When Yoga Gets Weird: cave art, consciousness and creativity

If you practise yoga for a while, you’re likely to find out that sometimes things come up that you weren’t expecting at all. Time and time again, fellow yoga students and teachers tell me about “this weird thing that happened” while they were in their zone, using their physical practice to work into the depths of their mindstuff. And everyone’s experiences are different; all kinds of unexpected things happen, from strong emotional reactions, to moments of utter clarity, to visual hallucinations or physical sensations that seem to have no obvious relationship to the current physical reality. Recently, I spoke to a friend – a long-time yoga person – who was absorbed by something that had happened during his practice a few days earlier. He was sitting in meditation after a strong vinyasa flow session, and trying to focus on his breath; but his attention was drawn again and again to a sensation near the top of his spine which he described as “huge, oceanic, like my back had opened up and there was a door that I needed to step through to get out into this perfect massive place”. After he said this, he immediately shook his head and said “no, that’s not what I mean,” and I recognised in his frustration something that I’ve felt, too – a struggle with the non-existence of words that can describe an experience that is so unlike your daily ‘reality’.

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In thinking about the strangeness of some of the things that happen through our practice, it’s interesting to think not just about these experiences in the present, but also in the past – about instances of weird human consciousness happenings that might give clues as to what’s going on when these moments arise, and how these experiences could be related to creative processes. In The Mind in the Cave, David Lewis-Williams talks about consciousness in relation to cave art. Unlike many theorists, he argues that image-making should not be seen as a result of something else happening in human evolution – something like ecological or social stress, or as a consequence of the development of an ‘aesthetic sense’ – but as an active component in the process of humans coming to make sense of consciousness in particular times and places (Lewis-Williams 2002:73). Importantly, he notes a relationship between mental states being ‘wired into’ the neurology of the nervous system, whilst also being significantly affected by culturally specific memory. Basically, experience of what Lewis-Williams calls the ‘intensified spectrum of consciousness’ is common to all humans, but the contents of these experiences are usually derived from our social and cultural background.

Lewis-Williams identifies three stages in the intensified spectrum of consciousness; he suggests that this spectrum was involved in the early production of cave art and, by extension, could be seen to be involved in the production of art today. I should note, here, that many instances of such states of consciousness in anthropological studies are related to the use of psychotropic plants – for example, in shamanistic rituals. These states are also, however, recorded in instances where the ‘altered’ consciousness is accessed through meditative practices that do not involve such plants; and I believe that they can provide a useful way of thinking about the experiences that many people report during their yoga practice.

In the first stage, people might experience visions of geometric patterns such as dots, zigzags and lines; “they flicker, scintillate, expand, contract, and combine with one another” (Lewis-Williams 2002:126). These ‘entoptic phenomena’ are the result of the spatial relationship between the visual cortex and the retina, with points that are close to each other on the retina resulting in the firing of comparably placed neutrons in the visual cortex. These patterns are perceived as visual percepts when this process is reversed, so the individual is, essentially, seeing the structure of his or her own brain (Bressloff et al. 2000). In the second stage, the brain tries to make sense of entoptic phenomena by elaborating them into familiar objects – trying to decode visual forms, just as in every day life; for example, a vague triangular shape might become a pear if the individual is hungry, or a glass of water if the individual is thirsty.

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And then we come to the third stage. Here, Lewis-Williams writes that there is a “progressive exclusion of information from the outside” (Lewis-Williams 2002: 129), and entoptic phenomena give way to strong hallucinations which are increasingly vivid, and often perceived to be ‘real’, in the moment. This stage is associated with powerful emotional experiences, and the individual may actually enter into and participate in the imagery that their mind is creating. These three stages are not necessarily sequential, but it may become more likely that you will experience the third if you practise the experience of the first and second. Lewis-Willams tells us that, worldwide, there are instances to be seen of people ‘harnessing’ the shifting experiences of consciousness to experience alternative realities that provide insight into the world and into living in it as a human being. And it’s this notion of harnessing our consciousness, using specific practices to delve into it in order to access creativity, that is interesting in relation to a discussion of yoga and ‘making’.

Anthropologist Anna-Leena Siikala, who studied shamanism in Siberia, suggests that by actively engaging in visionary experiences, people are “setting aside the critical faculty and allowing emotions, fantasies and images to surface into awareness” (Siikala 1992: 105). This can, I reckon, be seen to happen through yoga. And if it does – if we do set aside the critical faculty, the fantasies and images that surface could, perhaps, be a big part of yoga’s important role in lots of peoples’ creative worlds. Since writing the first few posts on this blog, I’ve had emails from people who make art in various forms – dance, theatre, writing, painting, music – who agree that their yoga practice is the best friend of their art practice. Some people have told me that the lines between the two are not really distinguishable to them; that their yoga is part of their art and their art is part of their yoga and that they couldn’t imagine one without the other. Over the next few months I’ll be posting interviews with some of those people here – if you have experiences that you think would be interesting to share, please do get in touch. Reach me at hello@yogaskrit.org – or comment here!

References
Bresslof, P. C., Cowan, J. D., Golubitsky, M., Thomas, P. J. & Wiener, M. 2000. ‘Geometric visual hallucinations, Euclidean symmetry and the functional architecture of the striate cortex’ in Philosophical Transactions of the Royal Society, London, Series B, 356, 299-330

Lewis-Williams, D. 2002. The Mind in the Cave. London: Thames & Hudson Ltd.

Siikala, A. L. 1992. ‘Shamanistic Knowledge and Mythical Images’ in Studies on Shamanism. pp.87-113. Budapest: Akademiai Kiado

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