The Guest Blog: The Psychedelic Origins of Yoga

The word "soma" is not new. Northern Californians pass over the Bay Bridge into South of Market, its acronym SOMA. More broadly soma was the pleasure drug in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In that book it worked as an opiate, keeping addicts from questioning external circumstances. The original usage of the word implied something entirely different.

Huxley, a devoted student of Eastern philosophies, knew that. The word first appeared nearly 3,500 years ago in Indian texts. The Soma Mandala is the ninth chapter of the Rig Veda, one of the world’s oldest religious texts. All 114 hymns praise this energizing drink in stark terms. In one hymn, soma is praised:

We have drunk Soma and become immortal; we have attained the light, the Gods discovered.

Soma is the god Indra’s beverage — poets requesting that the drink bless them with divine favor. Expansive language is used: flying through wide-open spaces, touching infinite space, merging with deities. These passages have led scholars to assume that the foundation of soma was amanita muscaria, a psychedelic mushroom that has been used in shamanic and spiritual rituals for millennia.

This theory was proposed by author and amateur mycologist Robert Gordon Wasson in 1968. His co-author, the scholar Wendy Doniger, has since written numerous books on India. The pair drew parallels between the poetic flights of fancy used to describe soma in the Vedas to Siberian shamanic rituals, which use the same mushrooms to create similar mind-expanding experiences.

In her 2010 book, The Hindus: An Alternative History, which ingeniously looks at Indian history and philosophy through the lens of women, Doniger writes about sacrificial soma rituals, common in Vedic times. These texts were written when most citizens lived in the mountains, where mushrooms were abundant. She noticed a textual shift when people moved into early urban civilizations around the Ganges, however. Soma disappeared, replaced by kriyas, purification exercises that informed the earliest instances of yoga.

Mushrooms were gone, but people needed their fix. Without the god-inducing beverage, they began creating intense breathing exercises to alter their consciousness. Yoga was born.

This little sliver of history would remain a footnote if not for a rather intriguing current parallel: both psilocybin (another psychedelic compound found in over 200 species of mushrooms) and yoga are aiding in addiction recovery.

Psychedelics and yoga both came to prominen