Photo: Andrew Kalat
Altered States of Consciousness
Living in a city that is not permeated by yoga, I maintain a schedule and lifestyle notably removed from the mainstream. Socially, I am frequently in the company of people who do not practice yoga. In those instances, I am often the only person not drinking or imbibing some mind-altering chemical. So I’m often in the company of people stoned or high.
Typically, the stoned/high/drunk people interpret my behavior in two ways: either as disapproval of their consumption (not true) and/or my own love of sobriety. In their words, they enjoy “altered” consciousness—insinuating that sobriety is “unaltered,” and thus boring. It’s as if they’re meaning to say, “You’re such a square, Stephanie.” I respect both their opinion and their expression of it, though I disagree with their definition.
My reasons are not what people imagine. Though I value shaucha (purity), my abstention is less for the sake of a limb of yoga and ultimately because I prefer mindfulness. So I tend to avoid situations that draw me away from it. I drink champagne toasts at weddings sometimes, but don’t feel compelled to drink on New Year’s Eve, for example.
Sobriety, as in non-drunk, un-stoned, dis-high, should not be synonymous with “unaltered” consciousness. Though I have used drugs recreationally in the past, my consciousness now is far more altered than any of the times I had those substances in my body. The practice of multiple limbs of yoga (including breath work and meditation) keeps my consciousness altered, at least in comparison to its state before I practice yoga.
Acknowledging the range of altered consciousnesses, what then, is “unaltered” consciousness? If I consider heightened awareness as different (altered), then the opposite (unaltered) becomes some distracted state. By that rationale, altered consciousness is a paradox, given that behaviors and consumption always change consciousness.
In fact, I mostly exist in altered consciousness, in this sense of un-normal. Like many, I have “seen” profound visions underneath closed eyelids during meditation. In savasana (corpse/rest pose) and yoga nidra (yoga “sleep,” as in supine meditation), I often feel as though I’m levitating. Those experiences, from what my friends claim (and I still remember from my own past), are not so profoundly different from their altered states of consciousness.
Regardless of labels, what I share with people who partake of intoxicants is an appreciation of enhanced mindfulness, of heightened sensation. And when we’re present, there’s expansion.
Stephanie Kohler lives a life of eclectic and ecstatic passion. In no particular order, she is a writer, yogini, musician, teacher, nomad, lover, thinker, reader, dancer. She strives to balance effort with surrender, precision with laughter. Live life, love life, live love. Read more: southernwithasmalls.com