Your Brain on Ketamine or Alternate Worlds in MacLeod Ganj

Austin Osman Spare might approve…then again, he might not…

There is a particular sort of conversation that can only happen in MacLeod Ganj. Here it is not considered strange when the person in front of you says things like “I used to be a practitioner of Austin Osman Spare’s tradition of magic for ten years and then I went into old solar traditions and sort of got stuck there.” You simply nod, offer a comment that could express either sympathy or admiration and turn to another group where two people describe their experiences with Ayahuasca, a South American vine distilled into a potent shamanic brew that takes the drinker on a journey through heaven and hell. Sometimes I was reminded of texts I had read about shamans who could lead conversations that moved effortlessly from a discussion of this world into a discussion of the other world, the realm of the imagination, and none of the participants would find this in the least odd or disconcerting.

In that way the place was full of neo-shamans, modern yogis and practitioners of odd and fascinating ritualistic world-views and magic. The veil between the worlds seems peculiarly thin here – meaning that one could never be entirely sure where madness lay and where reason hid. The mention of ketamine became a sort of yardstick for me. After a while the fact that at least half the people you would meet in MacLeod Ganj had tried every conceivable sort of drug and that again half of them were probably trying them right now became a little easier to accept.

Ketamine is a synthetic drug developed and applied during the Sixties and Seventies when America was dealing with the psychological aftereffects of the Vietnam War and turned to synthetic drugs both to alleviate the suffering of the returning soldiers and to fortify the minds of the soldiers in the field. Coincidentally this ushered in the short-lived experimental drug culture that, along with the social effects of a prolonged and hopeless war, gave birth to extremely liberal and alternative movements in the US. Ketamine is a strong anesthetic drug, dulling the sense to the point of disassociation or dissolution of the ego – one can no longer identify oneself. It is used as medical treatment and as illicit drug. Dissolution of the ego can lead to strong spiritual experiences – an all-inclusive identification with the world – but also to severe mental disassociation and loss of memory. There are a number of reports of people who have fallen into severe schizophrenia due to long term use or high dosages of the drug. Speaking in shamanic terms, plant drugs can potentially be used to lead oneself back to a connection with the world that is hard to describe in sober words, while synthetic drugs will take you for a ride across synthetic worlds and have little to no lasting psychological healing potential and increased risk of addiction.

Ketamine also happened to be Josh’s drug of choice. I saw him first from the distance when I visited friends in their guesthouse, just below mine on one of the many guest-house infested slopes off Jogiwara Road. He was standing alone in the guesthouse’s TV room, a look of intense concentration on his face, his body tense. He had his hair styled in a trimmed dark mohawk and was stringy and quite muscular and moved with the tension of a peculiarly annoyed predator on the prowl. I went up to chat with my friends on the balcony and suddenly a fierce shout pierced the courtyard and we saw Josh howling and pumping his fists, kissing the ground. My anthropological instincts took over and I was wondering what odd rite he was performing there. I got my answer when he sauntered up the stairs to us, still howling with joy. He flexed his biceps to show us the faux gothic letters covering his forearm. He was a die-hard supporter of FC Chelsea and they had just won a cup game decisively. He was basking in the joy of his team’s victory and the air had acquired a strange edge when he was there. He seemed quite dangerous, like a person willing to smash someone’s face in when Chelsea didn’t play as convincing as it did today. He was very sensitive, too, which is always a strange thing when combined with a temper. Soon he began talking about the Israeli who had a room on the opposite end of the courtyard and who had the nerve to make fun of him during the last match. He had mocked Josh’s shouts of joy and that was something Josh did not abide. “He tried to burst my bubble,” complained Josh repeatedly. Upon hearing that I was Austrian, he told me that my people had the right idea when it came to dealing with the bubbleburster’s sort. His racist views acquired a strange glow in the surroundings of MacLeod Ganj, where most people are what could be described as wooly liberals, at least in contrast with Josh. The women seemed quite infatuated with him, most likely because he had temporarily separated from his Yoga-loving girlfriend who had stayed in Bagsu to practice her lessons.

