Ashtanga yoga with a side of soma

Among the many wonders of the Rig Veda, perhaps the basest is the much-heralded drug soma — and just what exactly it is.

Ephedra plants, via

I’ve come across any number of guesses: marijuana, hallucinogenic mushrooms, an opium variety. (Incidentally, the most interesting collection on this and similar topics is Dale Pendell’s three-book series. Warning: It comes with plenty of warnings!)

At this point, the odds favor a seemingly more benign plant as the Vedic soma: our good friend Ephedra, or at least one species of it. It long has been part of Chinese medicine, known as ma huang.

Ephedra got a bad wrap a few years ago as part of weight-loss aids, which were used by some athletes to get a bit of a rush. The FDA eventually banned those “diet pills.” But it wasn’t precisely ephedra that was the problem.

Essentially, you can break things down into two broad categories. (Keep in mind, I’m not a doctor, so this is my understanding.) Ephedrine is the bad stuff, coming in at an alkaloid content of 40 to 90%. Ephedra — which you can get as an herb — is more like 2% of that alkaloid and/or pseudoephedrine. Alkaloids are on one hand toxic, on the other hand what makes recreational drugs … er… fun.

Ephedrine, in other words, taken straight will probably be a quick, wild ride. (It’s widely banned by major sports.) Ephedra is much more benign and manageable.

Source? The ever-trustworthy (cough, cough) National Institute for Health.

Ephedra helps with breathing, and has long been used to treat asthma, allergies, even the common cold. (Source: Altmedicine.)

Breathing. See where this is going?

I’ve only practiced Ashtanga after a reasonable helping of ma huang a couple of times; this weekend, after early doses didn’t seem to do much, I jumped things up 50% — although still not anywhere beyond the typical amount.

The effects were noticeable. There is, of course, a simple increase in energy (fueled, too, by the usual amount of coffee I’d had plus an Emergen-C). My picks up, pull-backs and jump-throughs were all pretty solid.

I did have a lot of trouble balancing in Utthita Hasta Padangusthasana, though. (However, no problems with crow or any hand balances.)

But where I noticed the effect the most — and this, still, is pretty mild and tame — was at the very top and very bottom of the breaths. It felt like there was a little more room, or a little more “distance” to my breath. Just a tad, but noticeable.

And in those very tops and very bottoms of the breath, it seemed like the dristi came more into focus — if that’s the right way to put it. There was some clarification combined with focus, a narrowing down of the senses. Not quite one-pointed concentration nor anything as far as this, from the Rig Veda:

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

Now what may foeman’s malice do to harm us? What, O Immortal, mortal man’s deception?

Maybe next time.

Posted by Steve


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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

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