Treating Addiction through Yoga: Junkies Turned Ashtangis in India. ~ Katinka Sætersdal Remøe

Via Katinka Sætersdal Remøe
on Oct 10, 2013
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Photo: Back in the Ring

Why yoga could be a remedy for people struggling with drug addiction.

I’ve never been severely addicted to anything in my life.

Sure, I do have an abnormal love for chocolate and can definitely feel a craving from time to time, but those cravings cannot compare to those you get from hardcore drugs.

They do not make me sweat, agitated or physically ill. Nor do they make me apply for a job in a chocolate store or factory for unlimited chocolate access. And they do not make me quit all my hobbies to spend my days eating the brownish deliciousness on the coach obsessed with the thought of wanting more.

In short, my chocolate addiction comes nowhere near an addiction to drugs, so I will never fully understand the physical and mental pain of someone trying to recover from drug abuse. 

But I did recently spend time with eight people who know this pain far-too well.

Eight longtime drug addicts who currently participate in Alexander Medin’s pilot project Back in the Ring which focuses on how yoga can be used in drug addiction recovery. And if I had any doubts before (of course I didn’t, I am totally biased when it comes to the magic work of yoga), it is long gone now:

Yoga’s teachings can empower drug addicts with the tools needed to embark on a sustainable, drug-free and mindful life.

Back in the Ring

To be more specific, these are the tools I am talking about and why:

1. Self-discipline:

A general characteristic of a drug addict is that he or she is out of control internally. The self-discipline and determination required by a consistent yoga practice teaches addicts to regain this control and to better handle their impulses through self-restraint.

The participants in Back in the Ring had to commit to a strict practice in traditional Ashtanga Yoga five times a week for the first two months and only the most dedicated were allowed to continue the program.

That’s no piece of cake. Ashtanga Yoga practiced the traditional way (Mysore style) is known to be one of the toughest yoga practices you can do. You get up super-early six times a week and practice a physically challenging sequence at your own pace without a teacher to guide you through it. It’s what Karmela Lejarde calls an “individual group-practice” and requires a whole lot of self-discipline.

What better way to learn how to get a grip over yourself than to practice it a couple of hours almost every morning of the week?

2. Presence:

Another aspect of addiction that many users have to deal with are negative thought patterns. Obsession with drugs, anxiety, fear of the future, painful memories from the past. These thoughts hurt and when they start to take control, the immediate reaction is a strong wish to escape. Taking more drugs provides such an escape.

When practicing yoga, you learn to focus inward on bodily sensations and the breath. You learn to experience what the presence feels like and to face unpleasant thoughts and emotions without running away from them. Slowly, one realizes that by confronting negative thoughts rather than ignoring them, there’s a greater likelihood that they will lessen in intensity or go away all together.

The practice of staying in the present may empower drug addicts with the physical and mental strength needed in order to handle the pressure of getting clean. The physical pain experienced in a yoga practice makes them more capable of tolerating the pain from abstinence whereas confronting unpleasant thoughts and emotions strengthens their impulse control. Moreover, staying in the present helps establishing a new, healthy focus rather than that of drug obsession.

Photo: Back in the Ring

3. Self-confidence and self-worth:

Lack of self-confidence and low self-esteem are known obstacles to an addict trying to get back on track. Many of the drug addicts I spoke with had tried getting rid of their addiction several times before but had always relapsed.

We have all experienced failure one way or another and know that it’s no fun. It goes without saying that when this failure is experienced repeatedly, thoughts like “I cannot do this” or “I’ll never be able to make it” or “I’m no good” may easily take the upper hand. This relationship to failing may spill-over over into other parts of life—like career, relationships etc.

Through a personal yoga practice and regular classes in classical Yoga philosophy, the Back in the Ring participants were taught to see this lack of self-confidence as thoughts only and not to identify themselves with it. They were taught to take responsibility for themselves and their actions, and to become aware of their own self-worth. In addition, activities such as tough hikes in the mountains, bungee jumping and various farm-work organized every weekend were aimed to make them feel useful and to value their own capabilities.

It worked. That’s what they told me.

