When we’re talking about homoronal imbalanced for women, stress management is a good place to start. This yoga sequence will calm your nervous system and detox your organs.
Without time for stillness, your hormones (and well-being) can pay a steep price for an accelerated pace of life. Years after a yoga injury inspired me to slow down and study acupuncture, I now help women elude the dangerous cycle of chronic stress. On the following pages, a cautionary tale, a yoga sequence, and acupressure meditations to boost vitality, wake up energized, and find peaceful and calming bliss.
I used to think yoga was too still for me, until I discovered Ashtanga’s beautiful rhythm and grace. Living in Buffalo, New York, in my early twenties, I spent weekends commuting to Toronto for my yoga teacher training and to study with my mentor, Ron Reid. What a pace of life!
But, that rapid pace had consequences. As Reid would say, my energy leaked all over the place. I was flexible and capable, but I didn’t understand containment or how to use my core to support my body. Metaphorically, this theme of overextending without support trickled into my entire life.
Eventually I traveled to India to study with Sharath Jois, Krishnamacharya Yoga Mandiram, Maty Ezraty, and Chuck Miller. But I was overdoing backbends and in pain. I thought I’d be fine; I was young, resilient, and reckless. When I moved to LA after my trip, I had a full-blown back injury.
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As I focused on healing, I reflected that I had always intended to study some form of medicine. Acupuncture turned out to be the most effective treatment for my back, so I was inspired to pursue my master’s in Traditional Chinese Medicine (TCM) and herbal medicine.
Now my patients are mainly women seeking to overcome fertility issues or balance their hormones. Some of my clients are using assisted reproductive technologies, so I work with their reproductive endocrinologists and offer acupuncture, herbs, and lifestyle adjustments to support medical treatments.
I knew I wanted to work with women, perhaps because I was always frustrated with my gynecologist visits. I dealt with too-frequent cycles and terrible PMS and acne. Birth control pills were my only option, and I didn’t take them. Looking back, my imbalances were all really related to diet, stress, and emotional distress. Once I made significant changes—saw a therapist, got help from friends in the naturopathic and TCM community, and developed a dedicated yoga practice—I was able to bring my body back into balance.
That’s why the integrative clinic I cofounded with my husband Joe Clarke and friend Carla Vidor blends TCM methods with the diagnostic tools of functional medicine. In addition to checking pulse and tongue, we review bloodwork to uncover underlying conditions, like thyroid issues or gut infections, so we can treat the cause of imbalance.
When we talk about hormonal balance in women, I believe stress management is a good place to start. We work at such a crazed pace in our culture, and we value doing—there is no surrender of being. Though we don’t face tigers every day, we live in constant state of fight-or-flight.
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The hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis is a negative feedback loop that regulates stress response. Within seconds of encountering stress, the brain’s hypothalamus secretes cortico-tropin-releasing hormone (CRH), initiating a game of telephone. CRH tells the anterior pituitary gland to produce adreno-corticotropic hormone, which prompts the adrenals to release cortisol.
The “stress” hormone cortisol plays a critical role in quality of sleep. Cortisol and melatonin (the “sleep” hormone) have an inverse relationship, tag-teaming your circadian rhythms. At night, with cortisol at bay, you fall asleep as melatonin peaks. Then, melatonin tapers as cortisol gradually rises until it spikes and awakens you the next morning. Cortisol ebbs during the day as melatonin rises, culminating in bedtime. And so on.
But chronic stress scrambles this process. Cortisol levels skyrocket into the evening, and an overwhelming week can both exhaust you and cause insomnia.
There are other negative feedback loops that signal to the thyroid and ova-ries. If imbalances go on for too long, they can alter or even shut down repro-ductive function, as well as impact your metabolism, immune system, and cardiovascular health.
Getting out of survival mode gives your nervous system a chance to recover. In a resting state, you can stabilize cortisol patterns, regulate your reproductive system, and restore a blissful sleep cycle. Try it for yourself with the calming practices on the following pages.
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A yoga practice that prioritizes stillness can calm your nervous system and harmonize your HPA axis. Remember, if you are pushing full throttle at work and home—and eating processed foods—you can’t push your yoga practice as well.
I designed this hormone-balancing sequence to induce both the relaxation response as well as detox. Our organs are overloaded with harmful chemicals, so twists help clean out your liver, colon, even your ovaries. Plus, once you release abdominal compressions, fresh blood rushes back into your uterus and ovaries to create more cell activity and build (and shed) endometrial lining. All postures below, except Savasana (Corpse Pose), should be done using Ujjayi (Victorious) Breathing.
