Ayahuasca | A Practical Guide

Yagé, Vine of the Soul, The Tea, La Purga, La Medicina; thinking of experiencing Ayahuasca? Here’s what you need to know. I spoke to experienced Shamanic Space Holders, Skye and Helm Indira, for a practical guide to this brilliant brew.

Ancient Roots

Ayahuasca is so deep-rooted in indigenous Amazonian philosophy and mythology, there’s no doubt of its great antiquity. The Vine of the Soul has built a reputation for being a life-changing brew, a mythical brain-busting elixir that’s guaranteed to launch you into the deepest corners of the cosmic garden and return you back to earth a brand-new, enlightened citizen of the universe. 

Can this psychedelic tea from the Amazon really be the answer? 

You are the sum total of your experiences. Everything you have seen, touched, taken, lived, has contributed to the grand and complex design that makes up who you are today. And it’s this recipe that will guide an experience with this ancient medicine. There is no one-size-fits-all solution for Ayahuasca healing – but a bit of guidance on the fundamental aspects of this medicinal process from those experienced on the path could make the difference between an integrative or disintegrative experience; from preparation diets and Ayahuasca dosage, to how you manage integration after the ceremony. Ultimately though, each will follow their own unique path, as Skye says “Life is the ceremony; and it is up to us to meet it in whatever form it chooses to take moment to moment.”

Basic Brew

Ayahuasca (pronounced ‘iowaska’) is an Amazonian plant mixture capable of inducing altered states of consciousness. The foul-tasting brew, typically ingested in liquid form, is made up of two main ingredients; the Ayahuasca vine (called Banisteriopsis caapi) and the bark or leaves from one of several DMT-containing plants. The chemistry is complex, but here is a snapshot:

DMT and serotonin occur naturally in plants, animals and in the human body, and are thought by some to help mediate our relationship with the great mysteries of life. In his book “The Spirit Molecule”, Dr Rick Strassman hypothesises that the pineal gland releases a massive surge of DMT during particularly intense situations, such as death, birth, or religious experience. Serotonin – the “feel good” or bliss neurotransmitter – is vital for human life and wellbeing. In fact, we have serotonin receptors for every part of our body that touches the outside world. Naturally, then, both DMT and serotonin play a critical role in regulating the amount of sensory information we can perceive.

Normally we can’t just eat or drink DMT to have profound visions. Why? Because a family of enzymes called “MonoAmine Oxidase” (MAO) break it down in the gut. MAO also prevents the build-up of other neurotransmitters including serotonin. Ayahuasca contains compounds which block or “inhibit” the action of MAO enzymes, allowing serotonin to rise … and for DMT to cross the blood-brain barrier and splatter itself onto the canvass of our psyche. This opens what Huxley called “the doors of perception”, allowing us to touch the unimaginable beyond in vivid colour. In this way, the MAO inhibitors in the vine play a key role in conducting the psychedelic orchestra of the plant brew. 

So how is it prepared? The leaves or bark added to the brewed vine, usually from one of the following plants; Chucruna, Acacia, Chaliponga or Mimosa, contain large amounts of DMT. The DMT containing plant used with the vine may vary with each tribe or plant medicine facilitator but the vine itself is considered the most important part of the medicine. Skye says “My teachers always told us that the vine holds the wisdom and the chacruna brings the light which illuminates this wisdom within the mind.”

But some groups choose to replace the vine entirely, usually with a plant called Syrian Rue. Its effects are strong, it’s easier to access and is also a bit cheaper than the Ayahuasca vine. “Many people believe that an MAOI plus DMT equals ‘Ayahuasca’; but this medicine is so much more than chemistry” says Helm. Skye explains the down-sides of replacing the ancient vine: “The Syrian Rue plant has very strong actions and may affect male fertility over time, it is also a natural abortificant and may have other long term contra-indications that we are yet unaware of.” The plant has also been reputed to push people further than they are ready to go. On the other hand, says Skye, “The spirit of the Ayahuasca vine has been likened to a ‘mother’, often demonstrating ‘tough love’ through difficult lessons but rarely giving people more than they can handle.” 

The brew is definitely not for everyone, Skye stresses. “Ayahuasca has an excellent safety profile, even when compared to that of the many western pharmaceutical drugs that are often accessible over the counter; but there are certain conditions that are strongly contra-indicated with the medicine.” Though this list is not exhaustive, anyone suffering from: cardiovascular illnesses, liver and kidney conditions, psychosis, bipolar, schizophrenia or other kind of mental illness (not including depression or anxiety) and especially anyone on antidepressant medications should absolutely steer clear of this medicine. Anyone qualified to work with this plant medicine should have a structured vetting process in place to ensure everyone they take on is fully aware of the contra-indications. It is also wise to do your own research and ask your chosen guide plenty of questions before embarking on an Ayahuasca journey.

