A few years ago Ayahuasca became a buzz word on the yoga scene. All of a sudden many friends and associates were reporting having deeply mystical and healing encounters with an entity called 'The Mother.' She was appearing in visions after ingesting a vile-tasting brew called ayahuasca (containing the powerful psychedelic DMT) under the supervision of a shaman.
I was immediately intrigued.
Growing up in a small village in northern Sweden in the late eighties, drugs wasn't anything I ever was exposed to. Apart from alcohol of course, but that drug is legal, and it has been a huge part of my life and my culture for as long as I can remember. I've done more stupid shit under the influence of it than I care to recount here. I've blacked out from it. I've had brown-outs. I've vomited from drinking too much. I've revealed other people's secrets. And I would say that roughly half the people I know have a very troublesome relationship to it ... but that's another blog post ...
Around the age of fifteen, sixteen, I became very fascinated with LSD just from reading about it. This was related to my infatuation with the 1960's, the flower power movement, Woodstock etc. I vowed to test-drive it as soon as I could get my hands on it. Which happened to be in London. I had finished high school and was living in London, working as a nanny and partying a lot. We knew how to get a hold of acid, and a group of us (fellow Swedes and two German girls) had planned to try it at a speakeasy goth club called SLIMELIGHT (it still exists!) and we were pumped to have our first trip. The acid was sold to us by a pale (duh, he was a goth) skinny guy in a wheelchair. My friend, who had executed the transaction, told us, after we had all swallowed the little squares of blotter paper, that the guy had cautioned us only to take half. Too late. It took a while for it to kick in, but holy fuck did it kick in. My brain melted. The walls melted. There was a complete communication breakdown between the Swedes and the Germans, because during the peak (which lasted an eternity or at least 2-3 hours) we could barely speak our native tongues. I saw policemen and Santa Clauses that weren't really there. The floor tiles morphed into a giant chocolate bar. The armchair by the dumpster outside turned into a throne-like toilet. The sound became fountains of lava swelling down the corridors of this hellhole club. The throbbing bass felt like a lump in my mouth. I was laughing so hard tears were running down my face and my mind was flooded with profound thoughts. The only problem was, I couldn't finish thinking one until the next brilliant thought came crashing the thought party. The trip lasted close to 24 hours. Coming off the peak coincided with sunrise and the closing of the club. It was so beautiful it took my breath away. The city was calm, but the colours were crazy vibrant and five-dimensional. The sunrise was a miracle. The day was re-born. We had been given a new chance. We walked for hours through London. We went to someone's house, and sat there all day, until it got dark again and talked and talked about our experiences.
It would take a few years until I tried LSD again, and I have done it a several times over the years, and not once have I had a bad experience with it. But, I've also never had as powerful of an experience again. I believe that my first acid trip also was my first spiritual experience, and that it blew those proverbial 'doors of perception' open to such a degree that it was impossible to close them again.
But I definitely don't think psychedelic drugs are for everyone. At the time that I was planning the acid trip in London, I had a friend who I didn't want to take part. I tried to keep the plan away from her, because I had a feeling that it wouldn't be good for her. But she found out, and came with us that night. I think she had a terrifying experience. Later, she went to Goa, India, and took a lot of drugs there, and actually ended up spending some time in a psych ward. A lot later I found out that her younger sister suffers from bi-polar, disorder and it's possible that my friend had some genetic pre-disposition. Other friends too, have had terrifying experiences with psychedelics. While for me, even the terrifying experiences have been good.
Over the years since that first trip in the early nineties, in addition to my acid trips, I've also ingested magic mushrooms, MDMA, E, Ketamine (once or twice -- didn't like it) and smoked, vaped and ate pot. I know that pot/weed/hasch can have slight psychedelic effects, but I've never liked this substance. And I also don't like what it does to people who chronically use it. But that's also another story, I guess.
And then, a few years ago, I signed up for my first Ayahuasca ceremony. It was taking place in someone's living room in Prenzlauer Berg. The furniture had been cleared out to make space for about 20-25 truth-seekers and adventurers, all dressed in white, armed with puke buckets, some grapes (to suck on after swallowing the ayahuasca to try to prevent it from coming right back up again -- that's how vile this brew is), blankets and a camping mattress or yoga mat to lie on. We had been following a strict diet for a week, vegan (easy as I was already vegan), no salt, no sugar, no booze, no sex (including masturbation). The American shaman lady had a good vibe about her, and a contagious laughter. Before administering the brew she played jungle sounds from a little Bose speaker, and blew 'sacred tobacco' smoke in our faces, and she also did a lot of explaining. I grew impatient -- the room was so hot I could feel sweat dripping down my arm pits (and it takes a lot for me to sweat).
