Esme Dark - Psychology, psilocybin and the power of play

Episode 119

55 mins

Esme Dark - Psychology, psilocybin and the power of play

August 23, 2022

For today’s episode we are speaking with Dr Esme Dark - Esme is a clinical psychologist, originally trained in the UK but now based in Melbourne, Australia.

She has a holistic and somatic based approach and a long interest in working with trauma and transcultural mental health having worked clinically with Refugee and Asylum Seekers in the UK, Thailand and Australia.

Esme is currently working in the worlds first psilocybin clinical trial in the treatment of Generalised Anxiety Disorder. Esme is involved in some amazing research and doing incredible work, so we were absolutely thrilled to get the chance to speak with her.

Esme's website:
Clinical Psychedelic Research at Monash University:
Upcoming workshops:


Please email us to report any transcription errors

Rane Bowen: Hello. My name is Rane Bowen, and this is the Flow Artist Podcast. Every episode, my co host Jo Stewart, and I speak with inspiring movers thinkers and teachers about how they find their flow and much, much more. I'd like to start by honouring the traditional owners of the unceded land on which this episode was recorded, the Rwandari people of the Kulin Nation. Joe and I pay our respect to elders past, present and emerging. For today's episode, we are speaking with Dr Esme Dark. Esme is a clinical psychologist, originally trained in the UK, but now based in Melbourne, Australia. She has a holistic and somatic based approach and a long interest in working with trauma and transcultural mental health. Having worked clinically with refugee and asylum seekers in the UK, Thailand and Australia, Esme is currently working in the world's first psilocybin clinical trial in the treatment of generalised anxiety disorder. Esme is part of some amazing research and doing some incredible work, so we were absolutely thrilled to get the chance to speak with her. There is so much great information in this episode, so let's get right into our conversation with Esme, all right. Hey, Esme, so good to finally get the chance to speak with you today. I hope you're doing well. So I guess our first question is, could you give us a little bit of information about your background and where you grew up?

Esme Dark: Yeah. Thanks, Rane. So, yeah, my name is Esme Dark and I grew up in the UK, originally in a little border town called Chepstow, which is actually on the border between England and Wales. It's got a beautiful 13th century castle. It's pretty cute little town. It's quite close to Bristol, which most people over here have heard of. More and I moved over to Australia about eight years ago via Thailand. I lived in Thailand for a little while, working with refugee and migrant populations over there before I moved here and was doing some work in that field here, which talk about more later, I think. Yeah.

Jo Stewart: And so how did you get interested in psychology?

Esme Dark: Yeah, you know, I was thinking about this question beforehand and, you know, the first job that I wanted to do, which may or may not surprise you guys, was a vet. Oh, yeah. I really wanted to be a vet when I was really a little kid, and then that kind of changed. And I think when I look back, I grew up with this kind of real sense of social justice being really important, and from both my parents, actually, my mom and my dad, in their own way, quite different ways, kind of gave me this kind of interest in that. And I think that's where it all started. It's like, if I can understand the mind and humans, maybe we can understand how we can all be fairer to each other and live in a better world. And so that was always there. And then, like all families, my family has had its share of mental illness within the family. There was older relatives of mine who'd been involved in conflicts, so in the Second World War and also in the Falklands War and had had impacts of that. And I didn't have words for that as a kid. I didn't know what PTSD even was, really. But when I look back, that was my first awareness of mental health. And I think it's interesting when you think about where I ended up working, actually, which I hadn't really thought about that too much. And the other big piece was that my parents split up when I was a kid and helped me make sense of that. I saw a therapist, she was great. And my mum saw one too. And so I think that's kind of where the idea solidified. I was like, I love people, I love talking to them, I want to help people. And so there we go. And so I didn't become a vet. Instead, I became a psychologist.

Rane Bowen: Nice.

Jo Stewart: And I can totally see how your desire to make a positive difference in the world psychology, gives you the opportunity to help the people who have had terrible things happen to them. But also, big picture, maybe a chance for us all to be better people and treat each other better.

Esme Dark: Yeah, exactly. That's right. And I think one of the things that's been important to me in my work is working both with people individually and with systems. So I've done quite a bit of that in my life and thinking about kind of how mental health systems work to support certain populations better and not just focusing on the individual themselves.

Rane Bowen: And I understand you have kind of a somatic approach. And what does that mean exactly?

Esme Dark: Yeah, so somatic is really about the body, right? Something that you two would know lots about. And for me, I trained in sensory motor psychotherapy. There's lots of types of somatic psychotherapy, but that's the one. I did it's by a lady called Pat Ogden, and Janina Fisher as well, had a lot to do with it. All of the somatic approaches pay close attention to the body as a core part of the therapy. Pat has this great quote where she says, the body speaks clearly to those who know how to listen. You might know that one. I don't know if you do, but it's really so, really somatic psychotherapy. It's getting people to listen more to their body, teaches people how to do that, and then also uses the body for trauma processing and other parts of the therapy process.

Jo Stewart: And so people might have heard the phrase top down and bottom up. Like, I know I've heard that in trauma informed practice, and it sounds like what you're talking about. Do you want to kind of dig into that a bit more, like what that might look like in a session and in life?

