I’m about to write something that I know will be controversial. I know this because writing about drugs is always controversial. My intention is to stay as close to the facts as possible as I present my opinion on the matter concerning practicing yoga and doing “drugs.” It is also my intention to give you something to ponder today.
This whole topic is something that has been present for a while. In fact, as I was writing this I started to make the connection that in the 1960s when yoga was becoming mainstream in the West, so were drugs. There was a consciousness movement and both yoga and drugs happen to heighten consciousness. The Beatles were doing it, so it was definitely cool (so “they” say, I’m about 20 years too late for that party). Today, drugs remain popular, in different forms, and yoga continues to gain popularity. Consciousness is still a goal; however, mixing yoga and drugs does not give you an enhanced consciousness experience.
What I mean by drugs
First, let me clarify my position on what I mean when I say drugs. According to Dictionary.com, here are the various definitions of the word drug:
- Pharmacology. a chemical substance used in the treatment, cure, prevention, or diagnosis of disease or used to otherwise enhance physical or mental well-being.
- a. any substance recognized in the official pharmacopoeia or formulary of the nation.
b. any substance intended for use in the diagnosis, cure, mitigation, treatment, or prevention of disease in humans or other animals.
c. any article, other than food, intended to affect the structure or any function of the body of humans or other animals.
d. any substance intended for use as a component of such a drug, but not a device or a part of a device.
- a habit-forming medicinal or illicit substance, especially a narcotic.
My particular focus on the word drug here most closely reflects the definition provided above in 2c. Ingesting, smoking, injecting, inhaling, or absorbing any substance that gets into your blood stream and alters the chemical composition of the normal functioning of your body and/or mind is what I consider a drug.
That means alcohol is a drug. Marijuana is a drug. Even caffeine (when not in food, but then that gets into a whole debate about the definition of food — we’ll save that one for later). Medicinal plants that produce hallucinogenic responses are a drug.
I get it, “drug” is already a politicized term with connotations and knee-jerk responses. Non-food, brain-altering substances might be a better term, but it’s too long, so I’m sticking with the word drug. Just know, I use this word neutrally.
Why this is even a conversation worth having
A long, long time ago, I wrote an article in jest about yoga being the new “gateway drug.” The truth of that headline is that you can argue practicing yoga alters the normal chemical functioning of your brain. Little did I know that was the beginning of my understanding of this topic. Today you can look at the research. There’s a whole book you can buy from Harvard Medical School called Your Brain on Yoga that outlines how your brain functions when you practice yoga regularly and new studies every year document exactly how yoga changes body and brain function. One of the most recent studies published in April in the Journal of Alzheimers Disease looked at how a regular yoga practice can improve memory. The yoga group in this study specifically showed signs of better communication between parts of the brain that help us focus.
Back in 2010 when I first started working in the yoga industry in Boulder and Denver, I would hear about people who showed up to class drunk or high. Considering it was Boulder/Denver, it wasn’t all that surprising, but I still remember feeling both sad and confused. What is the point of taking a yoga class high or drunk? To move slower? To better connect to your energy? I fully understand how yoga helps me feel better, but I’ve yet to be convinced that drugs “enhance” well-being long-term.
I’ll be completely transparent and state that I have never done drugs, I drink alcohol sparingly because I don’t like the way it makes me feel, and even caffeine is too much for my body to handle. I can’t speak from personal experience in this area, which may be why this topic baffles me in the first place and sure, makes me biased. At the same time, I think it’s important to hear all voices in the discussion, so I’ll continue with my side.
A few years later in 2014 I read an article in Yoga Journal that validated the practice of practicing yoga high. I was both proud of Yoga Journal for writing an objective(ish) article on an interesting topic that deserves discussion (that’s the Journalism major in me) and appalled that there are enough people doing practicing yoga while using drugs that it’s a thing worth writing about in Yoga Journal in the first place.
While practicing yoga while high might be viewed as much more alarming outside of the West Coast, there has been an explosion of yoga events that combine beer and wine. Yoga classes offered in bars that include drinks and socialization afterwards. Yoga classes at wineries that include wine tasting and pretty views. Yoga retreats combined with craft brewing and wine tasting all over the world. Sounds fun! And although the intent (most of the time) is not to practice yoga drunk, but to practice yoga and then enjoy a drink to enhance your down-regulation, there still remains the question: What is the point? Why?
Because it’s fun doesn’t do the wisdom of the yoga practice justice.
The last straw for me came recently as I became educated on this not-so-new “medicinal” substance ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a plant commonly ingested as a brewed tea used by the Indigenous Peruvian tribes during shamanic rituals. The purpose of drinking this tea is to access higher spiritual dimensions. Purging (aka vomiting) is a common side effect and is viewed as a necessary component of the “experience” so that you can release negative energy holding you back from living your purpose.
I hold high regard for Ayurveda and they have practices that induce vomiting too, but only as a prescription for a very specific condition and only administered by a qualified doctor (hopefully). It’s not a widely accepted practice in the US, so to experience this Ayurvedic form of cleansing, you’d most likely have to go to India. Regardless, I am not a fan of vomiting, and have spent all my life doing everything I can to avoid it. So maybe that’s my problem.
Anyway, no thanks ayahuasca. I’ll take the harder, longer, slower, journey on the path of yoga to find my spiritual awakening. Right after I learned all about this new fad, I saw a local advertisement for a Ayahuasca retreat to Peru. Figures.
I know I’m the party pooper (but I’m not the only one!)
Now I know there are plenty of you out there who are going to tell me I’m no fun. That I’m taking myself and the practice of yoga too seriously. And maybe that’s true. But in a day and age where the word yoga gets slapped onto anything and everything, it’s important to remember and honor what the practice really is and be wise to understand what the practice is not.
