Yoga, Addiction, and Recovery

a blog post in five parts 
by Vikram Surya Chiruvolu

I. A Global Culture of Addiction

To begin with a small example: a friend recently posted to their Facebook page about the book, It’s Just a Plant — a children’s book about marijuana.  In the preview of the book on that site, the central character is a young child, and the plot is a series of conversations with her parents, then Farmer Bob, then Dr. Eden, then a group of casual pot smokers on the street, then the police who begin to arrest them. The preview ends there but even this much gave me pause.  The book is but a small example of what is now a global addiction-positive physical culture, and as such, is the product of a number of potentially dangerous urban myths. 

At the most basic level, there needs to be a clear-headed acknowledgement that marijuana today is not “just a plant”, but has been hybridized and selectively bred for thousands of generations, into being a potent, addictive drug that just happens to be prepared through horticultural techniques for the multi-billion-dollar global drug markets.The very same people who get so exercised over GMO crops can ignore the reality that cannabis has been genetically engineered to a degree of potency far greater than anything nature would ordinarily permit. 

Even more importantly, both the children’s book and the drug-positive physical culture from which it emerges, do not seek to honestly address the all-important reality that many people abuse marijuana, telling themselves that their use is purely ‘recreational’ or in some manner ‘spiritual’, instead of facing the fact they are self-medicating underlying problems.  Rather than deal directly with why they want to alter or escape their reality, many people simply seek escape, and are aided in this by a consumeristic global culture that aids the process.  I fell into this pattern myself for a long time, and the suffering it brought was the direct cause of my interest in a path of healing through yoga and 12-step recovery. 

From years of experience working with people in this aspect of their lives, I can say that for many, especially those with addictive personalities or dysfunctional family patterns, this escapism can become a lifelong habit that diminishes their social, spiritual, intellectual and emotional lives by dulling their minds, polluting their bodies and distracting their spirit.  It is also can cost a good deal of money, and, because much recreational drug use is not legal in most nations, and drug-testing is common for many jobs, it sharply limits social and economic well-being.  

Many of the same statements can be made about alcohol, though alcohol is legal in much of the world.  Also, all over the world, the usage of highly-refined food products that act like powerful numbing drugs on the bodymind has become commonplace — whether excessive sugar, salt, starch, or fat.  Caffeine and nicotine also are ubiquitous objects of the addictive cycle.  In addition, there are many objects of addiction which play on the built-in drug store in the body’s endocrine system — the so-called behavioral addictions like gambling, sex, rage, and spending.  All of these revolve around the rapid triggering of powerful hormonal and neurochemical changes that provide a quick drug-like “hit”, a rush of adrenaline, testosterone, oxytocin and other components of the body’s internal drug-store. 

In all cases of addiction, the basic pathology is similar.  A person undergoes some profound experiences of difficulty — sometimes as subtle as not feeling ‘heard’ in the childhood home at times, or as violent as sexual abuse or the loss of multiple family members, and ceases to feel good in their natural state.  The people around them, and their own conditioning, do not allow for the fullness of a safe space to heal from the difficulty, and it becomes deeply lodged in the bodymind.  Then, at some point, a fast-acting substance or behavior creates physiological changes which provide short-term comfort and relief from the stored pain of the difficulty, which can be such a powerful experience that it is conflated with a ‘spiritual’ experience.   However, it leads to long-term degeneration, as well as possibly immediate and serious damage.  As the cycle completes, the drug effects wear off and discomfort returns, and the craving for the comfort brings the addict back time and again to the source of ease, at their own, and often others’, expense. The more deeply rooted is the source of the initial discomfort, the more aggressively the mind then invents, rationalizes and seeks out supporters to persist in the addictive pathology.  

Because many people sense intuitively that modern physical culture does not provide a way out of this dilemma, but only drive them deeper into it, they turn to yoga and various other forms of spirituality.

II.  The First Two Limbs of Raja Yoga — Yamas and Niyamas

In yogic terms, the real question here is not whether to encourage one object of addiction or other, but whether to encourage honesty, openness, and love over escapism, substance use and all its related dysfunction — whatever forms the latter addiction takes.  In yogic terms, any pattern of sensual attachment, but especially regular drug use, whether marijuana or any psychedelic, tobacco, alcohol or anything else, is not compatible with sincere, sustained practice of the yamas and niyamas.  

