You want to try Ayahuasca, but you’re wondering what to expect in an Ayahuasca ceremony. On the one hand, it seems like an opportunity for profound emotional, physical, and spiritual healing. On the other hand, the experience might shake you to your core. Is it worth it?
The first thing to know is that there is no one-size-fits-all approach to an Ayahuasca ceremony. For example, Amazonian cultures use different plants to prepare the Ayahuasca, with varying degrees of hallucinogenic effects (and some Ayahuasca recipes aren’t hallucinogenic at all). In addition, some ceremonies happen at night, some start at sunrise, and some involve the use of other plant medicines.
We spoke with Elio Guesa and Karo Munay of Aya Healing Retreats, a retreat in the Shipibo tradition based in Iquitos, Peru. We’ll explore what an Ayahuasca ceremony is, what generally happens during the ceremony, and how to prepare for your first time drinking Ayahuasca.
What is an Ayahuasca Ceremony?
An Ayahuasca ceremony is the ritualistic consumption of Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew traditionally used throughout the Northwestern Amazon. Indigenous cultures have used Ayahuasca for medicinal and ritual purposes for thousands of years.
The ceremonial aspects of drinking Ayahuasca can vary. “It’s different because different tribes in the Amazon work with Ayahuasca,” Munay said. Part of the difference comes from the shaman’s background. For example, shamans in the Shipibo tradition generally hold ceremonies at night. However, Munay first experienced Ayahuasca while working with a Colombian healer from the Inga tradition, who held ceremonies according to his intuition. “They could be at noon, sunset, or sunrise,” she said. “I remember times he would wake us up at 2 a.m., and he would say, okay, it’s ceremony time.”
Additionally, the Ayahuasca preparation itself can vary. The brew might include different combinations of plants that can alter the experience, depending on the shaman and the intended healing or ritual. There are more than 5,000 ways to prepare Ayahuasca, and all use the Banisteriopsis caapi vine as their base. 1
Generally, an Ayahuasca ceremony involves a ritualistic cleansing in a ceremonial space, followed by the consumption of the Ayahuasca. The ceremony is usually performed in a group setting, led by a shaman. Facilitators may help guide participants through their experience by singing, chanting, and assisting the shaman.
It’s important to note that Ayahuasca ceremonies are different from Ayahuasca retreats. The ceremony refers to the ritualistic act of drinking the Ayahuasca brew itself and can last as long as 10 hours. A retreat is a multi-day experience that includes the ceremony and other programs and activities to support healing, personal growth, introduction to plant medicines, or all of the above.
Where to Do the Ayahuasca Ceremony
Ayahuasca ritual tourism has boomed over the last three decades. 2 Annually, thousands of Westerners visit Iquitos, Peru, the epicenter of Ayahuasca tourism. 3
However, you’re not limited to Peru. The traditional and modern use extends from Panama to Bolivia. It’s possible to do an Ayahuasca ceremony in many different parts of the world, from South America to Spain.
In many countries, Ayahuasca is illegal because it contains DMT. For example, in the United States, Ayahuasca is unlawful because it contains DMT, a Schedule I controlled substance. It’s only legal for members of the religious society União do Vegetal (UDV). The UDV has a religious exemption, which means they can use and prepare Ayahuasca for ceremonial use. For everyone else, Ayahuasca is illegal.
There are many different places to do the Ayahuasca ceremony, but Guesa feels that Peru is unique because the local flora is ideal for medicinal purposes. “We have an incredible pharmacy of plants,” he said, explaining that he went to other countries to offer Ayahuasca retreats but didn’t find the needed plants.
How to Find the Ayahuasca Ceremony
Reputation matters with Ayahuasca ceremonies. Guesa advises looking at reviews, speaking with people in your network (if you’re comfortable doing so), and using psychedelic community groups to find recommendations for ceremony leaders and retreats.
You can also ask facilitators if you can speak with a prior participant, although keep in mind that they’ll likely choose someone who had a positive experience.
Munay recommends patience as you filter through potential ceremonies and retreats, searching for the right one. “If the person is not going through a specific retreat center and they come to the jungle and want to find the shaman—okay, get to know the shaman,” she said. Essentially, talk to people who have attended an Ayahuasca ceremony. “Through that, you can have the feedback through someone that has already taken the medicine with him or with her.”
