Psychedelics

What is Ayahuasca? Everything You need to know before you do it

What is Ayahuasca

Is there something in your life that you want to change but don’t know how? Something you know you need to do but can’t get yourself to do it. You may have the strategy but your mental wiring is preventing you from acting on it. This is called being “stuck in your ways”, a condition that to a certain degree affects all of us. In other words, we are so attached to certain habits, behavioral patterns, and beliefs that we don’t know how to think, act, or live differently. Many tools can help free us from this conditioning but few are as powerful as Ayahuasca. 

What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic plant medicine that is made by brewing two plants together. One plant in the brew is Psychotria Viridis (also known as Chacruna) which contains the psychoactive ingredient DMT (dimethyltryptamine). The other plant is the Banisteriopsis Capi Vine which contains alkaloids that act like monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). The MAOIs are necessary to make the DMT orally active. The plants are boiled in a large pot with water until what remains is a thick brown mixture. It is reported that indigenous Amazonians have used Ayahuasca for thousands of years, both for spiritual and healing purposes. Ayahuasca is often referred to as “medicine” because it has an immense capacity to heal people. 

The effects of Ayahuasca

Upon ingesting Ayahuasca users tend to experience rapid changes in body temperature, tingling sensations, discomfort in the stomach, and an increase in heart rate. The psychological effects that follow may include visions, hallucinations, intense emotions, time distortion, and ego dissolution. Another common part of the process is nausea followed by purging which is considered the release of negative emotions and energy which is no longer serving the participant. Effects usually last from 4 to 6 hours and peak between 1 to 2 hours. 

Some people have very blissful or euphoric experiences with Ayahuasca while others experience extreme discomfort, fear, and psychological distress. Although the actual trip varies the after effects reported by most people tend to be that of lasting positive change. Many report being cured of anxiety, depression, PTSD, and addiction after using Ayahuasca. Perhaps what’s most beautiful about Ayahuasca is its ability to allow us to experience the unity of all life; what many would call a spiritual awakening. 

Safety and risks of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca use is not without risks but we should have a healthy understanding of them. Some people decide to take this medicine without doing any research. They don’t take any precautions and generally lack respect for the medicine and the process. But there are others who are overly terrified of taking it due to misinformation. 

Before using Ayahuasca there are several things you should know. Like other psychedelics, Ayahuasca is not advised for those with psychological disorders such as bipolar or schizophrenia or who have these conditions within their family. It is also important to be mindful of the 3 variables of set, setting, and dose. Set is the mindset or intention you take the medicine with, setting is where you do it and dose is how much you take.

If you decide to take Ayahuasca it is important to do it with an experienced and trusted shaman who will provide the right setting and dose. Set will rely on you and your state of mind but because Ayahuasca is often used for healing people of traumas, a happy head is not a requirement. Ayahuasca is not an addictive or recreational drug. Neither is it something you can overdose on. People have died using it but that’s only due to mixing it with contraindicated drugs. A good shaman will make sure to screen participants weeks before a ceremony to ensure that they aren’t using anything that can be problematic.

Diet and preparation for Ayahuasca 

It is usually recommended that participants follow a specific diet 3 weeks before taking Ayahuasca. While recommendations on what to avoid can differ they tend to include:

  • All drugs including marijuana and alcohol 
  • Fermented foods
  • Fried foods
  • Spices
  • Onion & garlic 
  • Meat
  • Citrus
  • Coffee
  • Dairy
  • Excess sugar & salt

It is also recommended to avoid sex for at least 3 days as it can create a lot of energy transfer. We want to go into this experience as light as possible without any extra emotional baggage.

Many people wonder “How important is diet before Ayahuasca?” While there is no definitive answer I can share my experience. In the past, when I adhered to the diet I found that I was more receptive to the medicine. The times when I didn’t take the diet and preparation seriously; my experiences weren’t as profound. Before one of my recent ceremonies, I had eaten something that had a small amount of garlic in it. After I ingested the Ayahuasca, the stench of garlic on my breath became amplified. I found this to be irritating and distracting to my process. My personal experiences can attest that following the diet before hand is generally a good idea. 