Josh was on a roll. He kept talking about this and that, always with a fierce intensity as if every topic had personally insulted his mother. He hated Indians, except for the guys around here who were alright. He described his passion for Chelsea, his adventures on the beaches of Brighton and other things with a compelling immediacy. At some point he started talking about Ketamine, his drug of choice. How it had helped him to keep “dark Josh” in the shadows and made him see the light because he used to be quite violent earlier. Strangely enough, as a redeemed sinner he suddenly seemed right at home in the strange world of MacLeod Ganj, where spiritual aspects of a person seemed to take on a somewhat starker quality. The dark side might have been temporarily banned by ketamine, but the wiles of the world or rather the many evil people in it still brought it back. Josh had experienced a rather unpleasant encounter. Probably being used to go for a drink with a stranger, he had accepted the invitation of two Indians for a glass of alcohol somewhere in a tourist area. This is almost always a fatal mistake and so it was in Josh’s case – the drink was drugged and he began to feel groggy and could only sway back to his room, his new friend close behind him. He tried grabbing the man, but was too weak and fell down on the bed. When he came to, he went through his things. Of course the man had taken his money and valuables, even his passport. All sorts of horrors ran through Josh’s head – how would he get his passport back? He couldn’t afford to lose it. He was on parole – if they knew that he had lost his passport…he already had two strikes against him, so he’d never be granted another passport. I couldn’t say whether this was maniacal raving or if someone who has been in prison is stripped of his passport when he’s losing it. Maybe he hadn’t been officially allowed to travel and had gone anyway, defying the mandates. Anyway, he lost his head and sprinted out of his room onto the street. He saw one of the guys sitting on his bike not far away from him. The man noticed him, certainly frightful when he was angry and lunging at him at full speed and he started fumbling with his keys, got the ignition going but was tackled by Josh. Josh (“It means strength in Hindi. Every single one of those…fuckers tells me that.”) was calmer now, calculating. He took the man calmly by the shoulder and said, in a friendly, almost sweet voice, “Come along. Let’s go to my room. I have to talk to you.”

Perhaps the man believed, confused by the sudden friendliness, that the irrational Westerner had suddenly become peaceful or that he didn’t think that it was him who had stolen his belongings. He almost smiled as he was led by Josh. Once inside, Josh grabbed the man by the throat and pulled his knife from his belt. It was a large knife, he showed us with his fingers as he talked. He put the knife to the man’s face.

“Thank god that I didn’t kill him, because at that moment I really would’ve.” Instead he explained to him that he needed his passport. Why would they want to take his passport in the first place? He didn’t give a shit about the money, but he’d be really, really pissed about losing the passport. The Indian was frightened to death and he had pulled out the passport, which had been in his pocket the whole time. Selling faked passports is, like many other things, a small but certainly lucrative business in certain circles. Perhaps he had hoped to sell the stolen Western passport for a bit of money. Josh breathed heavily as he finished telling his story. One could almost see the images that played and replayed themselves in his mind. What if he had lost the passport? What if he had killed the man? Did he kill the man and was it his memory that told him he hadn’t? He didn’t say it, but in those surroundings, with him standing close to me it was strangely apparent that he was thinking just that.

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Teaching Yoga (in MacLeod Ganj)

