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Experiences on Retreat
"I did a weeklong retreat in August / September and it was absolutely incredible. Everything from the staff, service, accommodations, attention and support was 5 stars. This was my favorite retreat center as of yet and I was able to really go deep into my process while feeling held and safe. The team was so attentive, sweet, caring and amazing people! The food was so good, Jesse please create a cookbook! Everything was curated from beginning to end with absolute focus on every detail, and for that I am grateful. I will definitely come back and continue to refer others there! Thank you again!!! Monika"
"I was extremely impressed with the installations; the experience and skill of the facilitators; the experience and skill of the Shipibo healers; and the chef's creative, healthy and delicious offerings. Soltara is a serious and dedicated healing center. There is a good staff to participant ratio (four facilitators for 20 guests) so there are plenty of opportunities to get orientation, advice or support. My only complaint is that the road between my housing and the ceremony site was very steep, which was a challenge with my mobility issue. (I needed up getting rides up the hill from the staff as needed.) Same with hiking down the steep little path to the beach. "
"If you are looking for a quality retreat center, look no further. This was my first time drinking ayahausca, and it was the most transformative experience of my life. Sharon, Sandra, and Ino were a huge part of this. These people are trustworthy, masters of their craft, and will never take advantage of you! Plus, the retreat itself is organized and well-run. Everything is on time, the facilities are always clean, and the food is incredible! I can't recommend this place more!"
"I had the! Most incredible heart wrenching experience in my entire life! What a beautiful experience with Ayahuasca medicine. She did a work in me that No medication has or ever will do for me. She Has Healed Me! And I am so honored and humbled by such a incredibly beautiful ceremony. She put me through the battle of my life, and because of her and her help I WON, that battle! The ceremony was unbelievable,Taiata was so unbelievable in helping me get thru this toughest time in my life. He is the man I would want anyone to lead them in ceremony. The staff and volunteers at Pachamama were so instrumental in my healing. They stayed by my side thru my entire experience. They knew exactly, when I needed their help and guidance and knew exactly when to let me go to fight thru my battle on my own. I can never thank them enough from the bottom of my heart for what they’ve done for me. My body, mind and spirit were healing during this weekend retreat. I could literally feel my body being healed within. I continue feel Ayahuasca healing me. It’s amazing! What an amazing beautiful experience I had at Pachamama. The ceremony and music were so incredibly beautiful. This experience will live with me for the rest of my life. I wish had done this many years ago. So much junk was lifted from me. I’m forever grateful to everyone at Pachamama for their true gifts that they have been blessed with to lead others to true healing. Thank you all again from the deepest depths of my heart and soul. Robert"
"Taita provides a unique experience with plant medicine with his clear vision and compassionate attention to detail. His integration of spirituality, science, and beautiful music makes this work to be something to not be missed. "
"I cannot say enough good things about this place! The staff was excellent, the ceremony was transformative and cleansing and my fellow participants were welcoming and open-minded no matter where they happened to be on their journey. If you are a mid-level or high-level seeker, this is the place you need to be to prepare yourself for the next big step in your evolution!"
"It’s easy to understand why someone would have such revelations at a place like this. This experience was not a mind blowing astral journey for me. The Mother Aya didn’t see it necessary for me. Instead it was a healing space that was nurtured the whole time by a team of people that were unified in efforts to create space where ayahuasca could/would have the greatest benefit for the seeker. The space is in earlier stages, but even saying that now I’m amazed at what these folks have accomplished. It’s not a surprise to me that this is culminating so quickly. I’m extremely excited to see what’s next for these folks at pachamama. I’m not sure I’ve ever had this kind of experience before. I really am not sure how to convey the actual “experience”. Typical psychs don’t provide this kind of experience. Nevertheless I was completely taken back by how personally meaningful the journey was for me. Thank you also to Carla, she was extremely helpful in moving some really heavy negative energy for me. Which I was having a hard time getting rid of on my own. I may have had another experience altogether if it had not been for Derek and Carla helping me through that, and having the foresight to see what I was dealing with and being proactive in doing what they could to help me. There’s a ton of love, power, non-judgement, and peace at pachamama. I was blessed with being able to experience all of these things. Thank you all very much. I feel an almost complete reset. I’m ready to reverberate that love that was shared through my local community. Thank you so much again. I look forward to serving in any way I can to help the sanctuary in the future."
"I came without big hopes an total neutral state of mind and then i was blown away ..."
"What a beautiful and magical weekend. The connection to myself, spirit and all of the other wonderful people around me was truly amazing, I didn't want for it to end. Thank you Derek for creating and holding such and an amazing place for all of us to grow, heal and create the life that we desire in our hearts. Thank you Freddy for allowing spirit to guide you, for sharing your insights, for channeling the sound of love and creation through your music. It was truly healing and inspirational in so many ways. Love you brother! Bill H."
"The staff, and volunteers are very kind and professional. The experience is very much rooted in spiritual tradition and practice. The experience that I had here has changed my life for the better. I set down so many burdens here. I am forever grateful for Derek, Freddie, and Mama Ayahuasca for helping me find my way home to my heart. Shout out to Amelia and Guy! Love you all so much"
"I had the absolute honor of attending a sacred Ayahuasca retreat with Freddy Larrosa this past weekend. I was so excited to go on this journey for myself and when I arrived I felt at home, sitting around the fire with this group of people who somehow felt like I had met before felt like I was camping with a great group of friends. They fed us beautiful food and the ceremonies were incredibly more than I could even have imagined. I'll forever be grateful to pachamama sanctuary, all the staff and volunteers and grandmother Ayahuasca for giving me exactly what I needed in my life, clarity and direction for my continuing spiritual journey to myself."
"My experience I had with Pachamama and their staff is hard to put in words. I felt completely safe and the environment they’ve created there is sacred for truly healing and coming back into wholeness. What Derek and the staff have created at Pachamama is very special, and a perfect opportunity for those willing to do the hard work to reclaim their lives and power back. I will be forever grateful for the experience. "
"Wonderful location, brilliant team, profound experience. I got what I came for and more. Very authentic and beautifully magical experience across 4 ceremonies with the Shipibo healers. Definitely recommend for anyone who wants to explore and transform their inner world and get in touch with the truth."
"Soltara and the Shipibo tradition changed my life. Everything that happens and provided here is thoroughly and thoughtfully prepared. The facilitators and maestro / maestra were simply incredible. My experience at Soltara sets the highest bar for quality of experience. And I haven't even mentioned the food yet, which is worth the trip by itself. The price was especially quality - in fact, upon departing, I felt like I hadn't given them enough for what they provided to me. 5 stars on this review is not enough. Soltara deserves 11 stars on a 10 star scale. Deeply grateful for everything that is what Soltara provides."
"If you are having any type of troubles this place will change your life. I left a completely different person. I have a whole new outlook on life and a whole new awareness of myself. The people at Bluestone are magical. I can't thank them enough for making me a better person. "
"OMG! you want to talk about transformation, love, passion. This was one of the BEST experiences ever SUPER powerful, highly recommend "
"Peruvian traditional Shipibo tribe way of plant medicine ceremony in the cleaning safely secured place with experienced Shipibo shamans and facilitators. Beautiful facility, friendly people, delicious healthy foods and drinks, amazing location."
"It feels as though the right words don't exist to encapsulate my experience at Soltara. Everything about this retreat far exceeded my expectations (and mind you, my expectations were already high!). So much personal work and transformation was achieved this week. I left feeling inexplicably grateful, and honestly, pretty proud of myself. Ayahuasca is not a magic pill, but I can say with sincerity that I am forever changed by this experience. I left with a whole lot more understanding and love for myself. Not to mention a new family of souls that I love and cherish with all of my heart. It is no coincidence who ayahuasca brings into your circle. <3 Our beautiful facilitators Jen, Paolo, Jessica, Valko, and Will all gave every ounce of their being to ensuring that we all felt completely seen and supported. They each bring an incredible depth of knowledge about plant medicine in general and ayahuasca specifically. They are experts at holding the most safe and sacred space imaginable for all the emotional and spiritual tumult that can erupt throughout this experience. Jen's wisdom about Buddhism, the Tao, the Enneagram, mindfulness based meditation, psychology, and integration was instrumental to me and my process throughout the week. Despite having just met one another, Jen instantly made me feel so comfortable and understood. She gave me exactly the feedback and guidance that I needed; she is intuitive beyond measure and an incredibly gifted communicator. Paolo's connection to divine spirit and to Peruvian culture and world views helped me go even deeper with this medicine. Wise yet playful, she facilitated some really powerful opportunities to connect with my inner child that truly accelerated my healing with this medicine. Jess is such a beautiful and relatable yoga practitioner; the classes she lead allowed me to feel at home in my body and my breath and that much more aligned in my work with this medicine. Her honesty and guidance was a huge influence on my experience and my healing this week. She really understands human nature from all angles, and made me feel so much kinship throughout my journey at Soltara. Valko brought so much nurturing energy and sincerity to the healing environment this week. He was always ready to give of himself and share, and to listen and empathize. Will's presence at Soltara is inexplicably comforting. His willingness to share his own personal journey with this medicine was incredibly helpful and inspiring. He made me feel so safe and so taken care of every single day. Last but not least, the shamans at Soltara are incredible, the real deal and then some. I am still blown away by their ability to channel spirit and give me exactly the experience I needed. Onto the place itself and the grounds: The photos do not do justice! The grounds are simply stunning and so well maintained. The common spaces are beautiful, comfortable, and clean - totally conducive to making memories with the group. I chose to stay in one of the Eco Tambo's and I loved every minute of it. It had everything I needed (and more), and I loved waking up to my view of the jungle and the sound of the birds. I appreciated being closer to the Maloka, and the distance to the bathroom was totally comfortable and doable. It was really nice that I still got cleaning service as with the fancier rooms. The food at Soltara is unbelievable!!!!! Jesse is such a talent. All in all, this one one of the most remarkable experiences of my life (probably tied with giving birth to my son). It was certainly the most profoundly spiritual experience of my life. My heart is so full. If you feel called to sit with mother ayahuasca, it would be impossible to find a more ethical and supportive environment than Soltara. I love this place with all my heart. "
"My weekend was the most beautiful experience of my life. The people who help run Pachamama sanctuary, like Derek, Tara and Giampiero are absolutely amazing people, and I am grateful for there help, and also to have been able to share my experience with them and the 30 other or so participants. I met beautiful people that I hope to connect with after the ceremony. Marco Gonzales and his brother are incredible. The music played throughout the ceremony was the best music i have ever heard. I left with strong feelings of gratitude and love. Thank you Pachamama!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!"
"Don Rono is an amazing spirit. I feel blessed to have participated in this retreat with him. I'm so grateful for his care and support in my healing!"
"If magic existing in our World, so that is in the Soul Quest Ayahuaska Mother Church. I can't find enough words, to thank all the stuff, for how they used to care for all of those, who used to participated for last weekend, including myself, for life changing Ayahuaska Retreat. Each detail, each step used to be thought, to make our stay unforgettable. I will remember this Place, these special, lovely, attentive people who helped me to experience such a wonderful journey. It was really a life changing journey. I love you guys all, and definitely will come back someday. Yelena. "
"This place is top notch. First time sitting with the medicine, and i felt like I was flying on a private jet. Now, I can never go back to standard economy. Everything from the food, accommodations, attention to detail, facilitators' experience and care.... EVERYTHING was a 10/10. Can't wait to come back when the time is right. Thank you Soltara!"