Shamanic Path

Traditionally there’s a difference between an ayahuasquero and a cuarendero. An ayahuasquero is someone who prepares Ayahuasca plant medicine, sings ikaros (medicine songs) and may host or assist with ceremonies. A cuarendero on the other hand, is a plant medicine healer; they adhere to plant diets and fasting, they work with a plethora of healing plants, and have a great bounty of ancient flora and fauna knowledge for the purpose of healing others. Ayahuasca is just one of a great many plants they work with in their practise. “If you see a cuarendero, you may have to stay with him anywhere between 10 days to 6 months, depending on your reason for seeing him. And this may, or may not, involve drinking Ayahuasca.”

Becoming a qualified shaman is not only a mental and spiritual challenge but a costly endeavour, too. A 6-week course can cost anything from around four thousand dollars (R54,000.00). “And of course, you’re not a shaman after just 6 weeks”, says Skye. “The system of studying plant medicine is an apprenticeship. You’ll need to find a teacher who you resonate with and work closely with them, participating in dietas and learning as much as you can possibly take in. Be with your teacher while he works with people and sit with him in ceremonies. As you build your diets and ikaros you’re given more and more space to pitch in until you’re ready to run a ceremony on your own.” 

Skye explains how experience and training is far more valuable than time in this practise: “In the jungle we’d take groups of about ten people for anywhere from two, to ten weeks, taking Ayahuasca every second night. That means we’re doing about 100 ceremonies, or more, a year. Maybe only once every 20 ceremonies something hectic would happen. But if you’re only doing one-off ceremonies, once a month, it could take years before you encounter a seriously challenging participant or experience”; like someone losing their memory for three days, people screaming out for hours in different voices and languages, or even bursts of violence from participants. 

If you’ve been serving for two years and nothing bad has happened to you in ceremony, that’s not necessarily a good thing. It’s important to know if the shaman you are with is able to rise up to any challenge and has the ability to properly serve you when you’re in your most vulnerable state. 

Being discerning about the plant healer you choose to work with is incredibly important. Skye urges you to try meet with a shaman before you drink with them, ask about the ingredients they use in their brew, about their experiences in working with the plant medicine and really try to connect with this person. Just like finding the right therapist, seeking out a shaman you can closely work with may take time. Don’t simply drink with the first ayahuasquero you meet. “In the jungle the process of working with a shaman for personal healing is supported by the culture, but in other places in the world the medicine isn’t well-known, easily accessed or commonly practised.”

Word To The Wise

While consuming Ayahuasca is legal in the Amazon, it is a very grey area in South Africa and totally illegal in many other countries around the world, though there are various certified groups or churches (including the Santo Daime and União do Vegetal) which are legally allowed to practise and use Ayahuasca in certain places such as the US and the Netherlands. 

As with any industry, you’ll find exceptionally skilled practitioners, though it doesn’t mean every practising shaman or medicine worker has your best interests at heart. “In the indigenous traditions of the Amazon, there are those who work with the plants in order to become doctors and heal people, and there are those who work with the plants to become ‘black magic’ practitioners and cause harm to people”, says Skye. “The plants are non-specific ‘amplifiers’ or ‘potentiators’ in my experience, which is why it’s important to know why you are coming to the medicine and who you are drinking with.” Helm adds, “and just serving Ayahuasca does not make you enlightened, in case you were wondering. In fact, it can do the opposite if a person really wants to avoid themselves. This surprises a lot of people but it’s true. Shamans are not gurus. Go for someone you feel is compassionate, aware and sincere. If they channel spirits and energy too, then that’s even better.” 

Skye cautions any participant to beware of Ayahuasca brews containing the admixtures: moonflower /angel’s trumpet/toe, tobacco, mushrooms or additional psychedelic substances. Shamans are known to sometimes combine admixtures into their brew to increase the likelihood of visions or a ‘trippy experience’ – a major selling-point of this ancient medicine. As Ayahuasca grows in popularity, it has become ‘commodified’ and the industry more competitive, so ensuring a strong and ‘visionary’ brew can attract more clients as many people associate visionary intensity with healing potential. Skye says “Many people think that more visions equals more healing, but the visions are only one of the many ways that Ayahuasca imparts her medicine. Some of the most exceptional and healing experiences I have witnessed have been without any visionary component to them. It will differ from person to person, ceremony to ceremony.” If there are admixtures in the brew, you’re a lot more likely to get visions and the psychedelic effects can last much longer. Unfortunately, these ‘guaranteed visions’ can sometimes come with consequences such as toxic effects to the body or being pushed mentally into places you aren’t quite ready to go, which may result in trauma … If there’s more than just the vine and either Chucruna, Chaliponga, Acacia or Mimosa in the mix, then I would think twice before drinking the brew.”

