My seven-year-old daughter loves to help pump gas as much as my safety sense will allow. I told her she could go ahead and press the 87 button as I put the nozzle into the filling inlet of our Prius. I squeezed and locked the handle of the nozzle on so my hands wouldn’t freeze in the January night cold of Maine, and looked up to admire the new station’s sign. As my mind often swirled with details of busy family life I had only noticed the large Atlantic Farms name before. This night I allowed my eyes to notice the smaller words: Gas N’ Grass. I burst out laughing like I did 25 years ago when I experimented with cannabis as a psychology undergrad. Did I read that right? The small letters went on: Munchies, CBD, Education – oh yea, I read that right.
For over 25 years I have been interested in psychosis, or experiences people have that are different from the consensus of people around them, and troubling enough to either the individual or the surrounding people to be brought to the attention of psychiatrists, the lifeguards of our society. They are then given a stigmatizing label from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (1) (DSM-5), and heavy tranquilizers in an attempt to suppress the experience. What fascinates me is how so many will talk about spiritual subjects including miraculous powers all the way up to declaring themselves God, Jesus, or Buddha, yet the dominant view in society is that it is crazy talk from a broken brain. Neuron malfunction. While the lack of functionality of people in extreme forms of these psychosis states is unquestionable, up to half of those same people disagree it results from a broken brain (2). Could there be any truth or meaning in what they say?
The term yoga is now commonly recognized and the poses or asanas are taught at gyms, mini-malls, and studios to over 36 million people (3) in the U.S. alone. What might yoga have to do with drugs and symptoms of psychosis? Most standard 200-hour Yoga Alliance (4) registered teacher training courses utilize elements from a text, The Yoga Sutras of Patañjali (5). Patañjali’s sutras are a summarization of yoga philosophy and practice from the time it was composed over 1600 years ago and up to 2400 years ago depending on which historical Patañjali gets credit as the author. This text contains references to special powers that can come by being born with the potential for them, by serious yoga practice, or to some people who use drugs or herbs. Cannabis in particular is used in India by some yoga practitioners called ascetics (6) who withdraw their attention from worldly concerns and inward to find God. Cannabis is so intertwined with yoga culture it is considered the sacred plant of Shiva, the god of yoga. What is striking is the DSM-5 that defines disorders with a psychosis component including schizophrenia, schizoaffective, and bipolar, indicate that belief in the same special powers Patañjali noted is a key diagnostic symptom of psychotic disorders called grandiose delusions.
Examples include the ability to read minds, hear or see things at a distance or other dimensions, heightened sensory abilities, learn about past lives, or the potential to understand any language. Is this getting too woo woo for you? Have you ever thought or dreamed of someone across the world just before they contacted you out of the blue? In the person who becomes aware of these abilities, the skills to use them may not be developed or sustainable. Some may just realize the potential for those abilities and become afraid that others are reading their minds. Telepathy or mind reading is a known side effect of meditation by advanced practitioners. One of my meditation teachers in India described how disturbing the experience was to become aware of the thoughts of others.
Another psychosis symptom listed in the DSM-5, hallucinations is worth mentioning. Hallucinations can be related to any of the senses but are most commonly auditory. They are experiences while awake where someone hears something that someone else next to them with working ears does not hear. It could be voices or even a ringing sound, which is interesting as this is so common that hearing a ringing sound is a question we ask kids with the early or prodromal psychosis intervention screeners. The early psychosis intervention (7) programs target teenagers and young adults based on the premise that if we can identify people who might get debilitating psychosis earlier while they are still rational, they will be in a state where they will more likely believe that their brain is broken. Then they will be more willing to take tranquilizers to attempt to stop the sounds without the need for coercion used with half of the people with the more end of the line psychotic disorder label of schizophrenia.
Yoga has a different early intervention program of sorts with guidance outlined both by Patañjali, and very specific guidance of what to do with ear ringing in another text. The additional text suggested under the Yoga Alliance’s (4) Yoga Humanities category of training is the Hatha Yoga Pradipika (8), a text from around 600 years ago that goes into a bit more detail than Patañjali on some of the physical practices of yoga. This text refers to this ear ringing sound like bees or tinkling bells and additional sounds including drums or ocean like sounds as nada or an inner sound. This sound is heard when a person turns their attention away from sensory world experience as is done on purpose in yoga in preparation for meditation. The prescription from this text is to meditate on the sound and turn the attention to more subtle sounds that arise to continue the students’ developmental process.
