Prolegomena to a Guide for the Emerging Yoga Shaman

Prolegomena to a Guide for the Emerging Yoga Shaman

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[Reader’s Note: This was originally posted on the Reality Sandwich website, here is the link: http://www.realitysandwich.com/yoga_shaman

You can read the comments on the piece there.  I am the author.

This essay was also included in Daniel PInchbeck and Ken Jordan’s recent collection,

Exploring the Edge Realms of Consciousness,  which you can take a look at  HERE.

Exploring_the_Edge_Realms_of_Consciousness

“While our modern secular culture denies the existence of a spiritual dimension to life, many of our popular postsecular movements of mysticism still refuse to address the question of spirits.  Philosophers such as Ken Wilber tend to reduce them to psychological tropes or delusions.  Based on my own experiences, I strongly suspect we need to attain a more sophisticated understanding of how spirits may operate, as well as a set of techniques for dealing with them, before we can approach higher states and stages of development.  We cannot have “Spirit” without spirits.” –Daniel Pinchbeck, Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age, p. 4

I begin with Daniel’s quote because not only did it speak to me personally when I first read it, but no doubt if you are a member of Reality Sandwich/Evolver, you also share this sentiment.   Perhaps you, like me, wonder whether and how the paths of yoga and shamanism intersect, and how accessing non-ordinary states of consciousness (NOSC) might be helpful for us yoga practitioners in the West.  You might also have wondered what use psychoactive aids, or “plant sacraments,” have for the contemporary yoga practitioner, especially those of us who have told that it is not a “pure” yogic path, and not one that has much to do with the ultimate goal of moksha (liberation).

Let’s begin by looking at how yoga and shamanism can be seen as distinct disciplines, viewing it from the perspective of a very well-regarded scholar of yoga, Georg Feuerstein, who has done quite a bit of research into this very subject.

Feuerstein’s most current published view on the relationship between Yoga and Shamanism to date is as follows:

“The development of Yoga’s heritage spans at least five millennia and may go back into the dim past of the early Neolithic age.  Conceivably, Yoga emerged out of the Shamanism of the Paleolithic, but at this point in our knowledge of Yoga’s history this is mere speculation.  Certainly Yoga and Shamanism have many features in common, though the final purpose is quite distinct: Whereas Yoga aims at spiritual liberation (moksha), Shamanism is primarily concerned with what in Yoga would be called the ‘subtle dimension’ and with so-called magical feats and healing service to the community.” (p. 35)

That said, Feuerstein will be the first to admit that
shamanism is widespread even today in India, particularly among the Shaivites, or yogis who follow the tradition of Shiva.  Thus in the 2005 film, “Origins of Yoga: Quest for the Spiritual,” Feuerstein makes the following assertion:

“Many yogis also fulfill the role of the shaman, whereby they serve the community as healers, magicians, wise men, and so on.”

One only need look at the practices and of the Naga Babas (the most radical of Shaivites) to see unmistakable signs of shamanism: Use of psychoactive herbs (ganja, datura, etc.), ecstatic dance and song, the use of the dhuni (firepit) which confers healing and blessing upon the community, asceticism, siddhis (magical powers), initiatory rites, etc.   Dr. Wolf-Dieter Storl, writing in his book Shiva: The Wild God of Power and Ecstasy, comments that, “When confronted with the image of Shiva, an anthropologist will most likely think of a Super-Shaman,” (p. 34), as Shiva, in the form of Nataraja, Lord of the Dance, carries a drum in one hand, and a fire in the other.

Feuerstein’s reply to this is that, yes, it is true that many yogis fulfill the role of the shaman, yet the domain of the yogi (or yogin) extends beyond that of the shaman:

“The yogin’s ultimate purpose, however is to go beyond the subtle levels of existence explored by the shaman, and to realize the transcendental Being, which is transdimensional and unqualified, and which the yogin knows to be his innermost identity.  Thus, whereas the shaman is a healer or miracle-worker, the yogin is primarily a transcender.  But in the spiritual ascent to the transcendental Reality, the yogin is likely to gather a great deal of knowledge about the subtle realms (sukshma-loka).  This explains why many yogins have demonstrated extraordinary abilities and have long been looked upon by the Indian people as miracle workers and magicians.  From the yogic point of view, however, the paranormal abilities possessed by many adepts are insignificant by comparison with the ultimate attainment of Self-Realization, or enlightenment.” (The Yoga Tradition, p. 95)

In other words, to use the language of Ken Wilber, the yogi “transcends and includes” the shaman — the role of the shaman tends to be part of the yogi job description, yes, but that job description also entails exploring and embodying the causal realms, not only the astral planes.   Yet it is important to note here that Feuerstein does not discount the importance of the yogi’s consciously familiarizing him or herself with the subtle planes of existence (via astral travel, use of psychoactives, etc.), both for the sake of her own evolution, but also to serve as a healer and intermediary for the community.   In other words, while not the goal, for Feuerstein there’s certainly a place for shamanism in Yoga.

But what of Feuerstein’s supposition that the shaman does not access the causal dimensions, while the yogi can and does?  Is there any evidence to support such a claim?    This brings us back to the original quote from Daniel, and into a scholarly debate that has been going on for some time between Stanislav Grof and Ken Wilber.

I’m not sure how aware Daniel was of this debate when he made his criticism of Wilber, but Grof and other transpersonal psychologists have been leveling similar critiques for years.   In his critical essay, “Ken Wilber’s Spectrum Psychology,” in which Grof confronts Wilber on a number of key points, Grof makes the following statement, almost as if directly responding to Feuerstein as well:

“Shamanic literature, as well as the personal experiences of many anthropologists with shamans, leaves little doubt that they regularly have spiritual experiences not only of the subtle realms, but also of the causal realms.”[i]

No doubt Feuerstein would argue that we’re talking here about the over-arching goals or premises of shamanism and yoga, not what some yogis or shamans might actually access in their own personal experience. Both Feuerstein and Wilber seem to hold the great Indian sage, Ramana Maharishi[ii] in very high esteem, and they would no doubt suggest that in the world of shamanism we don’t find individuals who have similarly attained to Ramana’s level of consciousness.

While this is a point well worth deeply considering and probing, Grof would no doubt suggest that shamans are on the same path of integration, and access many of the same levels in their NOSCs, as perhaps even Ramana Maharishi did in his years of solitude on Arunachala on his way to ultimately becoming the universally honored sage he subsequently became.[iii] However, as I am not as familiar with shamanism as I am with yoga, I cannot directly point to a personage in the wide world of shamanism who clearly reached a similar pinnacle in their evolution.

Let me just add a personal note here, though, and say that during my own initial ayahuasca experience — the most harrowing, hallowing episode of this earthly incarnation, I hasten to add (next to my birth, which I don’t remember) — I did feel as if it were a kind of shamanic initiation, involving a profound sense that egoic body-mind complex was being dismembered and ultimately reconstituted.  Once the final re-integration was complete, I experienced myself (Self) as “pure awareness” devoid of egoity.  At that point, there were no more “vrittis,” or mental modifications, to use the language of the Yoga Sutras, I was truly in the state of Yoga.  In simpler terms, I was experiencing the causal ground of Being, at this point, not any astral dimension but a “transpersonal” state of consciousness.