"I can only give 5 stars? Just not enough "
"I was treated like family as soon as I walked in. Derek and everyone was so incredibly supportive. To say Professional would take away from it. They don't help you like it's a job they do it to guide you on your journey like they have experienced. The shamans guidance though the experience was ........ well.... I can't put it into words that's something ya have to go through to understand. Overall I think I have my go to for a experience like this."
"Mind altering, life changing, fantastic experience!!! Best thing I have even done for myself with the help of mother and the incredible staff. So grateful so thankful!!!"
"My wife and I had such a beautiful, astonishing experience with the people at Pachamama. It was full of revelations and fellowship, there was no sense of judgement only acceptance. The crew were all incredibly kind and helpful. We're going to take some time to process our individual journeys but we'll definitely return to continue communing with these wonderful people."
"This is my second Ayahuasca retreat (the first was at SoulQuest in Orlando) and I found the experience and environment here beautiful. The natural space in NH is amazing. The medicine is excellent (although not quite as strong as the one I experienced at SoulQuest). The staff and volunteers are so kind and caring. My one piece of feedback is that for the integration circles, it might be helpful to break us up into smaller groups, rather than the big large group. That way smaller groups can take more time for each person to go into their experience in a little more detail. I also think small groups really bond with each other and can support each other during their group a little more."
"The entire experience was absolutely amazing. I felt safe and secure in every way. The staff and facilitators were incredible. In terms of my health and healing journey, attending a sacred retreat at Pachamama was the best decision I’ve made. "
"Imagine having a beautiful space in the backwoods of New Hampshire to work through your deepest trauma, surrounded by warmth in a space of love and joy, laughter, and THE BEST hugs. I had such a beautiful experience here, and I will forever be grateful for the pachamama familja. Derek, Freddy and all of the staff and volunteers bring such a warm energy to the space. It’s no coincidence we all found our way here. This weekend allowed me to so simply recognize we all have so much light shining out of our hearts. We just have to open up the shutters and let that light shine through. See you all soon because mama aya has so many more lessons to share with me."
"Americo has a very powerful way of singing which will always stay in my head and heart connected to that beautiful experience I had this sommer at Soltara. I am more connected with female shamans, but nonetheless I have so much gratitude for his work and I hope his power will reach out to the world as he is planing to do. Hopefully I see you again! Thank you!"
America is Getting a (Legal!) Ayahuasca Retreat
Now that marijuana tourism is well and truly active in states like Colorado and Washington, the opening of the nation's first legal Ayahuasca retreat, which happens next month in Washington state, seems somewhat, well, inevitable.
Ayahuasca is a plant that has been prized by indigenous Amazonian cultures for thousands of years. Known to bring about optic and auditory hallucinations, the drink made from the so-called "vine of death" or "yagé" is used primarily for healing and spiritual awakening. Celebrities like Sting, Lindsay Lohan, and Tori Amos have all spoken positively about the drug's power, according to the New York Times, but, until now, it had always been illegal in the U.S., and those who wished to partake had to do so covertly or head to Peru or Brazil.
Ayahuasca Healings has held retreats in Peru for years, aimed at travelers interested in exploring what the website describes as "a doorway to inner worlds that allows us access to higher states of consciousness and the experience of spiritual awakening." Now adventurers don't need to bring their passport when they explore those "inner worlds."
While the Ayahuasca plant isn't illegal in the United States, per se, its active ingredient, known as D.M.T., is banned as a Schedule I drug, the same category as heroin and ecstasy. The U.S. retreat is able to skirt the issue (so far) by establishing themselves as an "independent Native American Church" and using their Constitutionally protected right of the free exercise of religion to imbibe what they call "Mother Ayahuasca," according to Death and Taxes Magazine.
That means that for the first time, parties intent on participating in the spiritual applications of Ayahuasca can try it out, legally, by making a "suggested donation" of $1,497 to $1,997, and heading to the church, which is located about 90 minutes outside of Seattle. Check out the daily schedule of events, including four Ayahuasca ceremonies in four days plus time in a "Native Indian Sweat Lodge" to enhance the experience.
Before you book your ticket, Ayahuasca Healings' website warns that, "Ayahuasca isn't a 'magic pill' or drink that will just heal you," but is simply "a tool in your healing, in your growth, and evolution." If you're still curious, head here for more information.
What Is Ayahuasca? Experience, Benefits, and Side Effects
You may have heard stories of people traveling to foreign destinations to experience taking Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew.
Typically, these anecdotes tend to focus on the immediate effects that take place during an Ayahuasca “trip,” some of which are enlightening, while others are downright distressing.
However, scientists have uncovered several long-term health benefits of taking Ayahuasca.
This article reviews Ayahuasca, including its negative and positive effects on health.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca — also known as the tea, the vine, and la purga — is a brew made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub along with the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, though other plants and ingredients can be added as well ().
This drink was used for spiritual and religious purposes by ancient Amazonian tribes and is still used as a sacred beverage by some religious communities in Brazil and North America, including the Santo Daime.
Traditionally, a shaman or curandero — an experienced healer who leads Ayahuasca ceremonies — prepares the brew by boiling torn leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub and stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine in water.
The Banisteriopsis caapi vine is cleaned and smashed before being boiled to increase the extraction of its medicinal compounds.
When the brew has reduced to the shaman’s liking, the water is removed and reserved, leaving behind the plant material. This process is repeated until a highly concentrated liquid is produced. Once cooled, the brew is strained to remove impurities.
How does it work?
The main ingredients of Ayahuasca — Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis — both have hallucinogenic properties ().
Psychotria viridis contains N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT), a psychedelic substance that occurs naturally in the plant.
DMT is a powerful hallucinogenic chemical. However, it has low bioavailability, as it gets rapidly broken down by enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAOs) in your liver and gastrointestinal tract ().
For this reason, DMT must be combined with something containing MAO inhibitors (MAOIs), which allow DMT to take effect. Banisteriopsis caapi contains potent MAOIs called β-carbolines, which also have psychoactive effects of their own ().
When combined, these two plants form a powerful psychedelic brew that affects the central nervous system, leading to an altered state of consciousness that can include hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and euphoria.
Ayahuasca is a brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis plants. Taking Ayahuasca leads to an altered level of consciousness due to psychoactive substances in the ingredients.
How is Ayahuasca used?
Though Ayahuasca was traditionally used for religious and spiritual purposes by specific populations, it has become popular worldwide among those who seek a way to open their minds, heal from past traumas, or simply experience an Ayahuasca journey.
It’s strongly recommended that Ayahuasca only be taken when supervised by an experienced shaman, as those who take it need to be looked after carefully, as an Ayahuasca trip leads to an altered state of consciousness that lasts for many hours.
Many people travel to countries like Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil, where multi-day Ayahuasca retreats are offered. They’re led by experienced shamans, who prepare the brew and monitor participants for safety.
Before partaking in an Ayahuasca ceremony, it’s recommended that participants abstain from cigarettes, drugs, alcohol, sex, and caffeine to purify their bodies.
It’s also often suggested to follow various diets, such as vegetarianism or veganism, for 2–4 weeks prior to the experience. This is claimed to free the body of toxins.
Ayahuasca ceremony and experience
Ayahuasca ceremonies are usually held at night and last until the effects of Ayahuasca have worn off. After the space is prepared and blessed by the shaman leading the ceremony, Ayahuasca is offered to participants, sometimes split into several doses.
After consuming the Ayahuasca, most people start to feel its effects within 20–60 minutes. The effects are dose-dependent, and the trip can last 2–6 hours ().
Those who take Ayahuasca can experience symptoms like vomiting, diarrhea, feelings of euphoria, strong visual and auditory hallucinations, mind-altering psychedelic effects, fear, and paranoia ().
It should be noted that some of the adverse effects, such as vomiting and diarrhea, are considered a normal part of the cleansing experience.
People react to Ayahuasca differently. Some experience euphoria and a feeling of enlightenment, while others go through severe anxiety and panic. It’s not uncommon for those taking Ayahuasca to experience both positive and negative effects from the brew.
The shaman and others who are experienced in Ayahuasca offer spiritual guidance to participants throughout the Ayahuasca experience and monitor participants for safety. Some retreats have medical staff on hand as well, in case of emergencies.
These ceremonies are sometimes conducted consecutively, with participants consuming Ayahuasca a few nights in a row. Every time you take Ayahuasca, it results in a different experience.
Ayahuasca ceremonies are typically led by an experienced shaman. Ayahuasca takes 20–60 minutes to kick in, and its effects can last up to 6 hours. Typical effects include visual hallucinations, euphoria, paranoia, and vomiting.
Potential benefits of Ayahuasca
Many people who have taken Ayahuasca claim that the experience led to positive, long-term, life-altering changes. This may be due to the effects of Ayahuasca on the neurological system.
Recent research has shown that Ayahuasca may benefit health — particularly brain health — in a number of ways.
May benefit brain health
The main active ingredients in Ayahuasca — DMT and β-carbolines — have been shown to exhibit neuroprotective and neurorestorative qualities in some studies.
DMT activates the sigma-1 receptor (Sig-1R), a protein that blocks neurodegeneration and regulates the production of antioxidant compounds that help protect your brain cells ().
A test-tube study indicated that DMT protected human brain cells from damage caused by lack of oxygen and increased cell survival ().
Harimine, the main β-carboline in Ayahuasca, has been found to have anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and memory-boosting effects in test-tube and animal studies (, ).
It has also been observed to increase levels of brain-derived neurotrophic factor (BDNF), a protein that plays an important role in nerve cell growth and promotes nerve cell survival ().
Additionally, a test-tube study demonstrated that exposure to harmine increased the growth of human neural progenitor cells by over 70% in 4 days. These cells generate the growth of new neural cells in your brain ().
May improve psychological well-being
Research has shown that taking Ayahuasca may increase the mindfulness capacity of your brain and improve your overall psychological well-being.
A study in 20 people indicated that consuming Ayahuasca once weekly for 4 weeks was as effective as an 8-week mindfulness program at increasing acceptance — a component of mindfulness that plays a fundamental role in psychological health ().
Other studies have found similar results, noting that Ayahuasca may improve mindfulness, mood, and emotional regulation ().
A study in 57 people demonstrated that ratings of depression and stress were significantly decreased immediately after the participants consumed Ayahuasca. These effects were still significant 4 weeks following the Ayahuasca consumption ().
They’re mostly attributed to the DMT and β-carbolines in Ayahuasca ().
May help treat addiction, anxiety, treatment-resistant depression, and PTSD
Some research suggests that Ayahuasca may benefit those with depression, post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and addiction disorders.
A study in 29 people with treatment-resistant depression showed that a single dose of Ayahuasca led to significant improvements in depression severity compared with a placebo. Other studies report rapid antidepressant effects of Ayahuasca as well (, ).
Additionally, a review of six studies concluded that Ayahuasca showed beneficial effects in treating depression, anxiety, mood disorders, and drug dependence ().
