What is Ayahuasca & Common Questions
Ayahuasca (commonly misspelled iowaska) is the name given to a sacred plant medicine that comes from the Amazon rainforest where the indigenous people of the jungle have likely used it for thousands of years.
However, ayahuasca is no garden-variety plant medicine. The effects of ayahuasca are as extraordinary as they are profound. Most other plant medicines do not heal you by altering your entire perception of reality!
Working with ayahuasca is an intense, profound, and usually an incredibly transformative experience that can facilitate deep healing on all levels of your being – physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. Ayahuasca is a doorway to inner worlds that allows us to enter expanded states of consciousness and the experience of spiritual awakening. For many people, ayahuasca reveals the multi-dimensional nature of both reality and ourselves, and it leads us back to the knowledge of what we truly are – spiritual beings having a human experience.
The word ayahuasca is derived from two Quechua words (Quechua is an indigenous language of South America). ‘Aya,’ which means spirit, ancestor or deceased person, and ‘Huasca,’ which means vine or rope. Therefore, ayahuasca is sometimes referred to as ‘vine of the soul’ or ‘vine of the dead’.
The history of ayahuasca is relatively unknown, and will always be uncertain because there are no written records from the Amazon region from before the time when the Spaniards invaded. There are only various myths and oral traditions passed down through generations by the indigenous. However, a ceremonial cup was found in Ecuador, believed to be well over 2500 years old that contained traces of ayahuasca, so it has been used at least that long, and probably much longer.
Ayahuasca is used in many South American countries including Brazil, Ecuador, Venezuela, Colombia, Peru and Bolivia, and by at least seventy different indigenous tribes of the Amazon.
Most Frequent Questions About Ayahuasca
Where is Ayahuasca legal?
Ayahuasca is legal in all South American Amazonian countries where people use it in traditional shamanic ceremonies: Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, and Brazil.
I am aware of ayahuasca retreat centers in both Mexico and Costa Rica and I believe it to be legal in those countries, but I’m not 100% sure. Portugal have also decriminalized all drugs and there are several retreat centers operating in Portugal. However, whether it is legal to serve the medicine there is possibly a grey area.
In other countries, where ayahuasca is imported, things are often not so clear. In some countries, the ayahuasca plants, as well as the brew are legal, but the chemical substance DMT is not. This may lead to confusion about the implementation of the law. In the UK for example, one person who organized ayahuasca ceremonies was found guilty of breaking the law on selling DMT and convicted to jail time. Yet, another person with similar charges was never even brought to trial.
In some countries, ayahuasca users have found a solution in the form of organized religion. By registering as a church and claiming the use of ayahuasca as a sacred ceremony, they remain protected by religious freedom laws. Two such churches recognized by some European countries and US states are Santo Daime and Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV). However, one cannot just show up and expect to take part in their ceremonies; there is usually some form of application process and admittance criteria.
How do you pronounce Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is often commonly misspelled iowaska which is closer to the correct pronunciation.
You pronounce it aya-wass-ka
What are 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 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 ayahausca. 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.
Typically, most people will feel the effects of Ayahuasca for between three and six hours. Usually, the first two hours are the most intense.
How can I experience Ayahuasca?
If you want to experience ayahuasca, you have several options. Your choice depends on what it is you’re searching for, and of course on your available time and budget. Whichever you choose, always prepare and do your homework. Remember, there is no shaman school, no certificate or diploma, and essentially anyone can call themselves a shaman.
Since ayahuasca has gained worldwide attention, many people have become aware of the money they can make from offering ayahuasca ceremonies. This obviously attracts all kinds of elements – the good, the bad and the ugly. Sifting through the pebbles to find the true gems can seem like a daunting task. Many people find it a bit scary and confusing. That is why it is always a good idea to do research online, get references and read reviews. Fortunately, there are more reliable information sources available to help you find your way.
Here is a brief description of the main options that are available to you for experiencing ayahuasca.
