The Relationship Between Yoga & Psychedelics
Since the Indian Sage, Patanjali, collated the Yoga Sutra around 2000 years ago, the philosophy and practice of yoga has transformed the lives of millions of people around the world. In the modern age, yoga represents a practice of well-being heralded both in Eastern philosophy and Western medicine. In fact, the ‘sutra’ (or, thread) of 196 statements, has become somewhat of a handbook for attaining mastery of the mind and body while offering a route to emotional enrichment as well as spiritual growth.
The efficacy of mindfulness-based therapies
Contemporary neuroscience and modern psychology have found merit in this practice under the broader banner of “mindfulness” practices alongside other forms of meditation and somatic therapies. The current therapeutic vogue of learning to observe one’s thoughts and emotions without judgment rather than react to them, and to guide one’s mind to the present rather than wrestle relentlessly with one’s thoughts about the past and future have offered relief and fulfillment to many.
A recent meta-analysis conducted across the United States and Canada that reviewed over 200 studies showed that mindfulness-based therapies (which involve yoga and meditation) are equally as effective as traditional therapies (such as CBT) and pharmacology in improving a range of emotional and health concerns and are especially effective in treating depression and anxiety.
The mechanisms of yoga
Yoga, however, holds a special place among the aforementioned practices in that it draws together many different components of well-being within a coherent philosophy. (Not coincidentally, the word yoga - originating from the word ‘yolk’ - means to unite or combine.)
What exactly does yoga combine, you ask? Three things:
1. Body movement
2. Breathwork; and
When working through a series of postures (or ‘asanas’) while learning to ground yourself in the present moment and regulate your physiology through breathing techniques, a synchrony of mind and body is achieved.
This unique combination of quieting the mind while enlivening the body also serves to activate all the right neurochemistry: High doses of-
· Brain-derived neurotrophic factor; and
This configuration of neurochemistry serves to:
· Improve mood
· Relieve anxiety; and
· Contribute to a general sense of contentment.
All of this benefit comfortably ensconced within a colorful community of like-minded well-intending people. I think we might see the appeal. If these are the benefits of yoga in and of itself, how does that relate to psychedelics?
The relationship between yoga and psychedelics
The answer is both philosophical and physiological. Ingestion of a psychedelic will trigger widespread activation of synapses throughout the brain. We typically use about 10% of those connections, and while on psychedelics we move closer to having 80% of them active simultaneously. This chemical cascade gives rise to the phenomenological experience we call ‘ego dissolution’ or the loss of a sense of self as a distinct entity.
The boundary between our internal world and the reality beyond us disbands and we become a sensate bundle of emotions, memories and predictions connected to every atom in the universe. This profound and healing experience goes by a specific name is yoga: Samadhi (or union with the divine). While yoga and meditation, as Sam Harris says, may represent sail boats to this state of bliss and oneness, psychedelics are more like rocket ships. Any foreign planet can be scary, unless you have been there, or to somewhere like it before.
The practice of yoga serves not only to lay the philosophical foundation for the road to ego dissolution, but helps you walk the path regularly so that it becomes more familiar and comfortable to go there. The ride can, however, be bumpy and the practice of yoga serves to steady the ship (sailboat or otherwise).
Learning how to lean into postures rather than avoid them becomes a welcome analogy for a psychedelic experience where you are encouraged to breathe deeply, settle into the present, pay attention to the moment, lean into the sensation (uncomfortable or relieving) and to absorb it without judgment. Emotional distress often intensifies when we try to resist an experience (in a psychedelic state or not) and yoga’s philosophy teaches us to adopt the unconditional attitude of peace necessary to lean into the experience and return to the breath to gain what we need, rather than fixate on what we think we want.
When deciding whether a psychedelic retreat or intervention will offer you optimum psychological long-term benefit, consider ones that offer mindfulness practices such as yoga to help you lean in…
UPDATE: Many new developments have occurred in the field of psychedelic-assisted therapy. We are proud to mention our involvement in expanding and legitimising this work through the Equanimity Wellness Centre, a holistic mental health facility offering ketamine therapy in JHB, South Africa - the first psychedelic assisted therapy centre in Africa.