Another reason for following this diet is that most of the things on the list are things many of us over-consume. Avoiding these foods temporarily is a good opportunity to cleanse even if you feel they aren’t a requirement for taking Ayahuasca. A diet that is bland and less flavorful creates a mind that is more sensitive and receptive, which is exactly what we want for the Ayahuasca experience. 

While avoiding sex and the restricted foods is preferable; avoiding drugs is critical. Using Ayahuasca while not being clean from other substances can impact the experience in a negative way. This negativity can spill out and affect the whole ceremony. Even if you decide not to adhere to the food and sex recommendations, being drug-free 3 weeks before is a must. 

How is Ayahuasca Used (ceremony and experience)

Ayahuasca is typically done at night, in a group ceremony led by a Shaman. While it can be used in any safe space, it is preferable to take it at a retreat center somewhere out in nature. Before the ceremony begins there are often specific rituals that must be performed. These rituals can vary but the most common is that of using tobacco smoke to cleanse the participants and the ceremony space. Participants are also given a bowl to purge in since Ayahuasca is known to induce vomiting. Another important and encouraged aspect of the ceremony is the sharing of intentions. After intentions, a liquid tobacco or powder tobacco snuff called Rapé (ra’pe) is nasally ingested to open up the pineal gland. With the third eye wide open, participants are called up one by one and served a small cup of Ayahuasca. The shaman will ask how sensitive one is to substances to determine the dose they will provide. Once everyone has had their share, the lights are put out and the singing begins. 

Throughout the ceremony, the Shaman will play instruments and sing songs called Icaros. The Icaros are said to facilitate the process and to allow the medicine to move to areas in the body where it is most needed. About an hour in the Shaman will go around and ask each participant if they want more medicine. Those that feel they need more will receive another dose. The interesting thing about Ayahuasca is that it is both a personal and collective experience. There is no talking so everyone is going through their own journey. At the same time, you are all sitting or lying close to each other, knowing that you are in this together. The ceremony will come to a close usually after 6 hours or when most participants feel the effects of the medicine wearing off. 

Sharing Circle and Integration 

The morning after a ceremony there is usually breakfast with a sharing circle. This is considered an important aspect of the Ayahuasca experience as it allows participants to get a better understanding of what they went through. Ayahuasca’s ability to break through the ego allows us to let go of our defenses and share our vulnerability with others. While we may enter into a ceremony as strangers, many claim leaving with a deep connection to those with who they shared the experience. We may think that our journey is over but it is just beginning. 

Once you leave the Ayahuasca retreat the real work will begin. As you enter into the “real world” it is important to think about how you will integrate the lessons that you learned. What I found to be helpful is both writing and speaking about my experience as much as possible. I also like to set intentions and write out clear actionable lessons. The lessons you learn won’t always come with clear action steps so it is your job to define them. Trying to change 30 things at once, will leave you overwhelmed and less likely to even change 1. Choose 1 to 3 things that you want to work on and stick to them. 

How Ayahuasca changes the mind

How Ayahuasca works to change our minds

Ayahuasca can create powerful transformations in people. Although we don’t know all the mechanisms of how it works, science has begun to study some of the biological changes that occur with psychedelic use. Psychedelics like Ayahuasca decrease activity in the default mode network; the part of our brain responsible for our ego & self-identities. The DMN (default mode network) doesn’t become active until a child is 5 years old. From then on this part of our brain creates algorithms to help us deal with various problems & situations. In a sense, these algorithms are our personalities.