Finally, the acupressure meditations included here build a heightened sense of awareness in your subtle body. In TCM, it isn’t the pressure or needles themselves that heal us. Rather, they offer an energetic suggestion, creating conditions so your body can begin healing itself. My yoga teacher Ron Reid used to say that energy follows intention, and in my life I’ve seen that to be true.
Ever fall asleep just to jolt awake at 3 a.m.?
Poor blood sugar management may be to blame. After all, stress doesn’t exactly help with healthy eating habits. Plunging blood sugar can trigger an emergency response: hormones like cortisol, adrenaline, and glucagon surge to extract glucose from the muscles and liver in order to feed the brain and body. The solution: Eat more wild-caught fish, legumes, nuts, seeds, and avocados. As slower-burning sources of energy, they can prevent spikes and crashes.
See also How Yoga Can Help You Deal with Diabetes
STUDY WITH MARIA
Tired of dealing with mood swings, cramps, or fatigue? In her online course, Maria dives into the physiology of reproductive health and offers yoga, acupressure, meal plans, and more to regulate your cycle and boost overall well-being. Learn more: yogajournal.com/womenshealth.
Cut Through Mental Fog with These Two Common Breathing Practices
They’re effective on their own, but when you combine them, your energy shifts—and it happens fast!
Craving change but feeling too stuck, sluggish, or restless to take aim? Join John Douillard, founder of LifeSpa.com, and Larissa Hall Carlson, Ayurveda Yoga Specialist, for Ayurveda 201: Six Weeks to Transformation and Bliss Through Ayurvedic Psychology. In this new online course, you’ll experience: unique yoga practices; inspiring discussions backed by science; and recipes, herb recommendations, and a short, gentle cleanse. The results? Clarity, brilliance, and balance so you can create lasting shifts in your life and well-being. Learn more and sign up today!
You’ve probably practiced Nadi Shodhana Pranayama (Alternate-Nostril Breathing). You’ve likely done Kapalabhati Pranayama (Shining-Skull Breathing). But have you ever tried them… together? Here, teacher Larissa Hall Carlson, who co-designed our upcoming course, Ayurveda 201, with John Douillard, shows you how to blend these two powerful breathing practices to dissolve stress and cultivate clarity.
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Science Says Your Gut Is Key to Mental Clarity—This Is Why
John Douillard breaks down the research on the mind-body connection and how to let go of emotional baggage weighing you down.
Craving change but feeling too stuck, sluggish, or restless to take aim? Join John Douillard, founder of LifeSpa.com, and Larissa Hall Carlson, Ayurveda Yoga Specialist, for Ayurveda 201: Six Weeks to Transformation and Bliss Through Ayurvedic Psychology. In this new online course, you’ll experience: unique yoga practices; inspiring discussions backed by science; and recipes, herbs, and a short, gentle cleanse. The results? Clarity, brilliance, and balance so you can create lasting shifts in your life and well-being. Learn more and sign up today!
If you’ve ever heard a yoga teacher say that emotions are “stored” in the body, you may have written it off as pseudoscience. But not so fast… Here, global Ayurveda expert John Douillard, who co-teaches our new online course, Ayurveda 201, with Larissa Hall Carlson, breaks down research on the mind-body connection and how you can let go of baggage that’s weighing you down.
See also Cut Through Mental Fog with These Two Common Breathing Practices
Would You Consider Trying Psychedelics to Take Your Practice to Another Level?
Psychedlics are having a moment. Psychiatrists are administering magic mushrooms in medical centers while yogis host ceremonies with psychoactive tea. This resurgence in research and recreational use may have something to teach us about spiritual enlightenment. Here, we explore the potential role of psychedelics within a yoga practice or as therapeutic treatment.
When a friend invited Maya Griffin* to a “journey weekend”—two or three days spent taking psychedelics in hopes of experiencing profound insights or a spiritual awakening—she found herself considering it. “Drugs were never on my radar,” says Griffin, 39, of New York City. “At an early age, I got warnings from my parents that drugs may have played a role in bringing on a family member’s mental illness. Beyond trying pot a couple times in college, I didn’t touch them.” But then Griffin met Julia Miller* in a yoga class, and after about a year of friendship, Miller began sharing tales from her annual psychedelic weekends. She’d travel with friends to rental houses in various parts of the United States where a “medicine man” from California would join them and administer mushrooms, LSD, and other psychedelics. Miller would tell Griffin about experiences on these “medicines” that had helped her feel connected to the divine. She’d talk about being in meditative-like bliss states and feeling pure love.