Put simply, my shamanic journey took me through the astral into the causal, and ultimately back into a sense of “ahamkara,” or narrow self-consciousness — “The Box” — though a considerably expanded box, to be sure.

Now, Wilber does not deny the reality of these experiences for the experiencer, but he does seem to distinguish between what he calls “back door” (or “regressive”) transpersonal experiences, and “front door” experiences.   The former are induced via therapies such as Holotropic breathwork, rebirthing, psychedelics, hypnosis, etc., whereas the “front door” experiences come about spontaneously through practices such as meditation and other “consciousness disciplines.”[iv]

To get a better understanding of what Wilber means by all of this, let’s “listen” to an excerpt from a somewhat less formal talk with the Integral philosopher.   Please note that here Wilber’s humorous but derogatory designation “druggies” could substitute for the “back door” men, and “meditators” for those who do It through the front door:

“My sense is that the people I know that have done it responsibly, have gained a lot from using psychedelics to open up a certain space. But there are downsides. Particularly in this movement, you find there are two general approaches to consciousness studies. One is the druggies, and one is the meditators.

“And the druggies are into altered states, and the meditators are into stages. And the meditators believe that you have to actually discipline and work and it’s four years, ten years, fifteen years, to reach a stable realization of these higher states and stages. And the psychedelic or drug side is much more into altered states, ayahuasca, LSD, any sort of number of altered states, and they don’t tend to get into permanent realizations based on these things.

“I happen to believe that both of these models — I use states and stages — I believe both of them are required. But there’s kind of an acrimony between these two groups. There are very few people that do drugs and are serious meditators. And the people that only do drugs, I think eventually it kind of tends to catch up in a way. I don’t see permanent realization coming from these things, I don’t see permanent access to some of these higher states, and I think at some point the simple neurological noise of the ingredients starts to almost outshine the luminosity that was there, perhaps, at the beginning.

“And so the people I know that I’ve watched over thirty years that have done only drugs have becoming increasingly, frankly, unpleasant people, and disillusioned, and sad, in certain ways. It’s not to say that meditators do all that much better, but there is at least a chance with meditators that you can have a permanent realization that is enduring and not merely a transitory state.

“I think people do better if they either have a judicious combination of the two, or if they do mostly meditation. And my recommendation is don’t just do drugs, because people tend to get into trouble, and the theories I see coming out of people that just do drugs are frankly pretty wacky theories. They don’t take enough evidence into account, they are not inclusive enough, they don’t include other types of data and evidence and I think they’ re very partial.”[v]

So there you have it.  Of course, although Wilber doesn’t mention Grof or Mckenna by name, they are to be numbered among “the druggies” whose theories are “pretty wacky.”   You’ll note that this interview was from April, 2001, almost exactly one year after Mckenna’s passing due to brain cancer, possibly caused by extensive use of high doses of psychedelics (Terence himself suggested it was due to his cannabis use).[vi]

Although I sense that there is general support for the Pinchbeck-Mckenna-Grof side of things among those who are reading this essay, and my own current view is that it seems about time that we emerging yoga shamans start to use “any means necessary” and available to us to explore the inner and outer Cosmos, I do feel that Wilber’s general point here is very valid, namely that a combination of entheogens AND meditation seems to be the wisest route.  Let ayahuasca be the means of cleansing the doors of perception, if that is your path, but further elaborate and deepen into such expanded states of consciousness via slower, more stable means such as a meditative discipline.

That said, I don’t know that we can really make such sweeping judgements about “druggies” like Mckenna.   I don’t see him as having been unpleasant, disillusioned, or sad, as Wilber suggests (nor Grof, for that matter), and actually I feel much more inspired by him and Grof at this point than I ever have by Wilber.  I sense the reason could be that Wilber’s use of psychedelics is rather limited — he openly admits that one long LSD experience in college pretty much scared him away from psychedelics, until he got into MDMA in the early ‘80s, making a point to note that it was still legal then (though E is not a psychedelic per se) — and I really feel that it is a cardinal principle of debate that one really shouldn’t theorize about what one has not personally experienced in a direct, intimate way.  How can Wilber really talk about these Transpersonal therapies without taking them for a spin himself?   Test out an actual sacrament like ayahuasca, else be accused of armchair philosophy!

To be fair, perhaps Mckenna, Grof, and company also have not done their homework in terms of having a spiritual discipline that they can use as a framework to inform their own models of reality, and it could be that they do not fully comprehend what Wilber is getting at. The same might be said for those of us who would throw out the guru model and eastern metaphysics without actually ever having had a deep encounter with them.  I sense that this may be one of the greatest blind spots of the contemporary entheogenic community.

For myself, though, I appreciate that neither Mckenna nor Grof were ever bent on establishing a Kosmic “theory of everything” as Wilber has been.  I see that rather, they have always been more intent on pointing to the Dark Side of the Moon, to the Mystery, and showing us ways that we can become more Wonder-filled by invoking and evoking the Mystery.  So to invoke Ken Kesey’s immortal words:

“The answer is never the answer. What’s really interesting is the mystery.  If you seek the mystery instead of the answer, you’ll always be seeking. I’ve never seen anybody really find the answer — they think they have,  so they stop thinking. But the job is to seek mystery, evoke mystery,  plant a garden in which strange plants grow and mysteries bloom. The need for mystery is greater than the need for an answer.”

I would add that the need for experience of the Mystery is what I’m getting at.  Theories and models will always have their value and use, because really only experience + understanding will equal a true change in perspective, but when it comes down to it, talk is cheap, and the hard work is actually taking the plunge into the Unknown and then coming back down to earth and actually embodying the wisdom we’ve been gifted.

Bringing this Back Down to Earth…

So to bring this all into the intense present moment, there is a shift happening in the world of yoga in connection to shamanistic practice, particularly the use of plant sacraments like ayahuasca.  This has actually been happening for some time now, but it’s really only the past few years that the older generation of yoga teachers who had been using ayahuasca for decades have begun to speak about it more openly.  To take one example, Ganga White, one of the top yoga teachers in the world, quite openly spoke on the subject in his recently published, Yoga Beyond Belief:

“I touch on the topic of plant sacraments because it is a timely subject and something I am repeatedly asked about.”
White continues, “There are neural pathways in the brain that are more ancient than our beliefs, philosophies, and religious proscriptions.  There are keys to the doorways of the rich interior landscape that open dimensions of beauty, order, intelligence, immense complexity, and sacredness beyond measure.  These realities can be so powerful, brilliant, and intense that, while visiting them, our world seems like a distant hallucination, in the way that these other realities can seem hallucinatory from this one.  Seeing and being touched by these mystical experiences can change us and help us in positive ways with insights into self-healing, enlightened living, and the wholeness of life.  Our bodies and brains operate on chemical messengers and information exchange systems in nature.  Some scholars and evidence show that medicinal plants were probably at the origin or religious and mystical experience.  To say plant sacraments are unnatural, and practices, rituals, and belief systems created by man are natural, is an absurdity.  It is a shame that fear and conditioning can preclude the greatest journey…within.”[vii]