Esme Dark: Yeah, absolutely. In my original training as a psychologist, it was very comprehensive, but a lot of it did focus on the mind, thinking thoughts. And really, when we're thinking about kind of so, that would be a top down approach. So we start with the thoughts. We start with cognition. But how I work is I might start with the body and go bottom up. So how do you feel that emotion in your body? If you were to connect with that part of your body, what thoughts, phrases, words would come from there? Or maybe there's no words at all. Like, maybe we might just use movement to process something. So what happens when you feel that tension in that part of your body? Maybe we'll move that through together. So I think for me, it really means having a slightly different orientation. And we still work with emotion, we still work with cognition. But the body is my starting point, usually with people.

Jo Stewart: And I know that you've worked with refugee and asylum seeker groups, and especially with victims of torture that seems very body connected because people have probably felt a lot of pain in their bodies. And I'd love to know how you navigate that, but also just how has working with these populations informed you about humanity?

Esme Dark: Yeah, absolutely. So I spent seven or eight years working at Foundation House, which is an organization that supports survivors of torture in Melbourne. And I think that was where I got interested in Somatic psychotherapy, actually. And I didn't cover that in my clinical psych training. I did that later during my time in that work, because it became so clear that asking people to start with their thoughts was just not going to be so helpful. And that actually helping them to learn how to regulate their nervous systems using breath, using some movement, was a lot more beneficial for people. And so, yeah, that's what I did my training. And I think for me, the nervous system and the body, I learned this in my work in Thailand, actually. It kind of transcends cultural concepts around mental health. So everybody has a fight flight response, no matter where you're from in the world. They might have different words to describe it. And so when you're working with people from all different cultural backgrounds, somatic works a really good kind of approach, I found. Anyway, there's many approaches that you can use, but for me, that's what worked the best. Allowing people to find places of safety in their body, and also allowing people to process things using their bodies.

Jo Stewart: I can imagine as well, someone's had this intensely traumatic experience, and it wouldn't necessarily be helpful to make them relive that every time you speak to them. So working with the body could be another way to give them tools to navigate life from here?

Esme Dark: Absolutely. Not all trauma work involves that kind of reprocessing for some people. They don't need that, or they don't get to that. The first part of trauma work is always safety and stabilization and so that can involve various things like mindfulness awareness of the present moment, a lot of awareness of breath sometimes for some people. That doesn't work for some people, though, and so there might be grounding using the body or other ways first before we go near the trauma processing piece.

Rane Bowen: And I guess this kind of work is quite challenging for you as the practitioner. So what sort of practices do you do to help make this a little bit more sustainable in your own life?

Esme Dark: Yeah, thank you. I think actually kind of your question reminds me of something of what Joe just said around humanity and what it taught me about humanity because they're linked. So people would often say to me, gosh, it must be so hard. Like how do you do this work? And actually it's an incredible privilege to support people who have had these kind of experiences and I think you get to see both the best and worst parts of humanity. You hear about the terrible things that have happened during war and conflict but you also hear these amazing stories of survival and how people have helped each other to escape conflict. And if someone has got all the way to Australia, a lot of people have helped them along the way. And so I find that focusing on both of those things has always been really helpful. As a psychologist, something that is important is that we all have a supervisor. So that's not like a supervisor who's kind of telling you what to do. It's a person who I take my cases to, to talk about, to talk through, to think about the impact on me. If I'm stuck, I'll ask them. And I've worked with her for many years and she's a really important part of my practice. Also for me, connection to nature and the ocean is really important. If I've had a really bad day, that's the best place for me. If I can get there. Or a cold shower is good too. Kind of connecting with my pets and my friends and my family and dance and movement and play, which is all really important things for me. Nice.

Rane Bowen: Have you been getting out in this weather, out into the water?

Esme Dark: I actually have, I'm actually going tomorrow to go to the beach. Yeah, I've got a wetsuit and a paddle board and so I've been getting in all winter.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, I've actually heard it like I've got a couple of friends who use a cold shower as a tool for nervous system regulation. Yeah, this is a side tour, but how does that work?

Esme Dark: Yeah, it's amazing. It's because it works for me. It's been a game changer actually in terms of both physical and mental health, just personally. And I think you kind of get in the shower and it's cold and then your nervous system kind of gets activated and then it has to kind of reset itself in the cold water and your body kind of does its own work and it's really, really great and beneficial, for sure.

Jo Stewart: It's one of those things where I keep hearing how good this is.

Esme Dark: I have to say I was diligent every day in summer and I have fallen off the batmag and I'm not doing it every day at the moment.

Jo Stewart: And I really love hearing about how you work with Playfulness as a tool for regulation and also as another tool for resetting the nervous system. And I know you've got an upcoming workshop, what kind of practices can be helpful for people?

Esme Dark: Yeah, so I've got a workshop coming up on the 22 October called Embodying Playfulness. And that workshop kind of draws on ideas from somatic psychotherapy, creative arts therapy, and nature based practice. And so often when we think about somatic psychotherapy, we might think about using the body to process trauma, but we can also use the body to embody resources. And what I mean by that is kind of finding things which are quite unique to each individual that they find helpful, that they help with their well being. And then to use the body to really move that through using it could be movement, meditation, dance and then we might do some drawing about that. So it's really about kind of engaging all of the senses to allow us to soak up those resources, allowing us to tap into those later on more easily when we need them.

Jo Stewart: And so it's more like something that you practice when you're feeling pretty much okay to kind of give you the tools for when the going gets really tough rather than something you would do in the moment of crisis.