Several studies have focused on the effects of Ayahuasca on addiction disorders, including addictions to crack cocaine, alcohol, and nicotine — with promising results ().
In one study, 12 people with severe psychological and behavioral issues related to substance abuse participated in a 4-day treatment program that included 2 Ayahuasca ceremonies.
At a 6-month follow up, they demonstrated significant improvements in mindfulness, hopefulness, empowerment, and overall quality of life. Plus, self-reported use of tobacco, cocaine, and alcohol significantly declined ().
Researchers hypothesize that Ayahuasca may help those with PTSD as well, though more research in this area is needed ().
According to current research, Ayahuasca may protect brain cells and stimulate neural cell growth. It may also boost mood, improve mindfulness, and treat depression and addiction disorders, though more research is needed to confirm these effects.
Considerations and potential side effects
While taking part in an Ayahuasca ceremony may seem alluring, consuming this psychedelic brew can lead to serious, even deadly, side effects.
First, even though many of the unpleasant side effects that are usually experienced during an Ayahuasca trip, such as vomiting, diarrhea, paranoia, and panic, are considered normal and only temporary, they can be extremely distressing.
Some people report having miserable Ayahuasca experiences, and there is no guarantee that you will react favorably to the concoction.
What’s more, ayahuasca can interact dangerously with many medications, including antidepressants, psychiatric medications, drugs used to control Parkinson’s disease, cough medicines, weight loss medications, and more ().
Those with a history of psychiatric disorders, such as schizophrenia, should avoid Ayahuasca, as taking it could worsen their psychiatric symptoms and result in mania ().
Additionally, taking Ayahuasca can increase your heart rate and blood pressure, which may result in dangerous side effects if you have a heart condition ().
There have been several reported deaths due to Ayahuasca consumption, but they may be due to the addition of other ingredients or dosing issues. Death has never been reported in a clinical trial on Ayahuasca (, ).
Aside from these dangers, participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony means putting your life in the shaman’s hands, as they’re in charge of the ingredients added to the brew, as well as determining proper dosing and monitoring you for potentially life-threatening side effects.
There have been reports of Ayahuasca retreats being offered by untrained individuals, who are not well-versed in the preparation, dosing, or side effects of Ayahuasca, putting participants in danger.
Moreover, though there have been promising findings related to the health benefits of Ayahuasca, these benefits were mostly related to clinical studies in which the preparation and dosing of the concoction were carefully controlled.
Treatment for psychological disorders, such as depression and PTSD, should only be offered by medical professionals, and those living with these conditions should not seek symptom relief by participating in Ayahuasca ceremonies.
Overall, more research is needed to determine whether Ayahuasca can be used as a potential treatment for certain medical conditions by doctors in the future.
Taking Ayahuasca can result in serious side effects, as it can interact with many medications and may worsen some medical conditions. Those with medical conditions should not seek symptom relief by participating in an Ayahuasca ceremony.
The bottom line
Ayahuasca is made from parts of the Psychotria viridis shrub and Banisteriopsis caapi vine.
It has powerful hallucinogenic properties and may cause both positive and negative health effects.
Much more research is needed to determine whether it can be used as a safe alternative treatment for certain health conditions.
If you’re interested in participating in an Ayahuasca experience, be sure to do your research and know that safety is not guaranteed — even if the Ayahuasca is prepared and delivered by an experienced shaman.
The brutal mirror
When I finally puked on the fourth night, I felt an odd sense of pride.
Inside the loud, stuffy ceremony room, people were laughing, crying, chanting, gyrating, and, yes, vomiting, around me. When my time finally comes, I think: Just aim for the bucket and keep your ass above your head like the shaman told you.
I try to wipe my face but can’t grab the tissue paper because it melts every time I reach for it. Nearby, a man starts to scream. I can’t make out what he’s saying on account of the shaman singing beautiful Colombian songs in the other room.
I finish vomiting and start crying and laughing and smiling all at once. Something has been lifted in this “purge,” something dark and deep I was carrying around for years. Relief washes over me, and I slowly make my way back to my mattress on the floor.
For four consecutive nights, a group of 78 of us here at a retreat center in Costa Rica have been drinking a foul-tasting, molasses-like tea containing ayahuasca, a plant concoction that contains the natural hallucinogen known as DMT.
We’re part of a wave of Westerners seeking out ayahuasca as a tool for psychological healing, personal growth, or expanding consciousness.
I flew to Costa Rica hoping to explode my ego. And I was not prepared for what happened. Ayahuasca turned my life upside down, dissolving the wall between my self and the world. I also stared into what I can only describe as the world’s most honest mirror. It was a Clockwork Orange-like horror show, and it was impossible to look away. But Isaw what I needed to see when I was ready to see it.
Ayahuasca exposes the gap between who you think you are and who you actually are. In my case, the gap was immense, and the pain of seeing it for the first time was practically unbearable.
An ayahuasca boom
Ayahuasca remains a fringe psychological medicine, but it’s slowly working its way into the mainstream. Until fairly recently, you had to travel to South America if you wanted to experiment with the plant, but now ayahuasca ceremonies are popping up in the United States and Europe.
Indigenous people in countries like Colombia and Peru have been brewing the concoction for thousands of years, mostly for religious or spiritual purposes. It’s considered a medicine, a way to heal internal wounds and reconnect with nature.
It wasn’t until 1908 that Western scientists acknowledged its existence; British botanist Richard Spruce was the first to study it and write about the “purging” it invokes. He was mainly interested in classifying the vines and leaves that made up the magic brew, and in understanding its role in Amazonian culture.
Ayahuasca emerged again in the early 1960s with the counterculture movement. Beat writers like William Burroughs, Allen Ginsberg, and Jack Kerouacall described their experiences with ayahuasca, most famously in Burroughs’s book The Yage Letters. Scientist-hippies like Terence McKenna and Timothy Leary then went to South America to research and experience the drug firsthand. All of this helped bring ayahuasca into Western culture, but it was never truly popularized.
Today, the tea is having a bit of a moment.
Celebrities like Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and Chelsea Handler have spoken about their experiences with it. “I had all these beautiful images of my childhood and me and my sister laughing on a kayak, and all these beautiful things with me and my sister,” Handler told the New York Post after her first ayahuasca trip. “It was very much about opening my mind to loving my sister, and not being so hard on her.”
Handler’s experience appears to be common. The scientific evidence on ayahuasca is limited, but it is known to activate repressed memories in ways that allow people to come to a new understanding of their past. In some cases, it helps people work through memories of traumatic events, which is why neuroscientists are beginning to study ayahuasca as a treatment for depression and PTSD. (There are physical and psychological risks to taking it as well — it can interfere with medication and exacerbate existing psychiatric conditions.)
What I was looking for
My interest in ayahuasca was specific: I wanted to cut through the illusion of selfhood. Psychedelics have a way of tearing down our emotional barriers. You feel plugged into something bigger than yourself, and — for a moment, at least — the sensation of separation melts away.
Buddhists, cognitive scientists, and philosophers have all made persuasive arguments that there is nothing like a “fixed self,” no thinker behind our thoughts, no doer behind our deeds. There is only consciousness and immediate experience; everything else is the result of the mind projecting into the past or the future.
But this is a difficult truth to grasp in everyday life. Because you’re conscious, because it’s like something to be you, it’s very easy to believe that a wall exists between your mind and the world. If you’re experiencing something, then there must be a “you” doing the experiencing. But the “you” in this case is just an abstraction; it’s in your mind, not out there in the world.
I spent about five years as a philosophy graduate student and another few as a teacher. I understood these arguments in intellectual terms but not in experiential terms. I’ve tried meditating, and I’m terrible at it. My mind is a parade of discordant thoughts, and as a result, I’m rarely present — in conversations, during meditation, in daily life.
One way to escape this trap, I hope, is to get the hell out of my head.
There are many ways to reach the truth of non-selfhood. Think of it as a mountain peak, with meditators and certain spiritual traditions ascending different sides. Psychedelic drugs offer a kind of shortcut; you get a glimpse of this higher truth without all those years of serious, disciplined practice.
That shortcut is what I was after.
Night 1: dread
The approach at this retreat center, called Rythmia, is all-encompassing. During the day they pamper you with all the luxuries of a wellness retreat — massages, volcanic mud baths, organic food, yoga classes, colonic cleanses. Then at night, you drink ayahuasca and put yourself through emotional and physical hell.
One of the first things I was told is that I had to enter the ayahuasca ceremony with a clear goal or question in mind: What do you want to learn about yourself?
The trained facilitators who led the ceremonies recommend that you begin with a simple request: Show me who I’ve become.
The question implies that at some point you lost yourself, that when you were a child, your soul was pure, open, uncorrupted by culture. As you enter society, you lose that childlike love for the world. You start to judge yourself by external standards. You compare yourself to friends, neighbors, and peers. You develop an ego, an identity, and your well-being becomes bound up with these constructs.
There’s nothing new about these ideas, but they strike me as true all the same. So I decide to focus on self-discovery.
It’s now 5:15 pm, and the first ceremony starts in 15 minutes. I’m terrified. “Do I really want to see what I’ve become?” I keep asking. I’m pretty sure I won’t like the answer — almost no one does, it seems.
The doors open, and all 78 of us here for this week-long session pour into the ceremony room, called the “flight deck.” The room is big, divided into three sections, and there are two bathrooms on each side. It’s dimly lit, and mattresses are lined up on the floor against the walls. The beds are only a few inches apart. At the foot of each mattress is a roll of toilet paper and a blue or red bucket.
I pounce on the first mattress I see; it’s near the door and just a few feet from the bathroom. I feel safe here. To my right is Chad, a photographer from Ontario who looks as nervous as I am but somehow seems more prepared for this. To my left is a giant window that opens to a view of the courtyard.
There’s a nervous collective energy. Almost everyone here is doing ayahuasca for the first time, and we’re all scared shitless. They announce the first call to drink, and I make my way to the front of the line. One by one, we take our cups, silently reflect on the intention for the evening, and then drink.
It’s my turn to drink. The stuff is nasty, like a cup of motor oil diluted with a splash of water. I throw it back like a shot of cheap bourbon.
We’re instructed to sit up and lean against the wall after the first cup. The tea takes at least 30 minutes to work its way through the body. I sit quietly for 45 minutes, maybe an hour, and then I lie down on my mattress and wait.
Nothing happens. I feel a little dizzy but nothing overwhelming. I go outside, walk around a bit, feel my feet in the grass. Then they announce a call for the second drink. I remember the mantra here: “Drink, don’t think.” If you can hear the call, if you can move your body, you drink. So I awkwardly drag myself out of bed and head to the front for a second cup.
About 30 minutes pass, and I start to feel ... strange. I can see colors, shapes, and shifting shadows on the wall. I’m nervous that something is about to happen, so I go outside and gather myself. I settle in one of the hammocks and stare at the stars.
Suddenly the stars start to spin in a clockwise direction. Then a little faster. Then, for reasons that escape me, I start yelling at the moon. So it goes, for what feels like an hour or two. I keep hurling those two questions at the heavens but get no answers, no insights, just silence and spinning.
