All About Ayahuasca: Retreats, Trips & The Truth

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Imagine a medicine that could clear out your trauma, make space for healing and renew your connection with life. There are some who claim such a wonder medicine exists, and they call it Ayahuasca. 

Photo by Darius Bashar

Ayahuasca is a psychoactive herbal concoction with a long history of sacred use in the Amazon region. Also known as Mother Ayahuasca or Grandmother Medicine, the sacred plant has been brewed as a tea and administered for healing and ceremonial shamanic use in South America for centuries. 

Recent popularity gained in the West has led to a boom in spiritual travel as curious folk partake in these ceremonies in countries such as Peru. Likewise, there’s been a push for more research to test and study it’s reported benefits. 

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Traditionally, Ayahuasca is taken as a tea. This psychoactive concoction is made by brewing the leaves of a plant called Psychotria viridis and the Banisteriopsis caapi vine. The leaves of Psychotria viridis contain DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine), a hallucinogenic compound that is broken down very quickly in the body by enzymes called monoamine oxidases. The B. caapi vine contains MAO Inhibitors that allow the DMT to work on your system, marking this brew as a potent psychoactive substance [1]. 

Photo by Thandy Yung

Drinking Ayahuasca can cause hallucinations, shifts in mood, out-of-body sensations and a completely altered state of consciousness that has been reported as nothing short of miraculous for healing the mind and spirit. 

As compelling and popular as Ayahuasca is, it’s not the type of thing you just go and brew at home. Ayahuasca is powerful plant medicine and deserves a great deal of respect. Shamans and curanderos are experienced healers that prepare and oversee Ayahuasca ceremonies. Traditionally, this sacred medicine was used only by these healers, but the boom in popularity has led laypeople to offer these ceremonies to unfamiliar foreigners. 

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Why travel so far to do one of the most powerful drugs on the planet with strangers? Ayahuasca’s spell catches you before you even get on the plane. It’s compelling to hear how it’s helped people overcome trauma, addiction, and psychological wounds. That being said, it’s important to look at the traditional view of this medicine as a powerful teacher and plant spirit. 

Photo by Luis Cortés

Before engaging in ceremony, users are instructed to adhere to strict physical and mental diets to get the most out of their experience. 

“No less than 10 days before the ceremony, we were to cut out all sugar, salt, alcohol, caffeine, wheat and dairy,” says a woman we spoke to who participated in one such ceremony in South America. “We were only allowed water, a few different fruits and vegetables, rice, lentils, oatmeal and chamomile or peppermint tea. We were also advised to cut out social media, most TV and anything that was toxic for our minds.” 

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This woman sought the Ayahuasca experience after hearing of its transformative effects, and ended up taking part in ceremonies on two separate occasions. She described these experiences as “life changing,” with lasting effects that continue to shape her daily life. 

Photo by Sage Friedman

“All of the awarenesses I had during the ceremony has completely changed who I am,” she says. “My interests, certain fears, anxieties and insecurities were healed. Some of my interests changed and minor addictions. It felt like I came home with a clean slate and was able to choose who or what I was again.”

What actually happens to the body during these ceremonies? An Ayahuasca journey typically starts within a half-hour to an hour after ingestion, and can last from four to sic hours. There is usually some purging or diarrhea, which is seen as a part of the “cleansing phase” of the trip [2]. 

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“There were three waves,” our source sas. “When I first drank the medicine, I felt it in my body; arush that was quite disorienting. Then the visions began. During the ceremony, we had eye masks on to keep us from getting overwhelmed by any lights and to keep us focusing inwards. The nausea was awful as well, but after purging, the third wave is pure bliss. The visions, the music playing, the peace in my body. So many messages and awarenesses flooding in. Old memories, core beliefs, messengers and extravagant scenes. It was an emotional rollercoaster as well. Intense fear, sadness, joy and deep gratitude.” 

Although Ayahuasca has the reputation of being a positive teacher, there are “bad trips.” It can be difficult to pinpoint how or why this happens, especially given the fact that no two Aya journeys are the same. However, like many drugs or psychoactive substances, they experience is not for everyone and caution is advised. 

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There are certain medical and psychiatric conditions that can make a ceremony a bad or dangerous idea. Part of respecting the medicine is to be honest and seek out an experienced healer that can oversee the experience, helping to guide the trip while being able to tend to any emergency or unforeseen circumstances. 

Ayahuasca has been studied in some clinical settings. Studies have found promising results when it comes to mental health [3], addiction [4], and helping with persistent hard-to-treat disorders such as CPTSD and treatment-resistant depression. 

Photo by Stefan Heesch

Although this medicine is powerful with many reported positive effects, it’s very important to put safety first. If you are planning to try a ceremony, be completely up-front about any medical conditions, medications you’re taking, or other risk factors that could influence your outcome. 

Another factor to be cognizant of is the colonization of sacred plant medicine. This brew is considered sacred plant medicine with it’s own spirit, and as Westerners, we need to be aware of the cultural and community impacts of having such a powerful thing become a new “fad” for our own pleasure. 

At the moment, Ayahuasca is considered a Schedule 1 drug by the U.S. government as it contains DMT. Due to the potential for improved health and wellness, researchers will hopefully continue to study the effects of this amazing medicine.


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