Taking Ecstasy Can Deepen Your Yoga Practice.

Via Dearbhla Kelly
on Jan 13, 2012
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Saturday, 11:45pm, The Pod nightclub, Dublin. It’s been twenty-five minutes since my boyfriend and I dropped E and washed it down with Bacardi and Coke but now we’re drinking water as we wait for the high to kick in. (As anyone whose done Ecstasy knows, alcohol dilutes the clean high, so once you’ve  dropped, water is much better.) We’re standing around waiting to come up, smiling and nodding at the familiar faces starting to fill the club. Later, when we’re all high and open, we’ll hug and hold hands as we dance to uplifting house music, but now I’m a bit tense and vaguely anxious, since waiting to come up is always a bit fraught.

We dance but can’t completely relax into the groove, so we stand off to the side, sip some water and tap our feet. Then the scag hits, the gnarly bit: vague nausea, dry mouth, shakey lower jaw. From here it’s only a few minutes until the high kicks in, and I’m up. Yes! I am UP!

My heart is expanding, my head is clear: I am liquid gold. I’m compelled to  dance by a visceral force I don’t need to name. The music is throbbing in my veins, taking over. I am an atom in the music, and my very being is merging with the rhythm. Every part of me is pulsating; the music is inside me, causing me to expand. I am riding a wave of love and bliss. I am connected to everyone around me. There’s only here, only now. I AM LOVE.

The following day’s E-over never felt so good, but the trace of a residual high made it bearable. It got worse over the next couple of days as the come-down blues kicked in and the chemicals continued to wear off. But I was lucky not to succumb to the severe ‘Tuesday downer’ that affected lots of people I knew.  For me going clubbing and taking E was a way of joyfully tapping into  a very real sense of community. It was beautiful, the closest thing I’d known in my life to being part of a congregation.

But the comedown was a bummer and I was concerned for my brain cells, so I stopped popping pills and chased an intellectual high by pursuing graduate studies in philosophy – not that the open-hearted bliss of an E buzz can exactly be compared with the cerebral stimulation of analytic philosophy!

Although I don’t advocate the use of E, I can’t honestly say that I regret having used it. Under its influence I experienced something previously unavailable to me: the sense of profound connection to others, the feeling that my heart was exploding with love, the music pulsing in my veins. It was undoubtedly spiritual and I transcended the limits of my own hang-ups and self-consciousness to feel part of something much bigger than me.

Several years passed until I experienced my next hit of that same overflowing joy and sense of deep connection to the music and everyone around me. But this time didn’t involve recreational drugs; rather I was at a kirtan at Moksha Yoga Center in Chicago on the first anniversary of the 9/11 attacks. I was blown away by the chant. I felt like my heart had been blasted open, and I experienced a profound sense of connection to everyone in the room. Later that night, I lay awake unable to sleep (another side effect of E) and I knew without a doubt that my spirit had come home.

At another Moksha kirtan chanting ‘Ram, Ram, Ram’ I had the visceral realization that chanting Sanskrit mantra to the divine took me to the same place of open-heartedness and connection with something bigger than myself that Ecstasy had taken me so many years before in clubs in Dublin and London. I was once again exploding with love, but this time I was chanting to God in a yoga studio!

Imagine if the most profound spiritual experiences you’ve had could be explained in terms of neurophysiological changes in your body. Those times where you’ve felt like you were expanding into infinity, your heart would explode with love, like you were a throb in the universal pulsation.  Occasions when you felt a sense of union with everything and everyone, when your sense of being an individual self was surpassed and dissolved as you merged with Self.

All this could be explained in terms of electro-chemical activity beneath your skin? Surely not this domain of the sacred? Yes. Drugs and nerves: the material source of an ineffable experience. God in the molecules, spirit in soma. Your own body produces drugs that make you feel euphoric. Your brain knows to reduce nerve impulses to different parts of itself in order to decrease your sense of being a separate self and bring about a feeling of union with everything else.

Exquisite intimacy, intense meditations, mind-blowing mystical moments, profound insights, deliverance from longing to belonging. At home in Love itself.  Surrounded by beauty, drenched in the nectar of the gods. The dynamic, pulsing, potent terrain of poets, mystics, lovers, seekers and saints; the divine playground. And you dancing in it, at home in your essence as Satchitananda  (Being Consciousness Bliss). Echoing many great teachers who had gone before, Jesus told us that the kingdom of God is within. Rumi, Hafiz, Kabir, St Theresa, mystics of all persuasions exhort us to see that we are one with the Beloved, that separation is illusory. The bliss we seek in merging with the divine is within.

