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Yoga of the Ketamine State
by Henry Kandel
This article by psychedelic breathwork and Ketamine-State Yoga teacher Henry Kandel first appeared in the Psychedelic Press, issue XXXIX (summer, 2023).
“Ben.” The word sounds strange as I speak it in my head. I know that I have an important connection with this person, and I still know what a person IS, though I am not able to recall details or string together a single sentence about him… about ANY person? I also know that, coming up this fast, within a few minutes I will lose myself entirely…
I had taken ketamine, the dissociative anesthetic with psychedelic effects. I had not measured the dose carefully, and as I sat on my zafu in a cross-legged posture, I realized the dose was too high, far too high, for the spacy meditation I had planned. Earlier I had done some research and assured myself the amount of medicine left in the bottle wasn’t anywhere near a dangerous dose, so I suppressed the fear and determined to ride it out.
While I had always been frightened by psychedelics, of losing control of my mind, now I was where I wanted to be if I needed to weather an unexpected psychedelic trip; on the meditation cushion in my cozy basement room. But the come-up, the period when the effects of a substance kick in and build—was alarmingly fast and strong…
I had spent the afternoon with Ben. This 24-year-old, whom I’d taught in 6th grade science and then again in high-school physics, had stage IV cancer of a very aggressive type and was dying. He had become paralyzed from the waist down due to a tumor exploding in his spine, yet his massive upper body strength from rock climbing was mostly intact. Ben was a bona fide genius who had deferred college to attend a prestigious academy in Korea for the game Go, which bears some similarity to chess but is even more elegant and complex.
As his cancer progressed, he took up the guitar and became a songwriter, pouring his experiences and ideas about the world into stunning lyrics and original melodies. He had a wicked sense of humor and targeted the many inanities of society and people zombified by their routines. But he was full of compassion too. Ben’s last and greatest song was called “Take It Or Leave It,” a gorgeous ballad dedicated to his girlfriend in which he wholeheartedly accepts his fate. We recorded an album of his music in the final months, and he nailed the guitar solo for the love song lying down in a hospital bed, with little strength remaining in his hands.
Sometime after he moved into a new apartment, equipped with a hospital bed to allow him to die at home, Ben handed me a bottle of ketamine. He was segueing to powerful opiates for pain relief, and knew I enjoyed reasonable experimentation with the mind.
Ben’s first encounter with the substance had been revelatory. It was for an early procedure to remove a tumor that required sawing into his bone. He recalled the experience on ketamine, how within it fear had completely vanished. I received a text, hard to decipher in places yet overall ecstatic, from the hospital. Ben was trying to communicate a powerful, mystical experience that included a tremendous release of joyful energy in the throat.
It was a small bottle and I experimented with it cautiously. The first time, I measured out a small dose, and experienced it as a very mild sedative. The second time, several weeks later, I multiplied the original dose (which must have been very small, in hindsight) by three, and experienced it as a moderate sedative, with maybe a touch of psychedelic shimmer.
I was probably overconfident from the first two trials, which were very mild, and I had spent the afternoon with Ben—who was further along in his illness by now—so I was feeling a heavy mix of love, exhaustion, and “who cares?” energy. So finally arriving on my meditation cushion that evening, I said to myself, “Cheers, Ben!” and swigged down what remained of the ketamine.
Something in me tries out my own name, “Henry,” but it’s a no go. It is completely unfamiliar, as are other words. And language flees entirely as if it never existed. Images of people running around doing things, of places and things, the constituents of my life, seem utterly bizarre. This is not merely an experience of being a person who has lost his linguistic faculty, lost his memory. The concept of being a person, of being anything particular, is gone, like it never existed.
Concepts and images flow and fuse in a way impossible to describe in words and then vanish, yielding to—or swallowed by—other concept-image hybrids that cannot be grasped. I (whatever I am) experience some terror, watch as my conventional mind evaporates and its memories fizzle away. Still I am sitting upright on my zafu, breathing… And in this maelstrom of confusion, I—though I have no idea who, or what, I am—reach out for my yoga.
It comes to me automatically, reinforced by years of practice.
“Love.” The word is nonsensical, but the feeling opens my heart and shines out into the universe. I revel in love, and every wild concept-image that barges through my consciousness is immediately enveloped and redeemed. Free from words, I feel oceans of joy and compassion. I don’t exist as anything describable, so the pure love does not belong to me, or emanate from me—it simply IS.
I breathe. I breathe in cycles of 7 breaths, though I can’t count. There is no “me” to count. The breath happens, it goes and goes. The whirling concept-images are strands of seaweed and the breath the river’s mighty current. I (as the disembodied witness) watch the strands float past and disappear as the river carries me, as the breath carries me. Somehow it cycles in groups of 7 (I realize this later on, when language has returned). There is no one initiating this particular pranayama, it HAPPENS.
