In this December, 1975 article for High Times, Dr. Andrew Weil explains why sometimes, vomiting is good.
Tepoztlan, Mexico—Vomiting is extremely important because it has much to teach us about the workings of the body and the natural mechanisms for altering human internal consciousness. But there exist very emotional attitudes that stand in the way of discussing vomiting in polite company, at least around holiday dinner tables. It’s considered an antisocial act in societies where natural functions are kept to the lavatory, away from public view. Individually, most of us have experienced vomiting only in association with illness and do not think of it as something that feels good, let alone as something to practice openly.
But such repugnance is not universal. For example, yoga students are urged to learn to vomit voluntarily and perform it as part of a morning ritual called jala dhauti, much as one would gargle mouthwash. It would seem that vomiting may be a key to the operation of the autonomic nervous system, and I would like to describe my experiences at changing it from an unpleasant process to a voluntary method of expanding self-awareness of internal functions.
Remember, vomiting is a reflex action initiated by nervous impulses that travel to a center in the brain; the impulse produced in response causes actual regurgitation of stomach contents. This vomiting center happens to be located in the very part of the brain that regulates heartbeat and respiration, a vital center of the entire nervous system whose damage may mean death to the body—the medulla oblongata. The connecting link between the lowest portion of the brain stem and the uppermost part of the spinal cord, the medulla oblongata is thought by neurologists to be the keystone of the involuntary nervous system.
I learned this in my elementary medical training, but I was taught nothing more about vomiting except as a symptom of disease. Fortunately, an understanding of the nervous mechanism of throwing up made me very attentive to the teachings of yogis and others. It appeared possible that learning to vomit willfully could open an important channel of unconscious activity to conscious influence.
Dr. Weil on Why Exactly Vomiting is Good
It is known that the nerve fibers that issue from the hidden vomiting center in the medulla oblongata form part of the vagus nerve in the alimentary canal. The vagus—a huge nervous highway that leaves the cranium and innervates many structures in the throat, chest and abdomen—is a principal link-up in the parasympathetic nervous system, whose function is to slow down certain internal functions and conserve energy.
For example. when vagal fibers to the heart are stimulated, heartbeat slows down. When you vomit, a whole number of physiological changes occur in addition to the emptying of the stomach—all due to massive vagal discharges during the action. Might not control over the vomiting impulse ultimately be extended into the very center of the unconscious part of the brain, the medulla?
I think the answer is yes. Neurological considerations persuade me to listen carefully to yoga masters who say that learning to vomit at will is beneficial. Eastern systems of mind development like yoga are based in subjective experience of internal states, not in neurology, and yogic concepts of the nervous system are often fanciful. In contrast, we in the West know much about neurological mechanisms but often very little about their correlation with experience. As a physician interested in alternatives to orthodox medical techniques, I was anxious to know the significance of the experience of vomiting reflex and its purpose.
In my last year of yoga training, I have practiced vomiting with sporadic success. It has been somewhat more difficult to master than the traditional postures or breathing techniques, and I find it useful to remind myself that I am not trying to remove things from inside my body, but things already outside. Proper mental imagery is essential. The image of a locus at the base of the brain that’s connected to the stomach seems to be part of the secret of voluntary retching. The result has been a feeling of wellbeing. A profound stimulation of respiration is one side effect, probably a consequence of exercising the medulla. I associate the weeping eyes that vomiting brings with invigoration and cleansing.
Here in Mexico, I have met a number of people interested in the subject of voluntary vomiting to expand awareness, including some who have had very positive experiences. The Indians here and the people who live close to them are more accepting of the natural body processes than most gringos. However, though the Indians are perfectly willing to vomit when they feel like it, they have not the knowledge of the nervous system to motivate them to acquire a disciplined mastery of the technique.
How difficult is it to learn, what obstacles must we overcome? The difficulty is mental rather than physical, for until one gets over the idea that throwing up is dirty, unnatural and offensive, one cannot work the autonomic controls that nature has given us. Many methods are available for learning the process, from gulping warm salt water and slapping the stomach to shoving a finger down the gullet. But the goal is to be able to vomit quietly, smoothly and without the aid of external stimulation. Interestingly enough, women seem more accomplished at vomiting easily then men—perhaps they are more able to abandon themselves to internal sensation?
I have seen vomiting cause drastic changes in conscious experience in three major ways:
As a means of ridding the body of unwanted materials.
Who hasn’t at one time or another wished to puke up something taken at a party or a large dinner? Keep in mind that the inside of the stomach is actually outside the body, because it is continuous with the exterior. Until they make it through the lining of the stomach or intestines and pass into the bloodstream, those pills or hot sausages have not entered the body. Vomiting merely escorts the offending substance back to a point outside the body, where it cannot be absorbed. Anyone who has experienced this knows how rapidly a recovery from sickness to health can be made.
As a means of ridding the body of unwanted sensations.
Many people have experienced relief from seasickness or car sickness as soon as they threw up. Fewer have learned how to banish a headache by the same means. A young Indian I met in Tepoztlan described this method to cure a headache so severe that it is incapacitating: first, lie down with eyes closed and create in the mind’s eye an image of the pain, preferably with discrete form, color and location: second. using the visual imagination, transfer the image to the stomach; third, expel the pain by vomiting.
As a means of ridding the mind of unwanted emotions.
It is quite common for people who take psychedelic intoxicants to experience nausea and anxiety at the onset of the effects—the sooner they vomit, the sooner they can enter a high state of consciousness. Many natural hallucinogens—peyote is a good example—are supposed to trigger nausea by their direct pharmacological actions. Yet Indians who eat peyote regularly do not become nauseated. Still other drugs not known to be nauseating by virtue of their pharmacology cause some people who try them to experience severe nausea that is relieved by vomiting.
Having watched many people take many drugs, I’m convinced that nausea at the onset of a hallucinogenic drug is a physical analog of the mental resistance to “letting go”—the extreme anxiety over detaching oneself from ordinary consciousness in order to experience reality in another way. If this resistance and anxiety is concentrated as a physical sensation in the stomach, then expelled by vomiting, individuals can cure themselves of unwanted emotions.
If we are to achieve harmony of mind and body, we must synthesize intellectual and experiential knowledge in a common framework. While I am in Mexico, I shall continue to practice vomiting as one means of complementing my intellectual knowledge of the autonomic nervous system with the wisdom of direct experience.