Integrating Yoga Into Your Ayahuasca Practice

Swar Yoga by Pieter Weltevrede

Swar Yoga by Pieter Weltevrede

In the psychedelic world these days, there’s more and more talk about how to integrate your ayahuasca experience into your life, and the suggestions usually involve taking up a yoga or meditation practice. This common distinction, yoga or meditation, points to a need to reiterate that yoga is meditation. They’ve only been separated in recent times — by Western yoga's focus on primarily the physical practice only, and by western Buddhism's focus on the mental practices.

In the past, I’ve written about how a complete yoga practice that includes postures, breath and meditation can help you integrate the ayahuasca experience into your regular life. In this article, I’ll offer ways you can integrate the practices of Classical Yoga into the ceremonial ayahuasca experience to minimize discomfort and maximize benefit.

In my time teaching at an ayahuasca retreat center in the Amazon, I’ve heard the Shipibo healers repeatedly stress that participants in the ayahuasca ceremony need to “sit up and concentrate” so they (and the medicine) can most effectively do their work. In Classical Yoga, all of the postural and breathwork practices are intended to prepare us so that we can sit in a posture that is steady and comfortable1 and concentrate2. The rest — the insights, the transcendence of the egoic self — comes through grace. You can’t make it happen, you can only set the conditions up for success. The same goes for any psychedelic experience.

Set & Setting
As psychedelic pioneer Timothy Leary wrote in his guidebook to the psychedelic experience, (based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead),

“Of course, the drug dose does not produce the transcendent experience. It merely acts as a chemical key — it opens the mind, frees the nervous system of its ordinary patterns and structures. The nature of the experience depends almost entirely on set and setting. Set denotes the preparation of the individual, including his personality structure and his mood at the time. Setting is physical - the weather, the room’s atmosphere; social - feelings of persons present towards one another; and cultural - prevailing views as to what is real.” 

A regular yoga practice will go a long way toward ensuring a beneficial “set” going into a ceremony. Your body will be better prepared to sit for long periods of time and you’ll be practiced at working with your breath and concentrating.

When you’re in the ceremony it can make all the difference to sit up in a posture (asana) that is stable (sthira) and comfortable (sukha). This has two effects: 1) it will allow you to remain grounded and connected to the earth and your body as the experience heightens and intensifies; 2) it will allow energy to flow freely through your body which can alleviate much of the physical discomfort that people often report in their ayahuasca experiences. The word sukha also suggests a quality of receptivity and openness, which is a quality that’s helpful to embody when working with a skilled healer as it allows them access to do their work.

Another common pitfall is getting caught in thought loops or negative thought spirals and not being able to pull yourself out of it. Classical Yoga suggests pranayama (breath control)3 to steady the mind. Being practiced in a simple yogic breath control method, like ujjayi breathing, is a valuable tool to have at your disposal in a ceremony.

Physical & Energetic Cleansing
Another aspect that I feel compelled to mention is the physical, energetic and emotional cleansing that happens in an ayahuasca ceremony. Participants are usually instructed to maintain a restricted diet and abstain from drugs and alcohol for a period of time before the ceremony. This is to help detoxify the body and cultivate more openness and sensitivity so that the ceremony is less about physical cleansing and more about deeper healing. 

Hatha Yoga offers a number of practices, from vomiting to energetic cleansing through breathwork, that are designed to facilitate the physical and energetic purification necessary to have a steady and clear mind. It goes to figure that if you come in “cleaner” to an ayahuasca ceremony, that there will be less “cleaning” that needs to happen before you get to the “good stuff”. And trust me, you’d rather not spend the majority of the ceremony in the toilet or moaning into a plastic bucket.

Integration
If a consistent and complete yoga practice that includes physical postures, breathwork and meditation can help us prepare for a successful ayahuasca experience, then it certainly can help us stay clear, open and grounded when we return to our regular life. It’s these qualities that are necessary if we’re to integrate that profound, mystical experience into our life, to, as psychologist Abraham Maslow said, turn the peak experience into a sustained plateau of lasting serenity and peace.

I offer support in preparing for, and integrating your ayahuasca work on a 1-to-1 basis, in person or via Skype. You can contact me at hello@brianjamesyoga.com for more information.


Notes:
1. Yoga Sutra 2.46: The posture (asana) for Yoga meditation should be steady, stable, and motionless, as well as comfortable, and this is the third of the eight rungs of Yoga. (sthira sukham asanam)
2. Yoga Sutra 3.1: Concentration (dharana) is the process of holding or fixing the attention of mind onto one object or place, and is the sixth of the eight rungs. (deshah bandhah chittasya dharana)
3. Yoga Sutra 1.34: The mind is also calmed by regulating the breath, particularly attending to exhalation and the natural stilling of breath that comes from such practice. (prachchhardana vidharanabhyam va pranayama)