Esme Dark: Well, yes, and it can be both, actually. So it's best to learn them properly when you feel okay. But then the idea is that you can use them if you're having a tough day more easily. Because the more that we embody something, that kind of embodied brain that we have will kind of allow us to access it more easily when we are struggling. So, yeah, I'm quite inspired by that idea of the embodied brain, which is the brain doesn't just exist in our head, it exists in our whole body. And so they found neural networks in our heart and in our gut. The gut feeling is actually now a really scientifically proven thing. And so when I'm kind of using these processes, I'm getting people to engage all of that and to really use that for supporting their nervous systems.

Jo Stewart: And it seems like creativity especially, it's one of those things where sometimes people are taught or it's been knocked out of them that they either are or they aren't a creative person. And lots of people have barriers around drawing and say I can't draw or I don't dance, I can't dance. And already even though this is a practice that you're doing for you rather than as a performance or an exhibition, sometimes there can be a lot of insecurity and a lot of self judgment before you even start on those practices. Like, how do you work with that?

Esme Dark: Yeah, I think it's really important. I was one of those people I was one of those people who was told they could never draw. And now I find who tells kids that? My art teacher told me that.

Rane Bowen: Oh, my God.

Esme Dark: Yes. Hopefully things have improved slightly since I was at high school, but I don't know. And now I love it, and I've had to learn how to do that as an adult. When I'm working in a group space, I like to use concepts I also use in my psychotherapy practice around parts work. And so we have all have parts of us, right? There's a part of us that wants to draw, and there's a part of us probably related to the art teacher that told us we couldn't draw, that feels nervous about it. And so I like to name all of that up front and invite people to just invite those parts that are feeling scared to just take a little step to the side and acknowledge them, normalize them. And we also, in any group space, we never make anyone do anything they don't feel comfortable with, of course. And so people can engage with the different practices at whatever level works for them. And the last one I did of these was on Zoom, and so people were kind of drawing and dancing in their own homes, and some people danced with their eyes closed, and some people danced with their eyes open, looking at the screen, everyone else dancing. And so that was people can find their own ways to feel safe enough, I think.

Jo Stewart: And something that I notice in myself is if I'm feeling creative and if I'm feeling inspired and if I'm feeling energized, all that stuff is easy and fun to do. It's a pleasure. But if I'm feeling down or I'm feeling depleted, that's not where my brain goes. Like, I watch TV, I lie on the couch, I read a book. I don't feel like creating. How do you get over that little hurdle?

Esme Dark: Yeah, I think starting really small, right? And I think starting small is something that just gets you into a slightly different mindset. It might be just putting on a favorite song, if that's the thing that you enjoy. And something that I get people to do in the group is to kind of really map out their own playfulness, resource, kind of list for themselves that they can keep and put up. Because sometimes also it's hard to think, right. Our minds are not we're tired, they're cloudy. We're not sure what we should do to look after ourselves, but if we have something that's up there, ready to go, we can look at it and then we can have a little practice.

Jo Stewart: And I guess up there in your not conscious brain as well, like every time you walk past the fridge you'd see that list.

Esme Dark: Exactly, that's right, yeah.

Jo Stewart: And so another really interesting thing that you're a part of at the moment is you're a clinical psychologist on a trial for psilocybin to help with generalized anxiety disorder. Hope I've got all of that correct here in Melbourne. Do you want to tell us a bit about that?

Esme Dark: Yeah, I do. Yeah. So I am a trial therapist on the It's, working with Monash University in the clinical psychedelic research trial there and there's a few trials in the works, but this is the first one that's kind of off the coming out of the lab. We're using psilocybin assisted psychotherapy to treat generalized anxiety disorder. That was right. You got that right. Well done. There's a lot of words in that. And so my job really is to support people throughout the journey of the trial and I've been kind of interested in this space for quite a long time, so it's really exciting to be a part of it. I trained in Bristol, which this is kind of going back to that, but I think it's important to say where this idea came from for me. I was training in Bristol, in the UK with this amazing woman called Lucy Johnston, who's quite an unusual clinical psychologist. She's a pretty amazing woman. And our training in our training, which I understand is not so usual in people's training we did learn about the use of psychedelics for therapeutic purposes in the actually their research had really good results and we also learned that they then got shut down. And there was lots of kind of probably political reasons for that. And so I remember feeling really sad about that. Before my training, I'd kind of worked in inpatient psychiatric care and I'd seen maybe we definitely don't have all the answers to treating mental health yet. And then there was this really promising thing that got kind of shut down and so I felt really sad about that and I kind of became quite interested in the space in general and I heard my career progressed. I was working obviously a lot with complex PTSD and keeping an eye on the MDMA research that was coming through. And so that was where I was like, oh, there is stuff happening with psychedelics again. This is really interesting. And so I was kind of keeping an eye. I knew there was some psilocybin trials happening in the States and then it started to happen in England, but I was in Australia by this point and so there wasn't so much happening here. And then when I heard about and was lucky enough to get involved in this trial this is the largest research trial that's happened in Australia so far. So we've going to have 72 participants coming through and no one else has looked at Psilocybin for generalized anxiety disorder just yet.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, it's really exciting. And I guess in case people aren't aware, how is generalized anxiety disorder different from feeling anxious about something?