Now, these are the words of a master Hatha yogi who has been on the yoga path for some 40+ years and has himself studied with some of the great yoga masters, and I for one did not take them lightly when I read them a couple of years ago.  Indeed, White’s comments were one of the factors that influenced me to further explore plant medicine, and to write a book on the subject.  This was not an easy decision on my part, because I, like many Hatha yoga practitioners, was so very careful of what I put into my body and had a great fear of causing it permanent damage, not to mention simply messing with my yoga practice.   But what I subsequently learned from my plant journeys, interestingly enough, is that it is precisely the over-identification with the body (bordering on obsession, for some) that needs to be released in order for one’s ego boundaries to be bridged.  Again, this is an understanding that would seem to be of utmost value to those who are utilizing the technology of Hatha yoga as means of self-transcendence.[viii]

There are many other reasons why a yoga practitioner might find taking ayahuasca helpful, both personally and for the healing of our communities and planet.  As for the latter, I appreciated what Daniel said during his dialogue with Sharon Gannon on ayahuasca[ix], particularly his points that the yoga community has tended to become insular and elitist, and his suggestion that we’re in a time that calls for people like us modern yogis and yoginis, who are already familiar with moving through uncomfortable spaces, to consider the value plant sacraments might have for us now in this time of rapid shifts on the planet.

I can relate to these points as I’ve experienced the insularity and elitism firsthand, the kind that sadly shakes its head when the subject of “drugs” comes up, and I have also seen for myself how the ayahuasca experience can move one through some very uncomfortable spaces, thus making it that much easier to deal with real world events and issues.  Of course, this is what work “on the mat” does, albeit in a slightly less dramatic way (though even that can be very intense for some — a Bikram class, for example); a plant shamanic journey just accelerates the process.  That certainly was my experience.   If I may paraphrase Timothy Leary’s famous quote slightly: I learned more during my first session with ayahuasca than I had in 13 years on my yoga mat.

We can also look at it this way: Some of us now have spent years disciplining our bodies in a rather extreme way, supposedly so that we might prepare our physiology for intense “Samadhi” moments, to become fit vessels to “hold” an intense amount of energy and not get fried, but rather be able to navigate “uncomfortable” spaces in a fully conscious way.  Well, if you’re like I was, you might well wonder from whence such experiences will come?  They probably won’t come from Hatha yoga itself, and also almost certainly not even from Raja yoga (the path outlined in Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras), unless you are a very devoted, disciplined meditator.  No, it seems to me that such experiences will come through shamanic journeying, and particularly through the use of plants in a sacramental, yogic way.  Could it be that this is why we have been doing all of these intense practices, contortions and the like?[x]

Here’s a wonderfully expressed statement from a RS/Evolver member who is also a yoga teacher who uses ayahuasca as a sacrament, having been influenced to do so by another internationally recognized yoga teacher of the older generation.  In a private email interview, I had asked her what ayahuasca meant to her as a yoga teacher and practitioner, and here’s what she replied:

“Like many yogis, I am very interested in the nature of consciousness. Isn’t that why we do yoga? As such, I’ve explored both traditional and less traditional ways to shift my perception of reality — and, yes, that includes working with various entheogens in a sacred setting. Without getting into the details of when, where and with whom, I’d say I have done a reasonable amount of work with ayahuasca and I’ve always experienced it as a powerful medicine — healing, transformative and liberating on the most profound levels. I so appreciate the fact that the work I do in ceremony builds on, and is harmonious with, the work I do on my mat. For me, ayahuasca is a teacher who speaks poignantly to the challenges of the Kali Yuga [the so-called “dark age of materialism”]; little wonder she is slowly finding her way into the mainstream.”

To return again to Daniel’s point about exploring the world of spirits, what in yoga is termed the astral or subtle realm, we live in such a materialistic society and age that even we yoga people need reminders that there’s a whole lot more going on here than what we experience through our five senses.   And maybe the spirit world and beings from other star systems really do want to connect with us via these plant modalities?

Maybe we are meant to consciously alter our DNA as part of the next stage of evolution of humanity?  Maybe the plant sacraments really are the true, original teachers of humanity who were sent here long ago to save us from ourselves — at this precise point in history?  The evidence suggests that this is all the case, but ultimately we really don’t know.

What I sense we do know is that just understanding intellectually that “All is One,” and that we should just “Be Present,” or having someone tell us that some day some way we might have an experience that this is so, is really not satisfying.   We want to fully have the experience first, and then use that experience as a model for how we might live more in union, in presence.

To truly arrive at a state of presence, there very well may be a lot of “shaking up” that might be required.

To sum up this “prolegomena,” which is to say this very preliminary discussion, what I have tried to open up as a possibility is our seeing that there really is a place in yoga for shamanic practices, particularly the use of “plant sacraments.”   And to say not only is there a place for these things, but there might be a necessity for these things right now in terms of healing our fractured selves, communities, and planet, and that yoga is one of the most effective disciplines for “preparing the ground,” so to speak, for the harvest, as well as for “riding out the storm.”   Oh yogi/ni, why have you made of your body a fit Temple for the Divine if not for this purpose?

Footnotes: 

[i] See Stanislav Grof, M.D., “Ken Wilber’s Spectrum Psychology,” @  http://primal-page.com/grofken.htm.
Another wonderful book by Grof which is really a must read for those interested in these subjects is Grof’s recent offering, When the Impossible Happens: Adventures in Non-Ordinary Reality.  Sounds True, Incorporated, 2005.  Particularly interesting are Grof’s accounts of his meeting with Swami Muktananda, as well as his chapter on his experience with 5-MeO-DMT.

[ii] Here’s but one website dedicated to Ramana Maharishi (or, “Maharshi”): http://www.sriramanamaharshi.org .  One book which I would highly recommend that everyone read or re-read is Yogananda’s Autobiography of a Yogi, particularly the chapter entitled “The Resurrection of Sri Yukteswar,” as that goes into some detail about what the “subtle” (astral) and “causal” planes are like.  Not that we should take this is as the last word on the subject, but just to familiarize ourselves with one highly influential view.

[iii] Grof quotes John Perry: “True mystics occasionally reactivate regressive complexes on their way to mature unity states,” and goes on to say: “In spite of the fact that Ken acknowledges frequent mysterious invasion of transpersonal insights in psychotic patients, mysticism remains for him miles apart from psychosis. It represents for him a purely transegoic progression, whereas psychosis is primarily characterized by a regression to early infancy in the service of the ego.”

[iv] See Ken Wilber, The Eye of the Spirit: An Integral Vision for a World Gone Slightly Mad. Shambhala, 1998, pp. 165-185.  In these pages, Wilber for the first time in writing confronted Grof’s criticisms of his work.  This needs to be read along with Grof’s essay in response (see above).

[v] Excerpted from a 2001 interview between Wilber and Piers Clement, available here:

http://www.geocities.com/piers_clement/wilber1.html 

[vi] There’s a discussion of what might have been the cause of Terence’s death @http://www.shroomery.org/forums/showflat.php/Number/1696452.

