JOURNEY WITH AYAHUASCA
The Essential Guide to Having an Amazing Ayahuasca Experience
PART 3 – The Ayahuasca Ceremony
What Happens During an 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?
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 Americas across the Amazon basin.
Please note. This article focuses primarily on what happens during a traditional Amazonian ayahuasca ceremony. Religious ceremonies using ayahuasca can be completely different (such as Santo Daime), as well as other ceremonies you may find happening in western countries. Also no two ayahuasca ceremonies are identical however there are many commonalities which I outline below.
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 ayahuasca 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.
Preparing For Your Ayahuasca Ceremony
First, you should prepare well in advance of the ayahuasca ceremony, by keeping to a fairly strict diet. You will find a detailed description in part 2. This diet helps you to cleanse your body, but also helps you to focus mentally and spiritually on the experience ahead.
Do not eat after lunchtime on the day of the ayahuasca ceremony, and do not drink any water less than one hour before the ceremony starts.
Before the ayahuasca ceremony begins, some shamans will ask you to take a plant bath, particularly when you visit a multi-day retreat. The plant bath will usually happen an hour or two before the ceremony starts. These plants provide additional energetic cleansing and/or spiritual protection while in the ceremony.
Arrive on time
Traditional ayahuasca ceremonies always take place after dark. In the upper Amazon, it gets dark 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. An ayahuasca ceremony will typically last about four 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 relaxed state of mind, 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.
What to take with you to an ayahuasca ceremony
Most importantly, you should always take a torch (necessary for getting to the toilet) and a bottle of water to rinse your mouth. Sometimes it is worth having an extra layer of clothing like a light sweater. This is because the effects of ayahuasca can sometimes make you feel cold and shivery, although these effects usually do not last very long.
Most ayahuasca ceremonies ban manufactured/chemical cigarettes, but you are always allowed to smoke mapacho (natural jungle tobacco) so take those with you if it’s not provided, plus a lighter if you wish to smoke.
Drinking the Medicine
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.
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 often given a smaller dose than more experienced drinkers. The shaman will usually 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 to you.
After receiving the cup, you should focus your intention into the medicine before drinking it down. The medicine tastes foul, as you have probably heard, so drink the ayahuasca as quickly as possible (as you would a shot of tequila). 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 an ayahuasca 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. 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, the shaman will sometimes go around the room and blow mapacho smoke over each person, primarily over their 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 additional protection from negative energies and spirits.
After the mapacho blessing, it is time to turn out all the lights (or blow out the candles). The rest of the ayahuasca ceremony will take place in total darkness.
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 they learn directly from the plant spirits. 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.
Feeling the effects of ayahuasca
I don’t like to write much about what people can actually experience on ayahuasca because everybody experiences ayahuasca in their own unique way. The spectrum of experiences you can have on this medicine is vast, and no two ayahuasca ceremonies are ever quite the same. You could drink ayahuasca ten times and have ten completely different experiences.
You can find many ayahuasca ‘trip reports’ online, and they can be fantastically exciting to read; however, I recommend that you do not read many, or maybe not even any at all. The more you read about other people’s experiences, the more expectations you may develop about what your own experience will look like.
It’s important not to have expectations because they can easily get in the way of your actual experience. If you’re constantly judging what you think you should be experiencing against what you’re actually experiencing, you will likely miss out on valuable lessons that ayahuasca is trying to give you.
So, what I typically recommend to people who are drinking ayahuasca for the first time is to forget everything they have ever read, heard, or watched about ayahuasca. Go into the experience with a blank slate and have no expectations or pre-conceived ideas about what will happen to you (This can be difficult, I know!).
What I will say is that most people will start to feel the effects of the ayahuasca between 20 and 60 minutes after drinking. However, sometimes the effects can come on much more rapid, or sometimes they may take longer.
You may experience some uncomfortable physical effects, like nausea, or intense hot or cold flashes. These unpleasant physical effects usually pass; however, it is common to feel a lot of nausea during your first one or two ceremonies. This is just something you have to live with.
If you are not feeling any effects after about 90 minutes, then it is usually fine to approach the shaman and ask for a second cup of ayahuasca. However, different retreat centers may have different rules around second or third doses which they will explain to you.
Typically, most people will feel the effects of Ayahuasca for between three and six hours. Usually, the first two hours are the most intense.
Learning to love the Purge
Occasionally I get emails from people asking me, “I really want to experience ayahuasca, but I hate puking. Is there anything I can do to stop myself from puking?”
I understand why some people have a major resistance to puking. For some people, their only experience of puking is when they have been horribly ill, maybe as a young child, and so they always associate puking with having a horrible sickness.
But you just have to accept that there’s no way to stop yourself from purging on ayahuasca, and nor should you want to. Purging is a major part of the healing and cleansing process. Ayahuasca purging not only cleanses the body, but also the mind and the spirit. It is truly a holistic purge and possibly one of the most cathartic experiences you will ever have in your life. Do not fight it; work with it and allow it to happen. Purging can help you eject all kinds of toxins from your total being.
The only time you should resist puking, if you can, is during the first thirty minutes of the ceremony. The ayahuasca needs a bit of time to enter your system. Puking too soon may lead to a less intense experience.
Also, do not expect your first one or two ayahuasca ceremonies to be super-intense or life altering. The first couple of ceremonies are often quite mild for some people. This is because we often have many energetic blockages that need clearing before we can go deep with the medicine.