Esme Dark: Yeah, thank you. That's a good point, isn't it? So, generalized anxiety disorder is a kind of chronic condition that where your anxiety attaches itself to all sorts of different things. So you're kind of in this really constant state of anxiety. Everybody gets anxious. Especially in the last few years. We've all experienced more anxiety than perhaps we would have, but this is a much more chronic, serious condition that leads people are kind of constantly in that fight, flight response, worries, lots of worries, thinking about things that are really scary, and their anxiety might attach it to lots of different things. It's not like a phobia, which is maybe about mice or something like that, or something specific. It can be about anything and everything nice.

Rane Bowen: And I guess I'm just curious, how did you get involved in this work?

Esme Dark: Yeah, I'd heard about the for a while now. There's the potential of a trial for MDMA and PTSD happening in Melbourne, and so I was kind of watching that, and a friend of mine was involved in that. It hasn't started here in Melbourne yet, but I contacted her and I said, wow, this is great. I want to hear about how this goes because it's so important for my clinical work. And then she said, well, maybe you might be interested to come and work with us on this other trial. And yeah, the rest was kind of history, really. It was all very serendipitous. They had had some people drop out of the training, so they'd kind of started training a bunch of practitioners and life happens. Thing that I have learned about clinical trials is they can be a bit delayed for various reasons. And so, yeah, I was contacted at a time when I'd finished working up at Foundation House, so I had space and I jumped on in very excitedly, quite at the last minute. I think everyone else was involved about ten months before I was, and I joined in February and then we started in May.

Jo Stewart: So that's a really long time because you haven't like are there participants part of the trial now, or has all of this been set up and training?

Esme Dark: Yeah, so we started with participants now, which is really exciting, and we've just had I think we've had our first participant, who's completed the whole program of sessions with us now. So I think we started in April, may. My first participant was in May, which is very exciting, and it'd be really.

Jo Stewart: Good to get into that because I know you don't just dose people and leave them in a room. What format does the trial take and what is your role as the psychologist?

Esme Dark: Yeah, thanks for that, Joe, because I think this is really important, actually. There's a fair few kind of documentaries and information out there at the moment about psilocybin assisted psychotherapy, but a lot of them seem to just focus on the Dosing sessions, which is actually a really important part of it. But it's only a small part of it, really. So the psychotherapy that goes alongside it in our trial, it's different in each trial, but we have about ten sessions with people over maybe a three month period. And so before we give anybody the dose session, we have three preparation psychotherapy sessions where we really get to know them, build rapport, find out about their history, and then also get them ready for taking psilocybin or the placebo. And then after that, there's more psychotherapy. And so that amount can vary at least two or three sessions, and then another dose and then more psychotherapy. So it's not just a one dose model and it's not just dosing. And I think the therapy, I'd like to see the therapy get more attention, actually, because it is really an important part of the process.

Jo Stewart: Self massage can be a wonderful addition to your yoga practice, especially since it's not focused on strength or flexibility. It's really all about getting to know your body and feeling better. We love the Markaloo, which is a set of nesting domes on a wooden base that you can use for self massage and developing proprioceptive awareness. It's such a great portable and accessible tool that really opens up new movement possibilities. It's a fantastic addition to chair yoga. And since the domes all contain magnets, you can even stick them to your fridge. This is really helpful for anyone who has difficulty getting down on the floor or anyone who wants a reminder to have a massage during their day. The domes have been designed to support arthritis and peripheral neuropathy, and they look like a beautiful little sculpture. You can use our discount code, Macflow Capital Makflow, to get 10% and help support the podcast. And how do you see the psilocybin actually affecting the therapy? Like, how does it make it more effective?

Esme Dark: Yeah, I think it's really interesting because the people who kind of got interested in this work there was the kind of the researchers and the clinicians. And the reason that they wanted to start looking at it is because when people started taking these medicines, they were able to dive deeply into their psyches and to see their experiences in their lives from different perspectives. Now, no psychedelic experience is the same, even within the same person. So how people experience it is quite different, and we are still learning how it helps people, how it works, what's helpful about it, and there's lots of different measures being looked at by this trial and other trials. But I think what people report is, yeah, they understand their mind more and they also understand maybe traumatic experiences from different perspectives. They might see the perspective of another person involved, they might be able to go towards a memory that's been really hard for them. Another thing which is interesting and I'd love to talk even more about another time maybe, is the mystical experience piece, right? And so something that the psychedelic literature does show is that people who've had a mystical experience with psychedelics are more likely to have therapeutic benefit. And so mystical experiences might be feeling kind of connected to everything, to the universe, seeing seeing figures, just feeling the connection of nature to us. It can be a lot of different things, but that can be a part of it for some people. Some people can have a really challenging experience on psychedelics. It's not all bliss. And those challenging experiences can still teach them a lot about their mind though. And with the right kind of preparation integration sessions, they can still get a lot of learning and benefit from them.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, because I know there's a really famous and really early study that was using psilocybin with people who had terminal illness to help them deal with their own fear of death. And you can totally see how a mystical experience would help you have a different perspective on your own life ending. How do you feel that it's a different approach because that's huge. Dying, that's probably everyone's biggest fear really, but that's a single pointed focus. Whereas generalized anxiety is about everything and ongoing, like there's not an endpoint, right? There will still be things in life that make you anxious because it's like a safety mechanism. How do you work with such an open ended goal rather than something that's so focused?