This time, Miller was hosting a three-day journey weekend with several psychedelics—such as DMT (dimethyltryptamine, a compound found in plants that’s extracted and then smoked to produce a powerful experience that’s over in minutes), LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide, or “acid,” which is chemically synthesized from a fungus), and Ayahuasca (a brew that blends whole plants containing DMT with those that have enzyme inhibitors that prolong the DMT experience). Miller described it as a “choose your own adventure” weekend, where Griffin could opt in or out of various drugs as she pleased. Griffin eventually decided to go for it. Miller recommended she first do a “mini journey”—just one day and one drug—to get a sense of what it would be like and to see if a longer trip was really something she wanted to do. So, a couple of months before the official journey, Griffin took a mini journey with magic mushrooms.
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“It felt really intentional. We honored the spirits of the four directions beforehand, a tradition among indigenous cultures, and asked the ancestors to keep us safe,” she says. “I spent a lot of time feeling heavy, lying on the couch at first. Then, everything around me looked more vibrant and colorful. I was laughing hysterically with a friend. Time was warped. At the end, I got what my friends would call a ‘download,’ or the kind of insight you might get during meditation. It felt spiritual in a way. I wasn’t in a relationship at the time and I found myself having this sense that I needed to carve out space for a partner in my life. It was sweet and lovely.”
Griffin, who’s practiced yoga for more than 20 years and who says she wanted to try psychedelics in order to “pull back the ‘veil of perception,’” is among a new class of yoga practitioners who are giving drugs a try for spiritual reasons. They’re embarking on journey weekends, doing psychedelics in meditation circles, and taking the substances during art and music festivals to feel connected to a larger community and purpose. But a renewed interest in these explorations, and the mystical experiences they produce, isn’t confined to recreational settings. Psychedelics, primarily psilocybin, a psychoactive compound in magic mushrooms, are being studied by scientists, psychiatrists, and psychologists again after a decades-long hiatus following the experimental 1960s—a time when horror stories of recreational use gone wrong contributed to bans on the drugs and harsh punishments for anyone caught with them. This led to the shutdown of all studies into potential therapeutic uses, until recently. (The drugs are still illegal outside of clinical trials.)
Another Trip with Psychedelics
The freeze on psychedelics research was lifted in the early 1990s with Food and Drug Administration approval for a small pilot study on DMT, but it took another decade before studies of psychedelics began to pick up. Researchers are taking another look at drugs that alter consciousness, both to explore their potential role as a novel treatment for a variety of psychiatric or behavioral disorders and to study the effects that drug-induced mystical experiences may have on a healthy person’s life—and brain. “When I entered medical school in 1975, the topic of psychedelics was off the board. It was kind of a taboo area,” says Charles Grob, MD, a professor of psychiatry and biobehavioral sciences at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California, Los Angeles, who conducted a 2011 pilot study on the use of psilocybin to treat anxiety in patients with terminal cancer. Now researchers such as Grob are following up on the treatment models developed in the ’50s and ’60s, especially for patients who don’t respond well to conventional therapies.
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This opening of the vault—research has also picked up again in countries such as England, Spain, and Switzerland—has one big difference from studies done decades ago: Researchers use stringent controls and methods that have since become the norm (the older studies relied mostly on anecdotal accounts and observations that occurred under varying conditions). These days, scientists are also utilizing modern neuroimaging machines to get a glimpse into what happens in the brain. The results are preliminary but seem promising and suggest that just one or two doses of a psychedelic may be helpful in treating addictions (such as to cigarettes or alcohol), treatment-resistant depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, and anxiety in patients with terminal cancer. “It’s not about the drug per se, it’s about the meaningful experience that one dose can generate,” says Anthony Bossis, PhD, a clinical assistant professor of psychiatry at New York University School of Medicine who conducted a 2016 study on the use of psilocybin for patients with cancer who were struggling with anxiety, depression, and existential distress (fear of ceasing to exist).
Spiritual experiences in particular are showing up in research summaries. The term “psychedelic” was coined by a British-Canadian psychiatrist during the 1950s and is a mashup of two ancient Greek words that together mean “mind revealing.” Psychedelics are also known as hallucinogens, although they don’t always produce hallucinations, and as entheogens, or substances that generate the divine. In the pilot study looking at the effects of DMT on healthy volunteers, University of New Mexico School of Medicine researchers summarized the typical participant experience as “more vivid and compelling than dreams or waking awareness.” In a study published in 2006 in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, researchers at Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine gave a relatively high dose (30 mg) of psilocybin to healthy volunteers who’d never previously taken a hallucinogen and found that it could reliably evoke a mystical-type experience with substantial personal meaning for participants. About 70 percent of participants rated the psilocybin session as among the top five most spiritually significant experiences of their lives. In addition, the participants reported positive changes in mood and attitude about life and self—which persisted at a 14-month follow-up. Interestingly, core factors researchers used in determining whether a study participant had a mystical-type experience, also known as a peak experience or a spiritual epiphany, was their report of a sense of “unity” and “transcendence of time and space.” (See “What’s a Mystical Experience?” on page 59 for the full list of how experts define one.)
