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Everything a Beginner Should Know About Ayahuasca

25 okt 2019
15 min
Xavier Francuski
Xavier Francuski

If you are reading this text, you have probably experimented with psychedelic substances, and are intrigued by all you've heard and read about the sacred Amazonian tea ayahuasca. Alternately, you're entirely new to the world of psychedelics, and you're considering ayahuasca as your beginner's experience. In any case, you must have many questions, and this article will attempt to answer some of them and help your decision process. These are the top 10 things to be aware of before drinking ayahuasca:

How does ayahuasca work?

Chemical compound

Ayahausca is a brew used ceremonially by indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest for hundreds, if not thousands of years. It's traditionally made out of two plants: the vine Banisteriopsis caapi and the shrub Psychotria Viridis or, more rarely, Diplopterys Cabrerana. Numerous other plants can be added in order to modulate or potentiate the effects.

The B. caapi vine is also known as aya waska in indigenous Quechuan languages. The name roughly translates into "the vine of the soul" or "the vine of the dead," and the vine itself is considered a Master Plant in indigenous lore. It is ayahuasca; it's the core ingredient that holds unimaginable knowledge and the power, and it's revered as the healer, the teacher, and the translator between the human and plant realms. Fortunately, on a biochemical level, it also happens to contain the β-carboline alkaloids harmaline, harmine, and tetrahydroharmine, which inhibit the monoamine oxidase (MAO) enzymes in our stomachs, allowing the dimethyltryptamine (DMT) molecules from the admixture plant to pass through the blood-brain barrier and bless the drinker with astounding visions.

The P. Viridis or D. Cabrerana admixtures are ingredients that are added to the brew with B. caapi to modulate its effects. These plants are exceptional both for the indigenous peoples and for the foreign visitors coming to partake of the ayahuasca brew; they contain molecules of N, N-DMT, which, once they reach the brain, contribute to the visionary aspect of the experience.

According to indigenous belief, the DMT itself is not responsible for the visions; it helps brighten up the visionary content that the vine is already showing to the drinker. Experienced shamans often drink vine-only brews, as they are sensitive to, and connected well enough with the plant spirits to not need the added illumination. It is said that some master curanderos can even only touch or smell the vine and instantly cross over into the plant spirit realm. Aside from the visions, which can come in all modalities (not only the optical), ayahuasca is also traditionally used for divination, translation, diagnosis, healing, purging, energetic warfare, spiritual evolution, social communion, hunting, and many other materials and ethereal purposes. You can read more about the traditional and modern-day use of ayahuasca here.

Consider your intentions before drinking ayahuasca

What do you expect?

Before approaching ayahuasca, you should look into yourself and give some thought to what you're seeking from the brew. What aspect of life would you care to learn about? Are there any destructive patterns of thought or behavior you're struggling to understand and release? Where do they come from? Where do we come from, and where do we go? What is your soul's purpose in this life? How to foster kindness and love, and let go of anxiety and suffering? How to heal past trauma? How to mend difficult relationships? How to recognize what benefits your growth, and what hinders it?

No intention is too big nor too small, nor does it have to be limited to the reality our bodies dwell in. What matters is that it comes from a place of honesty and curiosity inside you. If you ask your questions with humility and respect, the spirits may show you some truths that can forever change you to the better.

Before coming up with some specific intentions, you may want to start with the general matter of your motivation for drinking ayahuasca in the first place, why you feel like you need it?. Most importantly, try to retrace your awareness of ayahuasca and to honestly acknowledge whether you feel "called" to drink this sacred medicine, or if you're seeking it out because of a feeling that you "should." Recognizing this distinction between honest internal and conditioned external motivation can make a big difference for how your journey goes and whether it should happen.

Ayahuasca is not a quick fix or a miracle cure

Why do you use it?

Having in mind how powerful ayahuasca can be, one can get the impression that just drinking the brew will lead to an incredible personal transformation. Although this can happen sometimes, and only to a certain extent (if you open up and surrender to the effects), it is usually up to you to do most of the inner work.

Ayahuasca is often referred to as a directional agent, one that is there to point out what the drinker needs to deal with. It does this by bringing up repressed memories, hidden fears, unresolved frustrations, destructive patterns of thinking, dysfunctional emotional relationships, immature reasoning, and other mental cobwebs that need to be examined and cleared out. It then provides alternate perspectives by offering to distance the individual from their established subjective one, at which point it's up to them to transcend their ego and put the pieces together.

