The Psychedelic Origins of Yoga
Before Yoga, There were Mushrooms
It’s difficult to imagine modern yoga, with its instagram-glamorization of half-naked western models performing artistically-crafted body postures on mountain tops, to have psychedelic roots. It’s honestly kind of comical to imagine today’s modernized exercise frenzy as beginning with India sadhus drinking psychoactive blends, conversing with Indra and mentally journeying to dimensions beyond. How times have changed!
Though commonly associated with exercise and the philosophical connection to source or “oneness”, could yoga be in fact founded through the use of psychedelics? Some theorists think so. Among other scholars that have similar theories, Wendy Doniger writes about sacrificial soma rituals, common in Vedic times.
The Vedic sutras and Ayurvedic texts, describe a sacred drink called soma rasa, said to beget eternal life. Soma rasa, also called amrita, is a Sanskrit word meaning “nectar of immortality.’’ The entire 9th chapter of the Rig Vedas (ancient Indian spiritual text and hymns) is about soma, titled the Soma Mandala. Some of these passages describe the literal power of soma rasa, which is said to be created internally within natural physiological processes, but similar substances can be harvested externally from plants and herbs. (Note: there are multiple kinds of soma, but the real Soma is created within the mind!)
We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.
-From the Rig Vedas, Soma Mandala 
Altering consciousness is an ancient component of our evolutionary heritage. Plant intelligence has informed human consciousness since the beginning of time. There are so many examples of psychotropic and other mind-altering rituals used throughout human history.
Some historians believe that magic mushrooms may have been used as far back as 9000 B.C. in North African indigenous cultures, based on representations in rock paintings . The use of Opium in ritualistic celebrations have been dated back to the Neolithic period. The Amazon region holds what is probably a similar sacred brew, called Ayahuasca, meaning “vine of the soul/vine of the dead”. Amanita muscaria has been used for millennia in shamanic rituals in Siberian cultures. Shamans also achieved through altered stated through ecstatic dance, tobacco use, ayahuasca, and other psychoactive substances throughout the ages. Clearly, there is amble evidence to suggest that plant sacraments have been vital to the exploration of human consciousness and life design. The idea that yoga was created through a similar pathway is not far off.
The Vedic texts were written during times when people lived primarily in the mountainous regions of India, near to and among plentiful psychotropic sources, as well as among bountiful soma-containing plants. What is almost undoubtedly true is that the soma drink contained a powerful entheogen. Many possibilities have been put forth in the attempt to identify Soma, some of them being ephedra, rhubarb, chicory, and hashish or cannabis sativa.
Soma: within, without and above
Soma was originally known as the god of ecstasy, with his nectar, amrita, being the food of the gods. Soma, as a god, is believed to be the personification of soma juice, the “magic tea” that predates yoga. There are also copious amounts of information related to other plants containing “soma” as a raw material to create inner Soma, a secretion from the pineal gland during deep states of meditation. Soma at a yogic level refers to the crown chakra (pineal gland), which is opened by Indra (yogic insight) and releases a flood of bliss (soma secretions) throughout the body.
This inner Soma is the main subject of the Vedic hymns, though consumable somas were also important. Given its transformative nature, it is no surprise that soma took on many different forms, as a god, a brew, and a chemical secretion achieved within the mind.
One of the most accepted theories of consumable soma is defended by R. Gordon Wasson. Wasson proposed that Soma was, in fact, not a plant but a wild mushroom known as Amanita muscaria or the fly-agaric. The colorful prose and panoptic language used to describe Soma has led scholars to believe that it was undoubted psychotropic, though others believe soma was a combination of plants and various herbs, like the middle eastern Haoma or Syrian Rue.
I have tasted the sweet drink of life, knowing that it inspires good thoughts and joyous expansiveness to the extreme, that all the gods and mortals seek it together, calling it honey…Soma has climbed up in us, expanding endlessly.
-Rig Veda, 8th mandala, 48th hymn
Yoga through Psychedelic Scarcity
As Doniger notes, there was a cultural shift as as people migrated to early urban civilizations around the Ganges. As their environments changed, so did their rituals, but reverence for Himalayan plants and rivers remained a characteristic feature of the Hindu religion.
What’s interesting is that yoga wasn’t born through the use of psychoactive tea, but from the lack thereof.
Soma disappeared as people migrated through India, and were replaced by kriyas, purification exercises that informed the earliest instances of yoga. Kriya generally means “a completed action” and refers to the idea of spontaneous action performed from awakened kundalini energy. Today, kriyas are performed primarily by Kundalini Yogis.
The Yoga Sutras, compiled later (as in 400 B.C. ) by Sage Patanjali, warn of the pitfalls of ones’ spiritual journey and offer the means to overcome them. Patanjali’s first sutra of the fourth and last chapter (4:1), though not often quoted, asserts: “These spiritual attainments may be congenital in some, or they may be gained by the use of certain medicinal plants, by incantations, by fervor, or by meditation.” Patanjali is essentially advocating plant medicine as an aid to awakening, and as an alternative to other yogic practices.
Though Sage Patanjali is not well known, his writings have inspired and standardized what is now modern yoga. Interestingly enough, the Yoga Sutras include an entire section on what you can do when rearranging your consciousness in peculiar ways- with and without the use of psychotropic substances.
The fourth verse of the Yoga Sutras explain methods of opening the barrier or veil between our typical waking state of consciousness and layers that are underneath, higher, or beyond. The second method of accessing “beyond the veil” is ausadhi. Ausadhi is said to be an ancient elixir that when ingested, breaks down the barrier. It is also said to be an inner elixir, in the subtle aspect of our own being.
Yoga is about much more than looking good in your Lululemon yoga pants, becoming more flexible, or even getting up into a handstand. It’s benefits don’t just end with your body, but are actually primarily directed towards your mind, spirit and soul. Though the use of psychedelic soma may have faded into obscurity, there are many other yogic exercises that have stood the test of time, including pranayama breathing, meditations using mudras and mantras (hand positioning and chanting), and ecstatic dancing. Ultimately, whose to say that the western idea of yoga as “crossfit for hippies” won’t cycle back to its roots, and pick up a cup of magic tea?
 Nectar of Gods