I walk back inside and collapse in my bed. For the rest of the night, I see sporadic visions of geometric figures, a few flashes of light, but that’s about it. Then one of the assistants starts to ring a gentle bell.
It’s 2 am, and it’s time to close the ceremony.
Night 2: “Don’t fight the medicine”
The next day I realize why I had no great revelations on the first night. I couldn’t let go. I thought I was prepared for the trip, but anxiety got the better of me. As soon as I thought something — anything — was about to happen, I tried to think myself out of the experience.
Tonight will be different. I’m going to stay in the moment, stay with my breath, and see what happens.
The facilitator is Brad, a kind, aggressively tanned guy from Indianapolis who was trained in ayahuasca by a tribe in Peru. The facilitators play an important role each night, even though there isn’t much one-on-one interaction. They set the tone, guide the ceremony, explain where the medicine came from and how it works, and they assist the people who need it throughout the night.
Brad tells us to let go and give in. “Don’t fight the medicine,” he says. “Just listen.”
It’s cooler tonight, but there’s a warm breeze rolling through the room. Most of the people around me are scribbling last-minute notes in their journals; others are sitting stoically waiting for the first call.
I take my first drink around 7:30 pm, though I can’t know for sure because phones and electronics are shut down as soon as you enter the flight deck. My intention is the same as it was the first night: Show me who I’ve become.
I can tell quickly that this will be different. It’s 30 or 40 minutes after the first drink, and already my senses are overwhelmed. Every time I open my eyes, the space around me starts to fold, kind of like what Einstein describes in his theory of relativity. But it also looks like a tightly woven spider web, and when I move my hand it starts to bend.
Before I know it, they make the call for a second drink. “Don’t think, drink,” I keep telling myself. So I stumble to the front and drink another cup. Then things get weird.
I roll onto my right side and see Andrea, a woman from Toronto, struggling to vomit. Brad, the facilitator, had said the Peruvian and Columbian tribes that use ayahuasca see purging — vomiting, diarrhea, crying, laughing, and yawning — as a vital part of the healing the drug brings. When you purge, you’re expelling all the nastiness — the stress, the anxieties, the fears, the regrets, the hatred, the self-loathing.
All of a sudden,Andrea has 40 or 50 yellow snakes gushing out of her mouth and into mine. And then I’m immediately racked with the worst nausea I’ve ever experienced. First I curl up in the fetal position and then I spring onto all fours and try to puke. But I can’t get it out. I stay on my knees for another five or 10 minutes waiting for something to happen. Nothing.
Then I lie back down, roll onto my left shoulder, and am flooded with a resounding message for the rest of the night: It’s not about you! Andrea’s pain and suffering — the snakes — had passed into me, and that was the whole point.
For the rest of the night, maybe another three hours or so, I lie there thinking about how selfish I often am, and about the symbolism of the snakes. The feeling was so powerful that I started to cry. (Side note: people cry a lot on ayahuasca.)
The next day, Andrea tells me that she never managed to purge but that her nausea suddenly disappeared, after which she drifted into a peaceful half-sleep. I don’t know if that occurred around the time I saw those snakes, but the thought of it kept me up that night.
I’m not bothered by the thought of taking on her pain; it’s the whole wild scene — the snakes, the nausea, the visions. I can’t explain any of it and yet it was unshakably authentic.
Night 3: making love tomy wife for the first time — again
I’m halfway through this thing, and so far it’s not at all what I expected. I still haven’t had to confront my past in the way I anticipated I would.
The third ceremony is led by two women. The facilitator is Abby, a young, quietly authoritative woman from Cincinnati who’s assisted by Kat from Montana. Both trained in Peru.
Abby begins by telling us that tonight is about the feminine spirit. “It’s a celebration of creation,” she says, “of birth and renewal.” The idea is calming.
I strike up a conversation with the guy next to me. His name is Brad and he’s another Canadian, a publisher from Toronto. This is his second trip to Rythmia, and he tells me that he plans to sell his business after this. “My whole identity is tied up in that,” he says, and “I don’t want that anymore.”
Before I can respond, there’s the first call to drink. The brew is thicker tonight, and it tastes like wax and vinegar. It hits hard and fast. I am hallucinating within 20 or 30 minutes.
I see myselffloating in my mother’s womb,suspended in fluids and flesh. And then I see her life — it’s not quite like a movie; it’s more like a series of flashing visions that are just clear enough to resonate. I see her pain, her confusion. I see how hard it was for her to have me at 20 years old, and how little I’d thought about that.
I see her and my father, in a college apartment, wondering what the hell they’re going to do next. I realize how fucking terrified I would have been in that spot at that age. A wave of compassion washes over me; whatever resentments I was holding on to drop away.
Then the call for a second drink comes. I drink, walk outside, and then go right back to bed.
The scene shifts and I’m floating in what I assume is a kind of primordial soup. I think I’m a vibrating particle now, and string theory suddenly makes sense in a way I could never explain (I suck at math).
Abby starts to sing songs called icaros, which are performed in ayahuasca ceremonies throughout the Amazon. I sink deeper into a trance. My mind is speeding, and my body is frozen stiff. But a calm takes over me, and I start to smile and laugh.
I roll back onto my right side, and suddenly I see my wife’s face. I relive the first time we made love. We’re in college near a lake on campus. I can see our bikes behind us, the water in front of us, the blanket beneath us, and the grass all around us. I can smell the air. I relive this moment, understanding finally what made it so special.
There was no ego. I wasn’t an isolated “I,” a separate person with a separate consciousness. The feeling, I imagine, isn’t much different from what advanced meditators experience when their sense of self disappears. You simply have no awareness of anything but your body and the moment.
But then the vision turns dark.
I start to see every moment of our relationship in which she reached out to me and I missed it. I see her asking me to go to a meditation class, and I decline. I see her pause to ask me to connect at the peak of a mountain after a long hike in Boulder, Colorado, and I shrug it off. I see her ask me to go dancing at a show near our apartment, and I watch myself mindlessly decline.
I see myself stuck in my own head, my own thoughts, my own impulses. And I see the disappointment on her face. I see her see me miss an opportunity to reconnect.
Then I relive all those moments again, and this time I see myself do or say what I should have done or said. And I see the joy on her face. I see it so clearly that it hurts. I see how much time I wasted, how much love I withheld.
I’m crying again, this time even louder, and the smile on my face is so big that my jaw hurt the next day. And I think about how I’m going to look at my wife when I get back home, and how she’ll know I’m seeing her — really seeing her — for the first time all over again.
Then the bells start to ring, and it’s time to close the ceremony.
Night 4: the most honest mirror you’ll ever see
I knew the fourth night would be rough when I saw the ayahuasca brew (each night it’s a slightly different recipe from a different tribe or region or tradition). It was so thick and oily that you couldn’t drink it. Instead, you had to force it down like paste.
The shaman, an Israeli man named Mitra, tells us that it was a 5,000-year-old recipe taken from one of the oldest Amazonian tribes in Colombia, where Mitra was trained. He’s tall, with a shaved head and an assured demeanor. He looks like he could demystify the cosmos and dunk a basketball at the same time.
This final ceremony is longer than the rest. Normally, we gather around 5:30 pm and finish by 1 or 2 am. This time we meet around 7:30 pm and don’t finish until sunrise the next day.
Mitra hands me my first cup, and I fall back to my mattress. I think it’s maybe half an hour before I slip into what I can only describe as the most vivid lucid dream.
I watch my entire life unfold as though it were projected on a movie screen. But it wasn’t my whole life; it was every lie, every counterfeit pose, every missed opportunity to say or do something true, every false act and ingratiating gesture, every pathetic attempt to be seen in a certain light.
The highlight reel is way longer than I imagined.
I see myself as a child groveling for attention from the “popular kids.” I see my 12-year-old self throwing a tantrum in the mall because my dad wouldn’t buy me the Nautica shirt that all those popular kids were wearing. I see myself in high school pretending to be something I was not, and I see all the doubts piling up inside me. I see all the times I self-censored purely out of fear of judgment.
I see myself building my identity based on what I thought would impress other people. On it went — one trivial act after another building up an edifice of falsehood.
I should note how unpleasant it is to see yourself from outside yourself. Most of us aren’t honest with ourselves about who we are and why we do what we do. To see it so clearly for the first time is painful.
The movie rages on into college and adult life, with my self-consciousness expanding. I see myself not looking into the eyes of the person I’m talking to because I’m playing out all the ways they might be judging me. I see myself pretending like my hair wasn’t thinning years ago and all the times I tried to hide it. And every time, the reason for posing was the same: I cared too much about what other people thought.
The experience made me aware of how often we all do this. We do it at home, at work, at the grocery store, at the gym. Most interactions are either transactional or performative. No one wants to make eye contact, and most of the time people freak out if you really try. We’re too self-conscious to listen. We’re thinking about what we’ll say next or how we’re being perceived.
All the posturing destroys any chance for a genuine connection.
The movie ends, and I’m exhausted. The meaning of the previous two nights is clearer now. I needed to feel small and connected before I could appreciate the absurdity of self-involvement. I had to relive those fleeting moments of union to see what made them so transcendent. And I had to go straight through my shame and regret to get beyond it.
When the ceremony finally ended, I sat up in my bed and starting scribbling notes to myself. Before I could finish, Mitra walked up to me and asked how I was doing. I tried to explain what happened, but I couldn’t.
He just kneeled, put his hand on my head, and said, “Happy birthday.”
The day after
I leave the retreat center around 11 am on Saturday to board a shuttle to the airport. With me are three people from my group.
One of them is Alex, a garrulous guy from London. I think he’s in his mid-30s, though I can’t recall. He’s got this dazed look on this face, like he just saw God. His eyes are on fire with excitement, and he’s already planning his next visit.
“When are you coming back?” he asks me. “I don’t know,” I say. He doesn’t quite believe me. Everyone, he assumes, is coming back, either here or to some other place like this. I’m still processing what happened; the thought of the next “trip” hasn’t even occurred to me yet.
We reach the airport, say our goodbyes, and then part ways. I’m standing in line waiting to go through customs, and I’m surprised at how relaxed I am. The line is long and slow, and everyone around me is annoyed. But I’m moving along, passport in hand, smiling for no particular reason.
Typically, I am one inconvenience removed from rage. Today is different, though. When a loud man rolls his heavy suitcase over my open toe, I shrug it off. Brief encounters with strangers like that are pleasant; the awkwardness is gone.
I’m not in my head, and so things aren’t happening to me; they’re just happening. It’s probably too much to say that my ego was gone — I don’t think it works like that. But seeing myself from a different perspective offered a chance to reassert control over it.
People say that a single ayahuasca trip is like a decade of therapy packed into a night. That’s probably an overstatement, but it’s not altogether wrong. In four nights, I feel like I let go of a lifetime’s worth of anger and bitterness.
At the time of this writing, I’ve been home three weeks. The ecstasy I felt in the days immediately after the trip has worn off as I’ve slipped back into my regular life. A tension has emerged that I still don’t quite understand.
I’m happier and less irritable than I was when I left. The tedium of everyday life feels less oppressive. Part of the reason is that I’m less anxious, less solipsistic. I really do find it easier to see what’s in front of me.