But then finally we got to drink this powerful psychedelic. It tasted like rotten meat mixed with soy sauce and dirt and my body turned itself inside out as I was struggling to hold it down.
Then we all kicked back on our mats, in silence, well, apart from the pre-recorded jungle sounds, and waited for The Mother to appear. I had to drink twice more because nothing was happening. Meanwhile around me people had started to weep, moan, vomit with a lot of showmanship in the puke buckets. After round three I started to freeze, as if I was out in the snow. I was so so cold, curled up in a tight embryo position. I was feeling extremely queasy and puke-y. But I never puked, or purged, which during my short stint on the 'scene' found out meant I wasn't letting go. 'Purging' is a good thing. Purging is cleansing. Puking is a way for the body to rid itself from toxins, but why put the toxins there in the first place? Like drinking so much alcohol that you have to puke is not a good thing.
This reminded me of another ridiculous incident on the same topic. During my first teacher training, I was made to drink 10 liters of lukewarm salt water in order to 'purge'. Which I didn't do then either. I just felt nauseous. At that YTT we were also swallowing gauze in order to 'clean our intestines' along with other ridiculous practices that should have been relegated to the yogic archives of 'silly things we stupidly thought were good once upon a time'.
In the midst of all the mayhem around me; the puking, the crying, the moaning, and the nausea and the chills, I was suddenly floating in silver-y space. It was very beautiful. I realized that it was the universe, and looking down on my own body, curled up on my yoga mat, it all felt so insignificant, so petty, in the grand scheme of things. At some point I realized that I was laughing. There were lots of pulsating fractal patterns, there were snakes at the outskirts of my vision. A couple of hours later I was back in my body, everything I looked at had faint tails of light, but that seemed very minor compared to where I had just been. I talked to the shaman lady, who assured me I was fine to go home. It was around 4 am, but it was just a 15 minute walk to my house. I remember my empty apartment feeling a bit spooky, and then I couldn't sleep, but I felt really happy, almost elated. But that's how I've almost always felt after doing psychedelics ...
After that time I drank Ayahuasca a couple of more times, with the German Head Shaman. The lady shaman was being trained by him, but she definitely took her job of holding space a lot more seriously that he did. The German shaman was a bearded guy in his early forties, in dirty jeans and stained t-shirts, with a lot of superficial charisma, and swimming pool-blue eyes. I never really liked him, even though he was superficially likeable, but to me he seemed reckless and a little bit too interested in money. But, as I'm always looking for an adventure, I said yes to coming along to South Africa to teach yoga at the 9-day Transformation retreat he was hosting a couple of hours outside Johannesburg. I wasn't that interested in drinking any more of the brew, but I was super-excited to go to South Africa.
And, the country seduced me. But the Transformation Retreat left me feeling even more cynical than I already was, and also, downright pissed off.
I make a living as a yoga teacher. Many of my friends are also yoga teachers. I read yoga blogs, I used to follow some celebrity yoga teachers on Instagram. I hear the talk. I feel vibes. Many of the people I encounter, both fellow teachers and people who come to my classes, workshops and retreats are seekers. The term 'seeker' is often used with a negative tinge. But being a seeker myself, I don't see it that way. Seekers are adventurers, explorers, trailblazers. But also, many seekers are quite vulnerable. And in this world of self-help, crystals, tarot cards, massage, astrology, green smoothies and kale, that yoga and meditation somehow is part of, there are a lot of people interested in making a buck. And the more bucks that can be made, the more unscrupulous people that niche will attract. Or is it money that corrupts us? I am not sure. I often have doubts even about making a living as a yoga teacher, that it somehow corrupts this beautiful ancient self-help healing technique, but I usually land in feeling that it's ok as long as I don't make promises that I can't keep. As long as I try to keep my prices fair (a definition up for discussion for sure). As long as I don't tell people that yes, doing this or that asana will most definitely heal this or that ailment. As long as I behave with my students in a respectful manner, and do my best not to harm or exploit them.
But back to the Transformation retreat.