Sometimes I see people being very disappointed after their first one or two ceremonies because they did not get the intense, mind-blowing effects they were expecting and hoping for. As I have said before, it is important to have no expectations and be patient with ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is a medicine and she needs to eliminate your blockages before you can go deep. This process can take awhile for some people, but most people will break through by their third ceremony.
Tips for having the best possible journey
There are three tips I can give you for having the best possible experience with ayahuasca.
1) When you go into your first ayahuasca ceremony, forget everything you have ever read or been told about ayahuasca. Put it all out of your mind and have no expectations about what you will experience. The spectrum of experiences one can have with ayahuasca is so incredibly vast, that the idea that anyone can have an expectation about what an ayahuasca experience is going to be like is just absurd. Expectations are for beginners, and they can ruin your experience, so drop them.
2) This is related to expectations as well, but don’t obsess about having visions; the medicine works in countless different ways. Not everybody has visions, or certainly not all the time. Many shamans will tell you that it is not about the visions; that they are usually not important. What is truly important are the revelations, realizations, and the healing that you experience.
3) Let go and surrender to the medicine. It’s perfectly ok and natural to be feeling a bit of fear, but try and relax – trust the shaman, trust that you’re safe and can’t be harmed, and most importantly – trust the medicine. Ayahuasca experiences only become difficult when you try to resist what’s happening. So resist nothing, surrender, let go. If you can manage that, you will have a great ayahuasca ceremony.
Dealing with Difficult Experiences
Let it never be said that working with ayahuasca is easy. It could be one of the hardest and most challenging experiences of your entire life – and then some!
If you’re expecting to spend each ayahuasca ceremony surfing waves of cosmic bliss, then you’re probably going to be in for a rather rude awakening. Sure, ayahuasca is able to deluge you with more love and bliss than you can handle, but first she likes to make you work. And that work can be very, very challenging!
As I already stated, the best thing you can do is just surrender to the experience, no matter how hard it may be. However, if your experience becomes too challenging, and you feel like you wish it would all just stop; there are a few things you can do to help get through these sticky patches.
First, remind yourself that you are safe and that you trust the medicine. This can sometimes help more than you could imagine. Know that no matter how negative, scary, or challenging the experience feels, it is just a part of the healing process, and you’re going to come through it and be ok. Remember that just like every other experience you have had in your life, this too shall pass.
It can be helpful to sit up straight (if you’re not already sitting up). When lying down, you are in more of a submissive position. Sitting up can make you feel more present and in control of the experience. Also, take slow deep breaths and just focus on your breathing. Another thing that can help is to focus intently on the icaros the shaman sings.
If your visions turn dark and scary, know that you are protected and that your visions cannot harm you. They have no power over you. It may sometimes help to take a deep breath and blow them away. When visions get dark and scary, it is usually just a visual manifestation of the negative energies you’re releasing. Be grateful the ayahuasca is doing her work.
Finally, if all else fails, ask for help from a facilitator, if there is one. If need be, they will alert the shaman, who is equipped to help you through and to steer your experience in a more positive direction.
Ayahuasca Ceremony Etiquette
It is important to remember that all participants in an ayahuasca ceremony are equal and that you are not more or less important than anyone else. Therefore, you should have the same respect for everybody else’s healing journey, as well as your own. To keep distractions to a minimum, I encourage you to follow a few simple rules while in ceremony.
1) Do not speak to other participants during the ayahuasca ceremony. The exception being if you need to ask a facilitator for help or if you need to speak to the shaman about something important.
However, that’s not to say you must always be completely silent. During a powerful ayahuasca experience, you do not always have total control of your actions. Through the process of releasing stuff you may feel uncontrollable urges to laugh, cry, shout out, talk to yourself, or the spirits. This is generally okay for short periods, but if people are excessively noisy and disruptive for a long period, the facilitators or the shaman will usually intervene and try to quiet a person down.
2) Do not attempt to help other people, particularly if there are dedicated helpers in the ceremony. It is not your job to provide assistance to others. It will only serve to distract you from your own journey, as well as possibly distract the person you think needs help. Very often, people may sound like they require help, but in reality they’re fine and going through an important process. Interrupting that process would be very unhelpful to them. Good shamans are always aware if people genuinely require help or not, so let them do their job.
3) If you need to use your flashlight to visit the toilet, always point the light downwards and cover the light with your fingers as much as possible. Never ever shine a bright light directly in someone’s eyes – it’s a very unpleasant experience.
4) Never leave the close vicinity of the ceremonial space. Some centers may have strict rules about not leaving the maloca at all; others may allow you the opportunity to go outside and gaze at the stars. If that’s the case, then never wander far. So stay within spitting distance – this is for your own safety.
5) Most ayahuasca centers have a rule against smoking chemical cigarettes, but smoking mapacho is always allowed.
Closing the ayahuasca ceremony
The shaman will close the ayahuasca ceremony when he feels it is safe to do so, and when his presence in the room is no longer necessary. This is typically about four or five hours after the ceremony starts.
Usually, the shaman will close the ceremony with some form of thanksgiving prayer. The shaman may formally declare that the ceremony is over, or he may just quietly get up and leave.
It is important to maintain silence in the room after the ayahuasca ceremony has ended. Some people in the room may still be experiencing strong ayahuasca effects and will not enjoy being distracted by other people’s conversations.
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.