A Complete Guide to Ayahuasca Ceremony in the Amazon
For many hundreds, perhaps thousands of years, ayahuasca has traditionally been consumed within the context of a ceremony. But what happens in an ayahuasca ceremony exactly? and what kind of ayahuasca healings have people been through in the past?
This article is a comprehensive guide to what usually happens in an ayahuasca ceremony and other useful information related to ayahuasca ceremonies. Traditional ayahuasca practices can be found in the south amercicas across the Amazon basin. There are other blogs on this site where we cover the sacred plant medicine ayahuasca and some of the understanding of the plant spirits connected to this healing process.
Please note. This article focuses primarily on traditional Amazonian ceremonies, the same as we conduct at Gaia Tree Center during one of our healing retreats. Religious ceremonies using ayahuasca can be completely different (such as Santo Daime), as well as other ceremonies you may find happening in western countries.
Where do ayahuasca ceremonies take place?
Ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon rainforest usually take place in either the shaman’s own house or a ceremonial maloca. Traditional indigenous shaman can be found in different parts of the Amazon.
A maloca is a large structure made from wood that is often octagonal or decagonal in shape, with a high sloping thatched roof that reaches its highest point in the center (see picture, right).
If the ceremony takes place in a house, participants are typically given a chair to sit on during the ceremony. If it is inside a maloca, you are usually provided with a small mattress to sit or lie on. In addition, you will normally be provided with a pillow and a blanket.
Most Ayahuasca retreat centers in the Amazon have their own ceremonial maloca, which, depending on their size, can usually fit between ten and thirty people positioned in a circle.
What happens during an ayahuasca ceremony?
Traditional ayahuasca ceremonies always take place after dark. In the upper Amazon, it gets dark rather early because of the close proximity to the equator. It is always dark before 7pm and the length of the day is almost the same all year round.
Most ceremonies start between 7pm and 9pm, but some shamans prefer to start even later. A ceremony will typically last about 4 or 5 hours, and sometimes much longer.
It’s good practice to arrive at least thirty minutes before the ceremony begins. This gives you enough time to find a place in the room and enter a state of deep relaxation before you begin your inner journey.
I strongly advise against engaging in meaningless chatter for at least an hour before the ceremony begins. Use this time to relax, center yourself and focus on your intention.
To enter a more relaxed state and prepare for ayahuasca, you may find it helpful to meditate or practice meditative breathing exercises. Practices such as Yoga, Tai Chi, or Qi gung can also be very useful. Use whatever works best for you or simply just sit in silence to go deeper during your ayahuasca experience.
The same practices can also significantly help during your ayahuasca ceremony preparation before you arrive to the Amazon.
Usually, everyone sits in a circle within the maloka or ceremony room.
Drinking The Medicine
The ayahuasca preparation is done by the shaman in the days before the ceremony. Once everybody is in their place and the shaman is ready to begin, it is time to drink the ayahuasca. Each person in the room will take turns to sit in front of the shaman and drink a cup of ayahuasca (also called ayahuasca tea by some).
When a person goes forward, the shaman will pour a dose of ayahuasca into a ceremonial cup. The shaman will usually intuit the dose needed for each individual. First-timers are sometimes given a smaller dose than more experienced drinkers. The shaman will often blow mapacho smoke over the cup and he might also put his own intention or prayer into the cup and/or sing an icaro before handing it over.
After receiving the cup, you should focus your intention into the medicine before drinking ayahuasca. The medicine tastes foul, as you have probably heard, so drink the ayahuasca as quickly as possible (in one or two gulps!). The quicker you can get it down, the easier it is and less likely you will vomit it straight back up again.
When you have drunk the ayahuasca, you will return to your place in the room and the next person will go forward until each person in the room has drunk their dose. The shaman will usually drink last.
Protecting the space
One of the principle roles of the shaman during a ceremony is to protect the space and everyone in it. This is why, for inexperienced people at least, it is important to drink with a genuine shaman you feel safe with. Without the protection of a good shaman, you’re more open and vulnerable to negative energies and spirits.
