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What is Ayahuasca, and Why Do People Drink It?

You may have heard stories of people traveling to foreign destinations to experience taking Ayahuasca, a psychoactive brew.

The brew is used as a traditional spiritual medicine in ceremonies among the indigenous peoples of the Amazon basin.

Ayahuasca is an “external tool” that has the potential to take you on a very profound “internal journey” of soul discovery through the realms of your hidden subconscious and the many other multidimensional realms within your being.

Also, scientists have uncovered several long-term health benefits of taking Ayahuasca.

What is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca — also known as the tea, the vine, and la purga — is a brew made from the leaves of the Psychotria viridis shrub along with the stalks of the Banisteriopsis caapi vine, though other plants and ingredients can be added as well.

The word ayahuasca is derived from two Quechua words (Quechua is an indigenous language of South America). ‘Aya,’ which means spirit, ancestor or deceased person, and ‘Huasca,’ which means vine or rope. Therefore, ayahuasca is sometimes referred to as ‘vine of the soul’ or ‘vine of the dead’.

In Brazil, a number of modern religious movements based on the use of ayahuasca have emerged, the most famous being Santo Daime and the União do Vegetal, that may be shamanistic or, integrated with Christianity.

Both Santo Daime and União do Vegetal now have members and churches throughout the world. Similarly, the US and Europe have started to see new religious groups develop in relation to increased ayahuasca use. Some Westerners have teamed up with shamans in the Amazon forest regions, forming ayahuasca healing retreats that claim to be able to cure mental and physical illness and allow communication with the spirit world.

Traditionally, a shaman or curandero — an experienced healer who leads Ayahuasca ceremonies — prepares the brew.

The actual preparation of the brew takes several hours, often taking place over the course of several days. After adding the plant material, each separately at this stage, to a large pot of water it is boiled until the water is reduced by half in volume. The individual brews are then added together and brewed until reduced to a drinkable amount. 

When the brew has reduced to the shaman’s liking, the water is removed and reserved, leaving behind the plant material. This process is repeated until a highly concentrated liquid is produced. Once cooled, the brew is strained to remove impurities.

How is Ayahuasca used?

 Ayahuasca was traditionally used for religious and spiritual purposes by the Amazonian tribes, but it has become popular worldwide among those who seek a way to open their minds, heal from past traumas, or simply experience an Ayahuasca journey.

We ALWAYS recommend taking this medicine seriously!  While it can be taken alone, with great success, most people require the guidance of a friend or a shaman.  We believe this should be taken in a ritualistic manner, whether you’re inside or out; alone or with a group.

Currently, the use of this brew has positively evolved to reach more and more people; now, any interested person can experience the extraordinary healing power of Ayahuasca.

Many people travel to countries like Peru, Costa Rica, and Brazil, where multi-day Ayahuasca retreats are offered. They’re led by experienced shamans, who prepare the brew and monitor participants for safety.

It is during these ceremonies that participants are able to face the root causes of their physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual illnesses head-on and delve deep into the healing process by allowing the spirit of Ayahuasca to take them on a journey to these realms of non-ordinary consciousness. Within these realms, deep-seeded issues that have long been hidden within one’s subconscious mind are revealed to them.

All Shaman have their own preferences for both the medicine, and the ceremony.  Some believe that lower doses, taken throughout the ceremony are more effective. While others think you should only have to drink once or twice per ceremony.  Many curanderos keep the brew traditional, using only Banisteriopsis Caapi and psychotria viridis.  However, just as many prefer to get other plants into the mix as well.  These additional plants are called admixtures.  Chaliponga and ‘Toe”, or Brugmansia Suaveolens, are two of the most common.  Both add (I’m not sure how that’s even possible) to the visuals and overall power of Ayahuasca, but some admixtures have definitely been linked to health concerns and even death.

How does it work?

The main ingredients of Ayahuasca — Banisteriopsis caapi and Psychotria viridis — both have hallucinogenic properties.

Psychotria viridis contains DMT, a powerful psychedelic substance that occurs naturally in the plant.

DMT is a powerful hallucinogenic chemical.  Past experience with psychedelics didn’t quite prepare me for Ayahuasca.  However, it has low bioavailability, as it gets rapidly broken down by enzymes called monoamine oxidases (MAOs) in your liver and gastrointestinal tract.

For this reason, DMT must be combined with something containing MAO inhibitors (MAOIs), which allow DMT to take effect.

Banisteriopsis caapi contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs), which work synergistically with DMT to produce a long-lasting psychedelic experience.

However, ‘clearing the way’ for DMT isn’t all that Caapi has to offer.  The ayahuasca vine, contains high amounts harmine and tetrahydroharmine, and, to a lesser degree, harmaline. There is anecdotal evidence that these compounds are psychoactive, but the most common result is an anti-depressant effect.

In fact, not all “Ayahuasca brews” contain DMT, but all contain harmine.  The brew served by the Brazilian Church Uniao do Vegetal, was found to contain Zero DMT.

Is it legal?

Although DMT is a schedule I drug in the US, plants that contain DMT are not prohibited and can be bought online from various vendors. However, as soon as you make an ayahuasca brew that contains DMT, the stuff becomes illegal and using it breaks the law.

However, two major court cases in the past decade have opened a door for the legal use of ayahuasca. The religious groups União do Vegetal and Santo Diame are two churches that use ayahuasca as part of their healing ceremonies. Both succeeded in their legal challenges to ayahuasca law, which now allows them to practice the use of ayahuasca within the US.