4. Compassion towards others:

For a drug addict, life evolves around drugs and drugs only (again, I base these statements on first-hand accounts that I’ve been told). All resources and energy are spent drug hunting, leaving little or no space for much else such as family, friends or hobbies. One gets egocentric by less and when this goes on long enough, it impacts the compassion and understanding one has for others.

Practicing karma yoga can turn that around. In short, karma yoga is “selfless action”—doing something without expecting anything in return.

That is what the Back in the Ring participants did the third month into the program. They went to India and spent six hours a day building shelters for the poor and underprivileged near a town called Kundapur in the southern state of Karnataka. In addition, they had three to four hours of yoga practice a day.

Here’s a five-minute video clip of what they did and how they felt during the stay:

Three words from India from Back in the Ring on Vimeo.

Doing hard work without thinking about the end gain is a pretty uncommon practice in our society. Most of us would be hesitant to spend valuable time and energy without getting anything in return. But the thing is, by keeping a “karma attitude” to the things we do, or by doing something out of compassion rather than self-gain, we do actually get something in return.

A sense of freedom (I admit, I often think of the end-result in my work or duties; but the few times I’ve been able to let go of that, I have felt this wonderful feeling of freedom from something), a better focus at actual action at hand (or a better state of presence), and better self-confidence from being useful to people other than oneself.

Although the stay in India was tough due to long days and tiring work, every person I spoke to was immensely grateful for the stay. What they had learned through practicing karma yoga with such a focus had changed their perspectives on things and made them aware of how good it actually feels to work hard for the benefit of others.

Hopefully that feeling will stay and join in with the rest of the tools they now have at hand to a healthy, drug-free and more mindful life.


P.S. Before exiting, check out the photos below. They are from the month-long stay in India and show encounters with sadhus, visits to temples, karma yoga in action and Ashtanga practice at the Ashtanga Yoga Institute in Mysore.

Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring


Photo: Back in the Ring

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Ed: Sara Crolick

{photos: via Back in the Ring}


About Katinka Sætersdal Remøe

Katinka is an adventure-seeking, wine-loving yogini with a passion for the unknown. Her curiosity has led her into many peculiar situations, from having tea with Sudanese ministers and roadtripping through India’s heartland searching for guerrilla soldiers to crossing the Alps on skis. She loves contrasts, which is why you find a mix of high heels, climbing shoes, cowboy hats and yogamats in her closet, and strongly believes it enriches her life. She is currently musing on her mat in Mysore but will be back in Romsdalen, Norway, in a couple of months to continue teaching at Romsdal Yoga, bake apple cake at Sødahl-huset, and daydream on mountaintops. Check out her website and blog or connect with her on Facebook.


8 Responses to “Treating Addiction through Yoga: Junkies Turned Ashtangis in India. ~ Katinka Sætersdal Remøe”

  1. J S says:

    Nice article on an excellent project, but I did want to mention there are members of the recovery community who would take issue with the use of the word ‘junkie’ in the title as a limiting, moralizing, and derogatory way to describe people with substance abuse issues. Some people self-identify with such terms, many don’t. Thanks for the article and congrats on the project!

  2. Katinka says:

    Thanks for the comment, JS.The word "junkie" is indeed strong and I was hesitant to use it as I was afraid some might take it the wrong way. However, I decided to take the risk, hoping most people would see it as a play with words and that only. So for the readers who feel I went to far or who I may have offended, please know that I did not mean for it to come out in a derogatory way. I mereley used it to draw attention 🙂

  3. Qvintus says:

    I enjoyed the article and the videos at the Back in the Ring site, and I admire the great work you, Alexander and the rest of the team, are doing. I really hope the project will prove successful, because I believe yoga can be a very sane tool for health, transformation and a good way of life for anyone who sincerely embarks on the most often arduous path to inner peace of mind. If I understood correctly, 12 out of 22 recovering addicts (from heroin, cocaine, etc.) were dedicated enough to go to India? Do you know how the ‘drop-outs’ (or opt-outs?) are doing? Are they even still practicing yoga, or are they committed to other rehab programs? I hope they are doing well too. I realize, addiction is very hard to overcome.

