Freedom from Addiction
Jen Levin started smoking cigarettes when she was 15. "I always used to say that my favorite cigarette was the cigarette after yoga," says the 32 year-old playwright from Los Angeles. She practiced hatha yoga sporadically and continued her pack-a-day habit until she made a commitment to try Kundalini Yoga at the Golden Bridge yoga studio in Los Angeles. There, Gurmukh Kaur Khalsa pushes her students to their physical and mental limits with vigorous breaths-of-fire and her propensity to teach one asana for up to 11 minutes. "As I saw my body and mind get stronger, smoking began to make me sick, and it no longer made sense," Levin says. "I realized that if I could endure the pain in my body, then I could deal with the pain of not having a cigarette."
Levin used yoga as a tool to help rid herself of her addiction. Similarly, addiction specialists in private practice, rehabilitation programs, and 12-step recovery programs are starting to recognize that the mind-body-spirit approach of yoga is a great adjunct therapy to conventional treatments for drug, alcohol, and food abuse as well as addictive behaviors like gambling and shopping. "Yoga treats the biology and the psychology of an addict," explains New York City addiction psychotherapist Mary Margaret Frederick, Ph.D. "Addicts are profoundly out of control internally. They have knee-jerk panic reactions and tempers. The will and determination yoga requires helps people regain control over their body and their mind."
According to the U. S. Department of Health and Human Services, in 2000, 12 million Americans (or 6.3 percent of the population over the age of 12) used illicit drugs. The same survey reported that almost half of Americans 12 and older said they drink and that more than 5 percent of that drinking population are heavy drinkers. It is also estimated that 65.5 million Americans aged 12 and up used some kind of tobacco product. Certainly not all of these people are addicts, but the financial and emotional costs of those who do abuse drugs and alcohol are high. A study conducted for the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimated the total cost related to treatment, prevention, health care, lost earnings, crime, and social welfare was $245.7 billion in 1992 alone.
And for those who do become addicts, long-term dependency on drugs and alcohol takes a physical toll. Getting used to living sober is equally challenging psychologically. "Yoga is hard for addicts who worked very hard to get addicted and stay addicted," observes Kaur Khalsa. She speaks from personal experience, having spent eight years of her early adulthood addicted to a variety of illicit drugs. "The minds of addicts are shattered and scattered. They have a lot of pent-up emotions that the drugs pacify. To stay sober they have to work 10 times as hard."