I met Jogesh in Lung Ta, the very pleasant Japanese restaurant in MacLeod Ganj’s Jogiwara Road. Jogesh is one of three brothers, all of them yoga and reiki teachers from Bhopal who have been travelling the best-known and most lucrative yoga centers (Rishikesh, Manali, Goa, MacLeod Ganj) always on the lookout for students. Jogesh and his elder brother Amrit, who was the unofficial leader of their three-headed group, were relatively partisan in their tactics of finding students. Mostly they were sitting in the most popular cafes and restaurants of MacLeod Ganj and struck up conversations with people, winning their trust and handing them information about their classes. It wasn’t hard to find anyone interested. A good sixty percent of Westerners in MacLeod Ganj were looking for such classes, but the competition was fierce. At the lower level, where the two operated, it wasn’t so noticeable. The struggle here was to get noticed. Their youngest brother, Aryan, was approaching things a little differently. Like his brothers, Aryan had rented a room in one of the countless guest houses springing up along the hillside and like them he went out and hunted for students, but there was a more permanent air to his endeavour. “Aryan Reiki & Yoga School” – it was a bright red sign on a post that he had standing in the corner of his balcony, it was somewhere between proudly proclaiming and half-forgotten. His room was a large workroom plus bedroom that he shared with his brothers whenever they didn’t have rooms of their own. A large bookcase and a small shrine indicated that he wasn’t just on the way through. His room was the office of the three brothers as well and most of my contact with them went through Aryan. I wasn’t a student of his, but during my conversation with Jogesh the topic of yoga had (inevitably) come up and he had offered me, very kindly, to teach in their studio. I have been a teacher of Hatha Yoga for several years. I have studied with teachers in India and Austria, but because of my solitary nature most of what I knew was self taught and, as the Indians would say, acquired in solitary retreat. That was a strange hurdle in every conversation that we had about teaching and courses – I didn’t know how to tell them that. I imagined, rightly or wrongly, that for an Indian the relationship with his teacher is one of the most important things and for me to say that I had no fixed teacher and that experience and a broad range of interests were my best teachers would seem disrespectful and would probably disqualify me in their eyes. In short, I felt quite insecure about my lack of official proofs of my qualification. So I dodged the topic whenever possible, probably causing a little bit of distrust that may have been avoided with a more direct approach. Their idea was to set up a center with changing teachers and they had done this sort of thing before, so we quickly arranged a deal. Everything was rather informal and by word of mouth. They told me to put up notices and hand out flyers and, above all, talk to people in cafes and restaurants.

My motivation was not entirely clear to myself. I had stopped teaching in Austria before I left and was toying with the idea of giving it up entirely. There was nothing for me in teaching anymore – I didn’t feel that I had made great impressions with my students or taught them anything of use and I drew no satisfaction from playing the teacher in front of an audience. After working in the world of yoga for a few years, most of the expressions of that world had become uninteresting for me. The various names of asanas were more interesting as a base for learning a few Hindi words. I found the attitude and the pomp that masked the insecurities of teachers and students alike annoying. The idea that yoga would, in any form, accelerate one’s mental growth had become laughable and all the self-centered discussions about ego and enlightenment were off-putting. The joy of movement was and is my main motivation to do yoga. I felt overwhelming joy at being able to move in those strange, undulating and exhilarating ways. There were psychological side effects, obviously, and there is an interesting correlation between physical injuries and muscular hardening and mental blocks that can be worked against with certain asanas, but yoga had never held any potential for mental development, in my mind. To sit quietly and enjoy or contemplate was one thing, but to weigh down this enjoyment and levity of the moment with overly complex mental constructs was something completely different…I can be overly intellectual so yoga, to me, always meant relaxing this rigid intellectuality. I can also be very detached and fearful, so it also meant accepting this fear and developing, curiously enough, more attachment. Early on during my teaching it was clear that everyone approaches yoga with a different idea in mind and as a teacher there are two ways to progress with that – you either find out what this idea is and then help the student find fulfillment within it or you make it clear that all approaches are mental constructs and try to get rid of them. The first way holds more sympathy and warmth, so it was always more attractive to me when dealing with other people. For myself I have usually used a monkish approach – to be very strict with myself and develop a kind of ascetic mindset. This mindset helped me continue practicing and increasing the difficulties of my practice. I have never paid a great deal of attention to the rigidity and the mechanics of joy that are publicized in books by teachers and yogins, for me it was a direct way to experience that joy. I could be, in some ways, a kid again, and find joy in breathing, existing, simple thoughts, dreams. This state is obviously harder and harder to maintain once the demands of the world increase, but a simple and pleasing thought is that we have only eighty years to live, if we are lucky, so why do we weigh ourselves down with so many useless things. Being a wide-eyed child for eighty years…in historical terms eighty years are nothing, in cosmic terms even less than nothing. So why not enjoy this gift of perception and combination for as long as it lasts? Yoga has, if it has done one thing for me, made me aware that I am alive. It’s strange to me, now, that one needs a reminder for that. My motivation to teach in MacLeod Ganj, however, remains as unclear to me now as it was then. Curiosity, perhaps. Something to put on my CV. Having a beautiful studio to practice in. The possibility to meet people – to meet women, of course.

