Something else to be wary of: India syndrome

We received our latest pre-yatra “newsletter” and, in a few words, it described how India can really turn you inside out, how it offers up a spirituality ingrained into the fabric of life and landscape that is extremely alien to our Western way of thinking.

For those going on the Namarupa yatra, this potential awakening is the point. It’s a positive. It’s a goal.

But it apparently can also be very, very dangerous. Perhaps you can imagine that I raised a healthy eyebrow when I saw a few mentions of “India syndrome.” It’s popped up on the Internet’s radar thanks to a piece in the latest Details magazine. A link to the story online is right here.

Here’s the crux:

Some are drawn by accounts of the powers of dedicated practitioners—yogis who can levitate, breathe for months while entombed underground, melt giant swaths of snow with their body heat—believing that they too will be able to accomplish extraordinary things. This quest to become superhuman—along with culture shock, emotional isolation, illicit drugs, and the physical toll of hard-core meditation—can cause Western seekers to lose their bearings. Seemingly sane people get out of bed one day claiming they’ve discovered the lost continent of Lemuria, or that the end of the world is nigh, or that they’ve awakened their third eye. Most recover, but some become permanently delusional. A few vanish or even turn up dead.


India syndrome may not be an officially recognized disease, but many doctors are convinced it’s real. Kalyan Sachdev, the medical director of Privat Hospital in New Delhi, says that his facility admits about a hundred delusional Westerners a year, many of whom had been practicing yoga around the clock. “There’s the physical side of yoga and the psychic side, and sometimes people get it all out of order,” he says. “Peaceful people can get aggressive even if they haven’t taken any drugs.” His treatment tends to be simple: Send them home as soon as possible. “People come to us with acute psychotic symptoms,” he says. “But you put them on the plane and they are completely all right.” Sunil Mittal, the head of the psychiatric unit at Cosmos Institute for Mental Health & Behavioral Sciences in New Delhi, recently had to send police to retrieve a California woman who’d overstayed her visa and refused to leave an ashram outside Rishikesh. There, Mittal says, she danced erotically in the courtyard each night for the yogis and was often observed in a “trancelike state.” His prescription for her was also a return flight home.

The piece goes on from there, describing individual cases with which the author — who lived in India — is familiar. The most jarring is the story of the 21-year-old woman who jumped to her death not long after writing in her journal, “I am a Bodhisattva.” Our fundamental Yoga Sutras get a mention — as does Ashtanga.

It’s scary stuff — which certainly is one of the story’s points. You’ve got to catch attention, get readers, sell magazines, get clicks on the website. It’s also, as a result, in some ways something easily dismissed. The stories gathered are the most extremes, the few of the few that are the basis for this syndrome.  There’s no news in someone going to India, enjoying the trip — even learning valuable lessons — and then returning home, a better person for the experience. Man needs to bite dog, as the old journalism saying goes.

The key part of the piece, for me, is when the author notes this question: Was being in India what caused someone to get unhinged, or was that person unhinged already? India perhaps is just our latest exotic, spiritual frontier; similar types of syndromes (as the author also mentions) have a long history.

Posted by Steve

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Two Ashtangis write about their practice and their teachers.

6 thoughts on “Something else to be wary of: India syndrome”

  1. Oh gosh…I hope Astra-Zenaca comes out with a drug to fix all those “crazy” people who give up all their worldly possessions in search for the truth. What’s this world coming to?

  2. I once had a chat with a woman who volunteered for six months in an Indian ashram and who said what shocked her most was how many people didn’t even give an emergency contact name/number when registering, saying that there was no one close enough to them. Seems there’s been an underlying problem even before India allegedly “messed up” these people.

  3. We all are, ultimately, seeking answers to the questions that have always been asked, right? “Why am I here, what is my purpose, is there a God?” When great joy, great boredom, or great suffering finally wakes us up to what it is we are missing, we begin the search, and for many, the search leads to yoga, and ultimately to India.

    Certainly, most who turn to yoga and other mindfulness practices are eventually searching not just for “six pack abs”, but for the answers to these questions. Many, too, feel a need to belong to a community of like minded people. Some can even use it as a form of therapy or self-medication (we’ve all probably known the Ashtanga practitioner who can get a little “addicted” to the practice!)

    In 20 years of doing yoga, I have only known one student who suffered from severe mental illness. This person’s presence was disturbing, even frightening, to everyone. He was angry and lost, yet, he knew he was angry and lost, and he was trying desperately to find healing and solace through the practice, too, just like anyone else. I did my best to help him when he came to me as a student for a time, but what was ailing him was not something I was qualified or equipped to address, and I told him so. Yoga was not the answer for him – while it helped, it could not cure him. Yet, he was so hopeful that in Yoga was the key to curing to his illness, that he placed great faith in it’s efficacy.

    I felt, and still feel, great compassion for this person and hope very much that he finds some solace and healing in his life. Without getting into the sad and somewhat scary historical details, ultimately, he has had to acknowledge that Western medicine was the best means to address his illness, and, now on proper medication, he is more stable. But, he can never be off his meds, for the rest of his life, no matter how much he practices Yoga.

    I suspect there are often people like this, who fall through the cracks of the health care system, who go off of, or refuse, their medication, and who also find the means to travel to India, seeking answers and healing. Who can blame them, as the side-effects of many of these drugs are terrible? They are seeking answers, and they go in the hope that, in an ashram, meditating for hours every day and doing intense kriya and asana, that they will find healing, some solace, a sense of community.

    Frankly, I find it kind of callous that the mental health professional in India just puts them on a plane to “cure” them. It sounds more like, “Not my problem any longer – let the family in the US deal with it.” It’s hard to believe a plane ride home cures a psychotic episode!

  4. I am search of answers and hopefully solutions.
    My 19 year old daughter went to India to volunteer in December 2012. March 26, 2013…3 short months…Something terrible happened as we were contacted by the volunteer group and a hospital that our daughter was being wild and violent and that we needed to pick her up as she was unable to travel alone. We live in Chicago, Illinois. The India hospital had diagnosed my daughter as Bi-Polar Mania. We were told that she had become extremely violent, destroying other volunteers and the family she was with personal property and they could not control her and that is why they took her to the hospital. At the hospital, she was so uncontrollable they had to sedate her and strap her down. She had to be heavily drugged to safely bring her back to America. She has been home for 2 weeks so far and her behavior is not violent, but her mind is totally gone. She speaks of wild things, she thinks she is the next gandhi, she believes the world has ended and re-started, she thinks she knows the truth about everything and everyone, she hears voices talking to her, she has horrible vivid dreams and comes to me in the middle of the night crying and upset. She talks constantly of astrology and numbers and how she knows the truth about the world. She believes she has all the answers to everything, to infinity.

    We have taken her to a psychiatrist who seems only to be going along with this India psychiatrist that diagnosed her bipolar within 24 hours. I do not believe she is bipolar as she never exhibited such behavior prior to India. I need help and I need answers. My ex-husband is going along with the Dr’s and buying their diagnosis. I cannot. I know my daughter, I know who she was and I want her back. I am asking if you know how I can get my baby girl back to who she was. I miss her so much. This person she has become is so scary and even she admitted to me that she is scared, but her fear is because she believes that she knows everything and the truth of life and death. What happened to my child? How can I help bring her back to realty? I will do anything, please, please, please help me, I am desperate to have my daughter back to who she was.

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