In psilocybin studies for cancer distress, the patients who reported having a mystical experience while on the drug also scored higher in their reports of post-session benefits. “For people who are potentially dying of cancer, the ability to have a mystical experience where they describe experiencing self-transcendence and no longer solely identifying with their bodies is a profound gift,” says Bossis, also a clinical psychologist with a speciality in palliative care and a long interest in comparative religions. He describes his research as the study of “the scientific and the sacred.” In 2016 he published his findings on psilocybin for cancer patients in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, showing that a single psilocybin session led to improvement in anxiety and depression, a decrease in cancer-related demoralization and hopelessness, improved spiritual well-being, and increased quality of life—both immediately afterward and at a six-and-a-half-month follow-up. A study from Johns Hopkins produced similar results the same year. “The drug is out of your system in
a matter of hours, but the memories and changes from the experience are often long-lasting,” Bossis says.
The Science of Spirituality
In addition to studying psilocybin-assisted therapy for cancer patients, Bossis is director of the NYU Psilocybin Religious Leaders Project (a sister project at Johns Hopkins is also in progress), which is recruiting religious leaders from different lineages—Christian clergy, Jewish rabbis, Zen Buddhist roshis, Hindu priests, and Muslim imams—and giving them high-dose psilocybin in order to study their accounts of the sessions and any effects the experience has on their spiritual practices. “They’re helping us describe the nature of the experience given their unique training and vernacular,” says Bossis, who adds that it’s too early to share results. The religious-leaders study is a new-wave version of the famous Good Friday Experiment at Boston University’s Marsh Chapel, conducted in 1962 by psychiatrist and minister Walter Pahnke. Pahnke was working on a PhD in religion and society at Harvard University and his experiment was overseen by members of the Department of Psychology, including psychologist Timothy Leary, who’d later become a notorious figure in the counterculture movement, and psychologist Richard Alpert, who’d later return from India as Ram Dass and introduce a generation to bhakti yoga and meditation. Pahnke wanted to explore whether using psychedelics in a religious setting could invoke a profound mystical experience, so at a Good Friday service his team gave 20 divinity students a capsule of either psilocybin or an active placebo, niacin. At least 8 of the 10 students who took the mushrooms reported a powerful mystical experience, compared to 1 of 10 in the control group. While the study was later criticized for failing to report an adverse event—a tranquilizer was administered to a distressed participant who left the chapel and refused to return—it was the first double-blind, placebo-controlled experiment with psychedelics. It also helped establish the terms “set” and “setting,” commonly used by researchers and recreational users alike. Set is the intention you bring to a psychedelic experience, and setting is the environment in which you take it.
“Set and setting are really critical in determining a positive outcome,” UCLA’s Grob says. “Optimizing set prepares an individual and helps them fully understand the range of effects they might have with a substance. It asks patients what their intention is and what they hope to get out of their experience. Setting is maintaining a safe and secure environment and having someone there who will adequately and responsibly monitor you.”
Bossis says most patients in the cancer studies set intentions for the session related to a better death or end of life—a sense of integrity, dignity, and resolution. Bossis encourages them to accept and directly face whatever is unfolding on psilocybin, even if it’s dark imagery or feelings of death, as is often the case for these study participants. “As counterintuitive as it sounds, I tell them to move into thoughts or experiences of dying—to go ahead. They won’t die physically, of course; it’s an experience of ego death and transcendence,” he says. “By moving into it, you’re directly learning from it and it typically changes to an insightful outcome. Avoiding it can only fuel it and makes it worse.”
In the research studies, the setting is a room in a medical center that’s made to look more like a living room. Participants lie on a couch, wear an eye mask and headphones (listening to mostly classical and instrumental music), and receive encouragement from their therapists to, for example, “go inward and accept the rise and fall of the experience.” Therapists are mostly quiet. They are there to monitor patients and assist them if they experience anything difficult or frightening, or simply want to talk.
“Even in clinical situations, the psychedelic really runs itself,” says Ram Dass, who is now 87 and lives in Maui. “I’m happy to see that this has been opened up and these researchers are doing their work from a legal place.”
The Shadow Side and How to Shift It
While all of this may sound enticing, psychedelic experiences may not be so reliably enlightening or helpful (or legal) when done recreationally, especially at a young age. Documentary filmmaker and rock musician Ben Stewart, who hosts the series Psychedelica on Gaia.com, describes his experiences using psychedelics, including mushrooms and LSD, as a teen as “pushing the boundaries in a juvenile way.” He says, “I wasn’t in a sacred place or even a place where I was respecting the power of the plant. I was just doing it whenever, and I had extremely terrifying experiences.” Years later in his films and research projects he started hearing about set and setting. “They’d say to bring an intention or ask a question and keep revisiting it throughout the journey. I was always given something more beautiful even if it took me to a dark place.”
