A Guide to Ayahuasca

In shamanic and natural healing circles, many people talk about the profound physical, mental, and spiritual benefits of Ayahuasca.

What is Ayahuasca, and should it become a part of your practice?

About Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a kind of hallucinogenic mixture that originates in South America. It’s made by pounding the stem of a vine, Banisteriopsis caapi, and brewing it with Psychotria viridis.

Sometimes, other plants are added to the blend, including Justicia pectoralis, and Datura or Brugmansia. The exact ingredients can vary based on the creator’s cultural and religious backgrounds. Each one has a purpose and a contribution to the final mixture:

  • Banisteriopsis caapi is often called ayahuasca, caapi, or yagé. Interestingly, this isn’t the ingredient that causes the intense hallucinatory effects. Instead, it’s a facilitator. It contains naturally occurring compounds that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) in the body. These compounds allow the hallucinatory ingredients to enter and affect the brain.
  • Psychotria viridis is sometimes known as chacruna, samiruka, or amiruca. This plant produces N, N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT, a powerful hallucinogen. Together with Banisteriopsis caapi, this forms the base of ayahuasca.

The other ingredients include:

  • Justicia pectoralis, called tilo, masha-hari, or piri-piri, is sometimes used to help curb some of the nausea and vomiting caused by ayahuasca. While this can make the experience more comfortable, the vomiting is believed to be an important component of the healing process.
  • Brugmansia species are commonly known as angel’s trumpet in English, because of their trumpet-shaped flowers. They may also be known as toé or maikoa. Brugmansias are highly toxic, but, in very small amounts and in the hands of an experienced shaman, they can produce hallucinations that are indistinguishable from the physical world.
  • Datura is another flower known as angel’s trumpet. It is very similar to Brugmansia, to the point where many people have difficulty telling them apart. Its effects and purpose in ayahuasca are also similar.

Shamanic Uses of Ayahuasca

Shamans use ayahuasca for healing, divination and communicating with the spirit world. Traditionally, the shaman would be the one using the brew — they would consume it and enter a visionary state, in which they’d obtain the necessary information to help people in their community.

Ayahuasca brew.

Today, ayahuasca is employed as a medicine itself. Shamans prepare and administer it to people, then guide them through the resulting visions. This lets the users face the root causes of illness, trauma, and imbalances within their lives.

It brings hidden problems that are in need of healing to the surface, where the user can recognize and engage with them. This often involves purging the physical body in the form of vomiting.

Healing Benefits of Ayahuasca

People who experience an ayahuasca ceremony report deeper feelings of empathy and interconnectedness with all things, as well as lasting positive effects on their minds and bodies. It’s said to be particularly helpful for healing mental and emotional issues.

Considering how many people have some kind of loss, pain, or trauma in their history, and how often they are encouraged to repress these feelings in order to make it through the day, it’s probably unsurprising that ayahuasca can help.

It offers the user a guided environment to reconnect with these feelings, experience them in a state of heightened empathy and support, and metaphorically cleanse the self through the act of purging. In the altered mental state produced by ayahuasca, these effects can have a profoundly transformative, beneficial impact on the user.

Interestingly, some MAOIs have also been used long-term to treat depression. They help adjust levels of neurotransmitters in the brain, relieving depressive symptoms. Specifically, they inhibit monoamine oxidase from removing norepinephrine, serotonin, and dopamine from the bloodstream.

Risks & Side Effects

Ayahuasca has been used safely for thousands of years, but there are some risks and potential side-effects. As was mentioned above, exact ayahuasca recipes vary from culture to culture and tradition to tradition. Some people won’t tolerate certain ingredients as well as others.

Ayahuasca also typically produces intense vomiting. This is temporary, but can still lead to dehydration or electrolyte imbalances if you aren’t careful.

Monoamine oxidase inhibitors also come with their own side effects. Since ayahuasca depends on an MAOI in order to allow the DMT to enter the brain, it should be treated with the same precautions as pharmaceutical MAOIs.

Some side effects include involuntary muscle spasms, drops in blood pressure, and muscle cramps. MAOIs also interact with certain foods and beverages. In particular, foods high in an amino acid called tyramine (like aged meats, cheeses, and fermented foods) can trigger dangerous increases in blood pressure in combination with MAOIs.

People who are on other antidepressants can also be in danger of serotonin syndrome if they use an MAOI. If you’re pregnant, taking medication, or have other health concerns, talk to your doctor before attempting an ayahuasca healing. They may have suggestions to help you do so as safely as possible.

Mother Ayahuasca: What is the ‘Intelligent Other’?

One of the effects of ayahuasca is a deepened sense of empathy and a feeling of connection with all things. People commonly experience a connection with the spirit energy of ayahuasca as well, which manifests as a loving, feminine, “intelligent other.”

This intelligence is the root of ayahuasca healing — Mother Ayahuasca is said to give users exactly what they need in order to heal, rather than what they may feel they desire.

Some perceive her as a facet of the Divine, whatever that Divine may be in their spiritual context. Others perceive her as the nature spirit of the ayahuasca vine itself, which is typically regarded as a “female” plant. Still others see her as the spirit of the jungle, or a kind of Goddess of plant medicine.

For people with a more secular context, Mother Ayahuasca may be interpreted as connection to their highest potential, or the center of empathy and love within them.

Ayahuasca allows them to externalize this to make it easier to tap into and experience this well of unconditional love. Mother Ayahuasca also shows them that their potential is boundless, which helps remove limiting beliefs.

Getting Started with Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is not something you should try on your own. In its own cultural and spiritual context, it’s a very powerful medicine — one that requires the guidance of an experienced shaman.

This isn’t just to make sure that you fully benefit from it, it’s also to ensure your safety. Ayahuasca can produce very intense effects, and many of these effects depend on the environment you’re in and the guidance you receive. An experienced shaman can help you navigate them in a way that’s healing, rather than distressing.

It’s also important to do your homework when it comes to choosing a shaman. Sadly, ayahuasca has become somewhat trendy in New Age circles. This has inevitably led to drug tourism, and some people trying to capitalize on the practice by offering tourists homebrewed “ayahuasca” that may or may not even be made from the correct medicinal ingredients.

Some of these concoctions also contain potentially dangerous adulterants intended to prolong or intensify the effects. Before you undergo an ayahuasca ceremony, be sure that you’re actually working with a reputable shaman.

Your shaman should help you prepare for your journey. This isn’t something to be done lightly. Even authentic, unaltered ayahuasca produces very intense effects. Talk to the person who will be guiding you for advice on how to make sure that you’re ready. Before using it, it’s important to abstain from cigarettes, caffeine, drugs, alcohol, and aged or fermented foods.

Ayahuasca also has very variable legality. In Brazil, Costa Rica, Italy, and Peru, the possession, sale, transport, and use of it are legal. In Canada, the UK, and many other countries, it’s illegal or highly controlled.

In the United States, it is illegal unless it’s for religious use. Part of this is because, while the plants that produce ayahuasca are legal, the active constituent (N, N-dimethyltryptamine, or DMT) is a Schedule 1 drug.

Be safe, be prepared, be informed, and be well-versed in your legal rights before attempting to experience an ayahuasca healing. It can be a very positive, transformative experience, but it’s vitally important to know exactly what you’re getting into.

Mother Ayahuasca is a loving healer, but she should not be met by the unprepared.

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