And now science corroborates the mystics: you are hardwired for bliss! The drugs you need are inside; the body’s pharmacopeia is diverse and plentiful. Sing hallelujah! Rejoice, rejoice. Ecstasy is your birthright. And you don’t even have to believe in God. Agnostics have access too. It’s all in the molecules baby.

But could spiritual ecstasy really be a function of interactions among different organizing systems in your body? Could the transcendent dancing ground arise from subcutaneous electrical pulses and chemical jolts? Yes, it could. Yes, it does. The movement of bliss molecules throughout your body is a dance of divine proportions.

All of our emotional and physiological states can be explained in terms of different bio-chemical combinations. Taking drugs alters our biochemistry and therefore our feelings and so does chanting kirtan. My ecstatic state was just as drug-induced when I was chanting mantra as when I was high on Ecstasy, but when I was chanting the drugs were my body’s own.

So here’s the science part…drugs produced inside the body are called endogenous drugs, as opposed to exogenous drugs like Ecstasy, cocaine, heroin.  Oxytocin is an endogenous drug and its stimulated by taking E. The feelings of empathy, deep connectedness, increased trust and love well known to those of us who’ve been loved up on E are caused by oxytocin.

Endoprhins are a category of endogenous drugs known for their euphoric and pain-relieving effects. Anyone whose ever had the proverbial runner’s high, the non-localized buzz of acupuncture treatment or the blissed-out calmness of pranayama, has been under the spell of endorphins. Same goes for folks who like to hang out in headstand; it turns out that stimulating the pituitary gland releases epic amounts of endorphins into the system. So that’s why headstand feels so good!

But why does pranayama bring on the bliss?

It turns out that there’s a specific region of the brain, the periaqueductal gray (PAG), that‘s stimulated by breathing exercises such as kapalbhati,(rapid rhythmic exhalations through the nose) and kumbhaka (retention at the top of inhale, or the bottom of exhale) and by techniques used by women during childbirth. When stimulated the PAG releases proteins called peptides, chemicals that effect our emotions and our threshold for pain. Some of these peptides are endorphins and serotonin, which is also released under the influence of Ecstasy and is responsible for feelings of joy.


But back to the Moksha bliss-out E flashback: so there I was happily participating in a kirtan when all of a sudden I feel like I’m high on Ecstasy, but this time without the gnarly come-up. At the time I’d no idea why but later I got into the science of it and realized that it’s no wonder that chanting (and yoga practice) results in such heightened feelings of well-being: when we sing we’re breathing rhythmically and deeply, hence affecting the PAG and causing feel-good chemicals to be released from the brain through the cerebrospinal fluid.  As these drugs diffuse throughout the system we feel euphoric, blissed out. Taking Ecstasy also stimulates bliss molecules to be released, the endogenous drugs dopamine, oxytocin and serotonin.

In both the case of E and chanting similar results accrue. We feel blissed-out, open-hearted, connected to the people around us and a sense of being part of something much bigger. In short, we transcend our limited selves and experience union. In both cases the experience is caused by drugs from body’s pharmacopeia. In the case of Ecstasy the catalyst is a synthetic drug and with chanting and yoga changes in the brain caused by rhythmic breathing initiate the release of neurochemicals. Although the causes are wildly different, both scenarios give rise to similar changes in our emotional landscape. Ultimately both means take us to a place of boundlessness and freedom, even if only for a limited time.

I’ve done plenty of E in my twenties and got hooked on the deliciousness of feeling myself an expanding heart connected to everyone around me. But for now I’ll stick to chanting kirtan and breathing deep. It gets me to the same place.


Parts of this blog appeared in a previous article, “Karma is Chemistry”, LA Yoga, May 2009.


About Dearbhla Kelly

Born and raised in Ireland, Dearbhla Kelly M.A. is a Los Angeles-based yoga teacher, writer and neurophilosopher. She began her academic training in Amsterdam and received degrees in philosophy in Dublin and Chicago. She is particularly skillful at marrying the more esoteric teachings of yoga with modern scientific insights and the practicalities of everyday life. Her writing has been published in the Huffington Post, Yoga Journal, Elephant Journal and Origin Magazine. A dedicated ashtanga practitioner, she teaches yoga and neuroscience workshops worldwide. Her lilting Irish accent and Dublin wit make her classes uniquely enjoyable.


