November 22, 2013

Drinking Alcohol: A Big No-No for Serious Yogis?

Kundalini Yoga is one of the few styles that is emphatic on this point—at least that I could find on Google.

“Yoga and intoxicants do not go together! The yoga induces a natural high and works the same neural pathways that may be affected through intoxicants.” Kundalini Yoga

Of course, strict yoga recommendations also advocate avoiding garlic and onion, and other heavily spiced food. That can be hard to swallow in our indulgent and carefree Western society. No garlic! No onion! No way!

It’s no wonder most people who practice yoga also enjoy alcohol, albeit maybe in moderation.

But are we kidding ourselves? When we yogis drink, are we hamstringing our yoga practice by interfering with the energetic body and sabotaging our best efforts at practice?

I don’t know for sure. But this is what I do know—my recent experience with alcohol. Here’s my tale.


It was one of those behaviours or activities that started softly, softly, slipping in under the mat and under my awareness.

A bottle of wine shared with my flatmate once a week.

A shared bottle of wine twice a week.

A bottle of vodka in the house—leading to a cocktail before dinner four or five times a week, and then a glass or two of wine.

It was never more than two or three drinks in a night, never every night of the week. But still, as time went by, this behaviour began to tug at my consciousness. I noticed I was drinking more. That I seemed to want to drink more. That there were times when I didn’t feel like I could say no to a glass of wine at dinner. I didn’t want to say no.

Eventually, a desire arose to stop drinking, but my desire to continue was too strong and so I kept drinking.

Now I knew that I was indulging in alcohol not for pleasure’s sake but for avoidance’s sake. Something was at play; I was using substances again and it wasn’t pretty.

So one night, after another night of wine with dinner, I stopped.

Cold turkey.

And boy what a difference. I felt clearer. I felt more present. My asana practice increased again. I naturally started waking up early again, and wanting to get out of bed. I felt healthier. I started making better food choices.

My early morning yoga practice naturally resumed—stoked to finally be practicing in the a.m. after years of home practice, it went by-the-by a couple of months ago. Maybe about the same time I started enjoying a glass or two of wine with dinner most nights. So what luxury to again be up early enough to practice yoga!

But I’ve also had to face the issues around intimacy I was avoiding—the very reason I was reaching for that vodka cocktail at the end of a long day of work and child-raising. Or that glass of wine over dinner.

Yes, I may have only been having two or three alcoholic drinks, four or five times a week, but it was still avoidance. And that’s what counts.

At the same time as I was observing this play between myself and alcohol, I’ve been doing a Heart-Opening Kriya sadhana (daily practice)—mostly because I was stepping into relationship again for the first time in a couple of years and I wanted to support my heart in this unfolding process.

It seemed the closer my partner and I became, the further into my sadhana I got (I started on 40 days, but I’ve decided to go to 120 days) and the more I wanted to drink.

This is no coincidence. According to Expert Ayurvedic physician,Vaidya Rama Kant Mishra;

 “Alcohol disrupts the vibrational channels that allow spiritual development—mainly the heart lotus.”

Ah… interesting. The weeks after I went cold turkey on alcohol, long-buried intimacy issues from childhood were finally allowed to surface and I spend about a week sobbing my heart out. It was a giant relief. And afterward, the relating between my partner and I deepened to a level I’ve never experienced before.

All those years in a relationship, and whenever I got close to the pain that was living in my heart, I used alcohol or some other drug to escape and avoid feeling that hurt.

And so even though I was only drinking one or two glasses of wine a night, it was still stopping me from being here now. I was still avoiding the present moment.

So alcohol and the yogi—do the two mix? There is no definitive answer to that question.

In my experience, and that’s all I ever speak from, increased yoga practice leads to increased awareness, leads to better choices around drug and alcohol use. You start to really notice what drugs and alcohol are doing to your body and you don’t like it. You really don’t like it.

Once I used ecstasy, cocaine, mushrooms, marijuana and alcohol on a regular basis. No more.  I’ve even given up caffeine. Now, I only use alcohol, and that was sporadic.

Until the incident I described above when my alcohol use wasn’t sporadic anymore, when it became a habit, and then it became an avoidance technique—a way to relax.

Totally illusory though; relaxing via alcohol is only the appearance of relaxing.

Today, after a day of work and child-raising, when I would have been reaching for a vodka juice while cooking dinner, I did five sun salutations. I got my relaxation, and I also got increased awareness, strength and flexibility.

It was easy to cruise along, drinking and avoiding myself. After all, I enjoy alcohol—in small doses, mindfully—that was my thinking around it. There’s nothing wrong with that. I mean, I’m just drinking in the Tantric way: full awareness of the moment. What’s two or three glasses of wine in an evening?

Nothing. And everything. It all depends on why you’re drinking, and the effects it’s having on your body and mind. Naturally rajas or even sattva with all my yoga practice, alcohol was turning me totally tamastic. (Those are the three gunas, or states of mind, read up on them here.)

I didn’t like that. And I didn’t like it enough that I was finally able to just stop.

Sunday was the day. We’d had a potluck dinner the night before and I’d had a fruity vodka drink before dinner and two glasses of wine while eating. Nothing huge, nothing excessive, but it didn’t feel great. I didn’t sleep great. I woke up feeling—not great.

And that was it. Something in me switched. Enough. I’m done. Take a break.

So I have.

Will I drink again? Maybe. Maybe not. Drinking is not the issue. The issue is why I’m drinking.

Will I drink to avoid intimacy, will I drink to relax because there’s inner tension I’m not dealing with, will I drink to escape?

Maybe, maybe not.

I continue to practice yoga. My awareness continues to grow. Out of that expanded awareness, I see more and understand more. I make different choices. I evolve. My lifestyle evolves. There is no definitive answer, only a tendency towards a particular outcome.

But having done some research, I’m also more mindful of the effects of alcohol on the body—all five koshas—and at this stage in my yoga practice I’m ready to make different choices.

Alcohol and the yogi: do they mix? It’s a nonsense question really. Yoga is not about rules, about right or wrong, about living this way or that, about fulfilling this role or that role.

It’s about awareness. It’s about conscious choice. It’s about being present.

Cultivate awareness and you cultivate the clarity to know what’s right for you.

Because you know, you always know, no matter what your mind tries to tell you.

But beware.

The ego is a devious and strong mechanism—it always thinks it’s looking out for you and protecting you from pain.

Just like the defence mechanism that was encouraging me to drink more to avoid greater intimacy and by-pass the pain in my heart. My poor ego through it was protecting me. But really, it was keeping me from feeling the pain that goes along with loss—necessary if you want to feel the flip side of the coin—connection, intimacy and love.

So before you leave a comment defending your use of alcohol and how it’s okay for you and you’re not avoiding anything, ask yourself, how do you know? How do you really know that’s true? How do you know it’s not just a well-developed defence mechanism?

Me, I have no interest in whether you drink or not, no matter what your yoga practice. So if you do feel the need to defend your position, ask yourself, what am I defending? What is there to defend?


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Editor: Catherine Monkman

{Photo: Flickr.}

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