Ayahuasca can also be consumed with relative freedom in the City of Oakland, CA. On June 4, 2019, the city council voted unanimously to decriminalize all “entheogenic plants” containing indoleamines, tryptamines, and phenethylamines. This allows adults aged 21 years and older to use them either medicinally (in accordance with the resolution’s official intent) or for any other reason without fear of criminal punishment. It also specifically decriminalizes (or rather deprioritizes for law enforcement) their cultivation and distribution as well.

Ayahuasca is legal in Brazil and Peru, and these are the locations of most retreats. Its legal status in other countries is murky, and there are many cases of people being arrested for religious use.

Ayahuasca ceremony and experience

A typical Ayahuasca ceremony begins with the Shaman blessing the space, the brew, and the attendees.  After which, the ayahuasca brew is offered to the guests.  Often, the dose is broken into smaller, separate doses.  

After 20 minutes to an hour, the effects will be felt.  During this come up period, vomiting, and even diarrhea is common.  This is called The Purge, and the physical ‘purging’ is usually tied to emotional or spiritual ‘purging’ as well.  This is all totally normal for the experience, and, usually, isn’t unpleasant.

The event takes place at night, and will last as long as the medicine does.  While the normal length is around 6 hours, it is fairly common to last till morning.  Sometimes, if the medicine is really strong, people can ‘trip’ for 8-12 hours. 

Every Ayahuasca journey is different, even with the same brew.  One time you may feel enlightened and euphoric, and the next you might experience fear or sadness.  It is said that, Mama Aya gives us what we need.  Sometimes, a painful look in the mirror might be exactly what you need to grow and evolve, as a human.

The visuals can be especially intense.  Mandalas, snakes, and other ‘dimensional’ entities are common visual themes.

On retreats, there are usually, multiple ceremonies over several days.  You may have a completely different type of experience every time.  The medicine affects everybody in different ways on different nights, and I, for one, welcome all types of journeys.  You shouldn’t immediately write off Ayahuasca if your first experience isn’t what you expected.

An experienced Shaman, and their team, knows how to guide you through the journey.  They can calm and soothe the entire group, or someone struggling with the medicine with their icaros(songs learned from spirits), music, or prayers.   These days, many retreats have medically trained staff in case of emergency.

What are The Potential Benefits of Drinking Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca appears to have many benefits, both physically and psychologically that can be long lasting.  Several studies have shown how this Amazonian medicine can have life altering changes, long after taking it.

Addiction, depression, PTSD, and anxiety are some of the common conditions that can be helped with ayahuasca.  It may even be helpful with treating other diseases/conditions due to anti-inflammatory, neuroprotective, and memory boosting effects.

Many people, fed up with taking pills upon pills, have taken to the jungle to help themselves.  A growing number of veterans have been taking it to help with their PTSD.

Increased mindfulness is often listed as a benefit of drinking Ayahuasca.  I can tell you from my experiences, that it has increased my empathy, and allowed me to slow down and really listen to people.  This has had a huge impact on my communication, both at home and work.

It can remove end of life anxiety, or at least ease it for most.  The feeling of “death isn’t the end” is very common after an ayahuasca ceremony.

There are many potential benefits to ayahuasca, but more clinical research is needed to fully understand whats going on inside us during a ceremony.  

As with all things, you should do your own research, and take full responsibility for your choices.


Things to Know, and Possible Side Effects

There are many reasons to drink ayahuasca, but there are some possibly negative side effects you should be aware of, before you book your retreat.

Side effects like The Purge, are a normal and natural part of the experience, but can, sometimes, be unpleasant.  The Purge doesn’t typically last long, and many, myself included, welcome this cleansing before blast off.  That said, some can have prolonged purging that becomes uncomfortable. Especially, if proper dietary restrictions haven’t been followed.

This leads into my next point, Ayahuasca can have severe, or even fatal reactions to medicines and foods.  Many anti-depressants,cough medicines, psychiatric medications, blood pressure pills, and even weight-loss pills can have serious side effects with Ayahuasca.  

Anyone with a history of mental illnesses, such as, schizophrenia, should not take Ayahuasca, or any psychedelic.  It can cause severe reactions ranging from depression to mania.

People with heart conditions and blood pressure issues, should consult a health care professional about the safety of their medications/conditions and ayahuasca.

While there have been deaths related to Ayahuasca usage, these instances are usually tied to other plants/substances being added to the brew or ceremony.  A New Zealander died in September 2015, after drinking a nicotine ‘cleansing’ drink.  Although, this is very rare.


Jah's Pharma-child monk

The Final Word

Whether or not ayahuasca is for you is a personal decision. You must educate yourself, and take responsibility for your own safety. No one else can make this choice for you.

You should have a good, basic grasp on what ayahuasca is, and why people drink it.  After weighing the pro’s and con’s, you’ll have to make up your mind if it is for you, or not.

My personal experience is that it was definitely for me.  That said, I know plenty of people who have zero interest in drinking ayahuasca, even if there is a mental/psychological/spiritual reason to do so.

Do your research.

Pick a reputable resort or shaman(read reviews and/or get a word of mouth referral)

Follow any and all guidelines or restrictions.

If you do these simple things, you may just have an experience unlike anything you thought possible.  

I know I did.