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If you haven’t heard of ayahuasca yet you surely will soon, as pilgrimages to South America are increasing yearly with individuals attempting to seek out the divine within from this ‘plant teacher.’ Often used for religious, spiritual, or medicinal purposes by the indigenous western Amazonian tribes, the entheogenic brew made from Banisteriopsis caapi vine in combination with other plants is now making its way out of South America into North America and Europe.
The brew goes by several different names throughout South America depending on the language and can be spelled in several different ways depending on the dialect. In the Quechua language aya means ‘spirit, soul, corpse, dead body,’ and waska means ‘rope, woody vine, liana’ and has been translated in several ways from ‘vine of the soul’ to ‘liana of the dead.’ Ayahuasca has been treated by indigenous tribes as a religious sacrament, a gateway to philosophies, cosmologies, and the Amerind spirit Mother Ayahuasca as well as to the divine within. Prepared by experienced shamans by macerating Banisteriopsis caapi vine and boiling it with leaves from any number of different plants, the boiled tea contains the powerful psychedelic drug DMT and MOA inhibiting harmala alkaloids, which are necessary to make the DMT orally active. It is the B. cappi vine, the ‘spirit’ of ayahuasca, that is known as the gatekeeper and guide to the spiritual/psychedelic realm.
‘Ayahuasca is a way of making available DMT, a very powerful stimulator of serotonin receptors in the brain,’ says David Nutt, founder of Drug Science, and the former chair of the advisory council on the misuse of drugs. ‘Basically, DMT doesn’t normally get into the body because it’s broken down by the stomach. But what native Americans learned hundreds of years ago was that if you make a drink with the plant product that contains DMT, and mix it with a bark product, the bark product acts as a blocking agent and the DMT can get into the body,’ quotes the Guardian.
The potency and psychoactive effect varies based on the skill of the shaman who prepares and administers it and the psychedelic effects including both visual and auditory stimulation. The tea also has purgative properties, both physical and spiritual, which is known as ‘the purge’: the physical side effect of vomiting and occasional diarrhea from ingestion of the tea meant to signify the purging of any negativity and negative energy in the drinker’s life. The natives, however, also use it for medicinal purposes; used in small batches the effects can expel any worms or tropical parasites from the patient.
First discovered in use among the indigenous South Americans in the 16th century by Christian missionaries from Spain and Portugal, ayahuasca has increased in popularity since the late 20th century and currently is a phenomenon spreading to numerous countries across the world. In modern Europe and North America, ayahuasca is often prepared using non-traditional plants which contain similar alkaloids, again dependent on the shaman conducting the ceremony. Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazon rainforest regions to form ayahuasca healing retreats around the world. They claim to be able to cure mental and physical illness and allow the participant to communicate with the spirit world.
In a world where people are surrounded by technology, stuck in monotonous work environments and removed from spirituality and human connection, it’s no secret that more and more individuals are seeking profound spiritual awakening. Many North Americans have made the trek to Peru in search of the magic elixir that promises to be life-affirming. It’s been the subject of several documentaries and videos including the relatively recent 2011 documentary Stepping into the Fire.
However, where there is good there is bad. When there is an upsurge of ayahuasca tourism in Peru, there are many who abuse the naïve pilgrims. There are those who will obviously use this as an opportunity to rob and in instances even kill people, as several deaths have been reported. These deaths often stem from improperly prepared teas often containing lethal amounts of toé, also known as angel’s trumpet or Hell’s bells. But also be warned of those purported ‘witch doctors’ who masquerade as real shamans who entice tourists to drink ayahuasca in their presence in order to steal their energy and power.
The ceremony when performed correctly can lead to a spiritual experience. In the rainforest, the person participating in the ceremony is often encouraged to purify himself before and during the ceremony which includes abstaining from excess salt, caffeine, acidic food, spicy food, and sex. This is not a requirement, although, due to the purging effects of the brew it’s a wise decision to abstain from food for about 24 hours prior to the ceremony.
Speaking to several individuals who underwent the ceremony, most said that it left them with a sense of calm, understanding and purpose for their own life. While all experienced and saw different things at one point or another they all felt a dreadful sense of fear for one or more reasons; some could not ascribe the fear to anything but rather just the simple feeling itself. Many saw or felt the presence of Mother Ayahuasca who radiated warmth and nurture, and felt like the spirit of nature. Some participants claimed to have seen into their past lives that they remembered almost like a ‘string of déjà vus,’ while others felt completely ‘ripped from reality.’ Others said that the ceremony healed them, whether it was from a previous toxic relationship, the death of someone important, repetition of bad patterns, trauma, addiction or depression.
Individuals said that the ceremony allowed them or forced them to see parts of themselves they either didn’t know existed or parts they had tried to bury deep down inside. The overall feeling is that this brew and ceremony allows you to psychologically work through emotional trauma of the past and by resolving it in this transcendent state, once ‘sober’ the body is released from all those oppressive chains. However, if you’re expecting change overnight, it’s not as simple as that. One ceremony can help to alleviate some of the negative repressed energy; however, it will take several ceremonies over time if you’re really searching for deep spiritual healing. One piece of advice from all the participants as well as shamans: don’t struggle and fight to resist what the spirit is trying to show you, if you do it will lead to an unpleasant experience, so just go with the rhythm.
One of the most striking aspects of the power of ayahuasca is the places it has traveled to and where you can currently find these spiritual retreats. An interesting destination for one of them is actually in Poland, where they can be found in several cities including Warsaw and Białystok. There, ayahuasca is known as medycyna duszy or ‘medicine of the soul’ or napój bogów or ‘drink of the gods.’ Groups of ten to 25 individuals, people often who have met through word of mouth, partake in the ceremony together in one room under the direction of a skilled studied shaman, and some shamans in Warsaw even fly in from Peru. They take place in various locations, from conference rooms to retreat houses to camping sites. The groups vary; there are students and retirees alike, there is no one type.
Since the items used to prepare ayahuasca are considered illegal substances under Polish jurisdiction the ceremonies are often conducted through handing out fliers or word of mouth and the herbs are smuggled in through the border. One of the more famous Polish shamans, Aldona Miroński, works out of Holland, the only European nation where ayahuasca is legal. A ceremony in Holland can cost anywhere from 300 to 600 Euros (210 to 420 pounds) plus the price of the flight. The ceremonies in Poland, if you’re lucky to find them, can cost anywhere between 400 to 800 złoty (65 to 130 pounds) plus the price of the flight; these often include the ceremony, lodging and a meal.
From Benny Shanon, a psychology professor who claimed Moses’ visions of the burning bush were due to the effects of ayahuasca to Graham Hancock, a writer who gave a TEDx lecture making a case for self-improvement and spiritual growth through the use of ayahuasca, modern day individuals are seeking alternative ways of thinking and living. Even famous celebrities such as Lindsay Lohan, Sting, and Paul Simon have spoken about their use of ayahuasca. There are also churches in Brazil such as Santo Daime and União do Vegetal that consider ayahuasca a sacrament and even administer it to their children. Recently the church of União do Vegetal has applied to the Home Office for a license to import ayahuasca into the United Kingdom. There is something vastly lacking and empty in today’s society and individuals find different ways to fill the void. Whether you’re looking to heal spiritually, learn more about yourself or the world, or simply embark on a new recreational ‘getaway’ ayahuasca seems to be the latest trendy way to ‘leave.’