Brigitte Mars, a professor of herbal medicine at Naropa University in Boulder, Colorado, teaches a “sacred psychoactives” class that covers the ceremonial use of psychedelics in ancient Greece, in Native American traditions, and as part of the shamanic path. “In a lot of indigenous cultures, young people had rites of passage in which they might be taken aside by a shaman and given a psychedelic plant or be told to go spend the night on a mountaintop. When they returned to the tribe, they’d be given more privileges since they’d gone through an initiation,” she says. Mars says LSD and mushrooms combined with prayer and intention helped put her on a path of healthy eating and yoga at a young age, and she strives to educate students about using psychedelics in a more responsible way, should they opt to partake in them. “This is definitely not supposed to be about going to a concert and getting as far out as possible. It can be an opportunity for growth and rebirth and to recalibrate your life. It’s a special occasion,” she says, adding, “psychedelics aren’t for everyone, and they aren’t a substitute for working on yourself.”
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Tara Brach, PhD, a psychologist and the founder of Insight Meditation Community of Washington, DC, says she sees great healing potential for psychedelics, especially when paired with meditation and in clinical settings, but she warns about the risk of spiritual bypassing—using spiritual practices as a way to avoid dealing with difficult psychological issues that need attention and healing: “Mystical experience can be seductive. For some it creates the sense that this is the ‘fast track,’ and now that they’ve experienced mystical states, attention to communication, deep self-inquiry, or therapy and other forms of somatic healing are not necessary to grow.” She also says that recreational users don’t always give the attention to setting that’s needed to feel safe and uplifted. “Environments filled with noise and light pollution, distractions, and potentially insensitive and disturbing human interactions will not serve our well-being,” she says.
As these drugs edge their way back into contemporary pop culture, researchers warn about the medical and psychological dangers of recreational use, especially when it involves the mixing of two or more substances, including alcohol. “We had a wild degree of misuse and abuse in the ’60s, particularly among young people who were not adequately prepared and would take them under all sorts of adverse conditions,” Grob says. “These are very serious medicines that should only be taken for the most serious of purposes. I also think we need to learn from the anthropologic record about how to utilize these compounds in a safe manner. It wasn’t for entertainment, recreation, or sensation. It was to further strengthen an individual’s identity as part of his culture and society, and it facilitated greater social cohesion.”
Yoga’s Psychedelic Roots
Anthropologists have discovered mushroom iconography in churches throughout the world. And some scholars make the case that psychoactive plants may have played a role in the early days of yoga tradition. The Rig Veda and the Upanishads (sacred Indian texts) describe a drink called soma (extract) or amrita (nectar of immortality) that led to spiritual visions. “It’s documented that yogis were essentially utilizing some brew, some concoction, to elicit states of transcendental awareness,” say Tias Little, a yoga teacher and founder of Prajna Yoga school in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He also points to Yoga Sutra 4.1, in which Patanjali mentions that paranormal attainments can be obtained through herbs and mantra.
“Psychotropic substances are powerful tools, and like all tools, they can cut both ways—helping or harming,” says Ganga White, author of Yoga Beyond Belief and founder of White Lotus Foundation in Santa Barbara, California. “If you look at anything you can see positive and negative uses. A medicine can be a poison and a poison can be a medicine—there’s a saying like this in the Bhagavad Gita.”
White’s first experience with psychedelics was at age 20. It was 1967 and he took LSD. “I was an engineering student servicing TVs and working on electronics. The next day I became a yogi,” he says. “I saw the life force in plants and the magnitude of beauty in nature. It set me on a spiritual path.” That year he started going to talks by a professor of comparative religion who told him that a teacher from India in the Sivananda lineage had come to the United States. White went to study with him, and he would later make trips to India to learn from other teachers. As his yoga practice deepened, White stopped using psychedelics. His first yoga teachers were adamantly anti-drug. “I was told that they would destroy your chakras and your astral body. I stopped everything, even coffee and tea,” he says. But within a decade, White began shifting his view on psychedelics again. He says he started to notice “duplicity, hypocrisy, and spiritual materialism” in the yoga world. And he no longer felt that psychedelic experiences were “analog to true experiences.” He started combining meditation and psychedelics. “I think an occasional mystic journey is a tune-up,” he says. “It’s like going to see a great teacher once in a while who always has new lessons.”