[vii] Ganga White, Yoga Beyond Belief: Insights to Awaken and Deepen Your Practice.  North Atlantic Books, 2007.   Danny Paradise is another top yoga teacher who has been an influential advocate of plant sacraments for many years.   For an interview with him in which he directly speaks to some of the same issues, check out the following podcast:http://kmo.livejournal.com/408508.html.

[viii] From email correspondence with White and from speaking with one of his students, I understand that even though White made that statement, he still has been rather guarded about what he makes public about his use of plant sacraments.  He apparently will only talk about it with his students when the subject is broached.  I sense that this will all change in the next couple of years, that there will be far more openness in the yoga community about these subjects.

[ix] You can watch the video of their dialogue, “Asanas and Ayahuasca,” athttp://www.realitysandwich.com/asanas_and_ayahuasca.  You will also want to read all of the comments posted.  My own view of what some called a “fiasco,” is that it might have gone over better if Daniel had been dialoguing with a yogini, such as Padmani, who is both a yoga teacher and a regular user of plant sacraments like ayahuasca.

[x] I also sense that it is precisely those of us who have been perhaps overly physically-oriented in our life and yoga practice that actually need a high dose of something, anything to bust through the layers of egoity.  This idea will take a good deal of unpacking and I’ll leave that for a separate piece.

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Psychedelics in Light of the Yoga Sutras

Psychedelics in Light of the Yoga Sutras

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[Reader’s Note: This piece was originally posted on the Reality Sandwich website and you can go there to read the many comments posted on this piece.  Here’s the link: http://www.realitysandwich.com/psychedelics_light_yoga_sutras .

I feel ok about posting it here because I am the piece’s author : ) ]

“In addition to the LSD there were a number of other pills for this and that–diarrhea, fever, a sleeping pill, and so forth. He asked about each of these. He asked if they gave powers. I didn’t understand at the time and thought that by “powers” perhaps he meant physical strength. I said, “No.” Later, of course, I came to understand that the word he had used, “siddhis,” means psychic powers.”

~ Ram Dass on Neem Karoli Baba, from Be Here Now

“The beatific vision, Sat Chit Ananda, Being-Awareness-Bliss, for the first time I understood, not on the verbal level, not by inchoate hints or at a distance, but precisely and completely what those prodigious syllables referred to …”

~ Aldous Huxley, Doors of Perception

I never heard any of my teachers mention the Yoga Sutras, a collection of aphorisms on Yoga dating anywhere from 200 BCE to 500 CE and attributed to a sage named Patanjali. In the West today, the text has become the primary source on Yoga and is highly quoted and referenced, but it just didn’t seem to be all that important to my Indian gurus. That said, much of what my traditional teachers were imparting to their disciples certainly meshed with what is found in the Sutras.

First and foremost, what is known as Raja Yoga, or Ashtanga Yoga, which is laid out in the Sutras, was assumed by all of my teachers. The Sanskrit word “Ashtanga” translates as “8 limbs,” and these limbs are as follows:

1) Yama refers to the five abstentions.

* Ahimsa: non-violence,

* Satya: truth in word & thought.

* Asteya: Non-stealing

* Brahmacharya: Conservation of Sexual Energy.

* Aparigraha: Non-possessiveness

2) Niyama refers to the five observances.

* Shaucha: cleanliness of body & mind.

* Santosha: satisfaction/contentment.

* Tapas: austerity/physical & mental discipline.

* Svadhyaya: Self-study (Introspection), and Study of Sacred Texts.

* Ishvarapranidhana: surrender to (or worship of) God.

3) Asana: Discipline of the body: rules and postures to keep it disease-free and for preserving vital energy. Correct postures are a physical aid to meditation, for they control the limbs and nervous system and prevent them from producing disturbances.

4) Pranayama: control of breath.

5) Pratyahara: withdrawal of senses from their external objects.

The last three levels are called internal aids to Yoga (antaranga sadhana)

6) Dharana: Concentration of Mind.

7) Dhyana: steadfast meditation. Undisturbed flow of thought around the object of meditation (pratyayaikatanata).

8) Samadhi: oneness with the object of meditation.

My teachers all implicitly followed the above “8-fold Path” (Raja/Ashtanga Yoga), because they all assumed the primacy of meditation and Samadhi (meditation resulting in mystical union, or “cosmic consciousness”), seeing the other 6 limbs as a means to arrive at these last two. Meditation, in particular, was stressed repeatedly, especially by my main teacher, Amma, who would often exhort us to “Meditate, meditate, meditate!”; and if she had her way, we would all be meditating all day and night long. Once her Swami told us of how Amma had put him into a state of Samadhi for 24 hours straight, and Amma added: “Children, the day will come when you, too, will be absorbed in meditation for 24 hours in a day.” I’m sure a lot of us were wondering, “Really? Which lifetime?,” but we took the point that meditation is the most important of all practices.

If I am honest, I will tell you that I never had an experience of Samadhi beyond a taste of the lower Samadhis, such as “Bhava Samadhi,” which is a trance state involving feelings of ecstasy and bliss. Most of these experiences came in the first couple years of my exposure to Yoga, and it was largely due to them that I continued on the path. Spiritual experiences that occur early on, I have always heard, are gifts of grace that are signs to the seeker that something is indeed happening, and serve to draw the aspirant more and more inward. Certainly this was the case with me, but over time these experiences became fewer and farther between, so that I was left wondering if perhaps I should try harder, or if they were just a passing stage in the journey.

Besides spiritual experiences, another milestone/by-product of meditation and other spiritual practices is what are known as “siddhis,” often translated as “yogic powers,” and sometimes “psychic powers.” When I originally began the practice of yoga, I was attracted to the idea of gaining such special powers through my training. This was partly because I desired physical proof that my practices were bearing fruit, and I wasn’t just wasting time and struggling in vain. Of course, with my experiences, with all of the little “aha” moments, and with all of the positive changes — indeed, the transformation — that yoga brought to my life, no further proof was needed, really. The only problem was that even though I knew I was a completely different person on the inside, it appeared that it was not always so obvious on the outside. My family, especially, wondered and worried about my somewhat cultish and cloistered behavior, concerned that I was wasting my precious Twenties doing impractical things like meditation that were inconsequential in terms of real world values.

My eldest brother, for example, would sometimes say things to me like, “Instead of meditating so much, I would like to see you really begin to develop a body of work as a singer/songwriter,” to which I would respond, “Well, meditation is about going to the Source of all creativity, so it may seem like a waste of time, but it’s actually a very wise investment of my time.” I was heard, but not really understood or believed. So a part of me felt that once I was able to show my family that this wasn’t all just airy fairy nonsense, then they would think differently about me. Certainly this was not the best reason for practicing (nor was the drive to have spiritual experiences), but I was green and can put it down to spiritual ignorance at that point.

Now the reader may wonder: Did I ever attain any siddhis? I cannot say for certain. I feel that I began to see glimpses of them (such as clairvoyance), and had I continued with my intense sadhana (yogic practice), who knows? At this point, I feel like I’ve lost much of whatever I had, but that’s due to the choice I made to come back down to earth a bit. I did come into the presence of teachers, like Amma, who possessed such siddhis, and would sometimes display their powers, though usually only along the lines of clairvoyance (often referred to as “omniscience”).