I got to know just how much of a motivation that can be to some people while talking to Aryan. He struggled a great deal with the strains of his Indian upbringing and the availability of Western women. During a longer conversation with him talk would always veer towards women. He was asking with the strange naivety and earnestness of a young adolescent how he could get a woman to like him. He was a good looking young man with an honest face and his position as a teacher of reiki was an ideal one to meet women. He had a very split personality, though. He said numerous times that he disliked India and Indians and that he wanted to live more like Westerners, yet when a Western backpacker appeared before his door and asked him in almost perfect Hindi whether there were room to be had, he was impressed. Maybe he saw in him a mirror of his ideal image – an Indian who can confidently and naturally fit in with the European world of his imagination. He wanted to have casual sex with women but was wishing for the tightness of an Indian relationship. It puzzled and hurt him that relationships with Western women were both more fulfilling and more frustrating than those he imagined with Indian women. He had never been with an Indian woman – being the youngest of his brothers he had the comfort of being able to follow them out of Bhopal, were he was born and raised. Their choice was to stay in Bhopal and run a small school for children and the few Indians who are curious about yoga or to go to the hotspots for Reiki and Yoga, teaching there and forming connections. I remember a long story that Jogesh told me about a woman who had been receiving Reiki from him. As it turned out she was a general executive of a large Swiss bank and she later helped him receive a European visa that he had used to travel across Europe and teach in various countries. They were not short on customers and had learned to use their reputation relatively well. Between themselves the three managed to make a comfortable living. Visits to their parents in Bhopal were sporadic. Aryan wanted to live in Europe but thought that the few travelers he had met were an accurate representation of the West. He was so earnest in his wish that I didn’t want to dampen it with tales of racism and xenophobia. He was obviously attractive to women – I saw him walking with different female students a number of times and an Israeli friend of his was “hired” as his teacher of seduction and had long conversations with him, which, I imagine, mostly consisted of the man telling Aryan about all the women he had seduced – but he never seemed to be able to decide on anything and ultimately the women went away unsatisfied. He had a good heart and was friendly and welcoming to everyone, but that great split in his mind drove him to dark moods and depressions. He told me that he wanted to scream, often. That he wanted to go into the forest for a silent retreat. When he said these things he was laughing, but it was an uneasy and tense kind of laughter. On his wall and in his studio he had hung photographs of his graduation as a teacher of yoga. There was an image of Amrit teaching children pranayama breathing techniques; the three brothers together in various configurations, performing asanas; Aryan in classical pose, the lotus seat, a waterfall in the background. “Sometimes during the treatment (Reiki), water comes out of the people’s eyes”, Aryan said once. “Those are tears, but they don’t have the pain that comes with tears because the pain is dissolved and those old tears can flow.” He was caught in a stasis between being naïve and wise, a monk and a gigolo. For a while he was interested in Samata, a journalist from the British isle of Guernsey, but she soon said that “he hasn’t learned much about how to behave socially from all his spiritual books.” There was a directness about him that was both charming and off-putting. I took it to be something child-like rather than genuinely offensive. A yogin isn’t the most social of creatures – it’s a certain monastic type of person who can enjoy sitting in the forest without distractions and a type that I understand quite well, so I cannot pass any sort of judgment on him. I couldn’t help but feel sympathy for him, even though the inevitable aim of many of his discussions was “how do I get a girl”? He was writing a book on yoga, his own course book. As far as I saw the most individual thing about it was the design and the rest was copied from other course books, but that, too, is an essence of teaching yoga. You copy the traditions, not necessarily aim to add yourself to them.