33 Responses to “Taking Ecstasy Can Deepen Your Yoga Practice.”

  1. yogi tobye says:

    Buzzin' on Yoga like a mad thing!

  2. Buzzin' on Yoga AND kirtan like a mad thing!

    Right there with ya, girl 🙂

  3. Hollie says:

    I take issue with this title. I have never taken Ecstacy, ever. And I have experienced the bliss and high and connectedness you describe, but through movement (not chanting or yoga, though I don't doubt at all that it's very possible.) Connection to the divine does not require synthetic chemicals, at least not for me.

  4. yogijulian says:


    really well done dearbhla – evocative, well researched, great connections….

    yes, i have noticed that certain states (especially within a year or two of one's last MDMA adventure) can not only be extremely reminiscent, but actually trigger an extended E-like experience that i don't think would show up quite in that way had one not been "experienced…"

    once walking on the beach with a new lover the sky just seemed to expand and my heart was exploding in my chest again…. a couple other times similarly after yoga or bodywork or ecstatic dance…

    i would suggest as you do that these experiences are triggering similar brain states and neurochemical dances – but wouldn't go so far (anymore – i used too!) as to suggest that they literally represent some divine presence or true nature of the cosmos…. i would say, rather, a fantastic and beautiful state of being well worth exploring!

  5. Dearbhla says:

    How about escaping into connection?!!!
    No, seriously I think that our efforts to do yoga (to find union, transcend alienation) are an attempt to escape the existential fact of aloneless…and, going deeper into yoga philosophy gives us the opportunity to accept the view that we are part of the underlying reality of all things…

    These are weighty questions, as you know Carol. I imagine that we could have a very interesting discussion over coffee about these things, some of which require much more delicate finessing in written form…do we really want to get into the ontological status of selves here?!!

    Always appreciate your comments.
    Thank you,

  6. yogijulian says:

    well the other piece really worth mentioning here is that there is some pretty heavyweight scholarly opinion that the origins of the vedic culture lie in the ritual consumption of soma – believed to be the amanita muscaria mushroom, one of the most potent psychedelics on the planet….

    likewise kykeon in the ancient greek eleusian mysteries was most likely made from ergot fungus infected wheat – a naturally occurring form of LSD.

    similarly many other cultures in eastern europe and southern and mesoamerica use plant sacraments.

    some have even pointed to the arc of the covenant in ancient israel being a place where the sacramental bread might become infused with mold/fungal material …. this seems a likely hypothesis given the magical powers ascribed to sacraments all over the world: most religions have their genesis in the unknowing ingestion of psychoactive plants!

    think about it (in the absence of pharmacological knowledge): the shaman/priest puts the bread or wine or mushroom tea or what have you in this special sacred place and leaves it there, coming back from time to time to say some special magic words and do ritual things – and when he takes it out after it has fermented or been infused with organisms and we eat or drink it – poof! we are in the realm of the gods, having wild visions, seeing reality from a radically different perspective, experiencing time completely differently etc… this must be supernatural!

    now when american kids in the 60's started experimenting with psychedelics i would argue that they started to have visions that were in some way reminiscent of hindu and tibetan buddhist psychedelic art, as well as revelatory experiences that sounded a lot like eastern philosophy – hence the fascination with eastern culture that gives birth to the american yoga wave we are still surfing!

    and yes carol – most often used as an escape rather than a connection – as can be said for a LOT of natural high "spirituality!!"

  7. yogijulian says:

    yes exactly!

    well at the end of the day i think it is most likely that what we mean by "divine" is a set of state specific experiences that human brains are capable of! 🙂

    in the ancient absence of pharmacological knowledge we ascribe psychoactive plant effects to supernatural causes, in the absence of neuroscience we ascribe the effects of breath, music, community and even drugs to god.

    and if this is what we mean by "god" – well ok! 🙂 i am not so sure we can honestly mean anything else… but that's just me!

    i am sure you know this one:

  8. Dearbhla says:

    love that song!

  9. yogijulian says:

    yea they also crashed and burned because without a practice methodology peak experiences remain un-integratable and we are doomed to a kind of bipolar experience of the amazing and the mundane or even depressing…

  10. dharmashalayoga says:

    This is the kind of information that causes distorted aberrations and crazy inventions to the practice of Yoga.
    The connection with the Divine is the inside to the outside and not vice versa. Worse by synthetic substances.