Returning now to the Yoga Sutras, there is a relevant sutra regarding the siddhis that begins the 4th and final chapter (pada) of the text, known as “Kaivalya Pada,” or the chapter on liberation. The sutra reads as follows:

JANMAUSHADHI MANTRA TAPAH

SAMAADHI JAAH SIDDHAYAH

Janma = birth; aushadhi = herb, medicinal plant, drug, incense, elixir; mantra = incantation, charm, spell; tapah = heat, burning, shining, an ascetic devotional practice, burning desire to reach perfection, that which burns all impurities; samadhi = profound meditation, total absorption; jah = born; siddhayah = perfections, accomplishments, fulfilments, attainments, psychic powers.

Translation: “Siddhis are born of practices performed in previous births, or by herbs, mantra repetition, asceticism, or by samadhi.” (Sutra 4.1) [i]

Essentially, for our purposes, this sutra says that via “aushadha,” or herbs/drugs/plants, yogic powers can be attained. While this is fascinating information, unfortunately the sutras say nothing more about the subject, leaving us with many possible questions. Questions such as: 1) To what does “aushadhi” refer exactly?; 2) To which yogic powers do these herbs, aushadha , give rise? 3) How, exactly, do aushadha give rise to siddhis? 4) Is this sutra suggesting that it is permissible for a yogic aspirant to make use of aushadha as a means toward attaining success in Yoga? 5) Are all of the methods of attaining siddhis — past lives, herbs, mantra, tapas, and samadhi — of equal value, or are some better than others? 6) Why is the term “aushadhi” suddenly mentioned at the outset of the 4th and final chapter of the Yoga Sutras, and then not referred to again? These are some of the more basic questions that could be asked.

Fortunately, while we don’t have much of a way of finding what the original meaning of sutra 4.1 is, we can at least refer to the considerable body of commentary on the sutras, in addition to contemporary teachers in the yoga tradition. As for the latter, let’s consider first Neem Karoli Baba’s words to Ram Dass, already quoted above.

“In addition to the LSD there were a number of other pills for this and that — diarrhea, fever, a sleeping pill, and so forth. He asked about each of these. He asked if they gave powers. I didn’t understand at the time and thought that by “powers” perhaps he meant physical strength. I said, “No.” Later, of course, I came to understand that the word he had used, “siddhis,” means psychic powers.”[ii]

Neem Karoli Baba, a highly advanced yogi and guru, is asking his disciple, Ram Dass, if his LSD (and other pills) gives the consumer of them siddhis. Now, many of those who followed Neem Karoli Baba or were around him felt/believed/knew that he himself possessed such yogic powers, but as far as anyone knows, they were not derived from any kind of pill or drug, but from his sadhana andtapasya, meaning his yogic practice and discipline. In fact, one of the siddhis he was believed to possess was the ability to know anything that he chose to know at any time (again clairvoyance/omniscience), in which case perhaps he already knew the answer to the question he put to Ram Dass (apparently he was a bit of a trickster).

Whatever may be the case, for our purposes, it is enough to know that Neem Karoli Baba connected Ram Dass’s drugs to siddhis, because that is exactly what Sutra 4.1 appears to do. From this we would not be amiss in thinking that yogis like Neem Karoli Baba are well aware of this passage in the Yoga Sutras; or even if they are not aware of the specific passage, there is no doubt an understanding among yogis that yogic powers can obtained via herbs and/or drugs. It should also be well noted that Neem Karoli Baba ultimately told Ram Dass that “yogi medicine” such as LSD can give one a glimpse of Samadhi, but not the “highest Samadhi,” as he put it.

Turning now to our questions raised regarding Sutra 4.1, what do the traditional commentators on the Yoga Sutras have to say?

First, let us consider the words of Vyasa, a great rishi, or seer-sage who is credited as the author of the “Yoga Bhashya,” which is a highly regarded and referenced commentary on the Yoga Sutras. Though Vyasa’s comments on Sutra 4:1 regarding aushadha are cursory and ambiguous, like the sutra itself, we can still get some sense of his general approach. The text reads as follows:

“By herbs, as for example with chemicals in an Asura’s (demon’s) abode, medicinal powers are acquired.”

Swami Hariharananda Aranya notes the difficulty in Vyasa’s passage:

“The commentator has mentioned about the abode of demons but nobody knows where it is, but it is certain that supernormal powers on a small scale can be acquired by the application of drugs.” [iii]

That said, Swami Hariharananda notes, the “supernormal powers” acquired through drugs “have nothing to do with Yoga,” and are “insignificant.”

“Some in a state of stupor through the application of anaesthetics like chloroform etc. acquire the power of going out of the body. It has also been reported that by the application of hemlock all over the body similar power is acquired. Witches were supposed to practise this method. These powers are “insignificant.” [iv]

Swami Satyananda Saraswati of the Bihar School differs slightly with Swami Hariharananda Aranya’s view. He holds that the herbs to which “aushadhi” refers do indeed produce powerful siddhis, and such “psychic powers” are true siddhis, not insignificant or inferior. However, these herbs do not include LSD or ganja (marijuana), which have a deleterious effect on the body (and it is this to which Swami H. might have been referring). In his own words:

“Psychic powers can be obtained in five ways … Siddhis can also be had from herbs, but things like LSD and ganja are not to be included here because they cause disease and nervous disorders. These things cause depression of certain nerve centers and give rise to effects like samadhi, but they are not to be included in the herbs causing siddhis because they are of a lower type. Traditionally, aushadhi means the juice of certain herbs, such as anjana, rosayana, etc., but not LSD or ganja. The method of preparation is known to only a few responsible persons. These herbs are available in the Himalayas and nowhere else and bring about supramental states of consciousness.

“The effects of these herbs can be controlled through higher mental phenomena. There are certain preparations of mercury which are of great importance.” [v]

Swami Satchidananda (the so-called “Woodstock Guru,” who was wise to what his hippie yogi devotees were up to) differs from the above view in that he suggests that LSD and marijuana are indeed to be classed among the aushadha, and he agrees with Swami Hariharananda that siddhis obtained via herbs — any herbs — are of inferior value. He says:

“Patanjali…gives us some clues about the people who get some experiences through their LSD and marijuana. The so-called “grass” is an herb, is it not? Mushrooms could be considered herbs also … So, there are various ways of accomplishing the psychic powers. But normally it is recognized that all the others except samadhi are not natural. For example, using herbs means inducing siddhis by the use of certain external stimuli. It’s not an “organic” siddhi. It may come and then fade away. So, siddhis should come in the regular process of Yoga, not through external stimuli.” [vi]

Swami Satchidananda’s point is that the siddhis acquired through unnatural, non-organic means such as herbs is only temporary, and thus should not be taken seriously by the yoga aspirant. This is a point that would be good to be taken to heart by many of those who dabble in psychedelics, for it is clear that for most such persons, both experiences and psychic powers fade once the effects of the drug wear off. On the other hand, let us not discount the report of shamans who are capable of retaining the powers obtained from their plant medicine.