This is one of the most popular and safest options. You make a reservation for a multi-day retreat (usually 7 to 14 days), where you stay on location at a lodge, usually in the Amazon rainforest. Everything is included; your transportation (except flights); special meals; several ayahuasca ceremonies and possibly other shamanic or holistic treatments. Accommodations, particularly in the Amazon, are often modest to rustic, but that is part of the experience.
Retreats can be very effective and there are several that come highly recommended. Keep in mind that this is often the most expensive option, although when considering the value of the experience (and in some cases the luxury of the lodge) everything is relative.
I would personally recommend retreats for most people, but there are certainly other worthwhile options particularly if you’re a little more adventurous.
Another option, if you would rather find your own path, is to come to the Amazon and find a good shaman who works alone. Talk to the people you encounter and you will soon hear about their personal experiences. This option is a bit more adventurous and certainly comes with a few more risks, but it could save you quite a lot of money. Not speaking Spanish can be a problem, so take your time finding your way.
Some shamans have their own centers, and can sometimes be just as expensive as western owned retreat centers, but many provide ceremonies in their homes at a much cheaper price. If you work with a single shaman for a period of time, then you are likely going to get much more personal attention than you would at a retreat center.
Local Ceremonies & Ayahuasca Churches
If traveling to South America is not an option, due to time, money or other considerations, finding an ayahuasca ceremony in your own country can be a reasonable alternative. However, keep in mind that these can be illegal, depending on where you live.
You can find people running ayahuasca ceremonies in most major countries in the world, but they may not be easy to find. Due to the legal issues, they do not openly promote what they do. Finding where and when these ceremonies take place can be difficult. It is often a case of knowing the right people, at the right time. Try befriending the owners of your nearest new age bookstore or natural healing center and perhaps they can point you in the right direction.
Keep in mind as well that it is almost impossible to find online reviews and testimonials for such ceremonies. My suggestion is that if you do come across someone who is running ceremonies then you should talk to them beforehand and see what kind of impression they give you. No matter how desperate you are to experience ayahuasca, if someone gives you a bad feeling then my advice is to say ‘thanks, but no thanks’ and walk away.
Another concern is that the police may bust your ayahuasca ceremony (this has happened a couple of times). You will surely understand that being arrested while under the influence of ayahuasca would be a rather unpleasant experience. Please educate yourself about the local laws and the risks in places where DMT is outlawed.
Ayahuasca churches: You will find the UDV (Brazil and US) and Santo Daime chapters in several countries. Also, other organizations worldwide offer ayahuasca ceremonies. You could do a search on Facebook, where you will find many groups. As always, do your research and get references and reviews if possible.
How much is an ayahuasca retreat?
Ayahuasca retreats in Peru can vary in cost from as little as 500 or 600 hundred dollars for a week to several 1000 USD. Of course there are a range of differences in the type of service and facilities you’re likely to receive and with many modern retreat centers the significant amount that is spent on advertising, marketing and PR. Since the inception of Gaia Tree Center, our aim has been to serve – offering a depth of healing and quality of facilities worth far in excess of anything we receive monetarily – we also aim to keep prices reasonable enough for most to afford.
Several important considerations when looking at retreats are
– Legality of the operation. The vast majority of retreat centers are not legally registered operations
– Depth of integration work. Ayahuasca is not something to be taken lightly and the integrating the inner shifts into your life is significantly improved by having experienced facilitators around how can help to guide the retreat process in a powerful yet gentle way.
– Facilities. Retreats can be held in places which are small shacks with buckets for toilets to luxury lodges with everything in between. The location can also be a factor – some centers are located close to villages or busy roads and others are located several hours by river in more remote communities. Gaia Tree center is located next to reserve land and is accessible by boat, giving us a spectacular space to be in the jungle away from noise so you can really go deep within.
– Cost. With costs ranging from $500-5000, it’s important to know the finances are going to a worthy cause, that staff are legally employed and the center is operating as a legal entity.
Is Ayahuasca a Drug?
