Tag Archives: backbending

A 60 minute Backbending Practice

12 Nov

Insects, Yoga and Ayahuasca

Fold your wings, like this dear, and tuck them underneath you,” said an unfamiliar, though kindly, voice that seemed to emanate from inside my head.

“My wings?” I asked aloud, confused by the instructions. “Do you mean my legs?”

“Yes, yes, bend your legs… and your other legs too.”

And so began what can only be described as a yoga asana lesson taught to me by a startlingly large praying mantis-like creature during an ayahuasca ceremony in the Peruvian Amazon.

Paying little heed to a nagging injury that would normally prevent such movement, I did as I was told and suddenly I found myself in a surprisingly deep series of backbends, fit for the pages of a yoga magazine. Before the mind could protest, I moved spontaneously from pose-to-pose with a sense of ease and playful power. Upon rising the following morning, I was amazed to find my body retained all of its newfound strength and suppleness. And with no sign of the old injury, I demonstrated what I’d learned for my duly impressed partner: what I’d learned from the praying mantis was a group of back-bending poses known in yoga circles as the “insect series.”

As a longtime proponent of the whole yogic lifestyle-thing—no meat, alcohol, caffeine or late nights for me, thank you—I was initially reluctant to participate in the ayahuasca ceremony, despite the Amazonian tea’s reputation as a sacred plant medicine of the highest order. Like many, I had heard horror stories about violent ayahuasca-induced purges and, on a practical level, I wondered how I would do my morning yoga practice if the all-night affair left me nauseous, weak and sore. I also had lingering concerns that the psychoactive brew could somehow undo years of disciplined practice and virtuous living and destabilize my physical and energetic bodies, not to mention what it might do to my calm mind.

Though curious, I waited almost five years before I agreed to experience ayahuasca for the first time. The change of heart came after a meeting with an internationally-renowned yoga teacher who drew a strong parallel between ayahuasca and the mythical ritual drink Soma, which is described in the Rigveda as nothing less than the nectar of immortality: “We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered” (8.48.3, as translated by RTH Griffith). “Well,” I thought, “if it’s good enough for the Gods, enlightened beings and celebrity yoga teachers….”

The praying mantis yoga lesson was the first of many yogic teachings that have come to me in ceremony. Sometimes the ayahuasca makes me move around—mostly wild inversions and heart-blossoming backbends—and sometimes it puts me into deep states of meditation—where my breath all but disappears into the stillness of my being. Even the dreaded purges feel good and cleansing in a way—not so different from the seemingly strange purification practices prescribed in the ancient yoga manual, the Hatha Yoga Pradipika, when it comes right down to it.

Perhaps most significantly, I was initiated into the practice of Nada Yoga (the yoga of sound) during a ceremony. It happened when I began to perceive what yogis call the inner music—the primal sound signified by OM—which came, at first, in a dazzling symphony of clanging bells, snare drums and cosmic sitars. During that same night, the hinge joint of my jaw popped wide open and music and poetry flowed unstoppably from my mouth for several hours. The telepathic message I received—this time from a cheering chorus of insects and amphibians—was that, as a yogi, I have an obligation to literally open my mouth wider and speak-out on behalf of those who can’t.

Ayahuasca took my yoga off the mat and made my practice practical. At one time, I did poses such as locust, scorpion, cobra, dog, and tree without thinking too much about their correlates in the natural world; they were little more than exercises with fanciful names. Now it seems obvious that before there were yoga studios, designer yoga-wear lines and sticky mats, the yogis took their teachings from nature. The first yoga teachers were the plants, the animals and, yes, the insects too. They say the practice of yoga is directly informed by nature and I finally get on a cellular level why yogis have such a close friendship with the earth—because we’re not separate from her.

Much like the yoga practice itself, ayahuasca and other plant medicines are said to have the ability to reunite human consciousness with natural and supernatural rhythms. Taken with the correct intention, they can help catalyze a profound shift in our all-too-limited take on things. With the radical deepening and broadening of perspective comes a new brand of happiness—the real stuff that lasts and lasts. Experience teaches that when I stop thinking about myself and connect to the other—even when the other is something as alien as a giant praying mantis—I put some space between myself and my mental afflictions. What flows from that space is the taste of freedom.

In the Yoga Sutras, the sage Patanjali explained that spiritual attainments leading to liberation can arise from drugs or chemical means, as well as from yogic practices such as mantra recitation, performance of austerities and samadhi, which is union of individual consciousness with divine consciousness (book IV, sutra 1). Interestingly, practices such as pranayama (breath control) and asana (physical exercise)—the two most important components of modern yoga practice in the West—are considered chemical means, according to Shri Brahmananda Sarasvati, because they work by causing biochemical changes in the body and mind.

Scientists have found DMT—a powerful hallucinogen and one of the primary psychoactive ingredients in ayahuasca—occurring naturally in the human body. It is reportedly released by the pineal gland (what yogis refer to as the third eye) and stored at the base of the spine, where kundalini shakti is said to lie dormant until activated. Yogis have long known that transcendent experiences are accessible through certain yogic practices. Certainly the “yoga high” is what keeps me and, I’m sure, millions of other yogis coming back to the mat day-after-day.

While some may scoff at the notion of seeking enlightenment through stretching and psychedelics, the reality is this stuff works. It’s not just talk: it’s experiential and tangible and it taps you into something big and juicy. As one of my teachers likes to say: plant teachers aren’t exclusive to South America and India doesn’t own the rights to yoga. As a modern-day seeker, it feels like I’m just now coming into my spiritual birthright—it just took a giant insect to show me the way.

This article by Padmani originally appeared on Reality Sandwich and is included in Toward 2012: Perspectives on the Next Age