The lessons that ayahuasca teaches us can all be summarized in one simple message: the medicine catalyzes what we learn, but all of it has already been in us all along. The principal teaching of ayahuasca is, thus, to look within, find and follow the guidance of the inner voice of truth; the one that was always hard to make out amidst the numerous voices of social conditioning we are exposed to throughout our lives.

The bulk of the work begins once the journey is over. It comes down to remembering, integrating, and applying the realizations in regular life. During the journey, it all seems obvious and natural (because it is, ultimately, only ourselves we are seeing and getting to know) without the masks of defense mechanisms. After the experience ends, however, it's easy to go back under these masks that "You already know." What makes us comfortable and that we're used to wearing. This is where we need to intervene exactly with the ayahuasca-induced insight, observe our internal processes, learn to let go of those that don't serve us, and apply the more beneficial perspectives we'd become aware of during the journey. This kind of integration requires consistent effort and can take anywhere from days to years.

Depending on how fixed we are in our beliefs and defenses when coming to ayahuasca, we may need to undertake several ceremonies in order to really break through and get to the core of what's impeding our growth. In any case, the ayahuasca journey is a one for life, and the drinking is only the start.

Ayahuasca will give you what you need, but it may not be what you want

how to interpret

The first ayahuasca journey can vary immensely from person to person. For many people, it can be uneventful, with no strong visions, nor deep realizations. For others, it may take a dark turn, and present itself as quite an ordeal. Yet others may experience a pleasant ride through the wholeness of their soul's emotional potential. Some may purge, others not. Some may feel it was "worth it," others not so much.

The experience you get can depend on several factors, namely: how you prepared for the journey, what are your intentions drinking ayahuasca, what your mental and physical state was, how the setting was, the skill of your guide, other participants' energies, how many brews you drank, what its ingredients were if you had any interacting substances in your system, and many others. In the end, however, each drinker will have experienced what was exactly coming to them in that specific set of circumstances.

It is unwise to go into an ayahuasca journey with "wants." You should also not perceive your intentions as such—they are merely your humble "asks" to the Master Plant, and you will do yourself a disservice to attach yourself to the end result. Enter into the experience with no expectations and readiness for complete surrender, and you will be rewarded with ayahuasca's healing and all it can show and teach. Enter into it with wishes of fireworks, growth without effort, or any other insincere "want," and you risk having a troubling journey, or none at all. In all cases, you will reap what you sow. The best you can do is embrace whatever comes, and not resist it.

For the best experience, honor "la dieta"

how to prepare?

Although it's not exactly possible to prepare yourself for what you can experience during an ayahuasca journey, you can consider following the set of recommendations known as la dieta. These guidelines refer to what you should eat, do, and think in the days leading up to a ceremony, and they can help maintain a psychophysical state beneficial for welcoming and hosting ayahuasca in your body.

Most ayahuasca ceremony organizers advise avoiding salt, red meats, sugar, alcohol, illicit drugs, chronic medication, and sex for at least three days, and, if possible, up to two weeks before and after drinking ayahuasca. These recommendations come from the "dietas" that Amazonian shamans in training go through themselves in order to acquire their powers and learn how to heal and practice energetic work. They are required to spend years in solitude living in the jungle, eating only basic starch and occasionally fish, drinking ayahuasca along with other plants, ones whose powers they are also learning to wield with ayahuasca's help. Of course, "la dieta" you may follow isn't nearly that rigorous.

Clearing out your digestive system from fatty and heavy foods, your circulation from intoxicants, and your attention from distractions certainly has its benefits. It will make you feel healthier and more energized; this state is optimal for taking on the cumbersome effects ayahuasca can induce. Avoiding stress, negative thoughts in general, and sexual intercourse should additionally help unburden your mind and focus it on your intentions, and keep your energy from going through significant shifts (according to indigenous belief) this can interfere with ayahuasca's effectiveness.

