In olden times kids died of diseases like leukemia or tuberculosis. By the time I started high school, young people were finding much more creative ways to check out. Michael took a couple of cubes of LSD and stood out on the train tracks enjoying the spectacular sights and sounds of the Amtrak Express—right up till it hit him. Thorbjörn stunned us all by dying suddenly of hepatitis—he’d been injecting heroin with a dirty needle. Carolyn got so drunk she climbed into her dad’s Buick and apparently decided to run down a tree. The tree survived. Being the prissy fussbudget I’ve always been, I couldn’t help wondering: Isn’t there a safer way to get high?
Considering how pervasive drugs and drinking are in our culture, it’s amazing how few people stop and consider the cost/benefit ratio of different ways of getting high.
Obviously not everyone who uses drugs or alcohol ODs or forgets to step out of the way of an oncoming train. Most people drink responsibly, and some recreational drugs, like marijuana, even have proven benefits for particular medical conditions. But considering how pervasive drugs and drinking are in our culture, it’s amazing how few people stop and consider the cost/benefit ratio of different ways of getting high.
People generally take mind-altering and mood-altering drugs for four reasons:
Increase their energy level.
Relax and lower their anxiety level.
Experience a blissful, euphoric state.
Explore other dimensions of consciousness.
Yoga and meditation produce all these results—without the harmful effects of alcohol and drugs. Let’s take a closer look at how yoga stacks up against drug use.
Getting drunk is perhaps the most time-honored way of getting a buzz in Western culture, yet alcohol is one of the most toxic substances you can buy without a prescription. Long-term use has proven its debilitating effects on the liver, brain, heart, pancreas, stomach lining, and immune system. Even short-term use can have catastrophic results. Binge drinking can actually depress biological systems to the point of shutting down the breathing reflex. In a number of highly publicized cases, students at high school and college campuses have gone into a coma and died, thanks to tanking up on more alcohol than their body could handle.
Alcoholism is one of the most common, and most serious, social problems in Western countries. Because the function of the front lobe of the brain is partially disabled when the alcohol content of the blood rises, a person loses not only the ability to drive but also the ability to sense that they are in no condition to get behind the wheel of a car. Driving under the influence is a leading cause of death and disability.
Alcoholism is one of the most common, and most serious, social problems in Western countries.
Why do people drink? To relax, loosen up, and wash their problems out of their mind, at least temporarily. In yogic terms, alcohol is a tamasic way to get high. It leads to a lowering of inhibition that some people find pleasant. It also leads to a general lowering of consciousness as one enters an increasing state of stupor, depending on how much one drinks.
Hatha yoga exercises and meditation are also about relaxing and loosening up. But with yoga we aim at relaxing into a state of clarity and lucidity. Hatha yoga tones and invigorates the very physical organs that alcohol attacks. And meditation provides the focus and objectivity that help us face our problems in life, rather than running away from them.
Almost everyone in the West is addicted to stimulants of one kind or another. It’s understandable: our lives are busy and demanding, and anything that enhances our energy level can seem like a gift from God. Many of us can’t imagine getting through the day without caffeine. Likewise, nicotine provides a light buzz, and also stimulates the pleasure center in the brain; unfortunately the form in which it’s delivered—tobacco products—can be lethal over the long run.
More powerful stimulants, both physician-prescribed and illegal, are also widely used today. Cocaine was once often recommended by doctors and psychiatrists; early in his career Sigmund Freud was an enthusiastic proponent. During the Vietnam War, amphetamines were routinely provided to American servicemen (thus producing a generation of drug-addicted veterans). Till recently, stimulants like Dexedrine and Benzedrine were widely prescribed for problems ranging from asthma to weight control to depression.
The problem with stimulants like these powerful drugs is that they crank up the brain’s production of neurotransmitters such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which provides a hit of energy and elevates the mood. But the brain can churn out only so many biochemicals before it crashes. The depleted brain then sends out signals of distress, which create the symptoms of withdrawal and intense craving for another dose of the chemical stimulant. Extended use can damage the brain so severely that full-blown psychosis may result.
From a yogic perspective, cocaine and amphetamines, which excite the nervous system without replenishing it, are a rajasic way to self-medicate. The deep relaxation they provide allows the tensions draining your life-force to melt away. Yoga is a sattvic way to energize your body and mind. It induces a calm and innervated state that enhances the stamina you need to stay the course of your busy schedule and keeps you connected with the inner resources you need to meet the day’s demands.
From a yogic perspective, cocaine and amphetamines, which excite the nervous system without replenishing it, are a rajasic way to self-medicate.
In previous decades it was easy to OD on barbiturates, and they were a notorious cause of premature death. The difference between a legal dose and a lethal dose of these pharmaceutical depressants was negligible. Today a relatively safer class of depressants is usually prescribed. These include common medications like Ativan, Valium, Xanax, and Dalmane. They’re often used to help people deal with stress and reduce anxiety, or help them get some sleep, and for severely fearful or high-strung patients, they can be lifesavers. But the problem is, they don’t resolve the problem; they treat the symptoms of anxiety without addressing the underlying cause.
At some point we have to face the reality of our condition, the garbage in our mind, and the bad habits that are sabotaging our happiness.
