Ganga Yoga in the old days
Nothing new under the Sun.
Back in my Indian study years at Ananda Ashram, there was no place for ganga (marijuana) nor any psychedelic substances. My time with the Sadhus (wandering monks) later showed me an older tradition where the use of ganga and hashish were integrated with various yoga practices. In some of the villages up in the Himalayas the smoke was an established part of every evening chant session. I could see that the monks were getting to states beyond body functionality; not what I was seeking at that time so I kept my straight and strict disciplines clear of the smoke. I did look at it with a degree of respect however, seeing that in this context it was not a hippy thing.
Swami Gitananda was clear about brain chemistry being at our disposal and creating whatever states of consciousness required. I did not know what brain chemistry was when he first talked about these things, but this much I believed to be true. After four months of intensive practice in all the forms of yoga taught there I began to experience psychedelic states of perception similar to what I had lived with LSD the previous year. At least I did not need to learn about the possibilities of these states since I had the experiences already. My doors of perception were already open; the similarities of experiences and the simplicity with which the states could be attained blew my mind.
Nevertheless, I did not dabble with the ganga influence and kept my practice along the lines of stricter yoga for the India years and beyond. Years later, after living in in Guatemala for a few winters and having experiences with Peyote and magic mushrooms, I realized that the use of plant medicine was a very ancient practice common to many spiritual traditions. In my perspective, the reliance on medicine was too strong in these traditions while the technique and understanding to control brain chemistry was missing.
In the mid to late 70’s I ran a series of experiments with myself and some students – experiments in altered states of consciousness which would reach into the placebo effect (which I did not know about at that time. In the beginning, we used some legitimate smoke in very small quantities, in conjunction with a morning practice of postures, movements, deep breathing and retentions. The smoke acted as a catalyst, enabling a deeper awareness of all sensations coming from the movement and the breath. The enjoyment of practicing yoga was considerably increased. Over the days, and winter months, we repeated the YogaToke experiment many times with some variations: the smoke did not always contain THC, some days there was no smoke, and when there was smoke, I was the only one who knew what was in the pipe.
The yogic techniques for higher states of mind were quite effective with or without the smoke and we realized many times over that we could not always tell whether we had smoked, or what we had taken in. The ‘with or without’ became the important issue: if we were getting to the same state ‘without’ and catalyst, then it was the yogic technique which was more effective. Overall result of these experiments was the increased motivation to practice more yoga. Another observation that came over a longer period of time, was the insight and inspiration that came with the “occasional” use of Ganga; the smoke brought insight and deepened the experience of each asana and pranayama technique. However, ‘occasional’ meant no more than once a week. More often than once every 7 days produced some very contrary effects; such as: with mental insight flowing in, came a trailing sluggishness that made the body feel lazy and the actual motivation to do the practices was destroyed. Great ideas of what to do next but no ambition to do it; how useful is that? Indulgence becomes over-indulgence very quickly, so we concluded that minimal amounts of smoke and larger intervals of time could be beneficial, but students needed to apply limitations and control, right from the beginning.
The expanding awareness of feeling, initiated by the smoke, can be a great discovery tool. Then the work of applying what has been learned needs to happen. This will likely involve doing breath and posture (work and effort) – techniques can easily been seen with the catalyst but the resistance to doing anything doubles in strength. So of course, in the yogic world the Niyama of Tapas needs to be applied: the will power to overcome the extra resistance.
With Ganga Yoga all of this needs to be taken into consideration, and the practice must remain strong so that all insights and expansion in feeling are applied, otherwise it all goes to indulgence in the experience which can seem, far out, a little too far out.
Written by David Goulet (Yoga master)