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Meditation teacher Sally Kempton, author of Meditation for the Love of It, shares the sentiment. She says it was her use of psychedelics during the ’60s that served as a catalyst for her meditation practice and studies in the tantric tradition. “Everyone from my generation who had an awakening pretty much had it on a psychedelic. We didn’t have yoga studios yet,” she says. “I had my first awakening on acid. It was wildly dramatic because I was really innocent and had hardly done any spiritual reading. Having that experience of ‘everything is love’ was totally revelatory. When I began meditating, it was essentially for the purpose of getting my mind to become clear enough so that I could find that place that I knew was the truth, which I knew was love.” Kempton says she’s done LSD and Ayahuasca within the past decade for “psychological journeying,” which she describes as “looking into issues I find uncomfortable or that I’m trying to break through and understand.”
Little tried mushrooms and LSD at around age 20 and says he didn’t have any mystical experiences, yet he feels that they contributed to his openness in exploring meditation, literature, poetry, and music. “I was experimenting as a young person and there were a number of forces shifting my own sense of self-identity and self-worth. I landed on meditation as a way to sustain a kind of open awareness,” he says, noting that psychedelics are no longer part of his sadhana (spiritual path).
Going Beyond the Veil
After her first psychedelic experience on psilocybin, Griffin decided to join her friends for a journey weekend. On offer Friday night were “Rumi Blast” (a derivative of DMT) and “Sassafras,” which is similar to MDMA (Methylenedioxymethamphetamine, known colloquially as ecstasy or Molly). Saturday was LSD. Sunday was Ayahuasca. “Once I was there, I felt really open to the experience. It felt really safe and intentional—almost like the start of a yoga retreat,” she says. It began by smudging with sage and palo santo. After the ceremonial opening, Griffin inhaled the Rumi Blast. “I was lying down and couldn’t move my body but felt like a vibration was buzzing through me,” she says. After about five minutes—the length of a typical peak on DMT—she sat up abruptly. “I took a massive deep breath and it felt like remembrance of my first breath. It was so visceral.” Next up was Sassafras: “It ushered in love. We played music and danced and saw each other as beautiful souls.” Griffin originally planned to end the journey here, but after having such a connected experience the previously night, she decided to try LSD. “It was a hyper-color world. Plants and tables were moving. At one point I started sobbing and I felt like I was crying for the world. Two minutes felt like two hours,” she says. Exhausted and mentally tapped by Sunday, she opted out of the Ayahuasca tea. Reflecting on it now, she says, “The experiences will never leave me. Now when
I look at a tree, it isn’t undulating or dancing like when I was on LSD, but I ask myself, ‘What am I not seeing that’s still there?’”
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The Chemical Structure of Psychedelics
It was actually the psychedelic research of the 1950s that contributed to our understanding of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which regulates mood, happiness, social behavior, and more. Most of the classic psychedelics are serotonin agonists, meaning they activate serotonin receptors. (What’s actually happening during this activation is mostly unknown.)
Classic psychedelics are broken into two groups of organic compounds called alkaloids. One group is the tryptamines, which have a similar chemical structure to serotonin. The other group, the phenethylamines, are more chemically similar to dopamine, which regulates attention, learning, and emotional responses. Phenethylamines have effects on both dopamine and serotonin neurotransmitter systems. DMT (found in plants but also in trace amounts in animals), psilocybin, and LSD are tryptamines. Mescaline (derived from cacti, including peyote and San Pedro) is a phenethylamine. MDMA, originally developed by a pharmaceutical company, is also a phenethylamine, but scientists don’t classify it as a classic psychedelic because of its stimulant effects and “empathogenic” qualities that help a user bond with others. The classics, whether they come straight from nature (plant teas, whole mushrooms) or are semi-synthetic forms created in a lab (LSD tabs, psilocybin capsules), are catalysts for more inwardly focused personal experiences.
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“Classic psychedelics are physiologically well tolerated—with the exception of vomiting and diarrhea on Ayahuasca,” says Grob, who also studied Ayahuasca in Brazil during the 1990s. “But psychologically there are serious risks, particularly for people with underlying psychiatric conditions or a family history of major mental illness like schizophrenia or bipolar disorder.” Psychedelics can cause fear, anxiety, or paranoia—which often resolves fairly quickly in the right set and setting, Grob says, but can escalate or lead to injuries in other scenarios. In extremely rare but terrifying cases, chronic psychosis, post-traumatic stress from a bad experience, or hallucinogen persisting perception disorder—ongoing visual disturbances, or “flashbacks”—can occur. (There have been no reports of any such problems in modern clinical trials with rigorous screening processes and controlled dosage and support.) Unlike the classic psychedelics, MDMA has serious cardiac risks in high doses and raises body temperature, which has led to cases of people overheating at music festivals and clubs. There’s also always the risk of adverse drug interactions. For example, combining Ayahuasca with SSRIs (selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors) used to treat depression can lead to serotonin syndrome, which can cause a rise in body temperature and disorientation.
