In looking at the “yogi lifestyle” many of the questions that are raised surround the seemingly nebulous subjects of sex and drugs (referring to both alcohol and recreational drugs) and their relationships to yoga. Though lengthy pieces could easily be written on each subject independently and each individual yoga practitioner has their own personal view, what does yoga itself say about sex, drugs, and yoga?
Let us begin with sex. Many people assume that to be a yogi means to be celibate. And though some yogis do practice celibacy, many yogis also marry and have families, neither path being any less yogic than the other.
Generally there are two paths or directions that the modern yogi takes. One being the renunciate, meaning, the yogi chooses to renounce the comforts and possessions of common life to pursue simplicity and austerity as a means of dedicating themselves fully to the spiritual path and connection to the Divine. The other path is referred to as that of the householder. The householder maintains yogic practices, but remains apart of society and cultivates a profession, a spousal relationship, a family, etc. while seeking to balance worldly pursuits with the pursuit of the Divine. Typically the renunciate is expected to renounce the act of sex as they are expected to renounce any distracting temptation or attachment to worldly pleasures. The householder, contrarily, is expected to be productive in the world, which includes procreation. To be a yogi, therefore, does not necessarily mean that celibacy is required.
People cite the yogic concept of brahmacharya as the necessary practice of celibacy for yogis. Brahmacharya is a Sanskrit word that is translated in a variety of ways, including: “celibacy” and “chastity”. Though brahmacharya can imply these things, this highly complex concept can be interpreted in many ways. The first part of the word, “Brahma” literally means Brahman, a Sanskrit word that represents the God phenomenon. The second part of the word, “charya”, means following or occupying one’s self with. Therefore brahmacharya can be directly read as “devoting oneself to Brahman”. This act functions as a means, not an end.
Though brahmacharya can imply different things in different Indian philosophies, in yoga is it described as an important fundamental to Patanjali’s ancient eight limbed Ashtanga yoga system. The first limb, or step, that Patanjali describes in the second chapter of the Yoga Sutras as the first fundamental to yoga is the yamas, which are general guidelines for cultivating personal growth and contributing positively to society. The fourth yama is brahmacharya, which Patanjali describes in sutra 2.38 as brahmacharya pratisthayam virya labhah, or, “when walking in the awareness of the highest reality (brahmacharya) is firmly established, then a great strength, capacity, or vitality (virya) is acquired.” The idea here does not necessarily imply abstaining from sex, though it can take that form, but rather it asks us to direct all our energy towards spiritual pursuit and thus transmute our sexual energy into devotion to God. When we recall dissipated energy and refocus it in the direction of spiritual growth and devotion, we then retain a state of vitality and strength. As Yogi Sunil Sharma of Tattvaa Yogashala in India describes in one of his lectures, brahmacharya is a conducive lifestyle for realising higher truth by restraining from multiplying our desires to waste energy elsewhere and instead retain energy for spiritual development.
Thus for the renunciate yogi brahmacharya can represent celibacy and complete redirection of sexual energy to pursuit of the divine. For the householder yogi, brahmacharya is practiced typically as remaining faithful and loving within a monogamous relationship and to not allow for sexual temptation to distract us from the studies and practices of yoga. For the householder yogi brahmacharya then becomes using the act of sex morally, responsibly and compassionately and allowing our sexuality to become a wider part of our yoga practice.
It is widely assumed that to be a yogi means to abstain from the use of stimulants (i.e. drugs, alcohol, marijuana). However, if we look around at most yogis we know today we might find that the majority of people who “do yoga” also enjoy a glass of wine with dinner, a joint before bed, or the occasional acid trip. But if the system of yoga at its core essence is to still the fluctuations of the mind and to bring us in union with our divine nature, how do mind altering substances affect this process?
There are many modern practitioners of yoga who use mind altering substances such as psychedelics and marijuana to calm the brain waves and to connect to the more subtle layers of reality. Many of these drugs and substances do have the capacity to calm our minds and to connect us to deeper layers of ourselves and reality, but, are they an end in themselves and ultimately can they function as a sustainable means?
Shamanistic traditions of South America use psychedelics such as ayahuasca and peyote to attain similar states that can be experienced in advanced practices of yoga pranayama and meditation. Many parallels have been drawn between Yoga and Shamanism by notable contemporary yoga teachers, such as Gregor Maehle and Danny Paradise; the conclusion being that Shamanism and Yoga both share the same goal of union with the divine reality though their traditions do have some systematic differences. But can psychedelics, a component of some Shamanistic spiritual paths, be beneficial to those on the Yogic path?
