Laying on my back on a yoga mat, I take two deep breaths in through my mouth and then exhale over and over in a circular rhythm. I try to meditate on the breathing and empty my thoughts. But I can’t stop thinking about how my hands are tingling, the distracting uptempo ambient music coming through my headphones, and the increasing pain in my lower back. When the lockdown lifts, I think to myself, the first thing I’m going to do is book a massage. Wait, do my feet feel weird now too, or am I just imagining that?
Even though this was my first psychedelic breathing session, I was hoping for something a bit more profound.
In the last couple of years, there’s been a rising interest in western medicine to incorporate psychedelic drugs like LSD, psilocybin (the active ingredient in magic mushrooms), MDMA and ketamine into therapeutic methodologies. Last year, the University of Toronto Mississauga launched the Psychedelic Studies Research Program, which explores the benefits of microdosing. Meanwhile clinical trials at New York University and Johns Hopkins have found psychedelics can help alleviate PTSD, anxiety and depression. The idea broke into the mainstream in 2018, when Michael Pollan released How To Change Your Mind: What The New Science Of Psychedelics Teaches Us About Consciousness, Dying, Addiction, Depression and Transcendence.
Now a New York Times bestseller, Pollan’s tome is prominently displayed in a bookcase at Field Trip Health, Toronto’s first psychedelic psychotherapy clinic. The clinic uses ketamine, a drug that’s primarily used as an anesthetic during surgeries, to alleviate treatment-resistant depression, anxiety, OCD and PTSD. Field Trip’s clinic looks like a West Elm showroom-meets-upscale yoga studio, with four private treatment rooms outfitted with noise-cancelling headphones, eye masks and weighted blankets. Patients are injected with a dose of ketamine in either the arm or leg and are monitored during the hour-long high. After, they discuss any revelations or newly surfaced feelings during a regular therapy session.
The clinic opened in early March, just two weeks before the coronavirus lockdown. With their physical space forced to close, Field Trip started offering virtual psychedelic breathing therapy.
“Psychedelic breathwork” is a technique to use your own breath as a way to induce a transcendental state. Field Trip’s program involves a one-hour breathing exercise followed by a one-hour talk therapy session. The exercise could cause spontaneous laughter or crying, or evoke deep-seated childhood memories. Unlike taking psychedelic drugs, you won’t hallucinate, see vivid colours or strange visuals. Rather, it’s been known to “alter consciousness and create psychedelic experiences that open people up to greater awareness and depth.”
Before my breathing session, I met with a Field Trip psychiatrist over Zoom to determine if I’m a good fit for the therapy and what I hope I’ll get out of it. The anti-depressants I’ve taken for nearly a decade help curb everyday social anxiety and halt the deep spirals of existential worries, but I still experience lulls of depression that can sometimes last a couple of weeks. I told the doctor I’m curious if the breathing exercises will help me better understand the root of these blue spells, and also that I hope it will unlock a more artistic side. (I don’t expect to compose my own Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds afterwards, but maybe it would make me interested in creative writing again.)
After I get the green light, I set aside a time the following week to do the actual breathing exercise.
The session is administered through a pre-recorded guided video that’s led by a stylish woman sitting cross-legged on a yoga mat. “A psychedelic state literally enables you to expand your awareness beyond the normal constraints of the ego identity,” she says at the beginning of the video. “It’s common to experience a feeling of oneness and boundlessness as defense mechanisms dissolve and you’re able to experience yourself more fully.”
It all sounds a bit woo-woo for me, but I also have an open mind. I have friends who gush about their daily meditation practices and I’m eager to experience something similar. Plus, I’ve tried low doses of psychedelics in the past, and although those trips mostly involved laughing incessantly and going on long introspective walks, I believe they could have medicinal benefits too.
As soon as the actual breathwork starts though, I run into trouble.
The instructor leading the video describes taking psychedelics as like boarding a plane to a mystery destination, while “breathwork” is more akin to taking your brain on a hike. It’s an apt comparison. You have more control over your journey, but it’s also way more physically draining.
The breathing technique forces you to take deep breaths quickly, causing you to hyperventilate. Taking in double the amount of oxygen while breathing normally, you activate your cellular metabolism. While I try to keep up with the breathing rhythm – one in, another one in, exhale, repeat – I notice my hands become shaky, numb and cold like they do during a panic attack. Since you’re supposed to lay still, I also now have the overwhelming urge to jostle my legs. My mouth is parched.
As I struggle, the instructor coos to push through any discomfort and to keep going. It reminds me of being in a fitness class when the instructor rallies the class during a particularly challenging exercise. Unfortunately, I hate fitness classes, and when her words fail to motivate me to continue taking quick breaths, I feel disappointed in myself.
My mind begins to wander. I think about deadlines, the pandemic, my cats and what I should watch that night after work. The instructor gently reminds us to bring back our focus.
Thirty minutes into the breathing exercise, the session is capped with a short meditation period when we can begin breathing normally again. Within a few minutes, I accidentally fall asleep.
After the session, I immediately meet with the psychiatrist over Zoom for my follow-up appointment. I’m stressed about what I’m going to tell her. I didn’t reach a transcendental state or unlock a new inner dimension, and I feel like this is partially my fault since I didn’t keep up with the breathing and allowed my mind to stray. Why didn’t I push through?
The psychiatrist immediately tells me it’s okay I didn’t feel anything “psychedelic,” and that there is no right or wrong experience, which kind of feels like the therapy equivalent of getting a consolation ribbon. But soon we start discussing other ideas like preconceived notions, thought patterns, expectations and failure. When our time is up, I surprisingly do feel like I have a greater understanding of myself.
After therapy, I have to start my work day. I chug a cup of coffee and eat some toast, and my mind whirls as I watch hours of press conferences about COVID-19. I don’t think much about the breathwork that day, nor the following week. But I’m planning to give it another try. After all, as they say, you don’t always get high the first time.