Imagine embarking on a great and perilous journey in which the road is known to be laden with cunning traps. Would you take a map and flashlight with you? The system of yoga acts as just such a field guide to understanding your own inner workings and gives you the foundational structure to safely embark on your spiritual journey without harming yourself or others.
For millennia, yogis have been mapping out the roads to and from various states of consciousness. The word “yoga” itself translates roughly to “union with infinite”. The Yoga Sutras are a set of scriptures written somewhere between 200-400BCE by a sage named Patanjali.
The Sutras are essentially a manuscript for the human condition, a users manual for harnessing control of the mind’s chaotic fluctuations. Patanjali mapped out the process of this evolution into an eight-fold path known as the Eight Limbs of Yoga, eight observances and practices to guide one’s spiritual journey.
“Yoga chitta vritti nirodha” – this is Patanjali’s first description of Yoga, which translates to “Yoga is the calming (or cessation) of the fluctuations in one’s mind”. This says that yoga (used here as a noun) is a state of being; in subsequent chapters Patanjali unfolds what is later to become known as the backbone structure of the practice of yoga.
In this eight-limbed path, the first two limbs are Yama and Niyama. Consider these the self regulating practices and contemplations that create inner and outer boundaries.
The third limb is known as Asana: this is the physical practice of yoga which we mainly know in the West. From there the path allows the practitioner to gain control of their physical body as well as the subtle inner workings of their being.
After mastery of the body comes mastery of the mind. The following yogic limbs allow sadakhas(earnest students) safe passage into the inner realms of the psyche, as one reins in the awareness from the five senses and tunes into their inner silence.
From asana we venture into the subtle realms and learn how the breath directs prana (energy, or viral life force) within and around the body with robe practice of pranayama. The fifth limb slows us to begin directing out focus purely within with the practice of Pratyahara, which is the act of turning ones awareness away from the five external senses and focusing it inward.
The sixth limb is known as Dharana, which is single pointed focus on one object or notion, this is effectively training the mind to maintain one pointed focus, and the seventh limb is Dhyana, meaning pure meditation, and this leads to the eighth limb, which is Samadhi, or absorption into the whole.
So, what do we do with this map? If we look at where yoga is today we see trendy wellness businesses and aerobic style exercise classes. Is this going to help lead us to and from the “gateless gate” (as Samadhi has been termed)? The yoga that you may see being practiced in the West today is more geared towards a physical practice and is generally asana focused. But taking a deeper dive into the practice of yoga does not necessarily require one to give up all worldly possessions and attachments, nor does it require devotion to the Hindu pantheon of deities.
To the contrary, T. Krishnamacharya (the godfather of modern-day yoga as we know it) offered that not only was yoga India’s greatest gift to the world, but it came free of attachment to any religion or faith. When used as a practical discipline, yoga can guide a participant safely into the depths of their own psyche and allow them to shift and dissolve old mental patterning.
How deep does this path go? Well if you look into the core of every religion and spiritual practice you are bound to discover a common tenet – the idea of union with the Infinite, a merging with God. The yogis call this Samadhi, Buddhists call it Nirvana. It is referred to as Fitrah in Islam and the Beatific Vision in Christianity. The Hindu faith and Yogic traditions voice this idea loudly with a central tenet that says, “Atman is Brahman,” meaning the individual soul is the same as the Infinite Godhead. In modern spirituality it is often called “non-dualism,” which means “not two”, i.e., one unified state of consciousness without separation (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nondualism).
Throughout history human beings have sought a direct connection with the Divine. As a concept, non-duality is present in the realms of science, in the fields of quantum physics and quantum mechanics, philosophy and spirituality. These pathways all aim to expand our knowledge of ultimate reality. So when used as a map for psychedelic use, yoga is possibly one of the most direct and effective approaches into one’s inner world.
As more attention has been focused on non-duality as a core paradigm to understanding the nature of the infinite, there has also been an increased use of entheogens to achieve this state. Reports of the “mystical experience” are heard all around the world, as participants of various psychedelic and plant medicine ceremonies experience an intimate merging with the Infinite. This mystical experience is usually accompanied by a full cessation of the individual self, leaving the awareness free to remember its totality, ie, that Union with the Divine within.
A study published in 2019 by Professor Roland Griffiths at Johns Hopkins compared “God encounters” among naturally occurring experiences with classical psychedelics like psilocybin, LSD, ayahuasca and DMT. Out of 4,285 participants canvassed about their mystical experiences around 75% of participants reported that this experience was amongst the most meaningful and impactful experiences of their life, with a notable impact on mental health. It is also notable that 15% of the study participants reported it to be the most psychologically challenging experience of their lives, for sometimes experiencing the Godhead isn’t just bliss, sometimes it can cause what is left of the mind to recoil in terror.
So how can we navigate to and from these deep states of consciousness? How can we become aware of the tendencies of the mind both before and after total dissolution into the whole? And can yoga and meditation help?
In this current renaissance of psychedelic therapy, the clinical model seems to have little understanding of the mystical experience beyond reducing it down to its relationship to the serotonin H2A receptor. Perhaps to truly grasp the potential of an entheogenic future, we must investigate both sides of the coin, the subtle and the gross, that which can be understood through known sciences, and that which cannot be grasped by the mind, the inscrutable and ineffable.
Perhaps the old geographies of those who studied these mysteries in experiential yogic ways can assist us in this unfolding of consciousness. The wheel has already been invented, but it’s been commodified and sold as a wall-hanging. Utilizing yogic exercises in preparation or integration of an enthoegenic experience offers an established, replicable and potent means to know your own operating system, and take control of your deeper being.
Joël Brierre is a yogi, teacher, medicine practitioner and the founder and CEO of the Kaivalya Kollectiv, a psychedelic retreat and education company supported by both Eastern and Western integrative practices.