Esme Dark: Yeah, I think it's a really interesting question and actually before I get into that, there's still a lot of research looking at cancer and end of life fear in the States, so John Hopkins University and there's a bunch of trials happening at the moment and that's where the idea for this trial came from. So this is the first trial in the world to look at generalized anxiety disorder, but it came out of like all good research, the other research where they found that the anxiety was reduced in cancer patients and so that's where this idea came from. But yeah, it is really different and I think one of the things that we don't know yet whether it will be helpful, so that's the first thing to say, of course, because it's research and so we'll find out in a few years when all the data is in, I guess. But it is a different approach. I think it can still help people to understand the reasons for their experience, potentially that's what we hope and to look at and to the reasons for their experience and to maybe see the world themselves, other people from a different perspective, maybe. But this is a question mark, right? And so this is why this trial is having we're looking at so many different. Measures so that we can understand if it is helpful for this particular group of people and get to know a bit about why.

Jo Stewart: Another thing that I'm really intrigued by, because you've mentioned it as well, and definitely the indigenous history of using medicinal plants, it's always really connected to nature and a hospital setting is not necessarily very connected to nature. And also a lot of people have medical trauma and really bad hospital experiences. How do you create a safe space for people within the loaded setting of a hospital?

Esme Dark: Well, we're very lucky actually, because we are not working out of a hospital and a lot of the know quite understandably using the resources that they can, right. In the UK and in America have been in hospital rooms. So we have partnered with Monash University and with Brain Park. Brain Park's, this really interesting space that was set up to do research around things like different kinds of exercise, actually, and the effect that exercise and meditation and yoga have on the brain because there's lots of neuro, lots of brain imaging stuff at Brain Park. And so it was kind of set up to look at how exercise and meditation work and how they help people because we all know these practices are helpful, I don't need to tell you to that, but we didn't have so much around the neuroscience and so there was already a meditation yoga space, which is beautiful. It's got like wooden floors. Maybe I can can I send you a picture that we can share with the yeah, definitely. Because I think it would be really nice to be able to see. It's got wooden floors everywhere, lots of light. We bring in plants, so obviously it would be lovely to be able to do this research in nature somewhere that'd be nice, but we can't do that for practical reasons. And so we do bring in our own nature. We've got beautiful artwork, we've got big sofa for people to sit on and lie down on if they want to, blankets. We also encourage people to bring things like are important from home if they have anything they want to bring, like a special stone or photos of family. Or people could bring a plant if they had their own plant they had a relationship with and wanted to bring with them. So we do encourage that with all of our participants as well.

Jo Stewart: Has anyone wanted to bring a pet in?

Rane Bowen: I was going to ask that too. Oh my gosh, yes.

Esme Dark: I really encourage people to connect with their pets when they get home. I actually think it's one of the lovely things about doing it when it's not in a retreat space, because in a retreat space, you don't go home to your pet usually, and at least now you can go home and connect with your pet or your loved ones as well.

Jo Stewart: And I know with somatic psychotherapy, your senses are so much a part of that. How do you use the other senses in this trial? Or how do you use sensory deprivation to focus people's awareness elsewhere?

Esme Dark: Yeah. Thank you. So people might have seen some of the other kind of videos and footage of people doing this kind of work where they have so what we use is similar to that. We have a beautiful playlist that's been created by one of our team and so people can choose that. So we've got the really good headphones that have got noise canceling in on them, so they can't hear anything outside the headphones. Because of that, they can choose silence and they can have silence with the noise canceling or nature sounds is possible. Or there's this beautiful playlist that takes them on the journey as well and so they have that and then they have an eye shade as well. And the idea of those is really to encourage people to go inwards, to focus in and to see what they find there. Sometimes people want to take them off and sit up and move and I'm, as a somatic psychotherapist, all for that. We're lucky we have space. There is room for people to move if they want to. And so, yeah, we kind of like to encourage people to focus internally, but welcome if people want to come external for a while too. Does that make sense?

Rane Bowen: Yeah, absolutely. I guess I'm just being curious here, but what's the actual experience of taking someone through this experience like, yeah, it's.

Esme Dark: Such an honor to do this work. I mean, I say that about a lot of my practice. I've been very fortunate to work in some really fascinating areas and it's very different to regular psychotherapy, so the first few sessions are not so different. You're kind of getting to know someone, you're building rapport in the prep sessions and that feels a bit similar to what I do normally. There's the added piece of explaining to these people, none of which who's had a psychotherapic experience before, what that might be like and what they might experience. But on dose day, there are two of us, so usually there's two practitioners, one person who's being dosed, they're lying down. Once they get into the experience and they've taken the medicine, they're lying down and we are sitting there holding space for them. And that word gets used a lot, I'm sure, in yoga, right? But what that really means is being there for them if they need us to go and support them if something intense happens, if they feel scared or anxious, we might go over there and help them with some breath work, some grounding. We do use therapeutic touch with consent, so we might hold their hand and we have a full consent process around that that we go through in the prep and ways to say no and stop and all of those important things. But we might go and hold their hand, and we really just there holding the kind of meditative, calm space for them and to just allow their process to happen.

Jo Stewart: And so it sounds like you don't really talk to them much.