But there’s something gnawing at me. I want to go back to Costa Rica, and not for the reasons you might expect. Forget about the ayahuasca, forget about the tropical vistas, forget about all that. This experience was possible because a group of people came together with a shared intention. That creates an emotional intensity that’s hard to find elsewhere. Every person looks right at you, and you look right back.
But real life isn’t like that. I ride the Metro to work every day, and lately I’ve tried talking to random people. It’s a lot harder than you think.
A man sat across from me the other day wearing a Tulane hat (from the university in New Orleans). I used to live in the area, so I looked at him until he looked back, assuming I’d strike up a conversation. But once we locked eyes, I could sense his agitation and we both turned our heads. Nothing weird or hostile — just clumsy.
I’ve spent years making an heroic effort to avoid awkward exchanges, so I get it. But I’m honestly worried that in a few weeks or months, I’ll be that guy again. And in retrospect, this whole journey will feel like a brief holiday of awareness.
I asked my wife the other day if I seem different to her after the trip. She said that she always felt like she had to force me to offer my attention, especially in those quiet, simple moments, and that now I give it freely. I do find it easier to listen since I returned, and it’s amazing what a difference that can make.
I keep thinking about this idea that a night of ayahuasca is like a decade of therapy. Do you pay a price for taking this kind of shortcut? Are the effects short-lived? Maybe.
I know it’s hard to be in the world without being of the world. And the world is a lonely place full of lonely people. You can’t change that, but you can change your orientation to it. In my case, psychedelics made that a little easier.
And what of the self and the ego? I believed these things to be illusions before I took ayahuasca, and now I’m certain that they are. But what does that actually mean in day-to-day life? Not as much as it should. The ego might be a fiction or a construct or whatever you want to call it, but the sensation of it is near impossible to shake.
Even after taking what is arguably the most powerful ego-dissolving medicine on the planet, I still live in a world that reinforces the story of me all the time. There’s no easy way around all that.
I don’t know what life will be like in six months or a year, but I think ayahuasca was the greatest thing that has happened to my marriage. It wasn’t about becoming a better person; it was about appreciating the role my wife — and other relationships — play in my life. I had to escape my head to see that.
Now that I’ve had some time to think about it, I’d say ayahuasca is the best and worst thing I’ve ever done. I spent a week staring down all my bullshit and all my insecurities and it was totally liberating. But it was also terrifying and not something I want — or need — to see again.
A question worth asking: If you looked into the world’s most honest mirror, what would you see?
Editor’s note: this story was originally published on February 19, 2018.
Editor: Eliza Barclay
Photos: Kainaz Amaria
Photoillustrations: Javier Zarracina
Copy editor: Tim Ryan Williams
Retreat ayahuasca tea
Peru’s ayahuasca industry booms as westerners search for alternative healing
Imagine you’re in a simple wooden house in the suburbs of Iquitos, the largest city in the Peruvian Amazon, and drinking a bitter, dark brown liquid. The lights go off. Half an hour later the most extraordinary visions begin.
Fast forward four hours and it’s all over. You’ve seen Christ and Buddha, and you’ve almost been moved to tears by the incantations of curandero (healer) Juan Tangoa Paima and all the deep-throat vomiting you’ve been doing in his garden.
That was my first experience, in 2005, of what has come to be known internationally as ayahuasca. Made from a mixture of an Amazonian vine known as Banisteriopsis caapi and usually at least one other plant (in Peru mostly chacruna), ayahuasca is a plant medicine that has been used in the Amazon for centuries for healing and spiritual purposes.
“It’s about connecting to the natural world,” says Romulo Sinuiri Ochavano, a Shipibo curandero who drinks ayahuasca to communicate with the spirit world and understand his patients’ illnesses. “It’s one technique for us. It’s the same as a doctor in a clinic with equipment that enables him to see if someone’s ill. Where’s the illness? The curandero sees which plants are good for curing that person.”
Traditional use involves only the curanderos drinking, according to Luis Eduardo Luna, a Colombian anthropologist and pioneer ayahuasca researcher. He says it has mostly been used for divination, such as diagnosing psychosomatic or ethno-specific illnesses with no western equivalent, or for making contact with the spirit world.
“The manifestation [of the psychosomatic illness] may be you lose your voice or have a physical problem, or in children through diarrhoea and vomiting,” says Luna. “Or somebody who has very bad luck in love or business … they would go to a curandero who will take the ayahuasca, give the patient ritual baths and energy, and protect them.”
Over the last 25 years ayahuasca has gone global, with thousands of people learning about it, and drinking it too. Curanderos are travelling abroad and ayahuasca is being exported. In Peru, major centres include the Cusco region and the cities of Pucallpa and Tarapoto, but it is Iquitos that attracts most interest. Every year thousands descend on the city, where centres offering ayahuasca have sprung up in the surrounding forest, while lodges offering “jungle tours” or “nature tours” include ayahuasca as well. The majority of visitors are foreigners.
Estimates of the number of centres in the Iquitos region offering ayahuasca vary from 30 to 100. Then there are jungle lodges and the curanderos living in the city, like Juan Tangoa Paima, and surrounding villages. The latter cater primarily for locals, though visitors can seek them out too.
Why are so many foreigners, particularly westerners, coming to Iquitos to drink ayahuasca? Some are seeking healing: for depression, alcohol-related issues, tobacco and drug addictions, arthritis, diabetes, skin diseases, cancer and more.
“Most of the treatment we’re carrying out is for trauma,” says Matthew Watherston, founder of the Temple of the Way of Light, a centre two hours from Iquitos. “The drive is often the crises that people feel in day-to-day life, manifested on a psychological, emotional or physical level. Ultimately, these are all symptoms; the origin, typically, comes from an energetic imbalance or disorder.”
Others drink ayahuasca because they’re curious and want to learn about it, or they’re looking for a new direction in life. Then there are those who, attracted by the often extraordinary visions, think it’s another tourist activity or recreational “drug.” That’s an idea many experienced with ayahuasca vehemently dismiss.
“If anyone thinks it’s in the same category as a cruise, well, the first drink would quickly change their minds,” says Peter Gorman, a journalist offering trips into the forest that include swimming with dolphins, foraging for wild food, hiking and ayahuasca. “It’s very serious medicine; very deep, very quick.”
Those after just a high aren’t welcome at some centres. Omar Gomez, from the Rainforest Healing Center, says he turns away 60% of potential visitors: either because they have problems that ayahuasca doesn’t mix with (such as schizophrenia) or because they’re not sufficiently serious about it.
“We do an intense screening process to make sure we don’t have any psychedelic tourists,” says Gomez. “Right now the ayahuasca industry is booming. But we want to make sure that the people who come are people that have a strong intention and desire to heal.”
Fundamental to ayahuasca’s appeal is that, unlike western medicine, it is believed to address the true causes of illness and make no distinction between mind and body. Ayahuasca practitioners see the physical manifestation of some mental, emotional, psychological or energetic disorder.
Reports of successes are common, particularly with depression, traumas and addictions. Brendan, a former US marine, was overweight and suffering from radiation poisoning, hypothyroidism, and nerve damage to his left leg after a training accident, and massive guilt after not serving in Iraq. But 12 days at the Temple transformed his life; it got him off the oxycontin and other medication he had been taking daily for years. He says he lost more than 45kg, his thyroid gland now functions normally, and he is “fully healed” from the radiation.
“When I left the Temple I went to a Veterans Affairs hospital in the US and had blood tests; everything was functioning normally, something they said would be impossible,” says Brendan, who now lives in Iquitos and has opened his own centre, The Sanctuary of Renana, offering free treatment to other veterans. “My doctor almost mocked me when I told him I was coming out here but when he saw the results of the tests he became fascinated.”
In 2013, the International Centre for Ethnobotanical Education, Research and Service (ICEERS) issued a report on ayahuasca saying that clinical trials showed it to be “physiologically very safe”. One of the report’s signatories was Jordi Riba, a Spanish pharmacologist at the Sant Pau hospital in Barcelona, who has researched ayahuasca for years.
“There’s preliminary evidence that it has the potential to change life attitudes for the better in cases of drug addiction, depression and trauma,” says Riba.
The options for drinking ayahuasca in and around Iquitos (in terms of prices and packages) vary enormously. The Temple offers nine-day, 12-day, three-week and month-long retreats, mainly for large groups, with prices ranging from $2,000 to $3,300 per person, while the Rainforest Healing Center, approximately two hours from Iquitos, offers seven- and 10-day retreats for small groups costing $995 and $1,495 per person respectively.
Then there are options such as the Sachamama Botanical Garden, 90 minutes from Iquitos, where one week’s stay and three ceremonies costs $650, or you can drop in for a ceremony and thrash out a price when you arrive. In addition, there are also curanderos such as Tangoa Paima, who I paid 40 Peruvian soles ($12) for one ceremony in 2005 and $60 for another ceremony last year.
Despite many positive experiences, there are numerous things to watch out for, and anyone interested in drinking ayahuasca should do as much research as possible. In Iquitos, there are reports of increasing numbers of people calling themselves curanderos, or offering ayahuasca while knowing nothing about it, as well as sexual assaults on women. Some people have had terrifying experiences and violent reactions, and over the last decade there have been ayahuasca-associated deaths.
One tragedy, in December 2015, was reported – or rather, misreported – by the mainstream media. A Canadian man, Joshua Andrew Freeman Stevens, killed Briton Unais Gomes after apparently being attacked by him during an ayahuasca ceremony at Phoenix Ayahuasca near Iquitos. Despite initial reports that both men had drunk ayahuasca, one of the centre’s founders told me Stevens had not done so, and one subsequent media report claimed the toxicology results confirmed that.
“As the ayahuasca experience can be intense and even psychologically destabilising, one should be careful when choosing a proper ceremonial guide,” wrote Joe Tafur, a western-trained Colombian-American doctor and partner in the Nihue Rao Centro near Iquitos, in a recent article in the Iquitos Times.
Other concerns include claims the ayahuasca boom is making the Banisteriopsis caapi vine more difficult to source; that it isn’t regulated by the government; that the emphasis on business fails to respect the sanctity of the plant; and that it is exploiting indigenous peoples’ knowledge.
Francisco Montes Shuna, a curandero running the Sachamama Botanical Garden, says most centres are owned by non-Peruvians and therefore should be closed. “It’s our culture; the Amazon’s culture,” says Shuna, whose parents were indigenous Capanahuas. “[These foreigners] are coming here and stealing our knowledge.”
In the last couple of months more than 40 centres in Peru have committed to joining the newly-formed Ayahuasca Safety Association to establish “common standards of safety and ethics”, as William Menech from the Qhispikay Kawsay Ayahuasca Retreat puts it.
Laws on ayahuasca vary and are sometimes fuzzy. According to the Ayahuasca Defense Fund, hosted by ICEERS, it is legal in Peru, illegal in Canada, illegal for everyone in the US apart from two religious organisations, and “appears to be caught by prohibitive legislation” in England and Wales due to “a combination of factors”. These are precedents set by case law, the new Psychoactive Substances Act which came into force on 26 May, and the fact it contains N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which is listed as a Class A drug in the UK. The International Narcotics Control Board lists DMT, one of the alkaloids present in ayahuasca, as a “controlled substance”, but has specifically stated that ayahuasca itself is not prohibited.