There are about 20 participants, half of them from Berlin, and the other half from all over the world. There's a young man from Toronto, Canada, who works the night shift at Home Depot. He chain-smokes cigarettes, has a young child back home, even though he's pretty much a child himself. It's the first time he's ever left North America. He's tall and thin and clearly wears the weight of the world on his skinny shoulders. There's an older woman from The Ivory Coast. She's definitely the odd one out. In her fifties, maybe even sixties, a self-proclaimed diva, wearing lots of gold, and in the shuttle bus from the Jo'burg airport, a fancy designer handbag. She's looking for guidance from The Mother in a business matter. There are bunch of South African people. One of them, we can call him Keith, had black garbage bags under his eyes. He is trying to kick a heavy-duty crack Cocaine and heroin addiction. Most, if not all, seem like troubled souls. Trying to overcome depression, anxiety, Lyme Disease, drug addiction, suicidal thoughts, alcoholism, sexual abuse etc. Everyone, except for me and my pal, who's also tagged along for free, in exchange to generate some (positive) press for the Shaman's business, has paid a lot of money to be there. The setting is serene. We are out in a biblical-looking landscape, at a Kundalini Yoga retreat centre. There's a pool. The room I share with two other women from Berlin has an egg-shaped bathtub and beautiful mosaic tiles. Monkeys play in the trees and regularly ransack the garbage bins.
The first evening we eat a simple vegan meal and then retire to our rooms to sleep.
On Day 2 of the retreat it dawns on me how absolutely insane the retreat schedule is. That day there's a raw food workshop, and it's also the last time the participants eat until the very last day. For the next 6 days everyone will be fasting. AND every night they are encouraged to drink Ayahuasca, and every morning (on an empty, 'purged,' stomach) St. Pedro, A.K.A The Father, which I only understood once there was mescaline. And then, on Day 7, the attendees were to take Ibogaine A.K.A The Grandfather, a mega-strong psychedelic, that easily can have a person tripping for a couple of days.
There's definitely nothing traditional, or even tried and true about this. Mixing three strong hallucinogens from three different continents AND fasting. Another incredibly fucked-up thing about this setup was that people had paid a base price for the food, accommodation, mattresses and puke buckets, shuttle bus from Jo'Burg and daily yoga sessions by yours truly, but on top of that, each person had to pay per dose of plant medicine (read: drugs) and this shit's way pricier than your average club drug hit purchased from a dealer at the Berghain bathroom. We are talking €80-€150 PER DOSE!!!! And naturally, you were encouraged/ bullied to participate in every session, for maximum effect. Or else you run the risk of not transforming.
So the food included in the base price couldn't have costed very much. Because even the tea selection, which on Day 1 seemed quite luscious, dwindled quickly. When we arrived there was an assortment of herbal, green, black and Rooibos tea. There were tea bags and loose tea. After about Day 3, there was only Rooibos tea, and at Day 6 we were encouraged to share and re-use tea bags as they were running out.
I decided to participate in the first ceremony. When it was my turn to drink, I could barely keep the vile sludge down, my skin became prickly like a cactus, and as I lay down on my mattress I found myself both puzzled and slightly annoyed by the fact that we were STILL listening to jungle sounds coming from a speaker, despite no longer being in a Berlin apartment, but out in a beautiful landscape where sounds of real crickets, real wind in trees and real birds were being generated by REAL NATURE.
An hour into the brew working, the shaman had left us, presumable to retire to his quarters, or to play with his iphone, which he was quite obsessed with. The moaning and groaning was on full force. A young blond German girl was on all fours, vomiting loudly into her puke bucket, snot, tears and bile streaming all over her face, while her body was twitching as if she was possessed. I closed my eyes again and Batman appeared. All of a sudden he stood in the middle of the room in his cape and mask, with his arms crossed over his chest. I knew I was done with The Mother.
As people started coming back from their journey, some of us congregated in the kitchen, where bowls of incredible sweet fruit sat, for the first and last time. I talked to the boyfriend of the possessed girl. He told me of his bouts of depression, drug and alcohol abuse. I talked to two shamans-in-training, from New York, they oscillated between cookie cutter earnestness: Gratitude, Victoria, holding my gaze, as if that was going to soften my cold viking heart, and business men; yeah, it's getting big in Brooklyn, we are getting more and more customers, eh, clients ...
My pal and I went for a walk and ventilated our concerns about the arrangements. I taught an afternoon yoga class.
