Addiction and the Path of Yoga
Photo by Donna Muccio
I’ve often asked myself what makes someone an addict. In my life, I have encountered, at close range, situations and experiences that are the direct result of addiction. Most often, I have chosen to deal with these times from a western analytical perspective trying to understand the familial history, the life circumstances, past traumas, and the need for escape, then finally falling back on reactions that seem only to perpetuate the problems. Driven by fear, anger, and avoidance, addicts are people with an extreme imbalance. We may have many labels for the cause, but what all addicts are seeking is the same as so many of us on the yogic path: Balance and a sense of harmony with life.
What spurs a person to addiction is as varied as the addictions themselves, but when viewed from a yogic perspective, much of the underlying source is the same. The gunas in yoga are the qualities which exert influence over the mind. We’ve all got them, and most of the time we are all working with them in one way or another. Rajas is the guna of activation and stimulation. In today’s world we are surrounded by stimulation, the examples of which are truly too numerous to mention. Our world today is chaotic and intense, the definition of a rajas imbalance. Tamas is the guna of inertia and in imbalance can create stagnation. Then there is the glory guna, sattva. Sattva is characterized by balance, and as one teacher called it, transcendence. In one way or another we are all striving to reach a sattvic state by seeking balance in rajas and tamas. When that desire to find balance causes some to turn outside of themselves, the slope can be slippery. The substance that one day may bring fleeting release or respite may, if left unchecked, turn into an obsession and compulsion that feeds the imbalances they were trying to correct.
These imbalances in the gunas coupled with life complications and difficulties are, in the yogic view, the source of addiction. To diffuse these “demons,” addicts are often required to look within to find answers. In these cases, looking within can be the most beneficial and yet most frightening thing they could do. Fortunately, most of the yogic practices are stepping stones on a path of self awareness and understanding. When approached compassionately and empathetically, yoga can provide a touchstone to facilitate the release of the stronghold of addiction. The path of recovery is arduous, but the sage Patanjali laid out a path thousands of years ago, which provides clear steps to achieving this balance, to finding sattva.
Through the practice of the first two limbs of Ashtanga Yoga, yamas and niyamas, addicts are offered direction and clarity of mind. The last niyama, Ishvarapranidhana, or surrender to god, is actually the first step in AA, “let go and let god.” Most of the other observances and restraints are also essential steps to recovery from addiction. Through the practice of ahimsa, non-harming, addicts begin to practice compassion and love for themselves and those around them. In observing truthfulness, or satya, they work to maintain honesty in all actions and relationships. Aparigraha, non grasping, teaches them to relinquish that which feeds their addiction, and saucha or purity encourages cleansing the body and mind of all toxins. The path of recovery is also marked by the niyama of Tapas, the fueling of the inner fire of purification and austerity. In addition to these, the limbs of asana and pranayama work to purify and detoxify the body and mind, encourage deep relaxation and awareness, and bring the practitioner back into balance, sattva.
A new studio in Salt Lake City has recently opened to address this path to recovery. The studio is located in a part of town that helps to lift the stigma of the middle class yoga fad, across the street from a tattoo parlor and next door to a bar, and is staffed with yoga instructors who have an understanding of the struggles of addiction, some intimately. Using this awareness, the instructors work both in the studio and in the community to compassionately and empathetically use yoga as a support to recovery. As one former addict turned yoga teacher said, “[The] demons may never stop calling, but through yoga, they may become a little harder to hear.”
As someone who practices yoga every day and feels the benefits in my life whose rajas revolves around children and responsibilities and whose tamas is mostly related to exhaustion, I have seen how the power of yoga can affect even the most difficult situations. If yoga has helped you through difficult situations like addiction, I would love to hear your insights.