BKS Iyengar echoes Swami Satchidananda’s view somewhat in that he regards those siddhis gained via aushadha as inferior in that they can be lost due to a fall from grace. Writing his commentary on the Yoga Sutras in the mid-Sixties, Iyengar first spells out in greater detail the five ways of becoming an accomplished yogi (siddha):

1. By birth with aspiration to become perfect (janma);

2. By spiritual experience gained through herbs (or as prescribed in the Vedas),

drugs or elixir (aushadha)

3) By incantation of the name of one’s desired deity (mantra);

4) By ascetic devotional practice (tapas);

5) By profound meditation (samadhi)

Iyengar then goes on to note why all five of these classes of siddhas are not equal:

“There is an important distinction between these means of spiritual accomplishment. Followers of the first three may fall from the grace of Yoga through pride or negligence. The others, whose spiritual gains are through tapas and samadhi, do not. They become masters, standing alone as divine, liberated souls, shining examples to mankind…

“Sage Mandavya and King Yayati developed supernatural powers through an elixir of life. Today many drug users employ mescalin, LSD, hashish, heroin, etc. to experience the so-called spiritual visions investigated by Aldous Huxley and others. Artists and poets in the past have also relied on drugs to bring about supernormal states to enhance their art.” [vii]

Iyengar’s mention of Huxley is interesting here, particularly as Huxley referred to the psychedelics as “moksha medicine” [viii], and had he lived to have read Iyengar’s commentary, he no doubt would have been chagrined by Iyengar’s “so-called spiritual visions” put-down. We will be considering Huxley’s life and work shortly, but for now, let Iyengar’s view be noted well, that the truly great yogis do not attain their high status through the medium of aushadha.

Let us also take note that Iyengar’s point has been made and echoed by numerous other commentators. I.K. Taimni, whose commentary on the Yoga Sutras entitled “The Science of Yoga” has become one of the most well-regarded in the english language, translates “aushadhi” as “drugs,” and similarly notes that

“Of the five methods given only the last based upon Samadhi is used by advanced Yogis in their work because it is based upon direct knowledge of the higher laws of Nature and is, therefore, under complete control of the will.” [ix]

Taimni’s point is that the Yoga Sutras, after all, are all about attaining Samadhi through yogic discipline, not via aushadha (this is not the “Aushadha Sutras,” after all); indeed, he notes that all of the siddhis mentioned in the third chapter of the Sutras are obtained via what is known as “Samyama,” which is the combination of concentration (dharana), meditation (dhyana), and absorption (samadhi). Like Iyengar, Taimni privileges the siddhis attained via Samyama above those obtained otherwise:

“The Siddhis which are developed as a result of the practice of Samyama belong to a different category and are far superior to those developed in other ways. They are the product of the natural unfoldment of consciousness in its evolution towards perfection and thus become permanent possessions of the soul, although a little effort may be needed in each new incarnation to revive them in the early stages of Yogic training. Being based upon knowledge of the higher laws of Nature operating in her subtler realms they can be exercised with complete confidence and effectiveness, much in the same way as a trained scientist can bring about extraordinary results in the field of physical Science.” [xii]

As with Swami Hariharananda, Taimni concurs that such yogic powers in any case are of not much importance, even when they are “remarkable”:

“Psychic powers of a low grade can often be developed by the use of certain drugs. Many fakirs in India use certain herbs like Ganja for developing clairvoyance of a low order. Others can bring about very remarkable chemical changes by the use of certain drugs or herbs, but those who know these secrets do not generally impart them to others. Needless to say that the powers obtained in this manner are not of much consequence and should be classed with the innumerable powers which modern Science has placed at our disposal.” [xiii]

This reminds me of the story of the guru who chides his student for showing off how he can walk on water. “Why would you bother yourself with that,” the guru laughs, “when the ferry works just as well, and might even be quicker?!!” Needless to say, perhaps, displaying one’s powers was/is generally not considered a wise course of action.

Two slightly more contemporary commentators have something quite similar to say regarding sutra 4:1. Krishnamacharya’s son, TVK Desikachar, in his relatively more recent book, The Heart of Yoga, remarks:

“The Vedas describe various rituals whereby the taking of herbal preparations in a prescribed way can change one’s personality … Only the practices described in earlier chapters [of the Yoga Sutras] to reduce and render the five obstacles [to yoga] ineffective can guarantee the end of these tendencies. Genetic inheritance, the use of herbs, and other means cannot be as effective.” [xiv]

The well-known scholar of Yoga, Georg Feuerstein, likewise mentions the ancient Vedic rituals, implicitly accepting their validity, though downplaying their ultimate value:

“The use of herbal concoctions may seem surprising. Yet this tradition goes right back to vedic times and ritual quaffing of the soma (fly-agaric?). At any rate, nowhere in the Yoga-Sutra or any other Yogic scripture do we find the claim that drugs can replace the years of self-discipline and commitment demanded of the yogin.” [xv]

One other traditional teacher who added to this overall consensus on the superiority of Samadhi was Swami Prabhavananda, who commented on Sutra 4:1 as follows:

“Certain drugs may produce visions but these are invariably psychic — not spiritual, as is commonly believed. Furthermore, they may cause prolonged spiritual dryness and disbelief and may even do permanent damage to the brain…Concentration [samadhi] is the surest of all the means of obtaining the psychic powers.” [xvi]

Swami Prabhavananda makes an interesting point, and one well worth considering. We are all familiar with the phenomenon of “chemical burnout,” which generally comes from years of taking psychedelics (and perhaps other drugs), usually in a less than disciplined way. So while the long-term effects of psychedelics are still not fully known, it is clear that for some they do seem to have a deleterious effect. Even for myself, who have almost exclusively ingested or smoked plant medicines (Ayahuasca, San Pedro, Marijuana) and done so but a handful of times, I wonder whether the expansive, ecstatic experiences are a corrective to my own spiritual dryness and jadedness, or are in fact adding to them. Were the experiences even real (if anything is)? Where was God? Won’t I be spoiled now for all of the beautiful little gifts of grace the universe throws my way every moment of every day? Etc., ad nauseum.

What is needed, it seems to me, is a constant connection with Source, one that is not dependent on any outside factor, such as a drug or herb or elixir or other concoction. On this, I am in agreement with the traditional commentators above. True, the path of aushadha might just be a viable one for some already advanced souls, but they also could be a trap or distraction for others, including myself.

That said, the fact that herbs that give rise to siddhis are mentioned at all in the Yoga Sutras is significant, and should give us pause. One wonders what the traditions around the use of aushadha are, and if it in reality is a real, viable yogic path, on equal par with the practice of “Samyama” that the Yoga Sutras privileges? What about the preparations of the juice of the herbs “anjana” and “rosayana” which Swami Satyananda Saraswati mentioned? To answer these and other questions I turned to the work of some of the more recent commentators on these subjects, including my Yoga and Ayurveda teacher, Dr. David Frawley, as well as Dr. Robert Svoboda and Pandit Rajmani Tigunait (current head of the Himalayan Institute).