Your Brain on Drugs—and Meditation
Flora Baker, 30, a travel blogger from London, took Ayahuasca while visiting Brazil and the psychoactive cactus San Pedro while in Bolivia. “Part of the reason I was traveling in South America was an attempt to heal after the death of my mother. The ceremonies involved a lot of introspective thought about who I was without her, and what kind of woman I was becoming,” she says. “On Ayahuasca, my thoughts about my mom weren’t of her physical form, but her energy—as a spirit or life force that carried me and carries me onward, always, ever present within me and around. I’ve thought of these ideas in the past, but it was the first time I truly believed and understood them.” The experiences ended with a sense of peace and acceptance, and Baker says she’s sometimes able to access these same feelings in her daily meditation practice.
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Baker’s and Griffin’s comparisons of certain insights or feelings they had on psychedelics to those one might get through meditation may have an explanation in modern neuroscience. To start, in a study of what happens in the brain during a psychedelic experience, researchers at Imperial College London gave participants psilocybin and scanned their brains. They found decreased activity in the medial prefrontal cortex and posterior cingulate cortex. These are key brain regions involved in the “default mode network,” or the brain circuits that help you maintain a sense of self and daydream. The researchers also found that reduced activity in default mode networks correlated with participants’ reports of “ego dissolution.”
When Judson Brewer, MD, PhD, then a researcher at Yale University, read the study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in 2012, he noticed that the brain scans looked strikingly similar to those of meditators in a study he’d published two months earlier in the same journal. In Brewer’s study, he’d put experienced meditators with more than a decade of practice into an fMRI machine, asked them to meditate, and found that the regions of the volunteers’ brains that tended to quiet down were also the medial prefrontal and posterior cingulate cortexes. (In the Yale study, meditators who were new to the practice did not show the same reductions.) Brewer, who is now director of research and innovation at Brown University’s Mindfulness Center, describes the default mode network as the “me network.” Activity spikes when you are thinking about something you need to do in the future, or when you’re ruminating over past regrets. “Deactivations in these brain regions line up with a selfless sense that people get. They let go of fears and protections and taking things personally. When that expands way, way out there, you lose a sense of where you end and where the rest of the world begins.”
Intrigued by the similarities in brain scans between people taking psychedelics and meditators, other researchers have started investigating whether the two practices might be complementary in clinical settings. In a study published last year in the Journal of Psychopharmacology, Johns Hopkins researchers took 75 people with little or no history of meditation and broke them into three groups. Those in the first group received a very low dose of psilocybin (1 mg) and were asked to commit to regular spiritual practices such as meditation, spiritual awareness practice, and journaling with just five hours of support. The second group got high-dose psilocybin (20–30 mg) and five hours of support, and the third group got high-dose psilocybin and 35 hours of support. After six months, both high-dose groups reported more-frequent spiritual practices and more gratitude than those in the low-dose group. In addition, those in the high-dose and high-support group reported higher ratings in finding meaning and sacredness in daily life.
Johns Hopkins is also researching the effects of psilocybin sessions on long-term meditators. Those with a lifetime average of about 5,800 hours of meditation, or roughly the equivalent of meditating an hour a day for 16 years, were, after careful preparations, given psilocybin, put in an fMRI machine, and asked to meditate. Psychologist Brach and her husband, Jonathan Foust, cofounder of the Meditation Teacher Training Institute in Washington, DC, and former president of the Kripalu Center for Yoga & Health, helped recruit volunteers for the study, and Foust participated in a preliminary stage. While on psilocybin, he did regular short periods of concentration practice, compassion practice, and open-awareness practice. He also spontaneously experienced an intense childhood memory.
“My brother is four years older than me. In the competition for our parents’ affection, attention, and love, he hated my guts. This is normal and natural, but I saw how I subconsciously took that message in and it informed my life. On psilocybin I simultaneously experienced the raw wounded feeling and an empathy and insight into where he was coming from,” Foust says. “During the height of the experience, they asked me how much negative emotion I was feeling on a scale of 1 to 10 and I said 10. Then, they asked about positive emotion and well-being and I said 10. It was kind of a soul-expanding insight that it’s possible to have consciousness so wide that it can hold the suffering and the bliss of the world.”