I am in ecstasy, I fuse with the totality, I am the Divine, I am Death, I am Love.
Twenty years of yoga had culminated in this indescribable and transformative experience.
I had begun practicing asanas (the familiar stretchy postures and exercise form) soon after college when a theater director incorporated it into warmups for our rehearsals. I had never felt so relaxed in my life, so I sought out hatha yoga classes in my Brooklyn neighborhood.
Then I found Nisargadatta, the great jnana yogi, the year my grandmother died. His teachings struck me as simultaneously utterly mad and more obviously true than anything I’d ever heard. In the dialogues of “I am That,” he reproached many questioners, as he cut through the bullshit, which it turns out encompasses pretty much everything.
When in the midst of these stern metaphysical teachings, he declared, “Wisdom is knowing I am nothing, Love is knowing I am everything, and between the two my life moves,” I melted. This concept of love, as the oneness of everything rather than a delimited personal emotion, carried me as I grieved for my grandmother. I realized I could love her even though she was no longer alive; in fact, we were united, along with the entire universe, in the essence of love.
I applied myself to bhakti yoga. I sat on my cushion generating lovingkindness, really feeling it in my heart. I performed the Buddhist practice of Tonglen, radiating relief to those in pain.
When I encountered Tibetan dream yoga, lovingkindness meditation proved to be the most reliable catalyst for lucid dreams, and these were some of the most meaningful experiences of my life. When I landed in that accidental k-hole, the practice of love came to me, supported me, wiped away the fear and transformed everything. And the lovingkindness meditation synergized with the pranayama I had been practicing.
Pranayama is the yoga of breath. When ketamine wiped away my memory and my entire sense of self, the pranayama I had practiced was available to some kind of unconscious, procedural memory. It was a wild experience, the breath happening in these specific rhythms and cycles, without my initiating it, or even knowing what was going on. My mind was completely clear, riding the awesome hallucinations as the pranayama conducted itself. The seven deep breaths built up tremendous energy, powering the love that united me with everything at the peak of the trip. (Words are always clumsy and inadequate when applied to experiences like this.)
What happened during that accidental k-hole changed my trajectory. It metamorphosed my self concept. It proved my yoga practice was deep enough to apply itself to the maximal altered state—the most absolute loss of control—my ego could possibly imagine.
I know who I am. I am back. I know my name and it’s strange to think I could have forgotten it moments ago. I am filled with joy, love, and a deep, ineffable sense of knowing.
I remember who Ben is and how he connects to my life. I feel intuitively like I have shared an experience with him that has brought us closer.
Energy is coursing through me, and I know what it is. The anxiety, the clenching of the breath, the desperate internal stalemate of depression—they have been transmuted into pure energy that fills me with confidence!
As I revel in this feeling, and imagine acting in the world as a renewed being, I experience the energy tighten into familiar patterns in my chakras. Now that words are back, every sentence generated by the ego leaves its traces in the body. Almost as if I’m a surgeon operating on myself, I notice these patterns and let them go. My ability to find and release the pain associated with specific thoughts is uncanny. But there is a larger question hovering. How will I take these experiences, these insights—so beyond words, beyond the “me” to whom the insights supposedly belong—and translate them into a form that is useful to me and all the other sentient beings, now that we seemingly have returned to existence? How does this apply to my life?
I was with Ben when he died. A few of us gathered in his apartment. Ben’s two sets of parents, his girlfriend, his grandmother and me.
He could no longer speak but at times seemed alert. He looked at his girlfriend who was holding his hand and tears began to flow from his eyes. He convulsed for breath and his eyes rolled and then his heart stopped. It was mercifully short after so much suffering. His father said, “A good life, son—and a good death.” Then the room filled up with sobs.
Ben had wanted to be as close to drug-free as possible during his final moments. He had used plenty of cannabis, ketamine, and opiates to deal with the pain for months, but made sure to let his caretakers know he wanted to “be there” for his own death.
I’m here again. The wisps that flutter through my mind—memories and imaginations of people doing things—are bizarre, unfathomable to me. But I’m starting to know this territory in some intuitive way—So I’m aware that the “...to me” will soon drop away, leaving only… bizarre, unfathomable… unfoldings, happenings…
But I know that I will remain. Not as anything that can be described. The Witness, but not really even that. The IS-ness of the manifestation. …The starry infinity, worlds and lifetimes, endless tunnels, forests, sky, mountains, bleak suburban parking lots, all of it BEING. I know at some point I’ll come back as a discrete person and get caught up in the time-stream of life and society again. But not before everything is lost…
Death is so near. I am intimate with it. I feel like I know it for the first time, know that Death is fundamental and embraces everything. There is also all-pervading Love. I am here again, learning this strange terrain. The bizarre hallucinations keep galloping on.
