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Ayurveda, Addiction, and Recovery

Wellness   |   May 13, 2017

The following is an excerpt from Durga Leela’s article, “Ayurveda, Addiction, and Recovery” as featured in the 10th Anniversary Special Issue of Light on Ayurveda: Journal of Health.

Ayurveda is often introduced and practiced alongside its sister science of Yoga, which has been heartily embraced by a large number of Westerners, and is now being utilized not only as a form of exercise, but as a therapeutic remedy as well. Therapeutic use of Yoga has particularly grown within the addiction recovery community, where Hatha Yoga is often used to help patients through their time in early recovery.

Outside of rehab centers, there are an increasing number of Yoga teachers offering “Yoga of Recovery (YoR)” classes in our communities. These classes emphasize the connections between Yoga and “12-Step” programs, which began in the 1930s with the first program of Alcoholics Anonymous, and reportedly number over 165 today. Addiction is a major issue in our modern society, and is aptly described as a significant social plague. In addition, a considerable number of people make several attempts at sobriety before it truly takes hold. Recovery is therefore seen by many as a life-long process that necessitates a holistic solution: incorporating wisdom and practices that address physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. By including Ayurveda along with the philosophy and psychology of Yoga, YoR creates a fully integrated, holistic healing approach to this rampant disorder of our modern world.

YoR programs include immersion retreats, teacher training, and counselor programs that provide a wide range of tools for working with people in their struggle through the addictive process of any substance or behavior. Six tenets form the basis of YoR. These tenets address the spiritual malady that is addiction, and provide a means for practitioners and people looking to overcome their own self-destructive and addictive tendencies to understand how to approach recovery from many angles simultaneously. It therefore offers a multifaceted solution to a multipronged problem. YoR is not a protocol for treatment, however, but rather an invitation to each individual to undertake personal investigation and self-inquiry around their various addictive processes. It guides individuals in utilizing the many healing aspects of the Vedic sciences in the recovery process.

The six tenets of YoR are:

  1. Life is Longing
  2. Life is Prana
  3. Life is Relationship
  4. Life is Sweet
  5. Life is Love
  6. Life is Progress

In this article we’ll introduce these six tenets of YoR and share examples of an ongoing dialogue with YoR practitioners about how they apply these in their life.

Life is Longing is the first tenet of YoR. This deals with the spiritual aspect of the disease of addiction. Here we pose the question: “Is our ‘acting out’ behavior in part due to the fact that we are trying to materialize/actualize something that is a spiritual need within us?” We examine the roots, the storyline of our addictive behaviors through the question, “What do I long for?” We must honor our longing by dedicating time and space to spiritual practices. If we attempt to fulfill these purely by physical methods it will corrupt into the craving process.

One YoR student described her experience of this tenet by using a metaphor to her food addiction:

Intimacy in all different types of relationships (love relationships, parental, friendship, etc.). . . . In our program this weekend, you said something that really hit home with me. You said that eating was ‘the most’ intimate experience you can have. You eat an apple and it becomes a part of you. Those few words, along with the question, ‘What do you long for?’ immediately brought clarity to me. It makes perfect sense to me now why I overeat and the ‘hunger I am really trying to satisfy’. The retreat was so nourishing and healing for me. I cannot express how deeply the experience has touched me.

Life is Prana is the second tenet. The dependency upon prana (life force energy) is truly built into our human condition and profoundly affects the addictive process. We ingest prana, at the gross level, through food, heat, liquids and air (breath), and, on a subtle level, through sensory impressions (predominantly the senses related to air and ether: sound and touch). Looking at the primary sources of our prana (air, water, and food), we can happily note that there are, as yet, no rehabilitation facilities for people suffering from their “addiction” to fresh air and water! It should be noted that there are indeed rehabilitation centers for those who suffer from their addiction to food, yet we are all “addicted” to food, meaning we are dependent on food for our survival. The term “eating disorders” instead describes the condition of suffering around this necessary dependency.

When our food, water and air are polluted, processed, and devitalized, or when we are removed from nature and bombarded with sensory stimuli, our prana is disturbed. When we are under stress we shift into the fight or flight response and our breathing becomes fast and shallow. These disruptions to the flow of prana deplete our body’s reserves of this life-force, which can lead to fatigue and exacerbate muscle tension. Disturbed prana leads to a feeling of emptiness that somehow needs to be filled.

When we experience challenges to prana, we seek to fill this emptiness in a variety of ways:

  1. If we are energy/prana-deficient, we seek stimulation.
  2. If we are hyperactive and constantly on the go, we seek sedation.
  3. If the flow of prana is blocked and we are in pain, we self-medicate.
  4. If we are under stress, we often seek instant gratification through our senses.

These coping mechanisms: stimulation, sedation, medication, and instant gratification, are fully supported and even encouraged in our modern world of overdrive and hyper-sensory stimulation. The short-term pain relief created, however, is outweighed by the long-term progression of disturbed prana that can lead to depression, mental stagnation, denial, and addiction.

In YoR we investigate ways in which our prana is deranged and suggest Hatha Yoga, and especially pranayama, as therapy. Many rehabs offer Hatha Yoga classes. Breathing exercises should be emphasized as part of this practice; when stressful situations arise, it will likely be easier to quietly regulate the breath than practice asana. This is particularly the case for YoR, which used to resist cravings when faced with triggers for relapse. Such triggers can arise everywhere in our daily lives — social functions, criticism from our boss, disagreement with loved ones, etc. We also guide participants to select fresh, natural foods high in prana, and instruct in the use of Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT/Tapping) which is a quick method of alleviating craving intensity that reflects back to the wisdom of marma therapy of Ayurveda.

Here is a comment from one of our students on her understanding of prana:

When my prana is free-flowing I feel connected to the earth . . . connected to myself (I can believe the good in me — and I can believe in being of benefit to others). I feel connected to the tapestry of humankind (past, present and future) . . . and I feel creative . . . When my prana is not free-flowing all of the above become congested.

Click here to read the full article and find out more about the 6 tenets of YoR.

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