In relation to drug use, the yamas (restraints / abstinences) are:
  • ahimsa (non-violence) — whether on the physical or subtle plane, acting on addiction is violent to your body
  • satya (truthfulness) —  much addictive acting out is illegal or has strong social taboos on it, so one must necessarily be sneaky about its use
  • brahmacharya (continence) — addictive acting out is wasteful of vital, spiritual energies
  • asteya (non-covetousness) — sustained acting out tends to divide one against oneself and society, and induces jealousy, rebelliousness and resentment toward one’s own higher intention, as well as other people’s aims or society itself
  • aparigraha (non-grasping) — acting out requires that you take from the world more than is necessary to indulge in harmful pastimes
The niyamas (practices / observances) are:
  • shaucha (purity; cleanliness of bodymind and spirit) — acting out is impure and dirties the bodymind and spirit
  • santosha (happiness) — it powerfully says one is unwilling to find contentment with reality as it is, unaltered
  • tapas (austerity; willingness to use pain for growth) — acting out is usually a self-involved escape, an avoidance of pain
  • svadhyaya (spiritual study) — acting out can significantly diminish mental capacities
  • ishwarapranidhara (self-surrender to God’s will) — no great avatar ever advocated the general use of drugs or any pattern of addictive acting out for spiritual attainment, whether Jesus, Buddha, Mohammed, or modern saints like Amma 
To many, it may seem that what I’m saying here about addictive acting out being incompatible with yogic life is quite obvious.  Unfortunately, it isn’t obvious to everyone. I have seen regular drug use even among people who are yoga teachers.  It is a profound failing on their part to rationalize the yamas and niyamas with drug use.  It is also a profound failing to miss the terrible example they set for others who may seek out yoga for its spiritual and health benefits only to have their energies diverted into drug culture. I cannot recommend, with an unencumbered heart, that anyone attend the classes of such teachers.

III. Addiction & Spirituality

I also have seen, from experience, that addiction is a very profound problem that can take years of sustained work to find real freedom from on the deepest level of the complex web of karma which motivates the compulsive desire to escape.  However, I have seen this work cannot be carried out in earnest until the addictive pattern itself is arrested, and remains so.  Even with legal addictions, the promotion of tobacco and alcohol as relatively harmless or even beneficial are devastating lies that have killed more than a hundred million people world over.  That is a holocaust of staggering proportions that continues unabated.  

In popular culture, I’ve also seen the promotion of various drugs as ‘sacramental’, ‘natural’, and ‘spiritual’ — whether psilocybin mushrooms, mescaline/peyote, DMT/ayahuasca, or marijuana — and this also has done tremendous harm to millions of people, and continues to do so.   Having deep unmet spiritual needs as a young man, I heard these messages, and experimented with some of these.  I can say there from my experiences that there is some validity to the notion that such drugs are ‘mind-expanding’.  It is possible to have chemically-induced experiences which can later help point the way toward a sustained spiritual, non-chemical experience of those expansive states.  However, the price of these experiences was not worth the risk for me, nor is it for most people, and this is why their use is prohibited or controlled.

Addiction can develop quickly, and once it takes hold, can take a lifetime of work to heal, and it’s not a given that one will ever recover.  In the grips of addiction, I have seen many, many people die early deaths, or suffer imprisonment, whether by society or just in their own spirit.  As long as they are using their drugs, their life potential is frittered away in the midst of a certain but vague existential confusion and doubt that never seems to lift, no matter how many highs one gets, no matter how much internal work one does, no matter how many doctors or teachers one consults, no matter how many gurus or Gods one finds.  The reality that abstinence (niyama) is a starting point for a sincere journey of spirituality is often lost on those in the grip of active addiction.  

My spiritual teacher is Amma, who says, “It is easy to wake up someone who is asleep, but impossible to wake up someone pretending to sleep.”  Active addiction is just this sort of pretend-sleep.  Those who practice regular drug use live in a self-deceptive state, ignorant of the costs to their own health, finances, and spirit, and to the real harm that comes to all those whose lives they touch, especially those who are closest to them and who look to them for guidance.  

None of the states that are accessible through drugs are only available that way, and none are sustainable that way.  For one, yoga provides another way that is sustainable.  The sincere, lifelong practice of spirituality, whether through yoga or in other contexts, can expand the mind and spirit into the Infinite.  In their own wayand language, every great master has taught this Truth.  