Luna calls the boom in ayahuasca a “sword with two edges”. Some without proper training see it as “a way to make easy money” and lure “gullible tourists”, he says, but the positives include reigniting respect for it among indigenous peoples and others and contributing to “a certain renaissance in Shipibo art”.
“Ayahuasca may find its place in future societies,” says Luna. “Its ritual use is expanding, as well as its therapeutic applications, and the study of its effects may reveal aspects of the workings of the mind.
This article was amended on 8 June to remove reference to Jordi Riba being currently involved with a landmark ICEERS study investigating the impacts of treatment on visitors to the Temple
'I was sexually abused by a shaman at an ayahuasca retreat'
By Simon Maybin and Josephine Casserly
BBC News, Peru
The psychedelic powers of a traditional Amazonian plant medicine called ayahuasca are attracting more and more tourists. It's said to bring spiritual enlightenment and to help with addiction, depression and trauma. But a string of allegations suggests there's a darker side to the ayahuasca scene.
Warning: this article contains details of alleged sexual assaults
Rebekah first tried ayahuasca on a "complete whim" when she was travelling in Peru in 2015.
"I thought it sounded interesting and I thought I might as well give it a try," says Rebekah, a New Zealander in her 20s who asked the BBC not to use her surname. "So I found a retreat centre that I felt was good and I just went for it and it was amazing."
Ayahuasca can induce visions of things like serpents, palaces, and alien beings - and bring up long-forgotten memories. Like many who've drunk the brew, Rebekah has a wide-eyed distant look as she reminisces about the experience.
"It was like being guided very gently and very kindly through some really awful experiences that I'd had in the past," Rebekah says. "And returning back home after that, I felt like my relationships were a lot stronger. I felt it was a lot easier to share and receive love.
"They do say that ayahuasca is like 20 years of psychotherapy. And I completely believe that."
Ayahuasca is usually taken in ceremonies at night, led by a healer - sometimes called a shaman. He or she will drink the sticky brown liquid - a brew of two Amazonian plants - then dole out helpings to the participants.
It's been used by tribes in the Amazon region for centuries but now there's a boom in what's become known as "ayahuasca tourism", with ever more specialist retreat centres opening. Travellers often come for help dealing with mental health problems - and a growing body of scientific research suggests ayahuasca could be an effective treatment.
About half an hour or so into a ceremony, the medicine takes its effect and the healer will start singing sacred chants, known as icaros, which guide the participants through their visions. Drinkers usually "purge" during ceremonies too, vomiting and sometimes getting diarrhoea as well.
When Rebekah went on her first ayahuasca retreat, she was the only single woman there and noticed that the male healer was paying her special attention.
"How he treated me was very different, which I didn't find suspicious at the time. But upon reflection, now I do."
A year later, by now a more experienced ayahuasca drinker, Rebekah returned to the same retreat in Peru. The same healer was leading the ceremonies.
Once again, she says, she was treated differently from everyone else. There was a lot of flattery. Then the healer began confiding in Rebekah.
"He constantly told me that he had a lot of troubles," she says, "and he said he was having problems with his wife, that he wasn't sexually fulfilled, and that I was the one who was able to cure him of that."
Rebekah was 20 at the time; the healer in his 50s.
"He also promised me a lot of spiritual advancement or a lot of spiritual power, if we had a relationship - while his wife was down the road."
- Listn to Simon Maybin and Josephine Casserly's documentary Ayahuasca: Fear and Healing in the Amazon on BBC Sounds
Rebekah says the healer sexually abused her, coercing her into sexual acts.
"It's disgusting," she says. "Because he was a shaman, I thought he had moral superiority in a sense and I trusted him."
After she was abused, Rebekah left the centre - and the country: "I booked a flight and got the hell out of there."
She was left with a tangle of painful emotions: "Disgust, repulsion, betrayal - confusion, as well as to why a guide would do this, why a teacher would do this and why they would exploit their power like that."
Rebekah's alleged abuser is still the head shaman at his centre - which gets five-star ratings on review sites.
"He is still there," Rebekah says, clearly deeply angered by the situation. Her hands are visibly shaking. "There are other centres that I know of as well that are still operating. There've been multiple women that have been sexually abused in these centres."
Experiences of sexual abuse seem to be widespread in this world. We've heard numerous allegations against numerous healers and read many testimonies of sexual abuse on online forums.
One name that comes up repeatedly is Guillermo Arévalo, a well-known healer who's been honoured by the Peruvian Congress for his work on sustainable development.
"He came to Canada many times," says a woman in her 40s whom we're calling Anna.
"It was quite lucrative - big ceremonies. They'd fill up fast, people paying C$300 (£175) to come and sit with Guillermo. He had kind of a status. It was an honour to sit in ceremony with him."
Anna, who had long been interested in alternative medicine, hoped ayahuasca might help her deal with her addiction to heroin.
At first, she was impressed by Arévalo.
"Like a lot of people, you're flabbergasted by the man's presence and power and ability to lead the ceremony - it's quite profound," she says. "The chanting. He is a good healer."
But a ceremony about seven years ago dramatically changed Anna's opinion.
"It was completely pitch black, the room had no windows. There were a lot of people.
"I was under the effects of the medicine. When you're under the effects there's lots of different sounds. People are crying, verbalising things that make no sense at all, purging or moaning.
"Even if I had been able to say something, nobody would respond."
Anna was having a difficult time. She recalls lying down, moaning and groaning. "Guillermo came and he sat with me and at first it was a sense of relief because I think I'm going to get some help," she says.
"He started to chant to me and put his hands on my stomach over my clothing which is normal. And then he put his hands down my pants. And there's this sense of feeling frozen. I lay there in fear and then he put his hands up my shirt and felt around my breasts."
She remembers thinking: "'What the heck was that all about?' Just a sense of disbelief and confusion."
It's taken six years for Anna to feel able to speak out about what happened to her.
"Women are conditioned to accept this behaviour. For myself, coming from a history of addiction - and I've had abusive relationships with men that I've tolerated in my life - and a history of childhood sexual abuse, there's a sense of familiarity there, of normalcy.
"And also this weird co-dependent relationship for me where the medicine was helping me so I didn't want to speak up because I was afraid I would be ostracised from the community and then I would be kind of cut off from the medicine."
While preliminary scientific studies have suggested that ayahuasca could have therapeutic benefits, it contains DMT, which is illegal in the UK, and there are potential risks.
A 2015 report found six volunteers with depression showed a decrease in symptoms after taking it. A separate study two years later indicated that it held promise as a treatment for eating disorders. Psychologists have also speculated that it could help those with PTSD.
The Foreign and Commonwealth Office warns that some people have "suffered serious illnesses and in some cases death" after taking part in ayahuasca ceremonies. It points out that retreats are typically some distance from populated areas and that while some have basic medical facilities, others do not.
Around the same time, a group calling themselves Ayahuasca Community Awareness Canada - which included senior academics - put their names to a letter about Arévalo's behaviour and circulated it within the ayahuasca scene. The letter-writers say they took action because of the number of complaints made against the healer, citing reports of non-consensual or inappropriate sexual behaviour.
When further named signatories were added to the letter in 2015 and it was made public, Arévalo stopped visiting Canada to lead ayahuasca ceremonies.
But when we track him down it seems he's been active all around the world in the intervening years and is now based at a retreat centre in Peru. The place used to be called Anaconda but when we're there has its first group of foreign guests under a new name, Bena Shinan.
They're milling around in a dining room behind us when we put the allegations of sexual abuse to Arévalo, a slight 71-year-old with silver hair and gold teeth.
"I don't accept the allegations because they're not true," he says firmly. "Because sometimes people just imagine these things."
He says he's heard about the letter by members of the Canadian ayahuasca community, but has never read it.
"It doesn't interest me because the allegations aren't true," he says. "It doesn't bother me because I don't think an allegation's going to kill me."
The claims against him, he says, are "the imaginings of the unwell person".
"When you touch someone who's been abused or raped, they think you're the same. That's what happens. That's how I make sense of it."
When we put Anna's specific allegation to him, he says he doesn't remember ever touching a patient during a ceremony in Canada, saying she too must have imagined it.
"What else is he going to do other than just lie and deny it," Anna responds. "Otherwise he would have to step up and take responsibility and be accountable for the way he has acted."
What about his claim that she just imagined the sexual assault?
"It sounds like gaslighting to me, really," she says. "That's what it feels like."
Although Arévalo denies having sexually abused anyone, he does admit that healers working under him have had sex with "unwell people".
He says he no longer works with those healers, but that in some cases it was the patients who initiated the relationships.
"Western women, when they come, they're also seeking out healers," he says.
Anna's experience with ayahuasca and abuse doesn't end with Guillermo Arévalo. Despite her experiences with him, she didn't want to give up the benefits she received from the brew and continued taking it under the guidance of other healers.
She says that in 2014 she was raped in ayahuasca ceremonies in Peru by a healer who is a member of Arévalo's extended family.
She says again she "just froze" and "let him do whatever he wanted to me".
"I think he probably raped me four or five times and I noticed he was doing it to other people."
Afterwards, Anna says she was in shock. She doesn't remember much about that period of her life.
"I started to develop symptoms of psychosis and ended up relapsing and becoming addicted to fentanyl and overdosed and almost died. I think I really blamed myself for a long time - why I couldn't say no, why I couldn't move, why I let him do those things. Those were the things that were going through my mind."
We've spoken to another guest who was at the same retreat as Anna, who says the healer was later sacked from the centre, because of allegations made by other clients. We're not naming him because, despite our best efforts, we haven't been able to reach him to give him the chance to respond to the allegations.
Emily Sinclair, a British doctoral student researching ayahuasca, is part of a group trying to raise awareness about the problem of sexual abuse in the ayahuasca world.
Working with the Chacruna Institute, an organisation set up to share research on plant medicines and psychedelics, Sinclair helped put together the Ayahuasca Community Guide for the Awareness of Sexual Abuse.
The guidelines highlight typical scenarios in which abuse happens. They also encourage people to drink with trusted companions and to research retreats by checking out review websites before they visit.
Sinclair has been distributing the little green booklet to cafes, tourism offices and ayahuasca centres in the Iquitos area of Peru, known as the hub of ayahuasca tourism.
"A lot of abuse we've found occurs in the context of individual healings where a woman might be asked to remove her clothes unnecessarily," she says. "And when she's in this unfamiliar context, she doesn't know if that's normal or not."
Sinclair points out that it's not just indigenous healers abusing Westerners. "Abuse happens across cultures and within them," she says.
"But one of the big problems is that a lot of people who come here romanticise shamans. So we put them on a pedestal. And it's very easy for that image to be taken advantage of.
"There's also assumptions that some of the people here may have about Western women and culture."
Some of the red flags Sinclair warns people to watch out for echo Rebekah's experience.
"If he's overly touchy with you, he tells you his wife doesn't mind him having sex with other women, he encourages pacts of silence and secrecy between you, he says he wants to teach you 'love magic'. This kind of thing. And also that having sex with them will increase their power and energy. These are all things that have been reported to us as being said to women in this context."