Day 3 I went to bed instead of drinking ayahuasca. I had a stash of food, things like crackers and spreads, power-bars and trail-mix that I was nibbling on. I was not prepared to fast, not under these circumstances. I listened to real jungle sounds coming from the darkness outside the window before falling asleep. But in the morning of Day 4 I showed up to drink mescaline, which I had never tried before. People already looked a bit haggard in their white getups, and some looked like they were coming apart at the seams. The shaman was there, in the same t-shirt he'd been wearing since Day 1 (this may be one of the few things I actually admired him for; he sure didn't seem all that interested in fashion), administering the brew. It wasn't sludge like ayahuasca, instead it was clear with little pale yellow pieces of cactus floating around. It was also a lot less unpleasant to drink. It tasted pungent; sour. It tasted like drugs. Everybody drank and then shuffled back to their mattresses and puke buckets. The sun was out. It was bright in the shala. You could see dust bunnies congregating in the corners. You could see greasy fingerprints on the windows. My pal and I leaned against the wall, half dozing off, when I was overcome by restlessness. As if I had Club Mate in my veins instead of blood. The room was suddenly not only bright, but bathed in an alien-coloured white light. I knew this feeling as 'drug-coming-on-feeling' but this one was really powerful, like being hit by a truck. I knew I had to relax, go with it, otherwise it could become extremely unpleasant. And a nausea was swelling in my gut, rising up into my throat. I looked around. The Possessed girl was already contorted, bent backwards in some fucked-up mutated yoga-looking asana; growling. The Home Depot guy was crawling across the floor, silently weeping -- his whole face shining with tears. I ran outside and vomited around the corner from the shala. It was a fountain of bile so magnificent I thought I would see a rainbow coming off it. I was quite pleased with myself until I realised it was about to come out the other end too. Luckily the toilet was free and I could go about my business there. When I came out of the stall, a sweet South African chef, whom I ended up staying in touch with, was clutching at his throat, looking very distressed. He had told me earlier that his brother, who was a famous writer, had died of a heroin overdose, and he himself, was trying to untangle himself from a dangerous flirtation with cocaine. I saw one of my roommates. Crying. Bawling. Her face distorted like a death mask. I went back to sit on my mattress obediently, when the shaman's 'therapist' wife, let's call her Agatha, hit the gong and called that it was time to meditate. I thought to myself: Meditate? What the fuck? I am high as a kite! Somehow most people had managed to sit up, some were hugging each other, crying, when Agatha started: Close your eyes and imagine you are holding all the good within you in one hand, and all the bad within you in the other. She had a grating voice, and I had gotten bad vibes from her from her right away. I looked at my pal and he turned to me and mouthed the words: Let's get the fuck out of here. And we did. We stumbled out into the sunshine. It was glorious. We were skipping across the lawn, laughing. We went into the kitchen pantry and stole a melon that we cut up and ate. It was the best goddamn tasting Cantaloupe melon ever! After a little while the Home Depot guy showed up. He had wiped his tears, but looked anything but happy. We offered him some melon, and some nuts and crackers that we had gotten out of our individual secret stashes -- shit bought at DM in Berlin. He hesitated, because we were supposed to be fasting, but he was hungry, and eventually started eating. He immediately brightened up. Then we walked down to a little creek, and sat by the slow-flowing water, while monkeys played in the trees above us. We talked for hours. As the high subsided, it left an euphoric residue that made everything shimmer, as if imbued with both magic and love. Which everything is.
The Home depot guy told us about his suffering, his inability to enjoy life, his depression and anxiety. He loved his girlfriend and his son, he said, but yet found himself pondering the meaning of life to the point that everything seemed pointless. I could relate. Existential anxiety has been a life-long companion, although it had subsided considerably. He was desperate for change and for healing. Online research had led him to ayahuasca and this retreat. He was reluctant to dismiss the shaman, his wife and the retreat as bullshit, probably both because of the money he had invested and because of his desperation. He wanted this to work. He wanted to be transformed.
I felt embarrassed to be a part of this. I wanted to leave right then and there. I was locked up in some gated community out in the sticks, when there was so much to see in this country. A country with a horrific and quite recent past. A past that coloured the present. The owner of the yoga center was a white woman. All the workers, the cooks, the gardeners, the cleaners, were black. All retreat participants, expect for the Home Depot guy and the lady from Ivory Coast were white.