Esme Dark: No. On a high dose of psilocybin, which this is. So that's probably important to say, too. Sometimes people think that we're using micro dosing, but this is 25 milligrams of synthetic psilocybin, so it's a big dose. Words can be actually a bit stressful. It can be hard sometimes for some people to talk. And so the less we say, really, the better we check in. So we have a protocol around checking in to see if someone's okay at certain points. If we feel like they're not, we'll ask them and we help them, like with going to the bathroom if they need to. We might take their arm and support them, or with drinks of water and those kind of things. But actually, for a lot of the day, there's not much talking. Some people like to talk at the end of the day. That's fine.

Jo Stewart: And so obviously you'd have talking to process the experience afterwards. That would be like the in between therapeutic sessions. Do you find that it's more helpful to let people have some space to be with the experiences that they've had before? You kind of dig in there and talk about what happened?

Esme Dark: There's different schools of thought about that. So, yes, and I think so. I think it depends on the person. Some people really want to talk, some people really want to write at the end of the day. So there's time. And people have usually, obviously we always make sure whether they've had placebo or psilocybin, that they're kind of okay and kind of back in the world before they go home. And so a lot of people talk at that point, but they don't have to. We can journal, they can just sit and relax, and then we get them in the next day for integration, number one. And that's quite deliberate. So they don't have sort of too long, but they do have some time. It's such an individual process. I think that's one thing that I'm learning in this work is that there's no kind of one size fits all approach in, like, with any psychotherapy, really.

Jo Stewart: And this is like a double blind trial, or even is it like a triple blind trial? How do you navigate? I think I would assume that people would know if they got the psilocybin dose or if they'd got the placebo dose. How has that been coming out so far? Does it seem really obvious?

Esme Dark: You know, it's really interesting. Right. So placebo is not a sugar pill. So it is a medicine that does have some effect on the body. And so it's non psilocybin. And so actually, when you combine that medicine with the music, with having two practitioners to support you and eye shades, and it's actually not always been obvious, which is really interesting to me. So there have been some times when we've not been sure and the participants have not been sure. But you're right, it is triple blind. Triple blind means that we as researchers and therapists don't know. The participant doesn't know and the statisticians don't know until after our roles have all complete. So if the person does get the placebo, they were all unblinded at the end of that process, and then they are offered the psilocybin. So everybody on the trial gets to have an experience with psilocybin and then they have some psilocybin with therapeutic support as well, which I think is important.

Rane Bowen: And I guess even with the placebo, it would be quite an experience, wouldn't it?

Esme Dark: Yeah, it's amazing. As part of our training, we did do a music experience where we set an intention like we do with our participants, which we get them to set an intention and then we put on eye shades and had music. And it's amazing where you can go to. It didn't surprise me as someone who's done a lot of kind of sound healing work personally, and I find that really helpful. I could see. And so I'm actually very curious about all of our results. I'm very curious to see how those participants that didn't have psilocybin the first time round responded and what gains they got without with all the other parts of the process.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, because, I mean, there's so many ways to have a transcendent experience, especially working with the senses and working with music and the whole intention setting process that you would do, building up to it. It would be pretty funny if at the end of the trial, they're like, oh, that's what really worked for people.

Esme Dark: I know. I guess we're going to find out. Yeah. The intention setting thing is interesting. Really reminds me of a lot of what we do in yoga and meditation, actually, and that kind of idea of setting an intention into the experience, but then also not holding it too tight, which is a little bit similar, I think, to how we might in yoga or meditation.

Jo Stewart: Well, I think from the beginning there's been a lot of parallels between a yogic or Eastern way of understanding the mind and psychedelic research. Like, didn't Timothy Leary based a lot of his thinking on the Tibetan Book of the Dead and kind of use that as a roadmap to yeah, I.

Esme Dark: Think he did guide exactly. And there is there does feel like there's a lot of parallels, for sure.

Jo Stewart: I mean, like we're delving into the exactly.

Esme Dark: Exactly. Yeah.

Jo Stewart: And so I guess this is not a one answer, but what do you see a successful outcome of the trial being?

Esme Dark: Yeah, well, one of the things we know from the research around generalized anxiety disorder is that it doesn't have very good outcomes in terms of treatment at the moment. Like a lot of mental health issues. We've got a lot of good treatments and they work for a lot of people, but there is a subsurf of the population for whom the current treatments that we have don't work. And so what would be a successful outcome is if we can improve those treatment outcomes and this can be helpful for that population. But of course, primarily we are trying to the success will be measured around us doing rigorous research and reporting the results very clearly, accurately, and then using that to come up with other questions and other ideas. Because there are so many interesting things that we could look at in this space. And this research came out of other research. Right. So I think that would be really great to kind of take it forward and learn from this and then take it into the next research trial.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, I think it'd be really interesting to explore whether, like, the end of life trial, this is an experience that's so powerful, it changes the way you see yourself and the way you see the world versus, oh, this makes this person's therapy much more effective. So this would be something they'd have on a regular, ongoing basis as needed.

Esme Dark: Absolutely. Yeah, I think that would be a dream to do another trial. I think with more kind of more sessions of dosing over a longer period, there's so many different ways of doing it. I mean, this trial has more prep and integration sessions than others and less than the sum, so there's so many different approaches and we're still learning about how this works, how it works best. I mean, it would be great to do some research in a natural setting in nature somewhere as well.

Jo Stewart: But let's see, and even like, having heard about your workshop, how amazing would it be if it was combined with art and music and all of those other tools that we have to explore our own mind and our own way of seeing the world that aren't necessarily just talking like other ways of expressing ourselves.

