgive. It is the awareness factor though that reigns supreme for me. Unlike conventional addictions where one is essentially numbing out and hiding out, when I step onto that mat, there is absolutely nowhere for me to run or to hide. And to think that by stepping onto it that I'm escaping some illusion of reality couldn't be further from the truth.

    One of my teachers recently suggested that I begin practicing a gentler form of yoga — in his words, 'I don't lack strength.' For now, the harshness of my working environment in remote Central Africa demand strength — to keep me balanced, grounded and focused. My meditations in the darkest hours just before dawn is where I now surrender to softness. Combined, a strong practice and a soft meditation serve as the hallmarks I need to by the warrior-ess that my present surroundings warrant. I do see his point though. During my recovery from my injury (I broke my ankle a few months ago), it was my restorative practice that truly contributed to my healing. For the first time, I had been slowed down enough to actually engage in a restorative practice. And what I saw was that the restorative gave strength to my strength so to speak, making me even more conscious of each breath, each movement, each stillness.

  6. daz says:

    That is just as stupid and smug as it gets.

    Painfully stupid.

    Oh dear.

  7. Elena B. says:

    The article paints a pretty depressing picture. Why good people do bad things? The underlying cause is to overcome the illusion of separation from nourishing/loving forces of the universe. Some people say God. More intimacy, more rubbing of bodies, more exchanging of ideas, more alcohol, more drugs, more, more and more… We always want more of some kind of quick fixes. Why? Because we are afraid to look inside and face our problems, because we’ve mastered the art of D.E.N.I.A.L. (don’t even notice that I’m lying). No problem can solved if one is unaware of it existence. The dark sides of our personalities (the great shadow, the Ego however you want to call it) is born in secrecy.

    Whenever we don’t want to face the truth about ourselves or our life everything becomes very complex – feelings, thoughts, actions, and etc. We call it being human; we equate complexity with being evolved and intelligent. Is it so? Real things (beauty, love, real truth, and etc) are very simple that is why they elude us. [to be continued]

  8. Elena B. says:

    [Cont. from the previous comment] We also love comforting ourselves with the thought that everything we do is based on our best intentions and greatest motivations, but sometimes it just does not work. Right. “Never trust your good intentions for their not good enough” (ACIM)

    Did you ever ask yourself why your feelings and motives are so complex? Or, why “truth is rarely simple and never pure?” (Oscar Wild). This is because we often have conflicting motives and goals and because we want to face the truth. Alcohol addiction often hides the fact that a person hates his job or that he sees himself as a failure. It is a very complex situation. Admitting that the carrier path is not working and that one needs to do something different is more simple, but it requires honesty and courage. Sex addiction is often a distraction from a miserable or non-existing relationship. That one can get really complex. We have millions of books to prove it.

    Our tolerance for pain is very high, but it is not without limits (ACIM). Sooner or later each one of us will realize that there must be a better way and will say “yes” to freedom from addictions and attachments.

  9. […] I recall a recent exchange with American, Bosnian-born forensic psychotherapist Danica Borkovich Anderson of Kolo (Women’s Cross Cultural Collaboration). Kolo is a group that works to address trauma issues spanning the globe. Our conversation was prompted by a recent article written by a (western) male who spoke of the West’s “addiction” to yoga. […]

  10. […] suppose that’s what Phillip Urso was driving at when he likened yoga to drugs in his provocative post, Yoga = Heroin (Do You Treat […]

  11. […] colleague of mine recently wrote a story called “Yoga = Heroin” for Elephant Journal. It’s about how so many of us treat yoga much like we’d treat any other […]

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