Read Next: How to Choose a Safe and Reputable Ayahuasca Retreat
It’s essential to do your research because, unfortunately, Ayahuasca ceremonies are subject to the scams and charlatans that afflict psychedelic tourism. Munay noted that some shamans don’t have the experience they claim to have, and there have been cases of people who have been sexually assaulted during Ayahuasca ceremonies. 2
“I find this so traumatic. People are supposed to become more healed and empowered, not traumatized,” Munay said. “Sometimes the desire of wanting to go through an experience or a ceremony can make people take wrong decisions. I feel that patience and critical thinking are highly required.”
There’s no way to absolutely guarantee that a ceremony will be safe, but learning about the experiences of others can help you make a more informed decision.
How Much Does it Cost to Do Ayahuasca?
Cost varies widely, depending on location, duration, and amenities. As of this writing, Aya Healing Retreat’s 11-day retreat in Iquitos costs $1,650. At Casa de la Luz, an Ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica, a one-night private ceremony for two participants costs $700.
What Happens During an Ayahuasca Ceremony?
The actual events of an Ayahuasca ceremony vary, mainly depending on the shaman and what they practice. So, how do you do the Ayahuasca ceremony?
Generally, an Ayahuasca ceremony consists of the following parts:
- You enter the ceremonial space (called a maloca in the Shipibo tradition) and sit or lie down with the participants.
- The shaman may perform a blessing and ritual cleansing, such as smudging (waving incense or herbal smoke around) participants with copal, a tree resin.
- You drink the Ayahuasca tea. It takes about 30-60 minutes to feel its effects. 4
- The shaman and facilitators may chant or sing icaros: traditional songs meant to guide participants during the ceremony.
- You may feel nauseous, vomit, cry, or otherwise act to release energy. These are expected parts of the Ayahuasca experience called purging.
- Depending on the shaman’s direction or your response to the brew, you might drink Ayahuasca multiple times during the ceremony.
What do Ayahuasca shamans do during the ceremony?
Shamans are considered mediators between the spirit and the human worlds, and they use Ayahuasca to move freely between the two worlds. Munay said that the curandero (a shaman-healer) is also the person that prepares the Ayahuasca. “It’s a deep alchemy because every shaman also puts the prayer on preparing the medicine and all of these physical compounds of the plants.”
Shamans may sing healing songs or chants during the ceremony, offer participants certain plant medicines, or direct a person to drink more Ayahuasca. 5
In the context of Ayahuasca, the word “shaman” is a Western catch-all term that ??commonly refers to practitioners called ayahuasqueros or curanderos. 3 Not all shamans are healers; curanderos are experienced in local herbal and spiritual traditions, while ayahuasqueros are specialists who brew and serve Ayahuasca (but aren’t necessarily healers).
It’s crucial to separate Westernized interpretations of shamans as inherently mystical, all-knowing beings fetishized for their relationship to Indigenous traditions. As cultural anthropologist Evgenia Fotiou wrote in a 2016 article, shamans are “not archetypes but real people operating in a particular socio-cultural context.” 6
With that said, it’s essential to recognize that there isn’t a black-or-white approach to shamanism. These are people with experiences shaped by their respective cultures, and as such, the specific things a shaman does during an Ayahuasca ceremony can vary widely.
How long does an Ayahuasca trip last?
Ayahuasca can last from six to 10 hours, depending on the dose and how a person responds to the brew.
How to Prepare for Your First Ayahuasca Ceremony
You should receive specific instructions from the shaman or facilitators to prepare for your ceremony. It’s best to follow their guidance and maintain an open line of communication if anything changes with your diet, medications, or even your mindset.
At a high level, here are some best practices to prepare for your first Ayahuasca ceremony.
What to eat on the day of the Ayahuasca ceremony
If you choose to eat on the day of the ceremony, stick with light, easily digestible foods. Some retreats recommend fasting for six to eight hours before drinking Ayahuasca. Additionally, the shaman may recommend avoiding animal products one to two weeks before the ceremony.