Ayahuasca should not be considered a drug, or certainly not in the recreational sense. The dictionary definition of drug is ‘a medicine or other substance which has a physiological effect when ingested or otherwise introduced into the body’. Within that extremely broad sense then you could classify ayahuasca as a drug. However, calling ayahuasca a drug evokes many negative connotations in most people. People who work with ayahuasca like to refer to it simply as ‘the medicine’ because that is truly what it is. Shamans often refer to it as La Medicina.
I believe that almost all psychedelic substances, particularly LSD and psilocybin have medicinal and/or therapeutic qualities and some recent research have begun proving their effectiveness in treating certain conditions. However, most psychedelic substances, particularly when taken in lower doses, can also be enjoyed on a purely recreational level. Many people who take mushrooms and LSD-like substances often do so to ‘trip out’, have fun, or enhance their creativity (not that I am saying there is anything wrong with that!).
No matter what dosage you take, ayahuasca is never a recreational psychedelic. Even at small doses, it can make you purge heavily and you may experience loss of physical coordination. Ayahuasca is a powerful natural medicine, but what is it a medicine for?
In many respects, experiencing ayahuasca is often a form of psychotherapy, but on a much deeper level than even the most skilled psychotherapist could ever reach. Even an experienced psychotherapist may have difficulty getting you to look deeply at feelings, emotions, or events from your past that you may prefer not remembering.
Ayahuasca, on the other hand, has little difficulty in getting you to confront all the things that you have been avoiding. However, you still have the choice of pushing it away and refusing the insights and healing that ayahuasca offers.
All human beings carry pain with them to varying degrees. We have all experienced loss, abandonment, rejection, sadness, bullying, abuse and quite a high number of us have suffered severe emotional or physical trauma in our lives.
All these painful experiences leave emotional scars on our being, but unlike a physical scar that remains visible, emotional scars are invisible and often it’s difficult to see the influence they still have on our lives. The wounds from our past, if left forgotten and unhealed, will profoundly affect our behaviors of today.
If you really want to experience ayahuasca, then it is important to have a willingness to look deeply and honestly into yourself and be ready to heal the wounds from your past.
If you’re thinking of drinking ayahuasca because you have read about some of the incredible cosmic and spiritual experiences that are often reported – and you quite fancy some of that for yourself – then you may want to reconsider. It is unlikely you will get what you want – or at least not straight away.
Is Ayahuasca a Religion?
Real shamanism is not a religion. It is the art of healing and has nothing to do with the worship of any kind of deity. Having said that, shamans will call on spirits, and possibly also on biblical saints and figures such as Jesus, Mother Mary, and the Holy Spirit. Integrating Christian figures into the traditional culture is not strange to the shaman; to him, it is all the same thing.
Foreign-born shamans or Westerners who like to call themselves that sometimes tend to turn the shamanic ceremony into a religious-like event. While some people may have a need for worship of the gods, or religious bells and whistles, it has nothing to do with real shamanism.
In Brazil some religions have formed around the usage of ayahuasca. The most popular of which is Santo Daime
Is Ayahuasca a Miracle Cure-all?
There is no doubt that ayahuasca has assisted in some remarkable, some would say miraculous, healings. You can find all kinds of testimonies from people claiming ayahuasca cured them of cancer, brain tumors and a wide variety of life-threatening conditions from which Western medicine generally provides little relief. Yet, not everybody gets the healing they desire, particularly concerning terminal conditions. So please do not look at ayahuasca as a miracle-medicine guaranteed to heal you. You must have no expectations.
Also, you must never expect the medicine to do all the work for you. There are three components of successful ayahuasca healing. The first is the ayahuasca, the second is the work of the shaman, and the third, and equally as important, is you. You must have a strong willingness to work with the ayahuasca. If you do not play your part in the process, then you almost certainly will not get the results you desire.
Can you become enlightened on Ayahuasca?
If someone ever tells you that he or she is enlightened because of ayahuasca – slap them! – Just kidding, please don’t use violence, but at least have a little chuckle to yourself.
