How Applying Ayurvedic Therapeutic Practices Works in Working with Addiction

Originally circulated in the NAMA (National Ayurvedic Medical Association) newsletter

By Jessica Ferrol, AD, MHC, CYT, PKS

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that at least 72,000 Americans died from drug overdoses in 2017. This number does not include people who died from conditions related to alcohol or cigarettes. The same source asserts that 480,000 Americans die each year from smoking-related illness alone. The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism estimates that 88,000 die from alcohol- related conditions. It is not known how many Americans suffer from some form of addiction, but these statistics reveal a frightening reality.

Addiction is a disease without a specific cure. Treatment involves managed care. Substance abuse ranks as a leading cause of sickness and death, and addiction itself is now recognized as a chronic disease that causes long-term changes in neuronal activity patterns.

Most addictive substances cause the brain to release hormones that elicit a feeling of pleasure and, at high doses, euphoria. Addiction occurs when an individual has abused a substance or substances to the point that the brain loses the capacity to naturally generate pleasure hormones, leaving the individual to rely on one or more substances to achieve a feeling of normalcy. In fact, nothing about an addicted brain is normal.

Āyurveda, as a holistic healthcare system, provides a complete maintenance approach to supporting sobriety with daily self-care practices and routines that promote physical rejuvenation and mental well-being and restore a normal physical state over time. Āyurvedic theory states that all humans naturally experience kama (“the desire for pleasure”) and that this longing and the wish to avoid pain are basic survival instincts shared by all organisms. Āyurveda also asserts that the attachment to pleasure and the avoidance of pain can lead to disease if pursued at any cost. Addiction is a case in point: The addict will sacrifice nearly everything to feel a high. In the deepest throes of addiction, the addict will sustain a dangerous lifestyle simply to find a feeling of normalcy.

The Āyurvedic practitioner may use the conceptual theory of the five sheaths as a foundation for treatment of addiction. The theoretical understanding of the five sheaths provides a map of how to access body (annamaya kosha), breath (pranamaya kosha), mind (manomaya kosha), intelligence (vijnamaya kosha) and consciousness (anandamaya kosha) as well a way to understand how these parts are connected or can become disconnected.

Addiction is a disease that takes residence in the body, breath, and mind sheaths and creates a disconnect from the intelligence and consciousness sheaths. Disconnection from intelligence results in an inability to discern reality from illusion, causing the mind to become flooded by irrational, obsessive thoughts. These negatively affect the movement of breath and create a state of hyperarousal (“heightened anxiety, fear, or anger and increased sensitivity to stimuli”) or hypoarousal (a feeling of depression, lethargy, or paralysis) in the physical body.

The addict hopes to achieve a feeling of normalcy by using a drug. In fact, the drug is dangerous, and it works against this end. When the short-term effect of the drug goes away, the addicted mind is once again overwhelmed with irrational, obsessive thoughts. It is in a physically worsened condition, and the cycle of substance abuse begins again. Addicts might instead employ Āyurvedic practices, which may bring stability to the mind and return the body to a well-regulated state. Over time, these practices may re-establish access to innate intelligence. Connection to innate intelligence is crucial to relapse prevention.

Proper diet, adequate sleep, and a healthy sensory environment will help minimize cravings. A safe environment is essential in order to deny access to substances that can be abused. Herbs will support the body in detoxifying while also sedating the nervous system. The overall goal is to guide clients to re-inhabit their body, to return home. By cultivating awareness and sensory connection to the physical body, the addicted client ignites activity in the root chakra and circulates a feeling of safety and stability through the mind. This in turn sets the stage for cellular repair to heal the body.

Restoration of the breath involves recovery of the natural, instinctual breath through meditative practices. Life events that are stored as implicit memory affect the natural depth of inhalation and the natural length of exhalation. Recovery of full inhale and full exhale through gentle breathing exercises creates a state of equilibrium in the parasympathetic and sympathetic nervous systems, generating an overall feeling of regulation in the mind and body.

The practitioner must guide the addicted client to the sensation of body through yoga asanas or meditative practices. This will slow the thought process and calm the mind. Trauma often accompanies addiction. Āyurvedic practitioners should be careful not to trigger the client while navigating the terrain of the mind. It might, therefore, be helpful to support this process with one-on-one therapy as well as group therapy, guided by trained mental health counselors.

The following is a method of healing that works with body, breath, and mind:

Come into a comfortable position that feels supportive for your spine. Feel yourself intentionally withdraw your awareness from the outer environment into the inner terrain. Drop into the body through the breath. Track the movement of breath by feeling the air draw deeply into the nostrils, and follow it to the very end of the exhale. As the body drinks in the air, notice the physical feeling of needs being met. Invite the emotional heart to take in what it needs with the movement of incoming breath. Notice how your body responds to the words “I have all I need in this moment.” Then, turn your awareness to the sensation of letting go that is present in every exhale. Invite the emotional heart to release that which it no longer needs with the movement of outgoing breath. Notice how the body responds to the words “I belong.” Make a note of how your body feels at this moment. As you slowly turn your awareness back toward outer environment, stay in contact with inner body sensation. See if you can maintain awareness of inner sensation while you engage with the world around you."