Foods such as pork, red meat, and fermented foods are higher in the amino acid tyramine. Ayahuasca is an MAO inhibitor, which means it temporarily inhibits the activation of monoamine oxidase (MAO). MAO is responsible for breaking down tyramine, which means you may feel worse for wear if you have high amounts of tyramine.
The shaman may also recommend that you follow a specific diet one to two weeks before your ceremony and after. Some recommendations may include:
- Eat foods with little to no salt or fat.
- Avoid dairy, refined sugar, and animal products.
- Prioritize fresh and cooked vegetables, legumes, fresh fruit, water, and juices.
What to bring to an Ayahuasca ceremony
Technically, your intention and an open mind are the only things you need to bring to an Ayahuasca ceremony. The shaman or facilitators will let you know if you should bring something specific.
The brew simmers for a long time, so it will be prepared by the time you arrive.
An Ayahuasca experience can last as long as 10 hours, so you’ll want to wear comfortable clothing and bring a few layers if you get cold or warm during the ceremony. If you’re trekking through the jungle or over rough terrain to get to the ceremony, wear closed-toed shoes.
What are the best tips to make the experience with Ayahuasca better?
Guesa recommends avoiding reading, watching, or listening to any Ayahuasca experiences to prevent creating expectations about your experience. Instead, be receptive to whatever the experience shows you, even if things get difficult.
“People may experience deep connections with old trauma, stuck emotions, and stuck energy,” Munay said. “Maybe they will have visions that bring them back to a specific experience in their lives, or emotions that are stuck in their subconscious.”
Guesa recommends preparing by starting or continuing a spiritual practice, such as journaling or mindfulness meditation.
Munay said, “I have witnessed in my own body the importance of having a more grounded meditative practice.” She shared that a conscious breathing practice can support the process of psychedelic healing.
Above all, remind yourself that Ayahuasca is not a magic pill, Munay said. The hard work starts after the ceremony. “We can have a very transformative experience through an Ayahuasca ceremony, but if we don’t develop tools to have a more loving life, then it’s kind of like filling a cup that is too full with other garbage. It’s not nourishing,” she said. “Ayahuasca helps us clean the cup to bring in more beautiful, clear water, so we can drink from this cup that nourishes our life.”
Frequently Asked Questions
Can you feel any downsides during the Ayahuasca ceremony?
As with other hallucinogenic plants, Ayahuasca can cause negative experiences (“bad trips”) that make a person feel anxious, fearful, and overwhelmed. Additionally, never combine Ayahuasca with selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs). This combination can increase your risk of potentially fatal serotonin syndrome.
Who should not do Ayahuasca?
People who have a history of mental illness, such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder, should avoid hallucinogens like Ayahuasca. In addition, people who are currently taking SSRI medications should not take Ayahuasca.
Additionally, people who just want to “have an experience” should not do Ayahuasca, according to Andrés Campos of Casa de la Luz. “Ayahausca works best with those who have purposes and reasons to do it.”
What are the potential side effects of Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca can cause various physical and mental side effects, including anxiety, changes in time perception, hallucinations, fear, nausea, and vomiting. Ayahuasca should not be combined with SSRIs or MAO inhibitors, increasing your risk of serotonin syndrome. 7
What are the long-term effects of Ayahuasca?
Small studies into the long-term effects of Ayahuasca use have not found any negative impacts. Additionally, Ayahuasca is not known to be addictive, and it has a low risk of abuse. 8
One prospective study assessed 23 subjects before and six months after their first Ayahuasca experience. The subjects reported improved mental health and change in mood, and one group reported a significant decrease in physical pain. 9
Other studies that specifically examine long-term Ayahuasca use have not found any cognition or brain function changes. 10 11 12 13
Does Ayahuasca change your personality?
Small studies indicate that Ayahuasca does not have adverse effects on personality. 10 11
A 2012 longitudinal study found that regular users of Ayahuasca (about twice per month) showed higher levels of reward dependence (RD). This personality trait indicates a person is disposed to respond to signals of social reward. The authors note that RD may reflect “a feature allowing the group to adapt to a demanding environment such as the tropical rainforest.” 12
Regular Ayahuasca users also showed higher levels of self-transcendence, a personality trait that relates to the expansion of one’s boundaries and spirituality. This finding was echoed in a 2015 study, which found that long-term use of Ayahuasca is associated with changes in the brain that support attention, self-referential thought, and introspection. 13
Does Ayahuasca cure anxiety?