I am sure that nobody has ever become permanently enlightened from drinking ayahuasca. You almost certainly will not find an enlightened shaman in the Amazon and they have surely guzzled more ayahuasca than anyone else has.
Ayahuasca can certainly allow you to experience expanded states of consciousness that may seem profound and enlightening. Sometimes it may seem like you have access to all knowledge in the universe and that you are enlightened and one with God. However, this is always a temporary and perhaps somewhat delusional state and not something that stays with you for long after the ceremony ends.
Is Ayahuasca Right for Everybody?
An idealistic view of many who have healed with ayahuasca is that if everyone in the world experienced this medicine, we could all heal ourselves, expand our consciousness, resolve all the problems of the world, and then live happily ever after.
It is certainly a beautiful idea. However, leaving aside the fact that there is nowhere near enough ayahuasca in the Amazon for everyone in the world to experience it, I think it is fair to say that most people are probably not quite ready to work with such a powerful medicine. Therefore, it is not something I recommend for everyone, or at least not for everyone where they are at right now. Often people grow, develop, and become ready later in their lives.
If you’re not ready to experience the medicine, it may have some rather unpleasant and less than positive effects on your psyche.
How do I know if I’m ready to experience ayahuasca?
If you are considering drinking ayahuasca, here are some questions you may want to consider first. If you answer ‘NO’ to half or more of the questions, it probably is not the right time for you to experience ayahuasca.
Have you felt a strong call to work with the medicine?
Do you have a particular reason for wanting to work with ayahuasca?
Are you aware of emotional wounds, past traumas or illnesses that require healing? If so, do you have a strong willingness to heal them – no matter what?
Do you usually cope well with stressful or challenging situations?
Do you usually welcome change and new experiences into your life?
Can you be comfortable with, or at least open to, the idea of temporarily losing control of your mind (and sometimes your body) for a few hours?
Do you understand that ayahuasca is much more than just a psychedelic trip or drug experience?
Do you understand that consciousness altering substances can be medicinal and facilitate deep healing?
Are you free of any religious or spiritual beliefs that may conflict with you having an ayahuasca experience?
Do you consider yourself open-minded?
Do you try to take full responsibility for your life and your decisions, instead of always blaming other people or situations for your problems?
Do you have a desire to find a new or greater purpose in your life?
Do you trust your intuition?
Have you already done research into the effects of ayahuasca?
If you answered mostly ‘Yes’ then you’re probably ready to experience ayahuasca.
Is Ayahuasca Dangerous?
The short answer to this question is simply: No.
In the words of Terrence McKenna, “The only thing you’re likely to die of is astonishment!”
During your research, you may have come across some scary stories about people getting hurt or even dying from drinking ayahuasca. Let me put your mind at ease. Nobody who has drunk ayahuasca responsibly, free of medications, in the right environment and with the guidance of a genuine, experienced shaman, has ever died from drinking ayahuasca. Ayahuasca is not toxic to the body and, to the best of my knowledge, there has been no recorded evidence of physical or psychological damage caused by ingesting ayahuasca in a responsibly held environment.
Having said that, there have been a small number of deaths and injuries related to ayahuasca usage. It definitely can be dangerous if you have certain health conditions, or you are taking medications contraindicated with ayahuasca. These are primarily drugs that contain SSRIs commonly used to treat depression, such as Prozac.
As a precaution, you should not drink ayahuasca if the following applies to you:
You are taking any kind of antidepressants (for example SSRIs, SNRI, MAOI – a and b, TCAs Tricyclic, TeCAs and others) and some pain medications which influence serotonin. Before experiencing ayahuasca, you should stop taking MAOIs and SSRIs at least eight weeks before drinking ayahuasca (it could be less time depending on the drug and the dosage so you should consult with your doctor first).
You are taking antipsychotic medication
See a full list of drugs to avoid at ayahuasca.com
You have a chronic heart condition or severe blood pressure.
You have a history of mental illness, schizophrenia, severe bipolar disorder and/or suicidal tendencies.
You are currently on – or have recently finished an antibiotic treatment.