Those affected by sexual abuse understandably find it difficult to talk about openly. On top of that, there's a strong sense within the ayahuasca world that any kind of negative publicity could result in government intervention, which creates an additional pressure to stay silent.
But Rebekah and Anna are speaking out because they hope it will prevent other women being abused.
"I think the only thing we can do is just speak out about it and talk about it," Rebekah says, "make sure people know that it's happening."
Rebekah says that after she was abused there's been "a lot of sadness and a lot of therapy".
It's been hard work for her to trust a healer again, but now she's back in Peru, taking ayahuasca and researching her master's thesis on indigenous medicine.
"Regardless of everything that happened, obviously ayahuasca's great," Rebekah laughs, "because I keep going back to it."
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South American psychoactive brew
This article is about the psychoactive brew. For the vine, see Banisteriopsis caapi. For other uses, see Ayahuasca (disambiguation).
Ayahuasca[note 1] is a South American (pan-Amazonian)psychoactive brew used both socially and as ceremonial spiritual medicine among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin. It is a psychedelic and entheogenic brew commonly made out of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, the Psychotria viridis shrub or a substitute, and possibly other ingredients; however, a chemically similar preparation, sometimes called "pharmahuasca", can be prepared using N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and a pharmaceutical monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), such as isocarboxazid.B. caapi contains several alkaloids that act as MAOIs, which are required for DMT to be orally active. Ayahuasca is prepared in a tea that, when consumed, causes an altered state of consciousness or "high", including visual hallucinations and altered perceptions of reality.
The other required ingredient is a plant that contains the primary psychoactive, DMT. This is usually the shrub P. viridis, but Diplopterys cabrerana may be used as a substitute. Other plant ingredients often or occasionally used in the production of ayahuasca include Justicia pectoralis, one of the Brugmansia (especially Brugmansia insignis and Brugmansia versicolor, or a hybrid breed) or Datura species, and mapacho (Nicotiana rustica).
Ayahuasca is known by many names throughout Northern South America and Brazil.
Ayahuasca is the hispanicized (traditional) spelling of a word in the Quechuan languages, which are spoken in the Andean states of Ecuador, Bolivia, Peru, and Colombia—speakers of Quechuan languages who use the modern Alvarado orthography spell it ayawaska. This word refers both to the lianaBanisteriopsis caapi, and to the brew prepared from it. In the Quechua languages, aya means "spirit, soul", or "corpse, dead body", and waska means "rope" or "woody vine", "liana". The word ayahuasca has been variously translated as "liana of the soul", "liana of the dead", and "spirit liana". It is also referred to as "la purge" due to the belief that it cures the soul, offering a deep introspective journey that allows the user to examine their emotions and ways of thinking.
In Brazil, the brew and the liana are informally called either caapi or cipó; the latter is the Portuguese word for liana (or woody climbing vine). In the União do Vegetal of Brazil, an organised spiritual tradition in which people drink ayahuasca, the brew is prepared exclusively from B. caapi and Psychotria viridis. Adherents of União do Vegetal call this brew hoasca or vegetal; Brazilian Yawanawa call the brew "uní".
The Achuar people and Shuar people of Ecuador and Peru call it natem, while the Sharanahua peoples of Peru call it shori.
Evidence of ayahuasca use dates back 1,000 years, as demonstrated by a bundle containing the residue of ayahuasca ingredients and various other preserved shamanic substances in a cave in southwestern Bolivia, discovered in 2010.
In the 16th century, Christian missionaries from Spain first encountered indigenous western Amazonian basin South Americans (modern Peru/Ecuador) using ayahuasca; their earliest reports described it as "the work of the devil". In the 20th century, the active chemical constituent of B. caapi was named telepathine, but it was found to be identical to a chemical already isolated from Peganum harmala and was given the name harmine. Beat writer William S. Burroughs read a paper by Richard Evans Schultes on the subject and while traveling through South America in the early 1950s sought out ayahuasca in the hopes that it could relieve or cure opiateaddiction (see The Yage Letters). Ayahuasca became more widely known when the McKenna brothers published their experience in the Amazon in True Hallucinations. Dennis McKenna later studied pharmacology, botany, and chemistry of ayahuasca and oo-koo-he, which became the subject of his master's thesis.
Richard Evans Schultes allowed Claudio Naranjo to make a special journey by canoe up the Amazon River to study ayahuasca with the South American Indians. He brought back samples of the beverage and published the first scientific description of the effects of its active alkaloids.
In Brazil, a number of modern religious movements based on the use of ayahuasca have emerged, the most famous being Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal (or UDV), usually in an animistic context that may be shamanistic or, more often (as with Santo Daime and the UDV), integrated with Christianity. Both Santo Daime and União do Vegetal now have members and churches throughout the world. Similarly, the US and Europe have started to see new religious groups develop in relation to increased ayahuasca use. Some Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazon forest regions, forming ayahuasca healing retreats that claim to be able to cure mental and physical illness and allow communication with the spirit world.
In recent years, the brew has been popularized by Wade Davis (One River), English novelist Martin Goodman in I Was Carlos Castaneda, Chilean novelist Isabel Allende, writer Kira Salak, author Jeremy Narby (The Cosmic Serpent), author Jay Griffiths (Wild: An Elemental Journey), American novelist Steven Peck, radio personality Robin Quivers, and writer Paul Theroux (Figures in a Landscape: People and Places).
Sections of Banisteriopsis caapi vine are macerated and boiled alone or with leaves from any of a number of other plants, including Psychotria viridis (chacruna), Diplopterys cabrerana (also known as chaliponga and chacropanga), and Mimosa tenuiflora, among other ingredients which can vary greatly from one shaman to the next. The resulting brew may contain the powerful psychedelic drugDMT and MAO inhibitingharmala alkaloids, which are necessary to make the DMT orally active. The traditional making of ayahuasca follows a ritual process that requires the user to pick the lower Chacruna leaf at sunrise, then say a prayer. The vine must be "cleaned meticulously with wooden spoons" and pounded "with wooden mallets until it's fibre."
Brews can also be made with plants that do not contain DMT, Psychotria viridis being replaced by plants such as Justicia pectoralis, Brugmansia, or sacred tobacco, also known as mapacho (Nicotiana rustica), or sometimes left out with no replacement. This brew varies radically from one batch to the next, both in potency and psychoactive effect, based mainly on the skill of the shaman or brewer, as well as other admixtures sometimes added and the intent of the ceremony. Natural variations in plant alkaloid content and profiles also affect the final concentration of alkaloids in the brew, and the physical act of cooking may also serve to modify the alkaloid profile of harmala alkaloids.
The actual preparation of the brew takes several hours, often taking place over the course of more than one day. After adding the plant material, each separately at this stage, to a large pot of water it is boiled until the water is reduced by half in volume. The individual brews are then added together and brewed until reduced significantly. This combined brew is what is taken by participants in ayahuasca ceremonies.
The uses of ayahuasca in traditional societies in South America vary greatly. Some cultures do use it for shamanic purposes, but in other cases, it is consumed socially among friends, in order to learn more about the natural environment, and even in order to visit friends and family who are far away.
Nonetheless, people who work with ayahuasca in non-traditional contexts often align themselves with the philosophies and cosmologies associated with ayahuasca shamanism, as practiced among indigenous peoples like the Urarina of the Peruvian Amazon. Dietary taboos are often associated with the use of ayahuasca, although these seem to be specific to the culture around Iquitos, Peru, a major center of ayahuasca tourism.
In the rainforest, these taboos tend towards the purification of one's self—abstaining from spicy and heavily seasoned foods, excess fat, salt, caffeine, acidic foods (such as citrus) and sex before, after, or during a ceremony. A diet low in foods containing tyramine has been recommended, as the speculative interaction of tyramine and MAOIs could lead to a hypertensive crisis; however, evidence indicates that harmala alkaloids act only on MAO-A, in a reversible way similar to moclobemide (an antidepressant that does not require dietary restrictions). Dietary restrictions are not used by the highly urban Brazilian ayahuasca church União do Vegetal, suggesting the risk is much lower than perceived and probably non-existent.
Ceremony and the role of shamans
Shamans, Curanderos and experienced users of ayahuasca advise against consuming ayahuasca when not in the presence of one or several well-trained shamans.
In some areas, there are purported brujos (Spanish for "witches") who masquerade as real shamans and who entice tourists to drink ayahuasca in their presence. Shamans believe one of the purposes for this is to steal one's energy and/or power, of which they believe every person has a limited stockpile.
The shamans lead the ceremonial consumption of the ayahuasca beverage, in a rite that typically takes place over the entire night. During the ceremony, the effect of the drink lasts for hours. Prior to the ceremony, participants are instructed to abstain from spicy foods, red meat and sex. The ceremony is usually accompanied with purging which include vomiting and diarrhea, which is believed to release built up emotions and negative energy.
Traditional ayahuasca brews are usually made with Banisteriopsis caapi as an MAOI, while dimethyltryptamine sources and other admixtures vary from region to region. There are several varieties of caapi, often known as different "colors", with varying effects, potencies, and uses.
Other common admixtures:
Common admixtures with their associated ceremonial values and spirits:
- Ayahuma bark: Cannon Ball tree. Provides protection and is used in healing susto (soul loss from spiritual fright or trauma).
- Capirona bark: Provides cleansing, balance and protection. It is noted for its smooth bark, white flowers, and hard wood.
- Chullachaki caspi bark (Brysonima christianeae): Provides cleansing to the physical body. Used to transcend physical body ailments.
- Lopuna blanca bark: Provides protection.
- Punga amarilla bark: Yellow Punga. Provides protection. Used to pull or draw out negative spirits or energies.
- Remo caspi bark: Oar Tree. Used to move dense or dark energies.
- Wyra (huaira) caspi bark (Cedrelinga catanaeformis): Air Tree. Used to create purging, transcend gastro/intestinal ailments, calm the mind, and bring tranquility.
- Shiwawaku bark: Brings purple medicine to the ceremony.
- Uchu sanango: Head of the sanango plants.
- Huacapurana: Giant tree of the Amazon with very hard bark.
- Bobinsana: Mermaid Spirit. Provides major heart chakra opening, healing of emotions and relationships.
In the late 20th century, the practice of ayahuasca drinking began spreading to Europe, North America and elsewhere. The first ayahuasca churches, affiliated with the BrazilianSanto Daime, were established in the Netherlands. A legal case was filed against two of the Church's leaders, Hans Bogers (one of the original founders of the Dutch Santo Daime community) and Geraldine Fijneman (the head of the Amsterdam Santo Daime community). Bogers and Fijneman were charged with distributing a controlled substance (DMT); however, the prosecution was unable to prove that the use of ayahuasca by members of the Santo Daime constituted a sufficient threat to public health and order such that it warranted denying their rights to religious freedom under ECHR Article 9. The 2001 verdict of the Amsterdam district court is an important precedent. Since then groups that are not affiliated to the Santo Daime have used ayahuasca, and a number of different "styles" have been developed, including non-religious approaches.
See also: Pharmahuasca
In modern Europe and North America, ayahuasca analogs are often prepared using non-traditional plants which contain the same alkaloids. For example, seeds of the Syrian rue plant can be used as a substitute for the ayahuasca vine, and the DMT-rich Mimosa hostilis is used in place of chacruna. Australia has several indigenous plants which are popular among modern ayahuasqueros there, such as various DMT-rich species of Acacia.