And when my pal and I found out the code to open the gate, and started sneaking out, going up the road, to The Black Horse Tavern, a restaurant and bar, to eat pizza and drink wine instead of Ayahuasca, we discovered that the owners of the place were white, all the service staff and cooks black. And I didn't like the tone of voice the whites had when they spoke to their staff ...
On Day 5 we drank mescaline again. I loved the high of this so called 'plant medicine.' First, I vomited violently, and then I felt happy and connected. But that I should meditate while under the influence of a powerful psychedelic seemed absolutely ludicrous. And I didn't understand why people felt so bad? Why there was so much crying, so many panic attacks, so much fear of dying? Was it because people were weak from fasting? Or because psychedelics aren't for everyone, and maybe people should be carefully screened before participating in something like this? Or because taking drugs day and night is too much for almost everyone?
At some point I happened to see the Home Depot guy, after crying hysterically during his 'Father meditation' reaching out to Agatha in the staircase of the main building, saying that he needed to talk to her. She answered in a stressed voice: do you mean like a five minute chat or a consultation? That costs X amount of rand (South African currency). I seriously wanted to punch her when I heard that.
And I wanted to punch the shaman when, during a circle gathering, when the troubled pot smoker girl from Berlin, looking like a ghost with sunken eyes and pasty skin, said that her whole body told her to feed it, and the shaman said: Well, if you really, really need to, you could have a piece of banana or a grape!
The shaman, by the way, loved to hear his own voice. He did a lot of mansplaining on a wide variety of subjects. He loved to be in the spotlight. This would have been fine. But he was a terribly poor listener, and he always just left the room before people had come down from their trips or journeys or encounters with the mother or whatever the fuck you want to call them. And not only that, there was no screening whatsoever for any of his events. If you have the money just come along. This is a bit like Yoga Teacher Trainings, but at YTTs no psycho-active substances are served, substances that that have been known to trigger psychotic episodes and even cause a serious and chronic mental illness schizophrenia to manifest itself, if you are predisposed.
On Day 7 or 8 it was time to ingest Ibogaine.
I remember hearing about Ibogaine in the late nineties, while I lived in New York. The girlfriend of a friend of mine, who had been fighting a losing battle against heroin for years, was flown to somewhere in Central America, on her parents's hard-earned dollars, as a last desperate attempt to beat her addiction. She was taking ibogaine in a hospital setting, supervised by doctors and nurses. Since the 1960's there has been claims that ibogaine can successfully help people overcome heroin addiction. And this woman was indeed clean for many years after she returned. Then I moved away and we lost touch.
There are many interesting studies on the therapeutic effects of psychedelics, and even substances like MDMA and Ketamine. A few of my friends had very intense experiences with ayahuasca, that begun to shift something deep within them. And, as I wrote earlier, I consider my first LSD trip, to also be my first spiritual experience.
While everyone else was clutching their puke buckets, on their mattresses in the shala (where I couldn't stand to be anymore, I kept wondering how the poor owner lady was going to restore the energy in the room once the retreat was over), my pal and I were outside, by the pool, slathering sun screen on our Nordic bodies and listening to the shaman. He told us that in small doses Ibogaine acted more like cocaine; like an upper, and had been used by warriors to sharpen their senses for hunting. We ingested small amounts of the ground up bark -- it tasted surprisingly little. The shaman went to the shala, iphone in hand, while my pal and I kicked back in the sun for a little while. And sure enough, pretty soon we felt pretty 'on.' I could feel my jaw tensing up. We punched in the code for the gate, which rattled open, and let us loose. We walked up to the Black Horse Tavern, sat down in the shade, ordered some crisp South African Sauvignon Blanc, feeling pretty fucking good. We drank and chatted until the ibogaine wore off and we were left tipsy. We were making plans for Johannesburg, for Kruger Park.
I couldn't wait to be out of there.
Beyond the 'Transformation Retreat' South Africa was enchanting. I found Johannesburg to be vibrant and interesting. And seeing all the wild animals close up in Kruger Park blew my mind.
I know that a lot of people who participated in the retreat were disappointed and felt cheated.
The shaman still continues making money in so-called healing. After the retreat I was bombarded by emails from his venture pushing micro-drops of ayahuasca. And now he has a 'healing center' in the West Indies somewhere. I long ago unsubscribed from his mailing list, but before I did, I checked out the pricing, which was quite steep.
I'm not saying that Ayahuasca is bad. I am just saying that there are a lot of people out there wanting to make a buck out of your search for meaning and purpose. Be careful.