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Foust started meditating at the age of 15 and he’s maintained a daily practice since then, including a couple of decades spent living in an ashram participating in intensive monthlong meditation retreats. “My meditation practice gave me some steadiness through all the waves of sensation and mood I was experiencing on psilocybin,” he says. “There were some artificial elements to it, but I came away with a much deeper trust in the essential liberation teachings in the Buddhist tradition. It verified my faith in all these practices that I’ve been doing my whole life.” Since the psilocybin study, he describes his meditation practice as “not as serious or grim,” and reflecting on this shift, he says, “I think my practice on some subtle level was informed by a desire to feel better, or to help me solve a problem, and I actually feel there is now more a sense of ease. I’m savoring my practice more and enjoying it more.”
Frederick Barrett, PhD, assistant professor of psychiatry and behavioral sciences at Johns Hopkins, presented preliminary findings with the long-term meditators and said that participants reported decreased mental effort and increased vividness when meditating. The meditators who reported having a mystical experience during the psilocybin-meditation had an accompanying acute drop in their default mode network.
Robin Carhart-Harris, PhD, head of psychedelic research at Imperial College London, has an “entropy hypothesis” for what happens in your brain on psychedelics. His theory is that as activity in your default mode network goes down, other regions of your brain, such as those responsible for feelings and memories, are able to communicate with one another much more openly and in a way that’s less predictable and more anarchical (entropy). What this all means is yet to be determined, but researchers speculate that when your default mode network comes back to full functionality, the new pathways forged during the psychedelic experience can help shift you into new patterns of thinking.
To Journey or Not to Journey?
In How to Change Your Mind, writer Michael Pollan explores the history of psychedelics and the research renaissance, and, immersion-journalism style, samples LSD, psilocybin, Ayahuasca (which he drank in a yoga studio), and 5-MeO-DMT (a form of DMT in toad venom). Reflecting on his experiences, he writes, “For me, the psychedelic experience opened a door to a specific mode of consciousness that I can now occasionally recapture in meditation… This strikes me as one of the great gifts of the experience they afford: the expansion of one’s repertoire of conscious states.”
In a special series on psychedelics published by the Journal of Humanistic Psychology in 2017, Ram Dass shared accounts of his experiences, including taking psilocybin for the first time at Leary’s house and sensing “pure consciousness and love,” and offering LSD to his guru Neem Karoli Baba, whom he calls Maharaj-ji, in India in 1967: “On two occasions my guru ingested very large doses of LSD that I gave him with no discernible effect. He said these substances were used by Himalayan yogis in the past, but the knowledge has been lost. He said LSD can take you into the room with Christ, but you can only stay for two hours. And while drugs can be useful, love is the best medicine.”
Reflecting on this guru’s comments about LSD and love, Ram Dass, co-author of Walking Each Other Home, says, “After that experience with Maharaj-ji, I meditated and didn’t take psychedelics for many years, but I’ve advised people starting out on the spiritual path that psychedelics are a legitimate entry point. It’s the beginning stages of consciousness expansion. I already did the beginning. Now I stay with my sadhana—love and service.”
Bossis says he’s struck by how many people talk about love during or after psilocybin sessions. “They speak about experiencing an incredible sense of love, often describing it as a foundation of consciousness,” he says. When participants ask him how to stay with these feelings of love and other aspects of the experience they had on psilocybin, he encourages them to consider exploring meditation and other contemplative practices.
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“While altered states from psychedelics offer great potential for healing and spiritual awakening, they lack a key benefit of long-term meditation practice—integrating the experience in a way that creates a lasting shift from state to trait,” Brach says. “An altered state—such as an experience of pervading love—gives us a taste of who we are. It gives hope and meaning to our life. But regularly arriving in awake, open-hearted awareness though a natural process of meditation allows us to trust that this awareness is the very grounds of who we are.” She describes a meditation practice as
a rewarding cycle: “The more meditation carries us home to what we love, the more we are motivated to pause and come into the stillness and silence of presence. This inner presence then expresses itself increasingly in our communications, thoughts, work, play, service, and creativity. The experiences of love, unity, and light are realized as present and available in all facets of life.”
A year after her experience with psychedelics, Griffin says she has no desire to do them again but is grateful for the experience. “I feel less afraid to die,” she says. “The journey weekend gave me a sense that we come from pure love and we are going to pure love.”
* NAMES HAVE BEEN CHANGED
What’s a mystical experience?
Whether it happens naturally or is brought on by a psychedelic, researchers define a mystical experience as having six key qualities:
• Sense of unity or oneness (interconnectedness of all people and things, all is one, pure consciousness)
• Strong sense of sacredness or reverence
• Noetic quality (a sense of encountering ultimate reality, often described as “more real than real”)
• Deeply felt positive mood (universal love, joy, peace)
• Transcendence of time and space (past and present collapse into the present moment)
• Ineffability (the experience is very hard to put into words)
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