The Plant’s Purpose

There’s certainly been a recent surge of interest in Ayahuasca among people all over the world. Many influential individuals, including scientists, doctors, artists, CEO’s, musicians and writers, are looking to this magical vine to unlock the secrets of the cosmos. There is an abundance of anecdotal evidence in support of Ayahuasca’s ability to heal a wide range of diseases and conditions. Recent scientific studies, too, have shown the vine’s effectiveness in treating recurrent depression and addiction. 

The plant has an incredible reputation, and while Skye has no doubt of this divine vine’s effectiveness, she does have a strong message for anyone interested in a journey with Ayahuasca. “I can’t stress it enough; this is not a magic bullet. Though not unheard of, it is rare to find those who have been ‘fixed, healed or enlightened’ in one shot. What matters most is the prayer in one’s heart, your sincere longing for truth, growth or home. Ultimately it is this prayer that is responsible for healing, the unfoldment of the self and the long-term integration of plant medicine experiences”. There is no doubt that Ayahuasca’s ability to bring unconscious material into conscious awareness and to help us process and release that material is almost other-worldly in its efficacy- but for many people the journey to unfoldment is a long and ever deepening process that happens in its own time and is largely out of our control.

Traditionally, participants or patients wouldn’t actually drink the brew; the shaman would drink the Ayahuasca in order to ‘spiritually diagnose’ the patient and then prescribe next actions; be it specialised diets, plant baths, herbal remedies or certain behavioural prohibitions or recommendations. “Only if they felt it was necessary for your healing would the shaman prescribe you to drink the mixture yourself.” Skye explains. In our western culture, we want to take our healing into our own hands, whereas in most jungle traditions the position of a shaman could be likened to that of a priest; where the shaman acts as a spiritual conduit and trusted confidant. 

Ayahuasca tends to have a strong purgative action, which is one of its primary healing functions. By helping us to gather and purge physical, emotional and psychic stress loads that get in the way of our natural healing ability, many individuals find themselves returning to a state of homeostasis and flow after they have completed their treatment with Ayahuasca which may be anywhere between 1 and 20 ceremonies for most people.

Wholistic Preparation

Preparation and dedication are necessary before taking part in an Ayahuasca ceremony. This includes sticking to a diet without stimulants, and preparing your body for an internal make-over. Any fermented foods, spices, alcohol, cigarettes, coffee and meat can have negative consequences for your body when taking Ayahuasca. The preparation diets will vary from shaman to shaman and Skye mentions that “some shamans don’t even recommend a diet at all. This is not a shaman I would trust to drink with, though.” 

Skye and Helm prefer to diet between 2 weeks and a month. “The cleaner your body is, the less you will have to purge during ceremony. Also, when you’re taking in heavy foods and stimulants, like coffee, sugar, cigarettes and other toxins, your sensitivity to the medicine is reduced.”

Though, there’s more to the diet than simply cleansing your body. “The diet alongside other preparatory practices such as meditation, can help us to strengthen the prayer/ intention we are wanting to carry into our ceremony. Every time we undertake one of these practices with genuine heartfelt sincerity, we are recommitting to our own process and cultivating a type of spiritual will that can be a potent guide and support during our Ayahuasca experience” Helm says. By preparing our bodies and minds for the Ayahuasca through daily practice and diet, we create space in our bodies and minds for the medicine to come in and do its work and an energetic container that can then ‘hold’ the experience more effectively afterwards. “And sometimes preparation is simpler: like turning your attention inward and listening, giving space to what is longing to be born inside you – reflection, in other words, or prayer” Helm says.

There are some diets that require you to abstain from sex or masturbation leading up the ceremony. “The Shipibo’s don’t prescribe to this, necessarily” says Skye “but if you look at Eastern philosophies you’ll find that your sexual energies are your life-force and your spiritual energy. In ashrams, they restrict spending sexual energy and employ practises to keep their sexual energy levels high. When you ejaculate or orgasm, you’re releasing this sexual energy. In Taoism, it’s believed that if you’re sick you shouldn’t orgasm because it’s the same energy your body uses to heal you. The plants can only work with what you give them. So, conserving the energy means you will have more of this energy for the plant to use in healing you.”

