October 10, 2013

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

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.

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.

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.









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Ed: Sara Crolick

{photos: via Back in the Ring}

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