You suffer from diabetes (Some diabetics can drink ayahuasca safely, but you should discuss this with your retreat center or shaman).
You have had surgery within the last six months.
You are pregnant – this issue is hotly debated and some people believe that it is totally okay to drink ayahuasca while pregnant. Others think it’s not such a good idea. This is something you should discuss with your shaman and also use your own intuition.
You should also be very cautious if you suffer from epilepsy. There is some anecdotal evidence that ayahuasca has been used to treat epilepsy successfully. However, if you have epilepsy, it is important someone monitors you at all times during the ceremony. The danger is that if you have a seizure while in ceremony and vomit at the same time, you could potentially choke on your vomit and die. Therefore, you should not take part in ceremonies with many people where it will be impossible for you to be monitored closely at all times.
There are a few other dangers as well, but these are related to drinking ayahuasca with people who lack integrity, particularly what we call ‘brujos’ in the Amazon. These are shamans who essentially work with the ‘dark side’ of the force, and who use their powers to harm instead of heal.
Although far from a frequent occurrence, there, unfortunately, are reports of people being robbed, beaten and even raped by such people. Worse, a few people have died because of their negligence. For this reason, you should never ever go and do a ceremony with someone you meet on the street, without any way of verifying who they are. In places like Iquitos, you may get many people offering you ayahuasca ceremonies including taxi drivers, jungle lodges/guides and jewelry sellers in the street. Please never do a ceremony with someone you do not know or have no way of reliably verifying.
There are also additional plants that some shamans add to the ayahuasca brew that can potentially be harmful to some people. One of these plants is Toé (Brugmansia suaveolens).
Toé has become notorious lately and is perhaps vilified a little more than it deserves. It definitely can be dangerous, but many shamans still consider it a master plant teacher like ayahuasca and it can heal. However, it is also very toxic. Do not play around with Toé, it should only be used by people who are serious about shamanic training. Use it with extreme caution and only under the close guidance of a genuine and experienced shaman. It should never be given to first-time ayahuasca drinkers under any circumstance because it can inflict long-lasting, even permanent, psychological damage. It can even kill people in large doses. Also, unlike with ayahuasca, it is possible for people to have dangerous allergic reactions to Toé.
Is it ok to drink ayahuasca alone without a shaman?
In most countries, you can legally buy both ayahuasca plants (vine and chacruna) from online stores, so that in theory you can brew the ayahuasca yourself. However, is it ever a good idea to brew ayahuasca and drink it on your own?
This is another controversial topic within ayahuasca circles. Some people (including many shamans) will say that it is irresponsible and dangerous to drink alone; others have had very positive experiences going alone.
The fact is, if you spend much time browsing the forums at http://forums.ayahuasca.com/, you will find reports from many people who have had success brewing their own ayahuasca and reporting very positive experiences.
Personally, I do not recommend it, but I am not here to tell you how you should live your life.
A few years ago I facilitated a private group of people on an ayahuasca retreat who were all self-professed ‘psychonauts’. They were all very experienced users of various poweful psychedelics but had never experienced ayahuasca. Most of them had such powerful experiences with ayahuasca that by the end of the retreat almost all agreed that they would never recommend anyone drink ayahuasca without a shaman present.
I believe you should only ever consider it if you already have a great deal of experience with other psychedelic plant teachers. Always have a sitter present – a person who stays completely sober – who can watch over you and help should you have any problems. Never drink ayahuasca completely alone until you have had plenty of experience with a sitter. You can find a lot more helpful tips and advice at http://forums.ayahuasca.com/
Keep in mind that ayahuasca is used by the shamans to open a gateway and enter the spirit realms. A shaman knows how to protect himself and the people in his circle from unwanted contacts and invasions from negative entities. You will understand that this takes experience and skills that require many years of training. Remember that by drinking alone, or without the guidance of an experienced shaman, you may open yourself up to influences and energies that you cannot control and that you have little defense against.
Can I prevent myself from puking while on ayahuasca?
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 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.