For many, the rationalization that the particular drugs are ‘natural’ or ‘just plants’  or ‘sacred herbs’ is a powerful part of the rationalization of addiction, the ignorance of the reality that they are still working as drugs, with powerful, direct, harmful physical effects and long-lasting side-effects.  

With addictive personalities, denial and rationalization are extremely potent.  It’s my hope that at some point, everyone in the grip of using anything as an escape tries to live some years of their lives without that release, and observe the radical change in their health and happiness that comes.  For addictive personalities, it is a far greater tapas (asceticism, self-mortification, burning of karma) to surrender the use of all their modalities of escape and abuse, and all their rationalizations (especially those that lean toward the spiritual, natural or social), and just live in the bright, clean, inviting, open space of self-chosen abstinence.  

As is often said in 12-step recovery, if at the end of that time, they aren’t satisfied, their misery will certainly be refunded.  As they do stay abstinent, they may experience the opportunity to directly heal the underlying cause of their attraction to the addictive acting out, and find a kind of peace and freedom they never knew possible.  The eight-limbed path of yoga provides a direct route, as does 12-step recovery, and they are deeply allied modalities.

The ‘natural’ argument is an especially potent rationalization for addicts.  Industry knows and exploits this mindset well.  For example, for a number of years, I was a tobacco addict, and allowed myself to be comforted by the fact that my cigarettes of choice were “all natural” tobacco, and persisted in the habit and associated delusions for many years. It is a widespread affliction.  Similarly, “kind bud” — organic, highly potent marijuana — commands a premium on the black market, and there are all manner of “organic” wines, beers and liquors on the market as well.

In each case, the rationalization that it is the chemicals added, but not the essential harmfulness of the thing itself, that creates  problems is a persistent error, one to which aspiring yogis seem particularly susceptible due to the love of nature that yoga can awaken.  It takes courage to look at the heart of the matter and face that, just as nature makes poisons we cannot safely ingest, it makes addictive, harmful substances that should never be taken with any regularity for someone who wants to avoid harming themselves and to keep their bodymind and spirit clean and clear.

Also, in the last 50 years, there have been cults which arise which attract wayward people to use indigenous plants as “sacraments” in a group setting, providing a second addictive dimension of the respectability and status of a community that rationalizes their use.  This is not to cast aspersion on the original community’s long history of sacramental use and the spiritual benefit derived thereby, but to say that there is a grave risk and error in attracting people who are not raised in that culture, but rather in the global addiction-positive culture, to such use.  The dynamic of social acceptability and the “cover” of indigenous or traditional use that such communities give to people whose main goal is escape is often just as powerfully addictive as the substance itself.  It is  a potent, but dishonest rationalization reinforced by social support.  Human beings are the most social animal,and we become addicted to our lifestyles and communities, and the breaking of ties with them can be for some more fearful than death. 

However, for a sincere yogi, one must find the courage to transcend them, and live only in the natural, simple life — appropriate shelter, pure diet, clean air and water.  This choice reflects a profound faith in a transcendent intelligence in each molecule of existence, in each cell of the body, that exerts a powerful healing force if given the chance.  Abstinence and pursuing a journey of healing through yoga and 12-step recovery is just the chance many addicts need.  

The social dimension of providing respectability, community, and ideology to rationalize addictive acting out is extremely powerful, and exerts long-term effects.  Recovering addicts who do not attend recovery meetings and have personal supporters  often return to acting out.  Positive social ties must be cultivated to replace harm-inducing ones — this is the value of a recovery fellowship and yoga sanga, but the yoga sanga must clearly be committed to honoring the yamas and niyamas in their purest form.

IV.  Mental Health & Pharmaceuticals

Next, in light of yoga, I also want to say a word about pharmaceutical drugs prescribed for mental health, which to me fall into two basic categories: those which are relatively mild, slow-acting, non-habit-forming — non-narcotics such as antidepressants such as Prozac or Wellbutrin and the like, and those which are fast-acting and addictive — such as Adderall and other amphetamines, or Klonopin and other narcotics.  While all pharmaceutical drugs go through testing for safety, that process varies in its scientific rigor and effectiveness; the US FDA is not at all an impartial entity, and is often swayed by the influence of politics, money and lobbying.

