I intensely dislike throwing up. I assume that’s a feeling shared by most of us. In particular—don’t worry, I won’t get too particular—I dislike vomiting because from my earliest experience it’s associated with sickness: stomach flus; seasickness; and later, of course, the toxic effects of alcohol and tobacco. You vomit when you’re feeling awful, which is a powerful negative association. If that weren’t bad enough, there’s the violently convulsive physical experience of vomiting; and in my experience resistance (because of your intense dislike) just intensifies the violence, so that there’s no winner in this contest between between your body, which wants to throw up, and your head, which hates the idea of it. Finally, consider the sour bilious flavors and smells of the stuff you’re puking, and, well, advocates of voluntary daily vomiting would seem to have a very hard sell.
That said, Andrew Weil makes a pretty good case for the virtues of vomiting. He reports that, “…instructional materials on yoga urge students to learn to vomit voluntarily, to practice it regularly, and to perform it as a morning ritual (called jala dhauti), much as many people gargle.” This is from the second chapter (“Throwing up in Mexico”) of his fascinating book, The Marriage of Sun and Moon: A Quest for Unity in Consciousness.
To overcome the intense dislike of throwing up, you have to peel away the negative associations. If you learn to vomit voluntarily, over time you will dissociate the act from the feeling of sickness. If you practice regularly, the violent feeling disappears and you will “be able to vomit quietly and smoothly.” This brings me to an interesting tidbit that Weil tosses out, one I might have guessed had I thought about it, but since I dislike vomiting I haven’t given it much thought. If you vomit within 45 minutes of eating, the food tastes as good coming up as it did going down. For this reason, my adventurous readers, you may want to do as others on this unusual path do, and practice vomiting after eating ice cream or some other smooth, tasty treat you’d like to taste again.
Now you might think this last fact about vomiting would help explain the strange Roman habit of stuffing themselves with wonderful food and retreating to the vomitorium to, well, enjoy it all once again, while also conveniently making room for more, before returning to their meal for a second helping (or is it a third?). But you would be wrong, because while the Romans did in fact build vomitoria, these were not dedicated places for puking; in fact, they had no such cultural practice. According to Wikipedia, vomitoria are passages
situated below or behind a tier of seats in an amphitheatre or a stadium, through which big crowds can exit rapidly at the end of a performance. They can also be pathways for actors to enter and leave stage. The Latin word vomitorium, plural vomitoria, derives from the verb vomeo, vomere, vomitum, “to spew forth.” In ancient Roman architecture, vomitoria were designed to provide rapid egress for large crowds at amphitheatres and stadiums, as they do in modern sports stadiums and large theatres.
Once again, the Romans turn out to be less interesting than one might have hoped. But the yogis are onto something. For it turns out there are rather good, interesting reasons one might want to take up the practice of learning to vomit voluntarily. Read Weil’s chapter if you want the full story, but here’s a very brief survey of the benefits. First, you can rid the body of unwanted materials and toxins, bringing yourself instant relief and a correlate sense of well-being. Second, vomiting can be a way of “discharging unwanted sensations from the body.” In the case of motion sickness or headache, vomiting may provide an instant cure. Third, it can be a way of “ejecting unwanted emotions from the mind.” In this case, vomiting is associated with overcoming psychic resistance of some sort. This gives “letting go” a whole new sense! To take just one example, Weil points out that it’s not unusual for people who are using psychedelic drugs to feel nausea early on, even though most such drugs aren’t pharmacologically associated with nausea. It is probable that the nausea symbolizes their resistance to experiencing an altered state of consciousness, and vomiting rather vividly expresses their overcoming of that resistance.
Most intriguing to me is how the practice of vomiting forms a kind of bridge between our voluntary and involuntary nervous systems. Vomiting is initiated by peripheral nervous impulses that travel from, say, the stomach to a part of the brain called the medulla oblongata. The medulla connects the lower brainstem with the upper spinal cord. The medulla is thought by neurologists to be “the keystone of the involuntary nervous system” because “its centers control the basic rhythms of life” such as the regulation of heartbeat and respiration. Weil asks, “Is it possible that learning to vomit willfully opens this important channel of unconscious activity to conscious influence? Might it not extend cortical influence to the very center of the unconscious part of the brain, the medulla? I think the answer to both questions is yes.”
So it may well be that by cultivating conscious control of vomiting, we are, literally, extending consciousness into a previously unconscious part of the mind. Now, how cool is that?