Most of us recognize soma as the ‘ideal pleasure drug’ in Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World. In this context the pleasure was pacifying—it kept people in line without questioning their political situation. As Huxley writes of soma, it has
All the advantages of Christianity and alcohol; none of their defects.
But soma has real origins in Indian literature. Huxley, whose lesser known though riveting The Perennial Philosophy scoured the realm of Eastern mysticism, would have known this. While soma did have a dark edge in the Vedas, it was mostly the bright colors that kept poets singing its praises.
While exactly what soma was is up for dispute, many scholars believe it was a tea brewed of psychedelic mushrooms, the strain Amanita muscaria. One hymn to soma goes like this:
We have drunk the soma / we have become immortal / we have gone to the light / we have found the gods / What can hatred and the malice of a mortal do to us now? / The glorious drops that I have drunk set me free in wide space.
In this sense, Huxley’s soma doses were relatively similar, though the overall effect in his dystopic novel mixed hallucination with subservience.
As soon as they got back to the rest-house, she swallowed six half-gramme tablets of soma, lay down on her bed, and within ten minutes had embarked for lunar eternity. It would be eighteen hours at the least before she was in time again.
Bernard also laughed; after two grammes of soma the joke seemed, for some reason, good. Laughed and then, almost immediately, dropped off to sleep.
Just as the origins of soma is murky, yoga is in no better standing. What is certain is that millions of Americans jumping around in yoga studios and gyms today bear little resemblance to the meditative and breathing techniques devised to yank purusha, the transcendental self, from prakriti, or ‘creatrix,’ the world of everyday living, at the heart of early yoga.
One theory of yoga’s origins links it to this miracle brew. Soma hymns disappeared from the literature as Indians climbed down from mountains, where mushrooms were in abundance, to newly forming cities, where they were not. Suddenly the same metaphors—flight, wide-open spaces, mingling with deities—were being accomplished through intense breathing techniques like Breath of Fire and Kapalbhati. This has led scholars to speculate that yoga was created by entheogenic cosmonauts seeking a fix.
You’re not going to find that at the local YMCA.
While this might sound surprising to what you know of yoga, there is a common link between psychedelic mushrooms and breathing exercises: our imagination. Yogis sitting in meditation postures believing themselves to be flying ‘out there’ and mushroom trippers doing the same are both utilizing a very important neural system to create metaphors for existence and their place in it.
According to the Society for Neuroscience, imagination is defined as
the creation and the manipulation of images, thoughts or brain models when there is no ‘stimulus’ in the current environment.
The pleasurable feelings provided by our imagination begins early in childhood. As Yale University Professor of Psychology and Cognitive Science Paul Bloom writes, children inherently find creative meaning behind natural phenomena. For example, when we see a pointy rock sticking up from the ground, we might consider the geological process, while children will say it was made that way so animals can scratch their backs. Children are also more likely than adults to believe in disembodied spirits and souls.
Interestingly, the pleasure of imagination is due to a hijacking of brain systems that have evolved for real world pleasure and survival. Humans enjoy stories and display deep feelings for fictional characters. Imagination makes it possible to have empathy for such characters because the emotions triggered by stories are real. Whether the story is created in our minds or in the fantastical world of literature and cinema, or even the hallucinations of a psychedelic experience, part of us feels it to be true to life.
Researchers at Dartmouth University are understanding how and even where imagination occurs in the brain. The team found activity in what we call the imagination is the product of a widespread network of neurons (the ‘mental workspace’) that consciously alters and manipulates images, symbols, and ideas, creating an intense mental focus to devise new ideas and solutions to complex problems.
To witness the workings of imagination, researchers hooked up fifteen participants to an fMRI scanner and asked them to visualize specific abstract shapes, then told them to imagine combining those shapes into more complex figures. They discovered a large cortical and subcortical network across the brain producing the manipulations of imagery: their mental workspace.
Other studies have shown that the neurobiological basis of imagination provides direct evidence of dopamine playing a critical role in modulating the subjective pleasure we expect to be derived from future life events. This in part explains why humans enjoy the high coinciding with being in SEEKING mode—the hunt for food, sex, shelter, and story; one of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp’s seven primary process in the brain.
The imagination is the doorway to mental and emotional breakthroughs, especially in a ritual setting. Shamans have known this for millennia. Apparently so have yogis. While we’ll never know the exact roots of yoga, it should not surprise us that this piece of history reveals an intriguing part of it.
The metaphors conjured during meditation and ritual might not be real, but the effects on our emotional and mental systems are: clarity, emotional satisfaction, becoming calmer and more introspective. While yoga is certainly a more sustainable discipline than psychedelics, opening up your imagination without becoming a victim to it is a path we'd all benefit from traveling.