Be aware of the potential risks involved with drinking ayahuasca

Some of the guidelines that are typically contained within la dieta are more than just recommendations. It's wise to get familiar with the possible risks and take all precautions to avoid unfortunate scenarios. Ayahuasca is a chemically complex substance that can have intense physiological effects. For starters, it's known to induce significant changes in the heart rate and blood pressure of the drinker. This is why any individual who suffers from cardiovascular issues risk their condition worsening under the effects of ayahuasca. Similarly, anyone using chronic therapy for these types of health problems is required to, if possible, suspend their medication for at least three days and up to two weeks before taking ayahuasca (depending on the dosage and half-life of the active compound). Blood pressure medication can interact with ayahuasca and lead to hypertensive crisis, which is a potentially fatal condition.

Foods and drinks that explicitly need to be avoided are all those that contain high amounts of tyramine. This amino acid is normally broken down by the MAO enzymes in our bodies, but ayahuasca inhibits this process, making it possible for the absorption of excessive amounts of it. This can, again, lead to hypertensive complications, especially in people with pre-existing heart conditions. Tyramine-rich foods and drinks include: aged, preserved, fermented, cured, or dried meats (especially liver) and dairy products (especially cheeses), fermented tofu, fermented bean curd, fermented soybean paste, miso soup, red wine, draught beer, sherry, vermouth, champagne, brandy, whiskey and liqueurs, pickled foods such as sauerkraut, anything with high yeast content such as sourdough bread, soy sauce, teriyaki sauce, and shrimp paste, and anything that's overripe or not fresh.

Although these foods and drinks are not extremely dangerous to consume before ayahuasca (there have been no known fatalities as a result of these interactions), they can still cause the drinker quite a headache (literally). Other kinds of synthetic chemicals, however, can have more severe and potentially life-threatening interactions with ayahuasca. These include SSRIs (depression medication), appetite suppressants, antihistamines, cold/flu medication, pseudoephedrine-containing medication, dextromethorphan (DXM)-containing medication, any kind of CNS depressants (such as sleeping pills or tranquilizers), vasodilators (including alcohol). Also antipsychotics, barbiturates, opiates (heroin, morphine, codeine, and especially opium), phenethylamines (such as mescaline), kratom, kava, 5-MeO-DMT, and any CNS stimulants, especially cocaine and amphetamines (such as MDMA or Ecstacy). You can view a more detailed list here.

Make sure your shaman or guide is trustworthy

it is not without risks

Other risks pertaining to the ayahuasca experience involve the person or persons in charge of holding the ceremony. The ayahuasca "market" in South America has seen huge growth in the last few decades, with the rapid surge in information sharing and the development of global tourism infrastructure. As a result, there has been a proliferation of local indigenous people who want their cut of the business brought in by foreign visitors, and they aren't always ready to put in the time and effort and go through the adequate training process to become proper "curanderos."

The gist is: there's a lot of fake shamans out there, and you need to be careful about who you trust with your life. Many locals see serving ayahuasca within a "traditional ceremony" context as not much more than an opportunity to make some quick money. They often don't prepare their own brew, but purchase it from elsewhere, and don't have the powers, knowledge, nor the skills required to set up a spiritually safe space and guide the ceremony successfully.

There are more than a few potential consequences of this lack of devotion and readiness:

  • The incompetence of the "ayahuasquero" can be felt on every level of interaction: lacking instructions, salesman techniques, rushed preparation, absence of genuine hospitability, lack of communication and counseling ability, and, most important of all, inability to care for visitors who experience health issues or mental distress during the ceremony.

  • The brew itself may not be safely prepared. Many different plants are traditionally infused as admixtures into ayahuasca brews. Some of the more common additions, such as tobacco or brugmansia, may potentiate the brew. Still, they can also cause dangerous (even lethal) side effects, especially if dosed incorrectly by inexperienced hands. Without knowing the source, you can't know the quality.

  • The business-like mentality that governs the behavior of some of these charlatans is aimed at getting the most people possible to join a ceremony. Ayahuasca is an extremely powerful potion that invokes, shifts around, and amplifies energies not only within a person but within a group as well. You can never know what will arise from you or other participants during a ceremony, and everyone needs an extremely safe space in which these vulnerabilities can manifest. Unfortunately, too many reports of tragic ayahuasca ceremonies are available online, and yet more cases of lost individuals have been covered up by shamans and communities evading conviction. Perhaps some of these incidents can be partly attributed to dangerous brews, chemical interaction with other drugs, or pure negligence on the part of the facilitators.