Ayahuasca does not cure anxiety. Minimal research studies explicitly the relationship between Ayahuasca and mood disorders.
In 2021, researchers conducted a cross-sectional study of 11,912 Ayahuasca users. Of the 1,125 participants who reported anxiety, 54 percent reported that their symptoms were “very much” improved, and 16 percent said their symptoms were “completely resolved.” 14
Like other psychedelics, Ayahuasca may be beneficial when combined with therapy. In a 2020 pilot study, researchers studied the impact of integrating Ayahuasca and traditional Amazonian medicine with psychotherapy on depression and anxiety in 31 patients with drug addiction. Patients showed significant improvements in anxiety and depression, as well as quality of life and spirituality. 15
Does Ayahuasca cure PTSD?
Ayahuasca does not cure post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). However, researchers propose that it may help treat PTSD.
In 2014, J.L. Nielson and J.D. Megler wrote that during an Ayahuasca journey, “victims have an opportunity to change how they react to memories in ways similar to exposure therapy and EMDR.” 16 Ayahuasca activates the HPA axis, which may explain its trauma-healing potential: PTSD is associated with an HPA axis imbalance. 17
Is Ayahuasca legal in the U.S.?
Ayahuasca is illegal in the U.S. because it contains DMT, a Schedule I controlled drug. Ayahuasca is only legal for members of the religious society União do Vegetal (UDV), who use Ayahuasca in religious ceremonies.
Things to Know
What is an Ayahuasca ceremony?
In an Ayahuasca ceremony, a person drinks Ayahuasca under the guidance of a shaman. Ayahuasca ceremonies are highly ritualistic and can vary according to the shaman’s background and healing objectives.
What happens during an Ayahuasca ceremony?
- Participants sit or lie down in the ceremonial space.
- The shaman blesses or cleanses the space. In some traditions, the shaman will smudge (wave herbal smoke around) participants with incense.
- Participants drink a small amount of Ayahuasca.
- After 30-60 minutes, participants start to feel the effects of Ayahuasca. They may experience hallucinations, nausea, vomiting, crying, euphoria, and mystical experiences.
- The shaman and facilitators guide the participants through their journey with chants, songs, and instruments.
- The shaman may direct participants to consume additional plant medicines or drink Ayahuasca again.
- Ayahuasca experiences usually last anywhere from six to 10 hours.
How to prepare for an Ayahuasca ceremony
- Follow the shaman’s instructions. For example, they might request that you change your diet, such as following a vegetarian diet and avoiding certain foods like refined sugar and alcohol.
- Begin or continue a spiritual practice, such as journaling or mindfulness meditation.
- Reflect on your intention for the ceremony and what you hope to gain from the experience.
- Avoid watching or listening to other Ayahuasca experiences, which may sway your expectations for your Ayahuasca journey.
- Fast for six to eight hours before the ceremony.
- Wear comfortable clothing (you’ll be sitting for a while) and consider bringing layers, like a sweater.
- Maintain an open mindset and prepare to let go.
Should everyone do Ayahuasca?
No. Ayahuasca is not recommended for people who have a history of mental illness, like psychosis or schizophrenia. Don’t do Ayahuasca if you’re looking for a quick fix or a fun trip. Additionally, people who take SSRIs or MAO inhibitors should not take Ayahuasca because it can lead to a potentially fatal condition called serotonin syndrome.
There are many different approaches to Ayahuasca ceremonies, depending on factors like the location, the shaman’s experience, and the intended goal of the ceremony. Do your research before you travel to a ceremony and talk to past participants if possible. Trust your intuition and have patience; Ayahuasca is a powerful plant medicine, and the experience shouldn’t be taken lightly.
As with other psychedelics, Ayahuasca is not a magic bullet. Instead, Guesa and Munay shared that hard work starts after the ceremony when the person integrates their insights into their everyday life.
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