According to the yoga masters, we’re not on this planet just to work, sleep, and watch TV. Each of us has a purpose in life and important lessons to learn. We can’t duck out on our spiritual lessons forever; at some point we have to face the reality of our condition, the garbage in our mind, and the bad habits that are sabotaging our happiness. Hatha yoga is an excellent way to bring the body and brain into balance. Together with a meditation practice it empowers you to face, control, and release your fears. It puts you in control of your life; ultimately you don’t need a drug to prop up your psyche.
Opiates have been used for thousands of years to treat pain and increase endurance. Today refined forms of opiates such as morphine and heroin, as well as synthetic versions, are common street drugs. These are seductive chemicals, for they produce a sense of euphoria. Unfortunately, even small doses quickly lead to addiction. Without another dose, nasty withdrawal symptoms set in. And as the addict increases the dosage, even more serious medical problems may ensue, including respiratory arrest.
Ananda, or bliss, is one of the symptoms often associated with deep meditation. Interestingly, as people enter deeper states of meditation, their breathing often slows spontaneously. Yogis experience “respiratory arrest” in a natural and carefully modulated manner that enhances concentration and clarity. The yogi is in control, not the drug. There is no addiction, no withdrawal, and no danger. Yogis emerge from their meditations healthy and refreshed, not shaky and ill as many drug users do.
In the late 1960s there was a tremendous spurt of experimentation with hallucinogenic drugs like LSD, as well as with substances like peyote and magic mushrooms that some Native Americans incorporated in their spiritual work. Just about all of us who remember those times also recall friends or acquaintances who seriously injured themselves, or frightened themselves out of their wits, on a bad trip. One of my friends jumped out of a fifth-floor window, believing he could fly. He’s spent the last thirty years in a wheelchair.
Ironically, true stories about bad trips turned many drug users away from LSD to potentially even more dangerous drugs like Ecstasy or crack cocaine. In the last few years, though, hallucinogens have been making a comeback on the streets.
The original reason for experimenting with hallucinogens was to undertake a spiritual journey and to understand the mind better. Yet there is no safer and more spiritually authenticated path to inner knowledge than yoga. The yoga masters have thoroughly explored the inner world and mapped out practices to unfold our spiritual potentials in a methodical and progressive manner that keeps our body healthy, our emotions stable, and our mind clear. While drugs like LSD and PCP produce interesting sensory distortions, yoga helps us avoid a distorted view of reality. Yoga leads to the truths beyond the brain, not to a wild-goose chase through the endless maze of chemical phenomena that occur within the brain.
Many mind-altering substances are dangerous, expensive, and illegal. Yoga is safe and free, and won’t get you in trouble with the law. It doesn’t require a prescription, either. So how come for every one yoga student, there are hundreds of other people pouring out a cocktail, lighting up a joint, or snorting coke.
Yoga has one major liability: it requires self-effort. Drugs and booze do it for you; with yoga, you’ve got to do it for yourself. If you’re going to start a hatha routine or a meditation practice, you won’t get far without discipline and self-awareness. It’s a lot easier to take a pill or sip a martini. But when you practice yoga, you come out a stronger, healthier, calmer, more creative, and more effective person. Can you say the same for the person who relies on alcohol or drugs?
For those who are willing to do the work, there is a better way than drugs.
I respect the right of each individual to make their own lifestyle choices. Yet when I think of my fellow high school students who didn’t make it, or my friend Jack in his wheelchair, I’m grateful for yoga. For those who are willing to do the work, there is a better way than drugs.
Sit up comfortably with your head, neck, and spine straight.
Close your eyes and allow your body to relax. Your back stays straight but it should feel at ease, not forced or strained.
Pay attention to your breath for a few minutes. It should be even, slow, and smooth. If it’s jerky or shallow, relax another minute till your breathing is a little deeper and flows without jerking or stopping.
Bring your full awareness to your heart. Focus not so much on the physical organ as on the feeling of peace and expansiveness that radiates out from your heart area.
If thoughts or mental images interrupt your meditation, simply dismiss them. Don’t fight with your uninvited thoughts. Just turn your attention back to your breath or to the warm, expansive feeling in your heart.
After a few minutes, release your attention into the peaceful silence you sense within. Enjoy the state of silent, pure awareness.
Open your eyes and sit quietly. Assimilate the tranquility and mental clarity you experienced in your meditation.
When my friend John visited a psychiatric institute in Bangalore, India, he was amazed to find two signs pointing down two separate corridors, one stating “Psychiatric Emergencies” and the other “Kundalini Cases.” The staff there explained that while we in the West often see psychiatric disorders resulting from ill-advised drug experimentation, in India (where most people can’t afford drugs) some suffer mental breakdowns from ill-advised spiritual practices. The most common cause is launching into advanced (breathing exercises) without years of preparatory exercises under the close guidance of a competent teacher.
Some pranayama techniques involve hyperventilation; others call for breath retention over extensive periods of time. Both can produce a type of euphoria—and both can cause serious damage when performed with greater enthusiasm than wisdom. Breath retention, in particular, can cause brain damage, neurological disorders, and serious heart abnormalities. Pranayama has its place in the exploration of higher states of consciousness, but no yoga student should engage in advanced breathing practices without guidance.