Esme Dark: Absolutely.

Rane Bowen: I really agree with what you said earlier about being sad about how the research just stopped. It just sort of seems like that's 30, 40, 50 years of progress that could have been made that we've just missed out on. But it is great that all this research is happening. Do you think it's something and sorry, I'm just sort of going completely off script here, but do you think it's something that is gradually building and getting stronger or do you think there's a danger that things could sort of revert again?

Esme Dark: It feels to me like it is building and getting stronger. And the work has been the research trials have been open again now for quite a long time. It's maybe ten years or more, actually, but in Australia they're really just kicking off and there's a lot of things happening in things in the works and ideas and potential trials. So it feels like it's building, which is really exciting. And I think I don't know. I'm not a funder of research myself, but I feel like you can only look at the last few years and the huge increase in people seeking support around mental health issues to think, wow, we need to be putting all of the effort into looking at all of the different options and really researching them.

Jo Stewart: Because we're in a crisis and one crisis after another. With more climate crisis looming, it seems like if there was ever a time to resource ourselves as humanity to make better decisions in the future and take care of ourselves and each other in the future, like, time to get on board.

Esme Dark: Yeah, now is the time, I think. Absolutely.

Jo Stewart: And so, as yoga teachers, we also work with altered state of states of consciousness, although obviously at a much milder level than a therapist working with psychedelics. And the power of these practices to explore these deeper layers of our minds and ourselves and the universe, as all of those doors open and all of those kind of barriers we might have put in place for our own safety kind of dissolve a bit more, we're in this more open, more vulnerable space. How do we navigate this as facilitators and as individuals so that we can get the benefits of these practices yet stay safe along the way?

Esme Dark: Absolutely. I think it's a really important point. Right. And I think that the container in which we create, if you're facilitating a group, is so important, having a really good knowledge around trauma informed practices, invitational language, and making sure that everybody knows what to do and can opt in or out. And I think as a facilitator, I'm always really aware of that. And as a participant in things like that, that's something that I would look for is does somebody know a bit and seem to be trauma informed? And depending, I might also like them to also have some therapeutic training, some counseling or psychotherapy training, depending on what's being done. I don't think it's necessary all the time, but I like to research and find out a bit about these places before I step into them as well.

Jo Stewart: Yeah, I've seen some workshops and different people work with trauma in different ways, and I totally respect that. But people doing shadow work, that's one in particular that's, like, raised some of my internal red flags and alarm bells. I don't really know that much about it because I've never signed up to one of those workshops. I'm not drawn to a room of people exploring their demons. I believe it comes from Jung, this idea of shadow work. Could you explain what that might be about?

Esme Dark: Yeah, absolutely. And I think the things you're talking about are doing shadow work at a group space, right?

Jo Stewart: Group yin class.

Esme Dark: Oh, that's yes. And so I think shadow work is important. Right. Like what? Young's concepts of shadow work have been used in lots of different types of psychotherapy. It really means getting to know the darker parts of ourselves, perhaps the parts of us that we don't like that make us feel uncomfortable, or the parts of other people that we don't like as well, which can be a really interesting reflection about something to do with us. So if I'd really dislike something in someone else, often there's a bit of a mirror there. Like, it's actually really something in me. And that kind of work is really important. I'm actually reading a book at the moment called Romancing the Shadow, which is kind of interesting. And it is about kind of in the work that I do, the approach that I use. One of them is called Internal Family Systems. Borrows a Lot from Jung, talks about parts of the self and having all these different parts and how all of those parts have good intentions for us originally. And so getting to know those parts that we don't like, that we've kind of put away, can be really important. Healing. Now, all that to be said, I feel like that work is hard. That is the stuff of a one on one, I think, personally. Therapeutic relationship of safety with a therapist. I certainly don't think I would go to a Yin Yo workshop about shadow work myself, because there's a really big danger that a lot of people could get really dysregulated in that space. And I think depending on how big the class is, you need to be able to really contain people. I think there's a real benefit in group spaces for things like my modern body and playfulness workshop, but I'm very careful to keep it in the kind of embodying of resourcing, not processing of trauma or shadows in a group space. I think that can get pretty sticky sometimes.

Jo Stewart: Yeah. And I think I kind of know this about myself and this is my own stuff to work on, but I would have a sense of responsibility for the person next to me who's not okay. Like, I would go out of my experience and into this weird, do I help this person? It's not my workshop, but they're next to me and they're in pain. What's the right thing to do here?

Esme Dark: Absolutely. You know, it's interesting you're talking about this is reminding me. I went to a yoga festival once, and I was in a class with about 50 people, and a famous yoga teacher was teaching. And the last meditation that he took us through was about grief and really connecting to grief. And I had recently lost a member of my family, and I, along with many other people in the room, got really emotional. Maybe that's okay, maybe it's not. At the end, he just got up and left. And there was a lot of punch of us crying. And the woman next to me looks after me. So she was you in that moment and I thought, wow, I don't think I would have done that. It's really important to have a safe container for these experiences.

Rane Bowen: Yeah. Seems bad to just sort of bring up these emotions then. All right, enjoy the rest of the festival. Oh boy.

