I don’t drink, I don’t smoke, I don’t indulge in any decadent foods, but I am an exercise addict. I have switched my brain to an autonomic kinesthetic response over the years. And if I don’t get my daily dose of yoga/fitness/dance I am agitated, angry and upset at myself. Even worse, I start having guilt trips and harassing myself. And this attachment to physical exercise has stuck with me since I was a child. And although I own a strong meditation practice it doesn’t seem to suffice. I have been wondering for many years what actually causes addictions. Is it a mental imbalance or is it related to a physical or emotional roadblock? And what can we do to eradicate addictions for good?
“Addictionologists” have studied this complex issue and discovered that some people particularly those addicted to opiates, may have deficiencies in their brain reward systems — fewer natural opiates circulating, for instance, or fewer receptor sites. For those addicts, years of abuse has desensitized their receptors, and they end up with altered pleasure thresholds. Other drug users gravitate toward their “drug of choice” to “self-medicate.” Heroin, for instance, is remarkably effective at “normalizing” people who suffer from delusions and hallucinations (mostly schizophrenics). Cocaine can quickly lift a depression, or enable a person with attention-deficit disorder to become better organized and focused. For these people, addiction is a troubling side effect to their adaptive attempts to relieve their own suffering.
I have observed many substance-dependent students throughout the years who make it into therapy and then show a profound inability to calm and soothe themselves when stressed. People with eating disorders are another illustration of the self-regulation mechanism gone haywire. These people suffer from a lack of control, due to emotional and mental vulnerability. They tend to believe that they are not the masters of their own fate, that control lies outside of them. For most drug users the philosophy of escaping suffering is the ultimate refuge. Just as a compulsive gambler’s hyper-involvement in the betting process blocks out his personal problems, an addict’s pursuit of his drug becomes so maniacal that everything else, including the psychological pain that drove him to the drug, is forgotten.
A lot of my female private students do not indulge in any drug, alcohol or food abuse, but they are pathological narcissists. Their self-absorption is profound that they can never relate to the world outside of them. I also find risk-takers to be adrenaline junkies that actually never experience the relaxation effect in life. They are constantly on fight or flight. While positive reinforcement — pleasure, getting high — entices a person to use a drug again after experimenting with it, continued use is often a function of negative reinforcement. Tobacco smokers and opiate users experience this the most: Their motivation to use the drug is not to experience pleasure, but to relieve their withdrawal symptoms.
But what happens in the brain? Most of these abusers release brain chemicals related to fear, stress or alienation. After their euphoria fades, they are suffering again. Even worse these addicts crave the substance abuse long after they have stopped using it. The craving response is triggered immediately and they fall back into the vicious circle.
From a yogic perspective addiction itself can be a misguided spiritual search. Many people who don’t see themselves as particularly spiritual find that when they get sober they have some longing in them, and that their addiction, in one form or another, has been a longing for connection.
As you practice yoga we check into reality. You suddenly realize that a spiritual crisis can be a gift on the path to spiritual maturity. As you learn to accept this gift you will feel reborn. When you are trying to recover you are in a transitory mode – neither here nor there. You are between worlds. Like a snake undergoing a brief period of blindness after shedding its skin, you are temporarily sightless. As you transcend the lament of: “Why is this happening to me?” you seek a greater purpose behind the crisis. During this acute phase you’ll most likely experience and affliction, called “asmita”, which is a disruption of the ego, or the sense of “I am” and a tendency to cling to old definitions of self. As you leave your unhealthy world behind you might experience a profound sense of separation. This feeling of letting go asks for a more grounding, internally reflective practice.
Your challenge now is to take a good look at the way you’ve been living and to weed out old habits and beliefs that once fortified your ego but no longer serve you. As you do that you are jumping into the abyss that has long defined you. While it can be frightening facing the inner void clears the slate, making way for change and regeneration. Once you sit with the true cause of your addiction without being consumed but it or over-identifying with it you have accessed a state of rigorous honesty. You are ready for an extraordinary pilgrimage into the depths of your own underworld. Like a mythical phoenix you burn in the fire of your cravings and you emerge to life again in mature form. You found your divine self.
By doing restorative yoga, affirming positively and adopting a healthy life style you will manage to calm and purify your taxed nervous system. You will be able to meet all the challenges with grit and determination. You will embrace the Eastern perspective on addiction and acknowledge that it is not a separate ailment, but rather a condition on the continuum of human suffering. As you draw your attention to the cause of suffering you become open to embracing new behaviors. These ancient practices will calm you down and lead you to say to yourself: “I am alright. Deep down I’m alright…”
Whether it’s found through yoga, cognitive deprogramming or any other body-mind approach, the experience of spiritual wellbeing seems to be the key to helping many people break the cycle of addiction in their lives. I personally find that a longing for something lurks at the bottom of the issue of addiction. Aren’t all addicts seekers, wanting to experience something out of the ordinary? Something magical. And what better magic to add to the path of clean living than yoga, breathing and meditation?
As you learn to recognize and accept the extraordinary power of change and develop the art of surrender, you will be rewarded with an awakening of the natural alignment between body, mind and spirit that already dwells within you.
Anti-addiction Yoga Routine: Break The Loop (open level)
This Yogea routine combines deep breathing with poses that deprogram the mind and allow the body to recover from obsessive disorders. A funnel breathing in the solar plexus rewires the brain to unhook from bad habits. A gentle massage on the diaphragm actives the solar plexus and helps you reconsider your sense of self. The sequence opens up with gentle backbends and shoulder rolls to awaken the spine and empower the body to reclaim its lost physicality. Soft inversions with lateral leg extensions fire up core, arms and legs and proceed into kneeling side lunges and bound twists that open up the chest and stimulate self-confidence. Low lunges alternate with standing stamina boosters. Standing forward bends curve into lateral abductor stretches and hip openers, coupled with kneeling and seated twists to release fixed imprints stored in the body’s joints. The arms, legs and core are further geared up through intense backbends in tabletop and deep forward folds paired with twists to release toxic emotional and mental residue. The body is elevated again to vertical and then anchored down through reclining twists, making it resilient and adaptive to change. The adrenals are gently massaged in the wind-down and the fight or flight response of the body is tamed. A loving relaxation and meditation re-kindles the child within and paves the way to trust and recovery.