In his book, Inner Quest: Yoga’s Answers to Life’s Questions, Pandit Rajmani Tigunait discusses at some length the use of herbs in connection with spiritual practice. Among other things, he notes the connection of herbs not so much with the path of Raja/Ashtanga Yoga, but of Tantra and Kundalini:

“According to Ayurveda, especially the tantric version, herbs are the embodiment of the living goddess. If applied properly they release divine energies — to heal not only the physical aspect of our being, but the mental and spiritual aspects as well…[Using herbs as part of one’s spiritual practice] is briefly introduced in the first sutra of chapter four of Patanjali’s Yoga Sutras. It is greatly elaborated in the tantric scriptures, as herbs play a significant role in the advanced practices of Tantra and kundalini yoga.” [xv]

Admittedly, I know very little of Tantra, much less the tantric scriptures. Again, this is as a result of who my gurus were, which was decidedly not tantric gurus. Amma would on occasion strongly caution us against reading any tantric books, and my other teachers also never had anything to say about Tantra, and if they had, it probably wouldn’t have been anything good. Like many others, I had only heard of “tantric sex,” and hints of other forbidden things, and somehow it seemed to me to be a path for the wild, impure ones. And at that point, at least, I was not too tempted to take a walk on the wild side.

Interestingly enough, though, on my first trip to India to see Amma, my Australian friend Billy advised me to purchase a copy of Dr. Robert Svoboda’s Aghora: At the Left Hand of God, which is all about the tantric path, and it served as my first real introduction to the subject.

One of the first and most important things I learned from Svoboda’s book is that just as there is white and black magic, similarly, Tantra is divided into “righthanded” Tantra (Dakshinachara), and “lefthanded” Tantra (Vamachara). It is really only the latter which involves the “5 m’s,” namely: 1) Madya (wine); 2) Mansa (meat); 3) Matsya (fish); 4) Mudra (gesture); and 5) Maithuna (sexual intercourse). Still, both right and left-handed Tantra are legitimate paths, though both Drs. Frawley and Svoboda suggest that the Vamachara path is but a means to the Dakshinachara path, and not an end in itself.

Dr. Frawley has put it this way:

“Tantra is divided into the right handed and left handed Tantras. The right handed or Dakshinachara adheres to the Yamas and Niyamas of the Yoga system, including following a vegetarian diet. The left handed or Vamachara system includes the use of intoxicants, including alcohol and psychedelic or mind-altering drugs, and the eating of meat, but sanctified in a ritualistic context to make them spiritually beneficial. The Vamachara system uses the more overt sexual Yogas, though the Dakshinachara tradition is not opposed to sex in a sanctified relationship.

“Generally speaking, the right-handed Tantra is more for those in whom Sattva guna predominates. The left-handed Tantra is for those in whom Rajas and Tamas predominate.

“There are some Tantric teachers today who do claim that a meat diet and other Vamachara practices are a better and quicker way to reach Self-realization. They may claim that the Dakshinachara or sattvic approaches are not possible for people to really do today and only result in repression. This tradition does exist for those who want to follow it. Yet while the Vamachara done sincerely can be a valid path, particularly in the modern cultural context, it is a stepping stone to Dakshinachara, not a substitute for it.” [xvi]

Dr. Svoboda’s teacher, Swami Vimalananda, likewise suggests that the goal of Vamachara Tantra is Sattva. In a section on the subject of intoxicants and the “Left Hand Path,” Swami Vimalanda says:

“This is the true test of an Aghori: From full-blown Tamas he must graduate to pure Sattva, love for all.” [xvii]

In the end, Swami Vimalananda says he gave up intoxicants when he

“realized that the greatest intoxicant there is exists within me at all times. It is free, easy to use, harmless, and never gives me a hangover. It is the name of God. It gives the best concentration of mind. The effects of alcohol or marijuana or whatever will wear off by the next day, but the intoxication caused by God’s name just goes on increasing; there is no end to it. I use it all the time, and it always works for me. No matter what has been my problem, the holy name of God has always been my solution. This is true Aghora. Forget all the externals; only when your heart melts and is consumed in the flames of your desire for your Beloved will you ever come close to qualifying to learn the true Aghora.” [xviii]

In other words, in our context, this means that psychedelics are not the end-all and be-all of yoga, but a stepping stone to arrive at a clearer, purer realm of being and experiencing. This would involve ultimately graduating from psychedelics to a more Sattvic path involving vegetarianism, sexual moderation, austerity, meditation, and other “chemical-free” practices. [xxi]

Some are under the misconception that the yoga path absolutely forbids intoxicants, and perhaps especially mind-altering drugs, but here we see that this is not the case; rather, it is more a matter of more ideal vs. less ideal, where the path of chemically-enhancing one’s practice is not considered the most ideal. This misconception is fairly widespread, such that even I was a bit surprised when Dr. Frawley wrote to me the following:

“Intoxicants may be helpful on an outer level for some yoga practitioners, particularly to open them up to higher possibilities. Many ancient and tribal cultures have their sacred plants that can be used for such purposes. However, there is a tendency to abuse such plants or use them in a non-sacred way, so one should be very cautious in their application.”

I really thought that Dr. Frawley would give me more of a hard-line, like, “Psychelics and Yoga do not mix — period!” But clearly, thankfully, it’s all in one’s intent, and if one’s intent is to use the given plant or chemical in a sacramental way, then that is permissible. But again, the user must remember that once one is “opened up to higher possibilities,” as Dr. Frawley put it, then it is advisable to move on to a slower, but steadier and more reliable practice, such as “the name of God,” as Swami Vimalananda suggested (and “mantra,” we will recall from Yoga Sutra 4:1, is also a legitimate path to perfection/siddhi).

Now it might be asked: Although this all makes perfect sense on paper, how does it actually all play out in real, postmodern, hurtling-toward-2012 life? Because if I look at my own experience, according to this model, I actually started out on a fairly Sattvic path, and maintained it for years, but more recently I have taken a decided turn towards left-handed Tantra, including the use of psychedelics. Did I fall from the path? Or did I just become a bit impatient to have certain experiences of other realities that I was losing faith that I ever would? Put another way: Have I digressed and devolved, or is this somehow all a necessary step in my own “soulular” evolution?

And what about someone like Terrence McKenna, who went as far as to say that practices like chanting and meditation don’t even make much sense except in the context of the shamanic journey? [See previous footnote] Would McKenna have found his way to in any way accept that to further his evolution he might have to forgo his psychedelic sessions in favor of, say, vipassana meditation? For now, let it be remembered that the Yoga Sutras do say that aushadhais one path to the attainment of “siddha-hood”; or, we might say, psychedelics are their own path, their own discipline, and Terrence was faithfully following it.