  11. Sean says:

    Beautiful article and I relate to all of it. Lawrence LeShan once described taking LSD as climbing a tree and gazing out onto to the promised land. Of course, if we tarry too long in the tree, we experience an abrupt fall to the hard earth. Further, if we want to arrive at the promised land, we must come down from the tree and begin the long journey to get there. The point is that psychedelic and psychotropic drugs can give you a glimpse of where you are going. Often, that's enough for you to begin the journey,

  12. Carol Horton says:

    I was actually thinking more culturally than ontologically – although obviously there's a connection – but it gets very fascinating and complex very quickly – so yes, I'm going to opt out on trying to unpack that in a blog comment and hope for the chance for a coffee someday!

  13. Carol Horton says:

    Plus no solid framework of meaning to make sense and create boundaries – ideas and practice are necessarily entwined.

  14. yogijulian says:

    good point!

  15. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks for your comment Sean. I really appreciate you taking the time to read my article.

  16. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Katrina!

  17. Dearbhla says:

    Yes, I agree. The whole point of the article is to explain that we have everything we need INSIDE us to connect to bliss (Divine) consciousness…some of us had to first experience that in the form of a synthetic substance before we discovered paradise inside, achievable naturally.

    Thanks for your comment!

  18. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Jade. I identify with your experience raving…I think so many people who rave are/were looking for a deeper connection, a way to belong. I'm so glad that I found yoga – a sort of homecoming to myself.

  19. Dearbhla says:

    love that song!

  20. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Rahi. And thanks for bringing in Patanjali. I never ceased to be amazed at the benificence of the ancients (I think you've used this phrase) in how they created a set of practices for us to attain Oneness. I think they had great compassion and psychological acuity.

    Thanks again for your nuanced take!

  21. Lucius Meredith says:

    We continue to confuse the world of quality with the world of cause and effect. Conditions, like what chemical state your brain is in, reorganize themselves in order for the world of quality to enter into contact with our experience. They support the expression of qualitative influence upon experience. Conditions do not explain your experience. Your experience, explains your conditions.

  22. goodnightcafe says:

    excellent post dearbhla. the implications of this conversation for teaching purposes are vast, not only as they relate to yoga or kirtan, but for kids as they come into their own, and inside the giant debate regarding whether or not god exists, or even why it matters. i have the idea that what you are describing — this hardwiring for "religious" experience — is also the root of art-making — that art-making is an evolutionary step in the exploration of this neurochemistry, whether the art-maker is aware of it or not, and that such activity can actually serve to lessen, (dare i say it?) more primitive and dysfunctional religious beliefs and behavior. kirtan is no exception in terms of this evolution — in fact i consider it to be a high art form, and one of my favorite activities. thanks for being a good writer and thinker, especially on such a fine subject. you've just expanded my own theories — and we didn't even need a pill. see how well art works? 🙂

  23. yogijulian says:

    just to point something out – never having had an experience is not really a good basis from which to then compare it to any other experience! 🙂

    not having taken a drug like E, one cannot even imagine what it does to the brain and therefore one's experience of body, others and reality!

    just sayin' …

  24. yogijulian says:

    what a splendid comment – who are you please!?

  25. yogijulian says:

    beautifully stated, but complete poppycock! on what do we base such a topsy turvy certainty?! 🙂

  26. Kitzie Stern says:

    Interesting post Dearbhla, thanks for this.

    It brings to mind a book I read years ago called "The Natural Mind" written by Dr. Andrew Weil — yes, that Dr. Weil. It was his first book, and he explores a lot of the same issues.

  27. Dearbhla says:

    Hi Lucius,
    thanks for your reply. I must confess however that I find it utterly unintelligible!

  28. Dearbhla says:

    Yes, love this comment. Thanks Lora. I do agree that the creative impulse to make art is the same impulse that leads us deeper into samadhi. Spanda – the universal pulsation.

    Thanks again.

  29. Dearbhla says:

    Hi Anna,
    thanks for your beautiful comment. I think it's BOTH chemicals and magic!

  30. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks for your reply Tammara. I appreciate the time you've taken.

  31. Dearbhla says:

    Thanks Kitzie. I'll have to check it out.

  32. Sea Glassman says:

    Great job, Dearbhla. I like going beyond the expected and into the not necessarily accepted as 'spiritual' realms, thus dissolving judgement. And that's the point, isn't it? Ultimately, that's what we're trying to do. What an amazing board game down here. In moment such as you've described, we get to fly above it and see the game. And there are many ways to do this- come into our true nature. Well explored. You are impressive. xoox Sea