Once everyone in the room has drunk the ayahuasca (or sometimes before), the shaman will usually go around the room and blow mapacho smoke over each person, primarily over their head (crown chakra) and over their hands. Mapacho is pure jungle tobacco and is a very powerful and sacred plant medicine/spirit. The mapacho smoke acts as protection from negative energies and spirits.
After the mapacho blessing, it is time to turn out all the lights and the rest of the ceremony will take place in total darkness.
There are other ayahuasca rituals the shaman may perform before the ceremony begins using flower water for example.
Some shamans will start chanting their icaros almost immediately after turning off the lights. Others will wait until they begin to feel the effects of the ayahuasca, which can be anything from around fifteen to thirty minutes after drinking. Some shamans will sing their icaros throughout the entire ceremony without stopping while others may take breaks from singing and sit in silence for long or short periods.
Icaros are sacred songs or chants that are given to the shamans, by their teachers or directly from the plant spirit. Each icaro has a particular purpose. Some icaros call in different spirits for healing or protection, while others intensify, or even reduce the ayahuasca visions. However, most icaros are for healing. It’s quite normal to experience enhanced effects of ayahuasca, powerful healing, sensations in the physical body as the shamans sing. It’s important simply to trust the process.
Closing the ceremony
The shaman will close the ceremony when he feels it is safe to do so, and when his presence in the room is no longer necessary. This is typically four or five hours after the ceremony starts.
Often, the shaman will close the ceremony with some form of thanksgiving prayer, or he/she may just light a candle.
After the ceremony has closed you may still be feeling the effects of the ayahuasca. If this is the case just stay where you are and don’t go back to your room until you are mostly ‘sober’ again. If the ceremony takes place in a maloca, you can usually choose to sleep on your mattress, or you can go back to your bed in whatever accommodation is provided.
Personally, I think it is also important to remain in silence after the ceremony is over, or at least do not start a conversation inside the maloka. Other people may still be in their journey and hearing the voices of others can be extremely distracting. Save conversation until either the next day, or a location away from the maloka.
Ayahuasca Ceremony Etiquette & Rules
Different shamans and retreat centers may have slightly different rules to the ceremony, but the following rules apply to most ceremonies so that everyonecan get the most from their ayahuasca journeys and have a deep healing experience:
No talking to others
It’s very important not to talk to other people during the ceremony. Not only does is distract from your own process but it will interfere with the process of others. The only exception is if you need help. It is fine to call out to a facilitator if you need help for any reason.
No helping others
Sometimes other participants sound like they need help. They could be moaning, groaning, crying or sound like they are in distress. However, it is not your job to help others even if they are a friend or partner. Again, it can interfere with both yours and their process. If a person really needs help then you need to trust that they will call out and ask for it. Good experienced facilitators will always know when it might be necessary to step in and help somebody. Trust that they know how to do their job.
No smoking commercial cigarettes
Do not smoke commercial cigarettes or tobacco in ceremony. However, in the Amazon, it is virtually always permissible to smoke Mapacho which is natural jungle tobacco. Most shamans and ayahuasca centers will make Mapacho available to ceremony participants.
Do not leave the ceremony space
The most important rule of all is to never leave the ceremony space until the ceremony has been closed. Of course, you can go to the bathroom when you need to which is often located just outside the maloka, but always come back to your place when you’re finished.
Sometimes in ceremony you may feel the need to be outside, closer to nature. Some retreat centers may permit you to go outside for a short while so long as you stay very close to the maloka. Other centers have strict rules about not leaving the maloka. Always honor the rules of the center you are attending.
If you are allowed outside, never ever go wandering into the jungle and do not go back to your accommodation. During the ceremony, the shaman and the facilitators are 100% responsible for your wellbeing and therefore they need to know where you are at all times. If anyone goes ‘missing’ then search parties have to be sent out and then other people in ceremony may not get help when they really need it.
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