Along with the diet and meditation; conscious movement practices, spending time in nature, cultivating gratitude, breath-work and actively turning toward your intention every day can all go a long way in getting the most of your Ayahuasca experience. These practices in themselves can also initiate powerful shifts in the body and mind.

A Sacred Ceremony

A typical Ayahuasca ceremony lasts around four hours and a group can range anywhere from 1-40 people, although Helm and Skye prefer smaller and more intimate groups and even one on one work. The Ayahuasca shaman/ space holder generally begins with an opening prayer; affirming protection for the ceremony, calling in the right spirit energy for their endeavour and focus for everyone’s purpose and healing in the ceremony.

Participants lay together in the ceremony space and are served the ancient brew together while the shamans sing, play musical instruments, and bring in the energy of the medicine. Singing in ceremony is not purely for enjoyment; “our teachers would say that the point was not to sing but rather, ‘to be sung’ by the spirits of the medicine plants” says Skye.  

Skye explains that all plants have their own songs, and these songs, or ‘ikaros’, are taught to the healer by the plants directly during ‘dietas’ – extended periods of time in isolation, adhering to strict dietary conditions designed to receive the healing energy and teachings of the plants. The ikaros work in combination and cooperation with Ayahuasca to create energetic patterns and designs within the body to help purge negative energies and fill the body with energetic plant vibrations; they’re seeds of transformation, planted for the participant to water, nurture and grow. 

At a point in the ceremony, people may throw up. It is not absolutely necessary to purge, and purging can happen in many ways, not just vomiting. Some people purge through tears, release of obsessive thoughts, yawning, breathing, or shaking, diarrhoea; there are many ways the body can purge.

Together As One

“The most underestimated, yet most important, aspect of the entire experience is integration.”, stresses Skye. The ceremony doesn’t simply end when the singing stops. The months/ years following the experience make up the most significant, and arguably most difficult, step in the entire process. “During the ayahuasca ceremony, many seeds have been sown and while some of them may sprout and grow fruit with seemingly little or no effort on your part, like a kind of mystically driven unfoldment- many other seeds need to be carefully nurtured into full bloom” Helm says.

Skye explains “We’ve had people on retreats who have astounding, paradigm-shifting experiences and then just simply go back to their previous existence without making any effort to shift or change any of the patterns that caused them to seek help from ayahuasca in the first place. They rely on what we call the  ‘Ayahuasca effect’ to carry them through.” A lot of people are resistant to putting in the leg work for change and are secretly hoping that ayahuasca will just ‘fix’ everything for them.

Ayahuasca increases neuro-flexibility so your mind is open to form new pathways or neural connections. It cleanses your physical body and your energy so many people are left feeling lighter and more spacious in their bodies, sometimes for months after the experience. “This is kind of a grace-period where you are relieved from the weight of your baggage, insecurities, worries and doubts, and you can now implement all the lessons and teachings you received from the plant in ceremony.” But the path to integration involves daily commitment to your path/prayer otherwise you may not receive the full benefits of the ayahuasca experience long-term.

“Imagine your brain is a forest” says Skye. “With Ayahuasca you’re able to cut new pathways through the forest; but if you don’t choose to walk along these new paths every day, they will soon become overgrown again.” The pathways of your old and unhelpful habits have been walked for so long and are so well developed that it’s more tempting to walk along a comfortable old trail than use the energy and will to beat a new path that may be uncomfortable to walk at first. “It’s a choice you have to consciously make every single day”, says Skye. 

As with any life-change or significant decision you make, it’s important to have a support structure; people who you can tell about your new life choice and who can support and encourage you along your journey. This should be a variety of people; those who have worked with Ayahuasca, friends and family, mentors and loved ones. 

Having a daily practise, whatever you choose, will go a long way in keeping you aligned to your path and connected, spiritually; this could be a combination of embodiment and meditation or anything that is really personal to you, that gives you time to yourself for reflection, healing and introspection. Awareness, mindfulness and gratitude are so important to practise long before and after the ceremony. Skye and Helm spent 4 years apprenticing full time under traditional healers from the indigenous Shipibo tribe while also facilitating hundreds of people through intensive healing retreats ranging from 2-10 weeks in length. They have received training in various other modalities that complement the plant medicine path. They have gathered a wealth of experience and wisdom over this time. If you would like to be in touch with either Skye or Helm for more information on this magnificent medicine, you can contact them via email: [email protected]