Medical Psychedelics and Yoga
By Kristine Kaoverii Weber | March 24, 2023
My exploration of psychedelics happened when I was a young person trying to find myself in the west coast Grateful Dead scene. Once I was at a show in Eugene, Oregon where I had eaten some magic mushrooms. The sun was setting behind the stage and the band was playing Eyes of the World (🎵 “Wake up to find out that you are the eyes of the world…”).
I was swept away by the mushrooms, the music, the golden light, and the trees which seemed to be dancing along with the deadheads. In that moment it occurred to me that, in spite of my struggles with depression, self-worth, and loneliness, the world was a magical place, and I could perhaps be a vehicle for the light. A deeper, beautiful, love-filled reality surrounded me, but I’d been too caught up in my own sorrow and confusion to notice it.
Psychedelic trips don’t last forever. I had a stomachache the next day – accompanied by an urge to learn how to replicate the experience without substances. Yoga seemed like the next step.
A few years later I finally made it to India. I traveled around with little more than a sleeping bag, two t-shirts, and a change of underwear in my backpack. I hung out with seekers from several different western countries and met mystics, sannyasins, and sadhus. I spent long hours meditating in quiet places. I began to realize that there was a way to access those expansive psychedelic feelings through yoga – which offered something more nuanced (and grounded) than substances.
Last Monday I spoke to one of my colleagues in the Integrative Health Policy Consortium, we are a group of integrative practitioners, representing our various membership organizations, who advocate for bringing integrative practices into healthcare policy on the federal level.
This colleague is a well-connected physician who has ties to many big players, including some of the leaders of the medical psychedelics movement. He explained to me that the stuff I was hearing in the media about psychedelics was just scratching the surface of what’s to come.
Unlike the deadheads, it’s taken the medical community nearly six decades to embrace psychedelics – but they’re doing so with enthusiasm. The field is rapidly growing. A big conference will take place in June in Denver with speakers like Tim Ferris, Deepak Chopra, Michael Pollan, and even some of the original 1960s psychedelic proponents – which, as an aside, I find incredibly interesting because I was recently talking to an astrologer who told me that we are on the precipice of a shift in consciousness that began in the 60s – something to do with Pluto entering Aquarius maybe?
A number of years ago, when I was taking an addiction studies class at a university, the first book we had to read was The Natural Mind by Andrew Weil. In this classic, Weil argues that human beings will always want to expand their perception of reality. Weil, who is now arguably the foremost integrative medicine physician in the country, originally became famous via his interest in psychedelics – clearly, he was way ahead of his time.
But the only reason psychedelics, or any perception altering substance, work is because we already have the endogenous mechanisms within us. Opioids work because we have the mechanisms within us for pain control, SSRIs work because we have a built in system for contentment. Human beings want to change our minds because we are built to do just that. It’s a matter of finding sustainable, hopefully intrinsic ways to do it. Centuries ago, the yogis systematized their way and millions have been practicing it every since.
Yoga philosophy and practice teaches that our minds have more control than we think they do. Many people believe that they have no control over their lives or their minds or their health and there is some accuracy in that – according to some research up to 70% of our sense of control for our health is external.
But perhaps this is because we live in a world that doesn’t support an expansive perspective or a sense of control over our lives, or autonomy. We live in a world that crushes aesthetic aspirations, that doesn’t know what to do with people who are a little different, that places untold financial burdens on families and caregivers, that demands conformity, and that doesn’t have time for minds that question the status quo, or reality in general.
Yoga teaches us that we can use the practices to shift our perception, we can internalize our sense of control. And we have the potential to be happy regardless of external circumstances.
In the 90s, anti-depressants were envisioned as a short-term mental health strategy, until therapy started to work. But with the increasingly limited access to Mental Health care via restrictions in insurance and unsustainable costs, as well as pharmaceutical industry predation, many people began to rely solely on medication to get by.
Medication in the modern world has largely been about functionality so that you can be productive – can you get through your day? Is your depression or anxiety manageable? Is your dose appropriate for making you more functional? more productive?
What’s revolutionary about psychedelic medicine is that it facilitates worldview change. Psychedelics tune you in as opposed to numbing you out. The improved mental health and functionality they provide come from looking at and thinking about life with new eyes. This effect may spark a cultural revolution. What would happen, in every sector, if there was a massive awakening to the depth of our spiritual potential?
My hope is that people who use psychedelics medically to address trauma, addiction, and/or depression begin to realize three things:
- You are the eyes of the world. The meaning of your life is much grander, richer, and more beautiful than you have previously understood. Your life is exquisitely meaningful and purposeful. You are a child of the most benevolent force in the universe.
- You can replicate these experiences without substances. In fact, you can prop open doors into the expansive, loving oneness of the universe every day when you sit in meditation. Asanas, pranayama, music, art, and nature all enhance the experience.
- Your mental health challenges may be more related to the sickness of your culture than they are to your individual issues – and therefore, as a being who has accessed the potential to wake up, you can dedicate your life to changing the culture you live in into one that better reflects the limitless love of the universe.
Psychedelics are here to stay. My hope is that we refrain from over-medicalizing them. Psychedelics can be used as a vehicle to open the doorways of perception, and yoga is what can keep those doors propped open.
Please join me March 27-31 for Subtle Yoga for a Stronger Back – 5 days of free online classes. Find out more and register here.