I breathe deeply. A rhythmic cycle—I can feel it and hear it—there is no need to count. I’m not sure I could count anyhow and imminently there will be no Counter at all. A long final exhalation, complete letting go. My breath settles at the bottom and becomes still. I rest there at the bottom, empty…
… And let go of everything, surrender and disappear… And then the breath rushes back in! The breath starts pulsing again. As I careen through the endlessly morphing reality-tunnels, the all-pervading Love carries me… And the next cycle begins.
About a year after Ben died, I reached out to a psychiatrist, who was a Buddhist with an edgy sense of humor. I related my mystical experience on ketamine, how much it had meant to me spiritually and also in terms of mental health. My life-long depression seemed to be almost entirely gone.
I was filled with energy and confidence I had rarely known. I was finally determined to heal the old trauma, the source of my depression. I told him I viewed that accidental peak ketamine experience as a culmination of my yoga—and the impetus to re-dedicate myself to my practice—rather than a drug trip or medical miracle. A true glimpse of the Ineffable. He gave me his blessings and a script to continue to explore the ketamine state.
I developed the set of practices known as Ketamine-State Yoga over the following two years. I experimented, added and subtracted elements, tweaked and adjusted. I have taught its principles and practices to a small group of yogis in person and to hundreds of folks online. The centerpiece has remained constant, a pranayama that focuses on a prolonged final exhalation and passive retention at the very bottom of the breath. Though this particular mnemonic pranayama is unique to Ketamine-State Yoga, I drew strong inspiration from Tibetan Dream Yoga for many of the supporting practices and overall philosophy.
This ancient yoga aims at awareness within the dream state. You realize you are in a dream and perform various practices within the dream. This capacity to remain aware, even in the ever-shifting and bizarre world of the dream, is believed to extend to the after-death bardo state. The practitioner who masters this yoga will be able to remain lucid and navigate their dying consciousness as it transitions to the next birth or to enlightenment.
Though I came nowhere near mastering Dream Yoga, I practiced for many years and drew profound benefits from it. When I began consciously to bring yogic methods into the ketamine state, I made use of the Dream-Yoga techniques for maintaining awareness while senses and thoughts morph and melt. But I didn’t realize just how deep the connection was between this esoteric yoga practice and the experience of the ketamine peak, until I came across a scientific paper published in 2019.
It is entitled, ‘Neurochemical Models of Near-Death Experiences.’ A team of researchers from all over the world used a computer to analyze trip reports from the Erowid database—thousands of accounts of people using over 150 different drugs, from LSD, meth, and betel nuts to cocaine and 5-meo-DMT. They also analyzed the corpus of near-death experience (NDE) reports, 625 narratives of folks who had experienced cardiac arrest or something similarly drastic and survived to tell the tale. Then, they basically asked the computer to mine the texts, words and combinations of words, to measure the degree of similarity of a certain drug experience to an NDE. What drugs produce experiences most—and least—like NDEs?
As one might expect, the substances with reputations for providing mystical insight, such as psilocybin mushrooms, peyote, and Ayahuasca were in the top-10 closest to NDEs—while drugs like amphetamines and benzos produced experiences far less similar to the dying state. But at the very top of the list—an outlier, far above the rest—was ketamine. More than any other substance, ketamine produces an experience similar to the experience of dying.
I knew I had felt a strong connection to Ben through my initial journey over the ketamine peak. As I came down, inexplicably I sensed we had been through something together. Now whenever I explore the ketamine state, as it builds I gather memories of folks who have passed. I believe they went through this same dissolution of memory, the disintegration of language, the fragmenting of the senses, the tunneling, that is now happening to me… I try to fuse with them in the sense of all-pervading Love, hoping they found this peace in their final moments.
The central pranayama of Ketamine-State Yoga can be seen in a new light following the semantic scientists’ findings. It is a total surrender at the bottom of the breath, on empty—it is a total surrender to Death. And then when the inhalation whooshes back in on its own—rebirth! There are no words adequate for this experience—this pranayama happening at the ketamine peak—but the death/rebirth metaphor is as close as you can get.
I am extremely grateful for this phase of my life, no longer bogged down by depression and anxiety, buoyed by newfound energy and possibilities. The mystical NDE-simulating powers of ketamine plus twenty years of yogic preparation were key ingredients in this dramatic turnaround near the age of 50.
But the most important factor was my connection with Ben through his dying and death. I hear his voice—his suffering and bravery, his acid wit and tender philosophy—in memory and the recordings of his songs. I can feel his companionship years after his passing. Many of the decisions I have made—such as leaving behind a successful career teaching science to explore the integration of yoga and psychedelic healing—came after hypothetical conversations with Ben. What would he say?
The book, Yoga of the Ketamine State, is dedicated to Ben. All my future efforts to benefit folks through psychedelic yoga are dedicated to him. I hope these methods will reduce your suffering and bring you peace of mind!
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