We need our personalities to function but sometimes they become overbearing and rigid. Things become too black and white. Whatever we think is wrong or bad is labeled as separate from us. This creates a fragmentation of the psyche as certain aspects of ourselves are tucked away in the unconscious mind. We can clean the weeds in our garden but as long as the roots of our negative patterns remain planted in the unconscious mind, we will struggle to create lasting positive change. By reducing blood to the DMN, Ayahuasca allows unconscious material to flow into the conscious mind. This can help us resolve inner conflicts and become more whole integrated beings. 

The following analogy came to me during my 5th Ayahuasca ceremony. Picture your mind as a hard rigid rock and picture Ayahuasca as extreme heat. The ayahuasca heats your rigid rock mind up and temporarily makes it fluid like lava. From here your mind becomes more malleable and can reassemble into a healthier, more flexible structure. Interestingly enough, I recently heard Tim Ferris share this same analogy in one of his podcast episodes

Personal Experience 

As of this writing, I have participated in 7 ayahuasca ceremonies. The psychological effects of those ceremonies varied from seemingly nothing, to profound bliss and immense terror. Part of the variation is due to changing mental states but it also depends on the consistency of the Ayahuasca. The strength of any given Ayahuasca brew will depend on who is preparing it and how much of each plant is used. Ayahuasca made with more DMT will typically produce stronger psychological effects. During 3 of the 7 ceremonies, I experienced nausea but no other noticeable psychological effects. This can be frustrating but when the medicine finally speaks to you it is all worth it. 

During my 1st ceremony, I experienced mostly nausea and not much more. The following night I participated in my 2nd ceremony. 2 hours into it I still wasn’t experiencing any profound effects. Nothing was happening and then it started. Seemingly out of nowhere I was engaged in a deep conversation with the plant. Any question I had in my mind was immediately answered. I started to feel a connection to everything like never before. This experience was extremely blissful and euphoric. Every breath I took sent an ecstatic rush through my body. This was the first time I experienced what spirituality was. Tears of joy washed over my face. This was a profound yet gentle introduction to the plant. The following ceremonies would not be so kind but perhaps just as transformational. Below is a description of my 5th ceremony just to show the potential contrast you can have with Ayahuasca. 

During my 5th ceremony, ayahuasca took me on a spiritual and personal growth journey. I experienced the deepest pain and fear that humans must deal with which is associated with dying and losing loved ones. At times I felt physically sick. The whole time my psyche felt like it was going to explode but I knew this was because I was learning at a rate I’m not accustomed to. I was getting deep insights and answers to problems I have not been able to solve. I realized that my ego has been the thing preventing me from attaining the level of success that I have been striving for. I was able to narrow in on my purpose and understand some of the deepest truths of life. As challenging and uncomfortable as this experience was I knew I would make it through and become a better person because of it. 

Conclusion

Ayahuasca is a psychedelic plant medicine brew that originated in the Amazon. Upon taking it users experience a variety of effects which can include hallucinations, visions, heightened emotions, and profound insights. Although some effects are unpleasant or even terrifying most who use it regard the experience as a positive one. Ayahuasca is generally considered safe when used with respect however it is not without its risks. Certain drugs and psychological conditions such as bipolar are contraindications for using this medicine. There is a lot of work that goes into preparing for an Ayahuasca ceremony, participating in it, and then integrating your experience into daily life. While much of the workings of Ayahuasca remain a mystery, science has shown that Ayahuasca temporarily decreases blood flow to the DMN, the part of your brain responsible for your ego. By switching off the DMN Ayahuasca activates other areas of the brain that we are usually unaware of. This allows unconscious material to flow into our conscious mind, helping us resolve inner conflicts and become more whole integrated beings. Many report being cured of anxiety, depression, addiction, PTSD and other traumas after using Ayahuasca. While Ayahuasca can plant the seeds of positive change it is still up to you to water and nurture them until they blossom into a more beautiful way of being. Before using this medicine make sure you are cleared by a mental health professional, able to be clean of other substances for at least 3 weeks, and have a recommended & trusted Shaman who can guide you.