Updated: Sep 22
Enjoying a (alcoholic) drink is one of the most socially acceptable ways to spend your free time in mainstream Western culture. It has been pointed out to me multiple times by multiple different people that it's almost impossible to socialise in the UK without alcohol in a starring role.
Even if you don't drink at all, or on a particular occasion, alcohol is normally the first thing to be offered at work functions, celebrations and social get togethers.
It can feel pretty socially awkward when you're the one person at the party not drinking. The number of times I've caved in to 'beer pressure' so as not to feel the odd one out (particularly at work events) is not something I like to recall.
But what's this got to do with yoga? Here are some thoughts.
Winding things back for a minute to the concept of what yoga is (also explored in this post), in my understanding we're looking to unite our physical body, emotions, mind, energy and consciousness during the practice of yoga. So one of the immediate problems that springs to mind when alcohol comes into the mix, is that it doesn't seem to promote the unity of these parts of ourselves very well at all.
Think about the people you'd see out in town at 1am on Saturday night/Sunday morning (or consider yourself, if you might be one of them!). When they walk unevenly and slur their words, the body and mind are definitely not in union. When they get upset or angry over something that wouldn't provoke the same reaction sober, the emotions are unaligned. When they make food choices they'd shun through the week, or sit down or throw up on the street because they're tired or unwell, the mind and the energy are not in union either. Connection to consciousness can be tricky at the best of times, but the blackouts, hazy memories and 'beer fear' experienced by many drinkers would certainly point to this being well out of line when under the influence of alcohol.
And even when not drunk, the general effects of alcohol consumption can affect energy levels, state of mind, physical performance and recovery as well as motivation to get things done. All of which make it harder to sustain a strong, regular yoga practice around times when we're drinking.
To add to this further, the longer we practice yoga, the more blurred the boundaries become between practice time and the rest of life- life itself becomes the practice of yoga (most of which, it turns out, isn't doing postures on a mat...).
But booze isn't all bad, right? If people enjoy a drink, isn't that a good thing?
At the risk of being very reductive, the teachings of Tantra, upon which yoga is based, tell us that we should not shun the experiences of the senses but instead realise that they are there to be enjoyed. By enjoying sense experiences in a conscious manner, we can hope to understand ourselves and the universe better by participating in it fully.
The issue of booze and yoga would therefore seem to hinge on what you're trying to achieve at any particular point in life. I'll share my own story as an example.
I've always had an on-off relationship with alcohol. As a young person, I suffered with an eating disorder which made it difficult to handle alcohol (I'd get drunk quickly, and also fixate on the number of calories involved). However, bowing to peer pressure (or 'beer pressure') I drank quite regularly in my late teens, and by the time I went to university at the age of 20, I'd had enough.
As a fresher, I didn't drink, much to the chagrin of the STIC reps who took us on initiatory pub crawls (I went anyway and ordered soft drinks, but there was open pressure to drink alcohol which I don't think would be acceptable now). At the time I was more concerned about managing my health, continuing my recovery from the eating disorder and keeping my energy up so I could study effectively.
Fast forward almost 15 years and once again I took the decision to quit drinking completely. This time it was to do with my health in a less direct manner, the result of a sincere desire to delve deeper into yoga and meditation at the end of a journey back from severe anxiety and depression. I felt that alcohol was hindering my connection with myself and my ability and motivation to spend time practicing yoga and meditation.
Ironically, the depth of my meditation at that time alerted me to the damage I was doing to my body by not adhering strictly to my gluten-free diet, so eventually I ended up drinking alcohol again as I could no longer drink alcohol-free beers, which usually contain gluten. Since that point I have indeed failed to keep up the high level of practice.
Living in mainstream Western society, drinking alcohol allows us to participate in the world and enjoy ourselves in a way that seems pretty difficult for teetotallers. This in itself might be yoga, the conscious enjoyment of something that is there to be enjoyed. However, if our intention is drawn towards improving health, wellbeing or undertaking self-development, part of the yoga itself might be realising that alcohol does not have a place in our lives right now (or even, ever).
On the other hand most people begin to practice yoga because they wish to improve their health and wellbeing. In the current state of scientific knowledge about the effects of alcohol consumption on the human body; the conclusion since 2018 that no amount of alcohol can be considered a "safe" amount or can have beneficial effects (read more here), it's hard to argue that yoga practitioners should drink at all.
However, we are all human and live in the world, and even most yoga teachers enjoy the occasional beer or glass of wine. In my mind at least though, it puts a question mark (and probably, although separately, an enormous lighted sign saying 'cultural appropriation') over alcohol related yoga activities such as beer yoga.
The decision to drink or not to drink alcohol is one that I suspect more and more Western people are grappling with than ever before. If you practice yoga, then your practice can help you to draw your conclusions.