    I noticed a couple of details in the text. The first (not important) was ‘coach’ instead of (I presume) ‘couch’ or ‘sofa’, unless you would be either on a passenger bus/car “eating the brownish deliciousness”, or licking chocolate off of your ‘trener’ (trainer). 😉

    However, I wonder more about your thoughts on (under 2. Presence) “The physical pain experienced in a yoga practice makes them more capable of tolerating the pain from abstinence” … i.e. if you would like to expand on your thoughts a little more, because my own understanding of yoga is that (unless there are preexisting injuries) the asana practice should not really be painful or induce any extra pain, though there might be some initial discomfort in new asanas. And that when we learn to (breathe, concentrate and) still our minds, we can be free of pain (both physical and mental/emotional) and frustration, aka ‘duhkha’. Of course for a yogi you could argue that everything (except atman/purusha) is pain ( ;, but do you really think that practice should be painful?

  4. elissascott says:

    Love, love!!!!

  5. Katinka says:

    Indeed, 12 participants were to go to India but 8 ended up going as unfortunately, 4 people had to cancel due to personal reasons. As for the drop-outs I do not know whether they still practice yoga, I sure do hope so 🙂

    Thanks for the correction regarding "coach". Guess I was sloppy when reading through, it is supposed to be "couch" of course!

    In regards to your last comment on pain and asana practice, no, I do not think the practice should be painful per se. But, as you also remark, it is very common to feel discomfort in asanas that the body has never done before and even more discomforting (or painful) if you have not done much physical activity for a while. I think that the ability the body has to adapt to the asanas will depend entirely on the physical and mental state of the individual.

    Then there's the type of practice you do. The traditional Ashtanga practice as previously taught by Shri Patthabi Jois and now by Sharat in Mysore is a very physical and intense practice for the body. Most people will feel pain, a natural pain, when starting out. While this pain will go away once the body gets used to it, it may take time and during this time, pain can be a valuable teacher. It teaches us about being patient, about having faith, about making a commitment to oneself and sticking to it. And it teaches that it is really not that bad in the end, that once we dare to face the pain and learn to use the breath to stay in it, with a consistent practice it will go away.

    So, to get back to your question. No, the goal of an asana practice should not be for it to be painful but the pain or discomfort we might experience in the practice is normal and might teach us a thing or two that can be translated off the mat and into our daily lives.

    I hope that answered your question 🙂


  6. Rich says:

    Inspiring article!

    As an Ashtangi, I am an advocate for the healing power that the practice can have in the lives of dedicated students.

    As a recovering alcoholic living in long term sobriety, I did not learn how to drink like average people by learning self-discipline through practicing ashtanga yoga. Overcoming addiction is not about learning self discipline in order to drink/use 'normally'.

    Alcoholics/addicts have a disease that affects the body, mind, and spirit. When we put alcohol/drugs into our system, we experience a sensation of craving so powerful that it literally is impossible to overcome. Normal drinkers do not experience this sensation of craving. Alcoholics/addicts are not morally weak. I did not lack self-discipline in the sense that I was lazy and unable to surmount an effort to overcome the disease and drink like average drinkers.

    In recovery, I have found it simply easier to surrender and admit that I will never obtain self discipline regarding controlling my intake of mind altering chemicals. Total abstinence is the easiest path for me.

    As far as learning self-discipline through a consistent ashtanga practice to improve other areas of my life? WOW! Other areas of my life have improved dramatically! Especially showing up to something that I have made a commitment to (accountability), and being responsible for myself. All very helpful lessons from a consistent, daily ashtanga 'mysore' practice!

    Through yoga, I have had small tastes of the kind of direct spiritual experience that I think recovery programs are trying to guide people towards.

    Thank you for this great article about the power of yoga in recovery!!!

  7. Lisa says:

    Lovely article, however agree that the terms 'drug addict' and 'junkie' are not so nice, labelling and narrow – when that is just a part of the real person… 'people with addiction issues' leaves room for all the other wonderful traits that may be just waiting to be revealed. We are all people with some sort of issues that are challenging – tis all relative to the person concerned 🙂

  8. AliceGaunt says:


    its an amazing and inspiring blog …

    An attitude that seeks to not merely survive but to thrive through the stages of recovery from addiction is clearly seen here.
    Yoga positively impacts the physician’s physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual growth.

    Thank you for sharing ..
    keep up doing good work.