Now what about these “siddhis,” or yogic powers? I had often heard and read that such powers are “milestones” along the path to enlightenment or Self/God-realization — they are not to be sought or abused, but rather to be seen as mere by-products along the journey of awakening. Yogananda, for example, discusses this point in Autobiography of a Yogi, noting that some yogis abuse such powers, demonstrating them for the sake of fame or fortune (as does Paul Brunton in a contemporary work to Yogananda’s, A Search in Secret India). More recently, however, in his book on the Yoga Sutras entitled Yoga, Power, and Spirit: Patanjali the Shaman, Alberto Villodo, Ph.D. maintains that according to Patanjali,

“the siddhis are essential to achieving samadhi, which is the true power … to deny them [the siddhis] is to deny your ultimate freedom. You can only step beyond these powers once you’ve acquired them. Renouncing them beforehand, as many practitioners of yoga do, mimics yet forestalls the true liberation… In addition, renouncing the siddhis, as some yoga teachers today advocate, keeps you powerless, and perpetuates your suffering as a victim.” [xxii]

This is a point well-taken, considering that the Yoga Sutras do describe a number of these siddhis, ranging from clairvoyance, knowledge of past and future events (including one’s past lives), the power to make oneself minute or even invisibile, superhuman strength, conquest of hunger and thirst, among others. Again, these all result from the practice of “Samyama.” But what of siddhis that arise through other means, such as use of aushadha — are they comparable?

As we have seen, Iyengar and others note that while such siddhis might indeed be equivalent to those gained via Samyama, they are generally not permanent acquisitions of the aspirant, but are rather subject to loss due to a “fall from grace,” or by some other means. This is an interesting point, and to really check its validity would perhaps require a very careful study of shamanism. For the time being, perhaps, we can at least consider anecdotal evidence.

For my part, I recently met a woman who had a quite harrowing LSD trip in the early Seventies and was never the same afterwards, not only because of the trauma, but because the LSD seems to have given her the ability to perceive unseen levels of reality. Today in her work she offers the shamanic healing technique of “soul retrieval,” as well as working in other therapeutic modalities that require access to these hidden dimensions. For her, at least, the effects of her psychedelic experience have lasted for more than 3 decades. Dr. Rick Strassman told me via email that he knows of a similar case, but here the woman’s psychic powers went away once she became a Christian. Dr. Strassman wrote,

I recently got an e-mail from a Christian woman, who when younger, was slipped some PCP, which “opened the portals” for her to have all kinds of paranormal, psychic, experiences. She’s a reasonable sounding woman, so I don’t think she was psychotic. She and her husband became serious Christians and the portals seem to have closed. How exactly do you mean “clairvoyant”? This woman wasn’t seeing things from a distance, for example.

It might be helpful to look into other “accidental” ways of acquiring such powers, such as through Near-Death Experiences (NDE’s). It seems a significant portion of those claiming to have had such experiences also maintain the experience left them with such powers (the movie “Resurrection” deals with this). Astral projection, or out-of-body experiences, are also another avenue for exploring this issue. In general, however, we can say that such claims remain difficult to prove or disprove; and in most cases of psychedelic use, the experience, and whatever psi powers attend it during the “trip,” generally disappear once the experience fades, or if not all at once, then eventually.

Such has been my experience thus far: As real and as powerful and transformational as my psychedelic experiences have been, it is amazing that so little of it actually has stayed with me. Perhaps if I did them more often, and in an even more disciplined way, the case would be different, but for right now, I am left with the sense that these things are so transitory to the point of being almost unhelpful as far as gaining siddhis, or attaining to Samadhi. This is not to diminish the value of having a glimpse, however paltry it might be, of Samadhi, as well as all of the other lessons that went along with that, don’t get me wrong; it is just to suggest that unless approached in a disciplined way as a discipline, the deeper lessons of these plant teachers might be missed.

Postscript: Since writing this essay, I read Padmani’s interesting piece, “Insects, Yoga, and Ayahuasca,” published by Reality Sandwich. One thing which is certainly applicable here is Padmani’s mentioning that “practices such as pranayama (breath control) and asana (physical exercise) — the two most important components of modern yoga practice in the West — are considered chemical means [“aushadhi“], according to Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, because they work by causing biochemical changes in the body and mind.” While I have not yet located the primary source for this (maybe Padmani could help?), I feel this to be a very important point — that we are indeed inducing changes in brain chemistry via the practice of Hatha Yoga, which is one reason why more and more people are becoming “addicted” — for better and/or for worse. I should also note that I thought to send this piece to RS because of Padmani’s piece, hoping that this might clarify some points she made, as well as move the discussion a bit further along.

Notes

[i] This is largely based on BKS Iyengar’s translation of the Yoga Sutras in “Light on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” (“Patanjala Yoga Pradipika), Thorsons, Hammersmith, 1966/1996, p. 230.

[ii] A paraprhrase of the story told by Ram Dass in “Be Here Now,” Lama Foundation, New Mexico, 1971 (no page number listed).

[iii] As quoted in Swami Hariharananda Aranya, “Yoga Philosophy of Patanjali,” SUNY Press, 1983, p. 346.

[iv] Ibid, pp. 346-347.

[v] Ibid.

[vi] Ibid, p. 346.

[vii] Swami Satyananda Saraswati, “Four Chapters on Freedom: Commentary on the Yoga Sutras of Patanjali,” Yoga Publications Trust, Munger, Bihar, India, 1976, 2000, pp. 307-308.

[viii] Swami Satchidananda, “The Yoga Sutras of Patanajali: Commentary on the Raja Yoga Sutras,” Integral Yoga Publications, 1990, p. 207.

[ix] Unfortunately, most of this evidence is anecdotal. For more on this, see Roger Walsh, M.D., Ph.D., “The World of Shamanism: New Views of an Ancient Tradition,” Llewellyn Publications, 2007, pp. 223-234.

[x] BKS Iyengar, op. cit., pp. 230-231.

[xi] In his last book, the utopian novel, “Island,” which we will be discussing at greater length in a later chapter.

[xii] I.K. Taimni, “The Science of Yoga.” The Theosophical Publishing House, Wheaton, Illinois 1961/1999, p. 378.

[xiii]Ibid, pp. 382-383.

[xiv] T.K.V. Desikachar, “The Heart of Yoga: Developing a Personal Practice,” Inner Traditions International, Rochester, Vermont, 1995, pp. 203, 206.

[xv] . Georg Feuerstein, “Yoga-Sutra of Patanjali: A New Translation and Commentary.” Inner Traditions International, 1979, 1989, p. 126.

[xvi] Swami Prabhavananda and Christopher Isherwood, “How to Know God: The Yoga Aphorisms of Patanjali,” p. 203.

[xvii] Pandit Rajmani Tigunait, Ph.D. “Inner Quest: Yoga’s Answers to Life’s Questions.” Himalayan Institute Press, Honesdale, Pa, 1995/2002, pp. 112-117.

[xviii] Dr. David Frawley, “Advanced Yoga and Ayurveda Course,” pp. 116-117.

[xix] Dr. Robert Svoboda, “Aghora: At the Left Hand of God,” p. 184.

[xx] Ibid, pp. 185-186.

[xxi] Krystle Cole, who started the popular “Neurosoup,” says as much in her YouTube videos, though she and most will admit that practices such as meditation, chanting, breathing, etc., are not as powerful as a relatively high dose of a psychedelic. Terrence McKenna suggested that “mantra, yantra, tantra” in addition to psychedelics could be very effective, and not nearly so much on their own.

[xxii] Alberto Villodo, Ph.D., “Yoga, Power, and Spirit: Patanjali the Shaman,” xxv.

Image by autan, courtesy of Creative Commons license.