The name "ayahuasca" specifically refers to a botanical decoction that contains Banisteriopsis caapi. A synthetic version, known as pharmahuasca, is a combination of an appropriate MAOI and typically DMT. In this usage, the DMT is generally considered the main psychoactive active ingredient, while the MAOI merely preserves the psychoactivity of orally ingested DMT, which would otherwise be destroyed in the gut before it could be absorbed in the body. In contrast, traditionally among Amazonian tribes, the B. Caapi vine is considered to be the "spirit" of ayahuasca, the gatekeeper, and guide to the otherworldly realms.
Brews similar to ayahuasca may be prepared using several plants not traditionally used in South America:
See also: DMT effects
People who have consumed ayahuasca report having mystical experiences and spiritual revelations regarding their purpose on earth, the true nature of the universe, and deep insight into how to be the best person they possibly can. This is viewed by many as a spiritual awakening and what is often described as a near death experience or rebirth.: 67–70 It is often reported that individuals feel they gain access to higher spiritual dimensions and make contact with various spiritual or extra-dimensional beings who can act as guides or healers.
The experiences that people have while under the influence of ayahuasca are also culturally influenced. Westerners typically describe experiences with psychological terms like "ego death" and understand the hallucinations as repressed memories or metaphors of mental states. However, at least in Iquitos, Peru (a center of ayahuasca ceremonies), those from the area describe the experiences more in terms of the actions in the body, and understand the visions as reflections of their environment—sometimes including the person who they believe caused their illness—as well as interactions with spirits.
Recently, ayahuasca has been found to interact specifically with the visual cortex of the brain. In one study, de Araujo et al. measured the activity in the visual cortex when they showed participants photographs. Then, they measured the activity when the individuals closed their eyes. In the control group, the cortex was activated when looking at the photos, and less active when the participant closed his eyes; however, under the influence of ayahuasca and DMT, even with closed eyes, the cortex was just as active as when looking at the photographs. This study suggests that ayahuasca activates a complicated network of vision and memory which heightens the internal reality of the participants.
It is claimed that people may experience profound positive life changes subsequent to consuming ayahuasca, by author Don Jose Campos: 25–28 and others.
Vomiting can follow ayahuasca ingestion; this is considered by many shamans and experienced users of ayahuasca to be a purging and an essential part of the experience, representing the release of negative energy and emotions built up over the course of one's life.: 81–85 Others report purging in the form of diarrhea and hot/cold flushes, and or excessive yawning.
The ingestion of ayahuasca can also cause significant but temporary emotional and psychological distress. Excessive use could possibly lead to serotonin syndrome (although serotonin syndrome has never been specifically caused by ayahuasca except in conjunction with certain anti-depressants like SSRIs). Depending on dosage, the temporary non-entheogenic effects of ayahuasca can include tremors, nausea, vomiting, diarrhea, autonomic instability, hyperthermia, sweating, motor function impairment, sedation, relaxation, vertigo, dizziness, yawning, and muscle spasms which are primarily caused by the harmala alkaloids in ayahuasca. Long-term negative effects are not known.
A few deaths linked to participation in the consumption of ayahuasca have been reported. Some of the deaths may have been due to unscreened preexisting heart conditions, interaction with drugs, such as antidepressants, recreational drugs, caffeine (due to the CYP1A2 inhibition of the harmala alkaloids), nicotine (from drinking tobacco tea for purging/cleansing), or from improper/irresponsible use due to behavioral risks or possible drug to drug interactions.
Potential therapeutic effects
See also: Psychedelic therapy
This section needs expansion. You can help by adding to it. (November 2019)
There are potential antidepressant and anxiolytic effects of ayahuasca. For example, in 2018 it was reported that a single dose of ayahuasca significantly reduced symptoms of treatment-resistant depression in a small placebo-controlled trial. More specifically, statistically significant reductions of up to 82% in depressive scores were observed between baseline and 1, 7, and 21 days after ayahuasca administration, as measured on the Hamilton Rating Scale for Depression (HAM-D), the Montgomery-Åsberg Depression Rating Scale (MADRS), and the Anxious-Depression subscale of the Brief Psychiatric Rating Scale (BPRS).[unreliable medical source]
Ayahuasca has also been studied for the treatment of addictions and shown to be effective, with lower Addiction Severity Index scores seen in users of ayahuasca compared to controls. Ayahuasca users have also been seen to consume less alcohol.
Both in vitro and in vivo experiments have shown the DMT component of ayahuasca may induce the production of new neurons in the hippocampus.Murine test subjects performed better on memory tasks compared to a control group. Future research may lead to treatments for psychiatric and neurological disorders.
Chemistry and pharmacology
Harmala alkaloids are MAO-inhibiting beta-carbolines. The three most studied harmala alkaloids in the B. caapi vine are harmine, harmaline and tetrahydroharmine. Harmine and harmaline are selective and reversible inhibitors of monoamine oxidase A (MAO-A), while tetrahydroharmine is a weak serotonin reuptake inhibitor (SRI).
This inhibition of MAO-A allows DMT to diffuse unmetabolized past the membranes in the stomach and small intestine, and eventually cross the blood–brain barrier (which, by itself, requires no MAO-A inhibition) to activate receptor sites in the brain. Without RIMAs or the non-selective, nonreversible monoamine oxidase inhibition by drugs like phenelzine and tranylcypromine, DMT would be oxidized (and thus rendered biologically inactive) by monoamine oxidase enzymes in the digestive tract.
Individual polymorphisms of the cytochrome P450-2D6 enzyme affect the ability of individuals to metabolize harmine. Some natural tolerance to habitual use of ayahuasca (roughly once weekly) may develop through upregulation of the serotonergic system. A phase 1 pharmacokinetic study on ayahuasca (as Hoasca) with 15 volunteers was conducted in 1993, during the Hoasca Project. A review of the Hoasca Project has been published.
Several studies have shown the alkaloids in the B. caapi vine promote neurogenesis. More specifically, in vitro studies showed that harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline, stimulated neural stem cell proliferation, migration, and differentiation into adult neurons. In vivo studies conducted on the dentate gyrus of the hippocampus noted an increase in the proliferation of BrdU positive cells in response to 100 μg of 5-MeO-DMT injected intravenously in the adult mouse brain.
The tryptamine N,N-dimethyltryptamine (DMT) found in ayahuasca has been shown to be immunoregulatory by preventing severe hypoxia and oxidative stress in in vitro macrophages, cortical neurons, and dendritic cells by binding to the Sigma-1 receptor. In vitro co-treatment of monocyte derived dendritic cells with DMT and 5-MeO-DMT inhibited the production of pro-inflammatory cytokines IL-1β, IL-6, TNFα and the chemokine IL-8, while increased the secretion of the anti-inflammatory cytokine IL-10 by activating the Sigma-1 receptor.
Main article: Legality of ayahuasca by country
Internationally, DMT is a Schedule I drug under the Convention on Psychotropic Substances. The Commentary on the Convention on Psychotropic Substances notes, however, that the plants containing it are not subject to international control:
The cultivation of plants from which psychotropic substances are obtained is not controlled by the Vienna Convention... Neither the crown (fruit, mescal button) of the Peyote cactus nor the roots of the plant Mimosa hostilis nor Psilocybe mushrooms themselves are included in Schedule 1, but only their respective principals, mescaline, DMT, and psilocin.
A fax from the Secretary of the International Narcotics Control Board (INCB) to the Netherlands Ministry of Public Health sent in 2001 goes on to state that "Consequently, preparations (e.g. decoctions) made of these plants, including ayahuasca, are not under international control and, therefore, not subject to any of the articles of the 1971 Convention."
Despite the INCB's 2001 affirmation that ayahuasca is not subject to drug control by international convention, in its 2010 Annual Report the Board recommended that governments consider controlling (i.e. criminalizing) ayahuasca at the national level. This recommendation by the INCB has been criticized as an attempt by the Board to overstep its legitimate mandate and as establishing a reason for governments to violate the human rights (i.e., religious freedom) of ceremonial ayahuasca drinkers.
Under American federal law, DMT is a Schedule I drug that is illegal to possess or consume; however, certain religious groups have been legally permitted to consume ayahuascha. A court case allowing the União do Vegetal to import and use the tea for religious purposes in the United States, Gonzales v. O Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao do Vegetal, was heard by the U.S. Supreme Court on November 1, 2005; the decision, released February 21, 2006, allows the UDV to use the tea in its ceremonies pursuant to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In a similar case an Ashland, Oregon-based Santo Daime church sued for their right to import and consume ayahuasca tea. In March 2009, U.S. District Court Judge Panner ruled in favor of the Santo Daime, acknowledging its protection from prosecution under the Religious Freedom Restoration Act.
In 2017 the Santo Daime Church Céu do Montréal in Canada received religious exemption to use ayahuasca as a sacrament in their rituals.
Religious use in Brazil was legalized after two official inquiries into the tea in the mid-1980s, which concluded that ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and has valid spiritual uses.
In France, Santo Daime won a court case allowing them to use the tea in early 2005; however, they were not allowed an exception for religious purposes, but rather for the simple reason that they did not perform chemical extractions to end up with pure DMT and harmala and the plants used were not scheduled. Four months after the court victory, the common ingredients of ayahuasca as well as harmala were declared stupéfiants, or narcotic schedule I substances, making the tea and its ingredients illegal to use or possess.
In June 2019, Oakland, California, decriminalized natural entheogens. The City Council passed the resolution in a unanimous vote, ending the investigation and imposition of criminal penalties for use and possession of entheogens derived from plants or fungi. The resolution states: "Practices with Entheogenic Plants have long existed and have been considered to be sacred to human cultures and human interrelationships with nature for thousands of years, and continue to be enhanced and improved to this day by religious and spiritual leaders, practicing professionals, mentors, and healers throughout the world, many of whom have been forced underground." In January 2020, Santa Cruz, California, and in September 2020, Ann Arbor, Michigan, decriminalized natural entheogens.
Intellectual property issues
Ayahuasca has also stirred debate regarding intellectual property protection of traditional knowledge. In 1986 the US Patent and Trademarks Office allowed the granting of a patent on the ayahuasca vine B. caapi. It allowed this patent based on the assumption that ayahuasca's properties had not been previously described in writing. Several public interest groups, including the Coordinating Body of Indigenous Organizations of the Amazon Basin (COICA) and the Coalition for Amazonian Peoples and Their Environment (Amazon Coalition) objected. In 1999 they brought a legal challenge to this patent which had granted a private US citizen "ownership" of the knowledge of a plant that is well-known and sacred to many indigenous peoples of the Amazon, and used by them in religious and healing ceremonies.
Later that year the PTO issued a decision rejecting the patent, on the basis that the petitioners' arguments that the plant was not "distinctive or novel" were valid; however, the decision did not acknowledge the argument that the plant's religious or cultural values prohibited a patent. In 2001, after an appeal by the patent holder, the US Patent Office reinstated the patent. The law at the time did not allow a third party such as COICA to participate in that part of the reexamination process. The patent, held by US entrepreneur Loren Miller, expired in 2003.
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