Admittedly, there is no real difference between all the styles, simply because they all follow the same blueprint laid out several thousand years ago. Much of what goes on in the yoga community is, again, advertisement. Power yoga is simply an exercise plan, the various stretches that make up the asanas can be seen in techniques as various as martial arts and ballet and are not unique to yoga. It’s a peculiarly cultural art of movement of body and thought…a very good development in modern yoga, in my opinion, is to mix it with other techniques, especially with looser forms and forms that are more demanding as far as conditioning goes, like dances and martial arts. It’s a syntax of movement and as such yoga offers itself to be the integrating part of a larger language of movement. It’s an introvert’s art and science. Advertisements distract from the spiritual aspects of yoga (and vice versa) and so the moral, ritual and human obligations that make up the other limbs of yoga are generally discarded or severely limited when teaching in a Western context…I have limited them in my own lessons, because I am not good at preaching without developing a form of self-disgust and because there is an immense barrier in the minds of most people when it comes to accepting certain fundamental things about human life. Or, a more likely danger, it seems exotic, either too exotic or seductively so. A person feels ridiculous, practicing something that has hitherto had no basis in his cultural existence and is rarely mirrored in the outside world. Or they will feel seduced, but without understanding anything about the whole process, which has its attraction, certainly, but could well end up adding to meaninglessness. Much has been done to establish fundamentally Eastern concepts in the West, but as long as this just swings between the two extremes of mysticism and commerce nothing will be achieved. If I go to a yoga shop and buy myself yoga pants for my two hours with the sweet and wise Indian teacher, I have already commercialized, sexualized and estranged the whole procedure. Likewise if I sit there like a monolith and the only mental movement coming from me is a complaint, I might as well be a lifeless piece of rock. It is important to correctly identify emotions and thoughts and then let them exist without interfering with them…whether this is expressing them or passively watching them doesn’t matter. It is, however, important not to attach them to the wrong thing or the wrong person. You are responsible for your thoughts and emotions, not the person standing in front of you doing their job, nor the person teasing you or making fun of you, not the person loving you, nor the person hating you…

Hatha Yoga, which consists of the asanas, the knotted bodies and inverted poses that many people picture when yoga is mentioned, means – liberally translated – “the yoke for the stubborn”. The word yoga means yoke and there is room for interpretation whether the yoke is the body itself or the exercises inflicted upon it. The asanas (postures) are a way to create tapas (heat) inside of the body. This is done by various breathing techniques, some coming close to hyperventilation, and the exercise of various postures in order to stimulate the organism, supply blood and organs with ample oxygen and keep the body toned and flexible. If somebody says that this sounds suspiciously like exercise he is absolutely correct. The same thing is achieved by sitting on your bike and riding it or by lifting weights and any good trainer or teacher will tell you that for every sport a certain kind of breathing techniques are required in order to focus better. The one unique aspect is that yoga is not performance-centered. Again, it’s an introvert’s art – if the body is still, the mind can roam. You can treat it like a performance sport if you want to and I am aware that there are yoga competitions, but there is no way to do an asana better than the person next to you. You are not competing against anyone. The word yoke implies submission and the only thing you are competing against is your own desire to compete. In order to perform a posture correctly, you submit to the posture. This is not about change and growth by all means, but change and growth by the means available to us at the given moment. At the core is, yet again, a deeply pragmatic view. This is the philosophy behind yoga and a reason why many people have taken to it is that it offers an alternative to the growth-based philosophy prevalent in a society dictated by business interests. All things in the world are subject to an ebb and flow, growth and recession, birth and death. More than just living in the moment and milking it for all its worth, this philosophy aims to teach the students to understand the moment they are living in and to understand that it, too, will change and that wringing every ounce of possibility from the present moment might limit the chances in moments to come. It aims to teach perspective and to do so without the feeling of cosmic dread that a nihilistic approach to science and the world can induce.

In fact, yoga has become far more popular and widespread in the West than in India. It is one of a long line of exports that the West has taken to and modified to suit their needs. For me this is a very curious thing – while the Indians are immensely adept to adapt to situations without compromising their core, Westerners are immensely adept at turning situations and circumstances to suit their needs, even if it means remaining oblivious to the core or changing it altogether. There is an endless line of detractors for any of the “spiritual imports” from the East, although the resistance seems to have weakened a bit once it could be watered down and marketed. I think that Western modifications to techniques such as meditation or yoga and even to religious traditions like Buddhism have been so substantial that genuine Western traditions are starting to come into existence. Whether the techniques are used for recreation or deep seated spiritual healing, the centre of such techniques has, I believe, already moved far away from India, if it has ever really been there at all. Whether it is the rediscovery of shamanic techniques or old lore of plants and herbs, the West has a rich repository of spiritual traditions that have been often engulfed by the long overlay of Christian power politics but sometimes preserved in pockets that were genuinely spiritual. Not all of the imports are good or meaningful – an impossibility in an environment dominated by a competitive market – but unique schools are beginning to form and a large number of possibly fruitful combinations are being attempted.