Jo Stewart: Yeah. And definitely the level of training that I've had around trauma is very much about creating a safe and hopefully comfortable and ultimately enjoyable space for people to be in. Obviously I'm going to be in my bonnet about this Shadow Yin person because one of their Instagram posts was like, if you are working with people who have trauma and your goal is for them to feel safe and comfortable in your class, you're not going to be doing anything about their trauma. And it's like I don't feel like that's my job.

Esme Dark: Yeah, absolutely. I feel like the container is so important making that space safe for people so that they can explore things but not delve into all of their shadows. Yeah.

Jo Stewart: And I guess it's a little bit like what you're working with with the psychedelics and even with the protection mechanisms that we might have of like okay, there is a time when what was safe and what was helpful. Is now constraining you, and it's become too rigid, and it's kind of holding you back from experiencing the fullness of who you are and life. But yeah, it's such an interesting space to be working with.

Esme Dark: Yeah. And I think the reason that we have all of the preparation sessions and two therapists there in the trial is because it's really important to have that container and that's actually a really important part of psychedelic assisted therapy is the idea of set and setting, which I don't know if you know what that means. Yeah. So set being somebody's mindset when they go in and then the setting is the space in which they do it. So as you know, we're lucky to have that really good space that we are working out of. And a lot of the prep is about getting people in the right mindset as much as we can to experience the psychedelic.

Jo Stewart: And I guess it's interesting because even having done all of that mindset work, stuff can still happen. Like someone could have had an emergency the night before, someone could have had a traffic incident on the way. There so many factors.

Esme Dark: Yeah, absolutely. And yeah, that's the unpredictable nature of life. Right. That can happen for sure. And of course if something really big did happen, they may choose not to dose on that day. Of course. And that would be fine. And people can also leave the trial at any time too. I think it's important to say that.

Rane Bowen: Yeah, nice. And I guess we talked about this a while ago, but we recently watched that documentary series on Netflix, how to Change Your Mind. And I thought it was really good and sort of just really good for maybe bringing this information out to a wider public. I think there is a psychedelic community and they all tend to sort of talk to each other. So I think it's great that this is sort of really getting out there. Have you had a chance to watch it yet?

Esme Dark: Yeah, I've seen most of it. I have got the one episode left and actually Bill Richards, who's in the second episode is supervising us on the trial so that was really nice to see him there and I think to see the work that he's been doing, the great work that he's been doing kind of publicized. I agree. I've been reflecting on this a bit actually that it feels finally like is this work? It feels easy to talk to like my mom about or my auntie or people who I perhaps wouldn't have spoken to so much about this and maybe would have been kind of a bit confused or not really understood it. There's resources now for them like with that book or that documentary and other documentaries as well. Another good one is Fantastic Fungi which is actually about mushrooms in general but also has some section on psychedelic assisted psychotherapy and it feels like it's finally able to be discussed, which is really fantastic.

Rane Bowen: Funny story I was telling my dad that we were speaking with you about this for the podcast and he said Is that legal? Yes, it's absolutely legal. It's all.

Esme Dark: Remember, I think that the misinformation was so well done in Nixon's war on drugs and all of that kind of approach to making these substances feel really scary. Even I, I remember when I did my clinical psychology training at Bristol, one of the exercises that we did that stuck in my mind and I was thinking about when I was coming to talk to you is we all got given a card, right, with a substance, a drug or substance that people might use on it. So it was everything from like alcohol, tobacco to kind of heroin, crack cocaine, et cetera. And psychedelics were in the mix too. So there was the psilocybin and LSD and we had to line up in a line of most damaging to people in the world versus know, we knew enough to know that actually alcohol and tobacco were the most damaging and caused the most problems. But we got pretty stuck with psychedelics back then because these are in England we call it class A substance, which means that they are the most prohibited in the same class as things like heroin and so they must be dangerous. But actually they have a very, very low toxicity rate and they're very safe and also they don't cause the kind of harms to the community that alcohol and tobacco cause and so they're right down the other end.

Rane Bowen: All right, so I guess we've got one more question and we ask this to all our guests. If you could distill everything that you've learnt and everything that you teach and share down to one core essence, what do you think that one thing would be?

Esme Dark: You know, it's funny, right? I was thinking about taglines at the most recently because I've actually just finished, I think my website and the tagline that I decided was promoting connection to ourselves one another and the natural world. Took me a while to get there, but I feel like that sums up a lot of what I do, of all the different kinds of work that I do with people and organizations.

Jo Stewart: Beautiful. Thank you for everything that you do. Helping people connect to themselves, each other and our natural world definitely feels like something we need more of in these challenging times.

Esme Dark: Absolutely. It really know. I think I'm drawing more on nature based practice at the moment because it just feels so important. We have to start looking after the earth.

Rane Bowen: Beautiful. I hope you enjoyed our conversation with Esme. Jo and I are both in awe of the work she's doing and I personally learned a lot from our conversation with her. Esme is running a workshop embodying Playfulness at Green Monday Studio in Carlton in Melbourne on October the 22nd. For more details, go to au and we'll include a link in our show notes to everything we've spoken about on our website podcast, You can also leave a comment there if you like. We would love to hear from you. You can also find me on Instagram @ranelovesyoga and Jo at @gardenofyoga Our theme song is Baby Robots by Gosol and is used with permission. Check out Thank you so, so much for listening. We really appreciate you spending your precious time with us. Kia koutou Ka Toa Big, big love.

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