  • An issue that should be highlighted in all ayahuasca-related publications, but that is unfortunately often skirted, is predatory behavior some "shamans" have been recorded in engaging. From time to time, young female participants sadly experience one of these malpractitioners seducing them through manipulation or forcing themselves on them sexually. These incidents are unforgivable, and a testament to the twistedness in souls of those who we are supposed to come to for healing and wisdom.

For these, and other reasons, we strongly encourage you to familiarize yourself with your facilitator(s) before committing. You have every right (and you should consider it as your duty) to find out what experience your shaman has, which family they come from, who trained them, how they make the brew, or who/where they get it from and what's in it, as well as to learn about their conduct in ceremony.

Some shamans have immense pride and enjoy sharing pompous stories of all the people whose critical condition they magically restored to brilliant health. Don't believe everything you hear. Check their reputation with the locals and people who had attended ceremonies with them before. Do some online research to make sure they hadn't been in the news for some scandal. Stay with them for a few days before drinking ayahuasca. In other words, make sure everything feels right before trusting them with taking care of your soul.

Consider the different options for drinking ayahuasca

It is not without risks

If you aren't feeling up for embarking on a journey in the Amazon searching for a trustworthy shaman, or if your knowledge of Spanish is limited, there are routes you can take to ensure you'll be subject to a standard of safety and diligence for your ayahuasca experience.

The ayahuasca service industry has developed incredibly in the last decade, and reputable retreat centers are now plentiful and easy to find. Their websites can help you learn about the center itself, its guides/facilitators, and other staff, check out your prospective accommodation, amenities, and retreat activities, and see referrals from previous guests. You should feel free to get in contact with any center that feels right for you and ask anything you're curious about, including contact details of prior visitors. You may also compare the information you find on their website with what you can read elsewhere, and use various online forums and Facebook groups to make sure everything checks out. This kind of convenience and security, however, comes with a price, get ready to part ways with a sizeable portion of your savings to experience ayahuasca in such a vetted retreat setting.

Another option is to look into the possibility of joining an ayahuasca ceremony that's being organized in your vicinity. Although mostly illegal, there are many indigenous, mestizo (mixed), and non-indigenous curanderos roaming around the world and sharing the Master Plant brew. Some of them have honest intentions, while others are more money-driven. If you happen to find one of these ceremonies taking place, and you're considering joining it, make sure to research the facilitator and, if possible, talk to them and to their previous participants.

Finally, it’s also possible to make your own ayahuasca from ingredients that can be ordered online. Outside of the rainforest setting, and without a well-trained shaman or guide, this will not offer as complete and immersive of an experience as a full ceremony would. However, if you feel confident enough to be your own guide, it is the next best thing to traveling to the Amazon. Especially if that's not an excursion you can afford, and if there aren't any ceremonies to be found anywhere close to you. If you're considering trying ayahuasca this way, be sure to get a sober friend to sit with you while you're under the effects, especially if it's your first time.

Drink ayahuasca mindfully

let it come over you

Once it's you're communing with the cup, try not to be impatient and just gulp down the bitter-tasting liquid inside. Take a few moments to reflect on what ayahuasca is and why you're going into the experience. Make yourself vividly aware that it is a sacred medicine of ancient cultures, and Master Plant omniscience distilled into liquid form. Appreciate the reality of the world that connected you with it, and honor your intentions to learn from it and heal with it. Respect ayahuasca, and you will get respect in return. Once you drink, it may be a while before you start feeling anything. Ayahuasca can induce a variety of psychological, physiological, and spiritual effects; some of them can come on sooner, some later. You may get some, not others, or all of them, or none at all. Observe what's happening, but try to release any expectations and anxiety over whether it's working or not. What should come to you will come. And you'll know when it does.

If it's been a long time, and you don't notice any changes, you either have nothing coming to you, or you haven't taken enough. If your facilitator is well trained and connected with the plant, they will have poured you the right amount according to the strength of the brew and your body weight. However, there may be other factors at play that are preventing the onset, and you may need just a bit more to start journeying. Still, drinking more always begets the risk of suddenly becoming overwhelmed with the effects of a higher-than-needed dose. In these situations, it's best to consult your guide, but, of course, the final say on what you feel comfortable with is yours. Finally, once the effects start:

Let go, surrender, and embrace whatever comes

enjoy
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