Image Selection – Dharamsala by Simon Villiger

This image selection is a choice of images from my friend, the Swiss photographer Simon Villiger, who has travelled, photographed and recorded sights and sounds of India extensively.

Two monks on their morning stroll through Jogiwara Road. | Zwei Mönche auf ihrem Weg durch Jogiwara Road, MacLeod Ganjs Einkaufsstrasse.

Where tourists gather, beggars are sure to follow…an Indian beggar, trying to make a living from the charitable visitors of the temple in MacLeod Ganj. | Wo Touristen sind, muss man nicht lange auf Bettler warten…ein indischer Bettler auf seinem Platz vor dem Haupttempel in MacLeod Ganj, wo er auf die Freigibigkeit der Besucher hofft.


Youn girls infestive dress, waiting a little tensely for the start of their dance performance. Today the Dalai Lama will be their audience. | Junge Mädchen in festlicher Kleidung erwarten nervös den Beginn ihres Tanzdarbietung…heute wird der Dalai Lama ihre Schritte sehen.

These monks protect their heads from the sun, while they wait for a white car, carrying the Dalai Lama. | Mönche schützen sich gegen die Sonne während sie auf den Dalai Lama warten, der hier bald in seinem weißen Auto vorbeiziehen wird.

Image Selection XIV – MacLeod Ganj

If you look across the hills from Jogiwara Road, you will see small outlying settlements, not even large enough to be called villages, where prayer flags are draped across the trees like living things and some of the long-standing refugees from TIbet live. | In den umliegenden Hügeln von McLeod Ganj findet man kleine Gruppen von Häusern, wo Gebetsfahnen sich fast selbständig in den Bäumen auszubreiten scheinen – dort leben einige der ersten Flüchtlinge aus Tibet.

Ngwang Tashi, a sherpa from Namche Bazaar at the foot of Mt. Everest who has spent a lot of time as a monk in Himachal Pradesh, is now a tour guide, leading interested visitors on tours through Nepal, Bhutan and Tibet. We have travelled together for quite some time. | Ngwang Tashi, ein Sherpa aus Namche Bazaar am Fuße des Mt. Everest, der eine lange Zeit als Mönch in Himachal Pradesh gelebt hat und jetzt Fremdenführer in Nepal, Bhutan und Tibet ist. Wir sind lange zusammen gereist und planen das auch in Zukunft zu tun.

The first Himalayan peaks that can be seen from MacLeod Ganj. Compared to the really big guys Triund is a mere foothill at 2,970 metres, but the view onto the snow-capped Dhauladars is astonishing. Triund is a favoured camping spot for tourists climbing up from MacLeod or Bhagsu. | Die ersten Himalayagipfel, die man von Mac Leod Ganj aus sehen kann. Triund stellt mit seinen 2.970 Metern nur einen kleinen Vorhügel dar, aber die Blicke, die man von dort aus auf das Dhauladar Massiv weren kann, sind atemberaubend schön. Triund ist ein beliebter Camping Spot für Wanderer aus Mac Leod oder Bhagsu.

A group resting on top of Triund… | Eine Gruppe bei einer Rast am Gipfel von Triund…

Image Selection IX – Monks

Palden is a young monk from Reckong Peo. He likes hip-hop music and bad American horror films and has one of the biggest hearts of any men.

I do not know his name, but I suppose he doesn’t like attention too much. Taken in MacLeod Ganj.

Their most serious business – rituals. A mixture of music, song and trance to open realms to the divine.

His name translates as Benevolent Lion. His eyes show why.

Please don’t use without authorization. The images are all copyrighted by Sebastian Buchner.