Alexander Medin is an internationally renowned Ashtanga yoga teacher from Oslo, Norway, where he runs yoga programs for drug addicts, and teaches yoga in prisons. In a TEDx talk he gave, he shared the following story: “Helge, when I met him, had been on methadone for five years. He was on 100 ml a day, and (normally) 50 ml is enough to kill a person. (...) When we met eighteen months ago, he was complaining about his poor health, and he just wanted to get healthy again. So I said, ‘OK, come! Let’s try some yoga!’ To make a long story short, he came, and within a few weeks he felt a new spark – and believe it or not, after six months of practicing yoga, Helge stopped using methadone entirely. Now I don’t know if you know much about opiod addiction, but if quitting heroin is hard, quitting methadone is much, much harder.”
You may have heard about the benefits of yoga, but what, you may ask, could explain such a radical transformation? The answer lies in yoga’s ability to support healing, and to calm the mind. Ashtanga yoga is particularly beneficial for recovering addicts, as it is very powerful for detoxifying the body. It has a profoundly stimulating effect on the inner organs – the stretches, twists and bends, even when performed incompletely, help the body initiate a deep cleansing process, help the tissues drain themselves, and loosen tensions in muscles and joints. Yoga also acts powerfully on digestion, sleeping patterns, the nervous system, and mental activity. This is one reason many addicts hardly recognize themselves after just a few weeks of committed yoga practice – the basic bodily functions are returned to balance, and the body is restored to its natural state, something which may not have happened for years. When this happens, thoughts and emotions also become much saner and normal. Yoga can considerably accelerate a return to health.
Even after the initial phase of transition to abstinence has passed, yoga remains an invaluable tool. For as we all know, the real problem in addictive behaviors is the mind. It is in the mind that we experience cravings, uncontrollable impulses or compulsions, an inability to deal with situations, people, or spend time alone with ourselves. Through the practice of postures and conscious breathing, yoga helps release deep-seated tensions and pent-up emotions, it slowly cleanses the psyche and makes the mind clear and stable. It is common knowledge that some form of exercise is beneficial during recovery, but while the effects of a run or a swim might wear off after a few hours once the endorphin rush has passed, the well-being induced by a morning yoga practice can persist throughout the day. And in the longer term, because it is so holistic, yoga can transform a person’s entire way of being. Over time, the effects of yoga gradually pervade the whole life of a practitioner, so that negative or self-destructive mindsets arise less and less frequently, and sometimes disappear altogether.
But the benefits of yoga don’t end there. As substance abusers, we often have this silly notion that we were more or less OK before we started using, and if we could only go back to that version of ourselves, we would be alright. But deep down we know this is nonsense – if the previous self had been fine, there would never have been substance abuse in the first place. Yoga can take us to a place we had never imagined before, and become a far more stable and grounded person. In recovery there is only one direction to go in, and that is forwards. Yoga supports that journey on every level, from the physical to the psychological, and ultimately on to the spiritual. This is why Russell Brand, the British comedian, is such a vocal advocate of yoga as a tool for recovery and life, and why he is so open about how yoga helped open a door to the spiritual dimension that was missing in is life as an active addict.
However, for all the wonders of yoga, as Alexander reminds us: “Yoga is not the solution to all your problems.” Helge didn’t just give up using methadone. He also took part in community projects, and engaged in service. He didn’t just retreat into blissful solitude. He became a useful member of society. But Alexander continues: “Yoga can help you look at who you are, and you can start to address your problems, rather than trying to escape them.” This can be a frightening experience, but looking within is an inescapable part of the recovery process. Yoga can be a mirror – and for many addicts, it may be the most powerful one they have encountered yet. “But could yoga work for me?” you might ask. Go buy a yoga mat and find out.
Youtube (Alexander Medin, Gangster Yoga, TEDx Arendal)