The most authoritative commentator on Patañjali (5) mentions that lunatics and hysterics can experience this sensory withdrawal called pratyahara in which the inner sounds will come about, though they may not have control over the experience as a practiced student of yoga could. In people who ultimately get labeled psychotic there are many reasons withdrawal from the sensory world can happen such as being a target of bullying, racism, sexism, or abuse. Indeed, the Adverse Childhood Experiences Study (9) data found people 5 times more likely to report hallucinations as an adult if they reported several experiences of trauma as a child. Among other potential reasons is an internal call to explore more interesting dimensions of experience than our materialistic consumer culture offers, and some will use drugs like cannabis or psychedelics to have a similar turning inward experience.
What should someone do when they become aware of special powers through drugs, yoga, or birth? Should they run around attempting an enthusiastic but fumbled explanation of their newfound awareness to whomever is nearby before they develop the skills to use those powers? Patañjali has specific guidance regarding the special powers. It is suggested that rather than expend effort to develop the skills to use these distracting powers like mind reading or heightened sensory abilities, the serious yoga student should turn attention away from even these powers and continue meditating to complete their development into self-realization or spiritual liberation and enlightenment.
To get to this spiritual liberation through yoga after withdrawal from the external sensory world there is a sometimes scary, ungrounding, and devastating deconstruction of the person’s concepts of themselves, and an outside world surrounding them. Every concept a person had acquired in their life gets questioned, even the concepts of time and space in an outside world. Unguided this can take even years in a disabling state before one comes out of it with a new and expanded sense of self with which to reengage in worldly life. The awakening person’s deconstruction of the concepts of themselves and an outside world has a striking parallel in the DSM-5. The DSM-5 offers depersonalization and derealization when one experiences the lack of reality of oneself and their surroundings that commonly occur in people who get labeled with psychotic disorders. Are they signs of a potential developmental process that intense yoga practice can bring to spiritual realization or signs of an incurable broken brain in need of tranquilizers and a low stress environment to prevent worsening?
The self-realized person has both the old sense of individual self separate from others with which to interact with the world, and the additional experience and perspective of being in relationship with everyone and everything in the universe. They often experience everyone and everything as being all one consciousness, one self with a socialized sense of separateness. While the one self is often called God, the sense of separateness is popularly associated with ego. Perhaps some of those labeled with psychosis and proclaiming to be Jesus have had a taste of this experience of God and themselves being one.
In recent years there has been a growth in cannabis legalization to the point where you can apparently get gas n’ grass on your drive home, and a growth in research of psychedelics, both clinical and individual citizen research. It is high time to get some other options out there for people to give a more normalizing language from yoga culture to their experiences, and practices to develop their potential rather than a fall into hopelessness and dependence on our social security system. The territory of special powers can be full of pitfalls both from someone’s own traumatic history and internal access to transpersonal experience beyond their personal history or understanding. If Patañjali is right regarding drugs, with legalization there may soon be many more people attempting to navigate and getting stuck in this tricky terrain.
Joseph Campbell once said the psychotic drowns in the same waters in which the mystic swims with delight. Why not give the lifeguards a hand and teach the knowledge and skills of yoga to those so inclined so they can learn to swim and turn the potential disaster of their lives into a delight.
1. American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
2. Schwartz, M. A., & Wiggins, O. P. (2005). Psychiatry fraud and force? A commentary on E. Fuller Torrey and Thomas Szasz. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 45(3), 403-415.
3. Yoga Journal & Yoga Alliance (2016). 2016 yoga in America study.
4. Yoga Alliance. (2020, February). RYS 200 core curriculum.
5. Aranya, S. H. (1983). Yoga philosophy of Patañjali. Albany, NY: SUNY
6. Gumbiner, J. (2011, June 16). History of cannabis in India. Psychology Today
7. Birchwood, M., Todd, P., & Jackson, C. (1998). Early intervention in psychosis: The critical- period hypothesis. International Clinical Psychopharmacology, 13(suppl 1), S31-S40
8. Ramanathan, A. A., Sastri, S., & Burnier, R. (2000). The hathayogapradipika of Svatmarama.Chennai, India: Adya
9. Whitfield, C. L., Dube, S. D., Felitti, V. J., and Anda, R. (2005). Adverse childhoodexperiences and hallucinations. Child Abuse & Neglect, 29(7), 797-810.