This whole discussion is a great time to revisit what yoga is. When was the last time you asked yourself what yoga is? Do you have an answer? I’m not saying there is a right or wrong answer, but do you at least have an answer that feels true to you?
Debates like this one can easily become emotional and subjective. We have stories tied to our lives and we can get caught up in the right and the wrong based on our own world views. And that’s totally understandable, acceptable, and even expected. But what is not subjective is the authority, and one of the authorities on yoga is the Yoga Sutras. Here’s what the Yoga Sutras have to say about what yoga is.
Yoga Sutra 1.2-1.4 states:
Yoga citta vritti nirodhaha.
Tada drashtuh svarupe vasthanam.
Vritti sarupyam itaratra.
Yoga is the process of developing clear perception by setting aside the activities of the mind.
Then the seer abides in its true and unchanging essence, peacefully.
Otherwise, the thoughts will become our distorted view of our self and we will remain unpeaceful.
No mention of yoga postures, breathing or any type of tool to help us get to this peaceful state, just a general statement of fact that this is what yoga is all about: developing clear perception by getting to know yourself as you truly are, untarnished by ignorance, illusions, delusions, or thoughts that fool you.
You don’t have to like it or agree with it, but this is what the practice of yoga is all about. Based on this fact, anything that promotes a lack of clarity takes you farther away from yourself and farther away from the practice of yoga.
Practicing yoga and practicing drugs take you in opposite directions
You may have direct experience from your own escapades of being drunk or impaired. Often, under the influence of a chemically brain-altering substance you can’t think straight. Or maybe you function a little slower. A little more clumsy. You may make a fool of yourself. You may get super paranoid. You might feel great and then feel horrible. The morning after there may be a disconnect bridged by humor, disgust, shame, embarrassment or a whole slew of other feelings and/or memory loss. Using substances takes you farther away from your true Self.
The practice of yoga on the other hand, is more about finding balance. The practice itself is not an upper or a downer. It’s a balancer. Have you ever finished a practice feeling both a deep sense of calm at the same time that you feel strangely energized? That’s balance.
Have you continued to feel those effects, a sense of clarity, even after the practice has ended? That’s you maintaining a connection to your centered Self and developing a relationship with it without a dependency on the tools. That’s you remembering and living closer to your true Self.
In Chapter 11 of another authorative text, the Bhagavad Gita, Krishna gives Arjuna a glimpse of what the cosmic divine really looks like. It is thought in Yoga philosophy that the ability to see and experience the cosmic divine is the ultimate goal in life (in other words, a glimpse of what your true Self really looks like). Here’s a summary of Arjuna’s response:
Arjuna’s hair stood on end…”From heaven to earth, every quarter is full of your presence…[T]he three worlds tremble before your terrifying and marvelous cosmic form…I am thrilled to behold you as no one else has. But my mind is disturbed; I am terrified by your cosmic form…[M]ercifully show your more familiar form to me again.”
After Krishna transforms back into his “normal” self, Arjuna says: “Now that I see your gentle human form, my mind is tranquil and I am returned to normal.”
Krishna replies: “Only by constant and steady devotion can I be seen in my true cosmic form, and known…and realized.”
In this encounter, Arjuna essentially realizes he isn’t ready to handle the truth of the cosmic divine reality. When you take the time to actually read the descriptions Arjuna uses to describe what he’s seeing, it sounds pretty psychedelic. Lots of heads and arms and weapons and people and fire all at once. If that’s what we’re searching for and want to see, we have to be ready for the truth. We also can’t cheat. Krishna reminds us that the only way to get so clear you blend into the infinite is by practicing for a long time. Unfortunately, taking substances doesn’t count as “constant and steady devotion,” although it may afford you glimpses of some pretty weird shit that then makes you scared and paranoid…
This isn’t an either/or argument
I’m not saying you can’t drink or do drugs at all. If that’s your thing, you can choose to let that be your thing. If you practice yoga too, just be wise that you know what you’re practicing. Take some time to reflect what yoga is, why you’re practicing it and how it’s serving you. Yoga is powerful. Don’t muddy the power of developing clear perception with other practices designed to add more muck. Practicing yoga and then drinking wine is like cleaning your car and then going off-roading. You’re doing two activities that beget two completely different results on opposing ends of a spectrum. If your ultimate goal is to be clear, then you need to be clear about what paths will lead you to clarity and what paths will take you astray.
You can get addicted to yoga just like you can develop an addiction to certain drugs. The funny thing about the yoga addiction is that eventually there comes a time when life gets in the way and you lose your practice. It’s easy to be addicted but hard to do the work. With habit-forming drugs, the opposite is true. The drugs get in the way of your life. It’s easy to be addicted and you don’t have to do much work. When you lose your yoga practice, it’s the practice itself that brings you back. It’s the feeling you get when you finish a practice that leaves you saying something along the lines of “Why don’t I do this every day again?” That’s clarity. You’re getting closer to your Self. Brain-altering substances don’t give you any more clarity, just more confusion, more shame, more dependency. It’s hard to decide to stop drugs one day. It’s equally hard to continue a yoga practice day in and day out. Which hardship would you rather endure?
While it’s convenient to think that yoga and drugs both give us a high, they are in fact pointing us in completely opposite directions.
Be wise. You can have fun, but know what you’re practicing and why you’re doing it. Maybe that yoga at the winery retreat would better serve you if it was a yoga retreat and a separate winery retreat sometime else.
Yoga Sutra translations by Maryam Ovissi and Jafar Alexander.
Bhagavad Gita translations by Sri Swami Satchidananda