Patanjali vaguely mentions in the Yoga Sutras “herbs” that bring spiritual experiences. In sutra 4.1 he says janma osadhi mantra tapah samadhi jah siddhyayah, or “the subtler attainments come with birth or are attained through herbs, mantra, austerities or concentration.” This sutra is often cited by substance using yoga practitioners as validation that using mind altering substances is actually apart of the path to spiritual attainment. As spiritual paths throughout history have used herb based elixirs to transcend the barrier between the conscious and unconscious mind, it makes sense that here Patanjali does reference the spiritual use of magical herbs. However it is important to note that non-attachment is a key proponent of Patanjali’s yoga system and thus the use of herbal elixirs for spiritual experiences should be used only as a supplemental means in conjunction with the yoga practices, only to the capacity that it is helpful, without becoming dependent, and certainly not as an end in itself. As with any part of the yoga practices, whenever we become attached to the practice it becomes detrimental in the long run rather than beneficial. And as with anything in our lives, when something no longer serves our higher interests we should allow it to fall away.
On the other hand, there are also substantial reasons as to why imbibing in mind altering substances can stack the odds against us and can ultimately retard our spiritual development. Something like mind altering herbs that are initially used for clarity can very quickly become sources of illusion and imbalance. Though these drugs have aspects that can be helpful, they also have proponents and effects that are detrimental.
The second and third limbs of Patanajali’s yoga, asana and pranayama, utilise movement and breathing practices to prepare the body and mind for higher yoga practices and spiritual experiences. When we practice consistent asana we effectively heal, strengthen, detoxify, purify and balance the body. With the consistent practice of pranayama we do the same to the energy body, opening and cleaning the subtle nadi channels and creating more space for prana to accumulate and flow. By using these practices we ultimately prepare ourselves to balance, strengthen and purify our minds through meditation practice, which leads to realisation and spiritual experiences.
The yogi works very hard with their asana and pranayama practices to literally “undo” and delete all of the physical, emotional, environment, karmic, and mental toxics that literally store and crystallise themselves in our physical and energetic bodies and are obstacles to stilling the mind and realising our true selves. Despite any positive intention or exalted experiences had, the reality is that by ingesting any substance that alters our mental state or leaves residue in our bodies, we are in fact creating more toxicity in our systems and are therefore limiting the space in our bodies for prana. Thus much of our hard work with asana and pranayama becomes somewhat redundant, and in the long run makes sustained spiritual states less attainable.
The yogi is trying to attain and maintain a sattvic disposition in their being, and any rajastic or tasmic influences, such as drugs or alcohol, will create imbalance. Gregor Maehle describes the affects of drugs and alcohol on the yoga practice in many of his wonderful books on yoga. On page 124 in his book Pranayama the Breath of Yoga he writes: “Jayatarama, author of Jogapradipyaka, warns that consumption of alcohol, tobacco, hemp and opium will result in painful hell for unending periods. The warning appears grossly exaggerated, but the author means well. Of course people have managed to achieve great success even while consuming some of the above or even all of them. However it is again a question of stacking the odds against you. By using recreational drugs you will decrease the statistical probability of meaningfully and securely integrating spiritual exultation and bliss into your life… Alcohol simply mobilizes and expels prana. Pranayama tries to accumulate prana and increase the energy available for spiritual practice… Tobacco, hemp, and opium are neurotoxins that also make your mind tamasic [heavy, dull] and they block the nadis [subtle nervous system of energies], which you want to purify through pranayama.” Maehle does not judge that one way is right or wrong, but he very clearly states and continues to elaborate that attaining yogic bliss is difficult as it is, so why would we be interested in making more obstacles for ourselves that will make sustained spiritual states more elusive, if possible at all.
Drugs and alcohol, therefore, are not necessarily strictly forbidden and can be used for periods of time to help us along the way towards our goal, whether it be through induced relaxation or transcendent states. However, in the long run, they are impurities and function ultimately as an obstacle and a retardant to accessing higher states of consciousness and realisation.
It seems that sex and drugs do have their own moderate place within the yoga system, despite many polarised opinions. Yoga helps us to live a more harmonious and beneficial life, for ourselves and for the world. The building block to the yoga system is ahisma, non-violence. This implies to not cause harm to others and also to ourselves. We do not need to indulge in things like sex, drugs or even yoga, as indulgence implies violence. But we also do not need to judge ourselves or force ourselves, as that is inherently violent too. Do not force things out of your life, as this can create its own imbalances. But with awareness, compassion and the development of yoga practice, we can allow ourselves to let go of the habits and patterns in our lives that inhibit us rather than propel us towards our highest potential.