In general, the mild, non-narcotic drugs may be a significant, if placebo-like, help to people who cannot even begin to contemplate sustained effort without outside help to change diet, exercise and improve their mental, emotional and spiritual condition. However, while possibly helpful, even in this case, the drugs are not a solution; they are a temporary crutch on the way to a solution — which ultimately is to find and sustain those habits of healthy living that allow one to do the work of healing the deeper issues that caused the dysfunctions to arise in the first place.  

On the other hand, the fast-acting pharmaceuticals are at least as dangerous as street drugs should be avoided at almost all costs, to be used only in cases where a person has literally lost control of themselves, where powerful sedatives maybe temporarily necessarily. It continues to amaze me that, around the world, doctors diagnose people with mental illnesses, and then give them powerful drugs to use on their own mental self-direction.  It is a preposterous contradition, a shining example of iatrogenic illness, when doctors make people’s suffering worse through ill-considered palliative care, instead of seeking and treating the root of the problem.

That said, I don’t believe the self-administered use of any powerful drug ought to be a criminal act. It also, however, should not be an unregulated one.  Freedom is a birthright; but it comes with tremendous responsibility.  We need to work toward ways in which that freedom and responsibility can be balanced when it comes to all forms of addiction, while focusing on treatment and recovery for people struggling with addiction, depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress, and other emotional and mental disorders,and these in various combinations, which are the recurring patterns behind drug abuse.  

V. Physical Culture and the Goal of Yoga

Even underneath these psychological labels is the deeper, personal karmic truth of suffering and redemption which yoga seeks to directly address from the outset.  However, for many people who cannot sustain practice of the yamas and niyamas I mentioned above, pursuing other modalities to release them from the grip of active addiction are essential, whether that is 12-step, therapy, or other support groups and community resources.  This abstinence opens the door to real, lasting spiritual life, and it frees them from the false ego projections that necessarily arise when people try to be “spiritual” while in the midst of active addiction.

“Yogas chitta vritti nirodha” — Yoga is the mastery of the modifications of the mind — begins the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali.  Through yoga, we can arrive at a state wherein the mind is under the perfect control of the Spirit or in-dwelling Self that is One with the Infinite.  In practice, yoga can be an important part of the healing process from mental and emotional disorders, or simply from whatever difficulty one’s karma presents.   

Raja yoga (the 8-limbed system taught in Patanjali’s yoga sutras) begins with sincere observance of the abstinences (yamas) and observances (niyamas), which lay the foundation for postural (hatha)and breath (pranayama) practices, which in turn provide the basis for pratyahara (sense control) and dharana (concentration), which in turn open the door to the experience of dhyana (meditation) and samadhi (awakening). This process of awakening may be gradual for some, rapid for others.  Any sincere aspirant can attain to it, and their rate of progress is only constrained by their degree of surrender.  Thus, we are given one prescription for awakening of body, mind and spirit.  Other yogic modalities, such as bhakti (devotion), karma (service), and jnana (knowledge) proceed on spiritual, social, and intellectual planes.  Raja yoga proceeds on the practical, physical plane, gradually refining a person, beginning with social interactions, gradually inward toward the subtlest energy.

Western physical culture, which has evolved into the global addiction-positive culture — which normalizes the use of refined foods,  intoxicants, psychedelics and pharmaceuticals in order to relieve the commonplace fear, sadness, and lack of creativity and connection that people feel in their daily lives — and would even seek to co-opt hatha yoga itself for this purpose — must be seen clearly for what it is.  Physical culture and its offshoot of addiction-positive culture is the best response of an increasingly alienated, isolated, and dysfunctional culture to the problems it is creating through lack or loss of spiritual values; however, this response is coming in physical terms, though the source of it is deeper still.  

As Einstein said, “A problem cannot be solved at the level of thinking that created it.”  In yogic culture, the premise is that we are always part of integrated whole, a Divine Unity.  And because our deepest self already knows this, it needs only to be reminded through direct experience for the most powerful healing to occur.  

As Krishna says in the Bhagavad Gita Ch. 2, Verse 61, “One who restrains himself from sensual attachments and fixes his consciousness upon the Divine, is a true sage.”   When one succeeds in the sincere practice of spirituality on an ongoing basis, no drugs, no addictive behaviors, and no sensual attachments of any kind are needed to awaken the spirit.  In time, with sincere, sustained effort, all those hindrances and false refuges will all fall away, and only awareness of Unity remains.

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