One of the most powerful medicines in the world is also one of the oldest. Ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years by the people of Amazon, long before Western allopathic medicine had even been conceived. It’s long history of ritual and ceremonial use brings with it an immense body of ancestral knowledge by the people who have been working with this medicine for generations. Today, people from all over the world are seeking healing with this medicine.
The term “Ayahuasca” is a Quechua word referring to the Ayahuasca vine, known in Western botany by its name Banisteriopsis Caapi, sometimes shortened to B. Caapi or Caapi. The term Ayahuasca is also used to describe the many varying decoctions made from the B. Caapi vine. When one speaks of drinking Ayahuasca, they are usually referring to Ayahuasca the drink–a preparation containing B. Caapi and usually at least one other synergistic plant containing N,N-Dimethyltriptamine (DMT). Recipes for the Ayahuasca brew vary greatly across the Amazon so it’s not possible to say that there is one brew called “Ayahuasca.” However, what all of the brews have in common is that they contain the Ayahuasca vine (B. Caapi) as a primary ingredient.
Other plants, primarily those containing DMT, are usually added to the Ayahuasca brew to enhance visions and bring light to the experience. On a chemistry level, the Ayahuasca vine (B. Caapi) contains several alkaloids that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). These include the β-carbolines harmine, tetrahydroharmine and harmaline. These alkaloids temporarily deactivate the monoamine oxidase (MAO) enzyme in the digestive system, which usually neutralizes a whole range of compounds that we may consume, including N,N-Dimethyltryptamine (DMT). Thus, when the Ayahuasca vine is brewed with another plant that contains high amounts of DMT, upon consuming the resulting brew, DMT that would normally not make it past the digestive system, is able to reach the brain.
However, there is much more to the Ayahuasca brew than as simply a delivery system for DMT to the brain. Indeed, consumption of the Ayahuasca vine alone without any added DMT would also produce a profound experience. To the people of the Amazon, it is the Ayahuasca vine that contains the power. And, because the Ayahuasca vine does not contain any DMT, the power in the medicine cannot be solely based on the DMT.
Benefits of Working with Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is often considered a master teacher plant because it helps in healing on many different levels. For the body, Ayahuasca cleans and detoxifies the bodies and acts as a purgative. In the process of detoxification, heavy metals and parasites are eliminated from the body. Ayahuasca also helps to release stuck emotions. For many people, certain emotions are not always processed fully because they may be painful or unacceptable in our society. The result of failing to fully experience an emotion is the creation of a physical memory in the body, in other words “disease.” While working with Ayahuasca, it is possible to finally experience and feel the repressed emotions, which releases them from the body and allows for deep healing to occur.
On an emotional level, Ayahuasca helps in fully feeling and processing events and traumas of the past so that they no longer create emotional pulls on the present. This process is one of the most beneficial aspects of working with Ayahuasca because it is our emotions that are at the core of our overall wellbeing. On the level of spirituality, which is related to our emotions, many experience a connectedness that fills them with a renewed appreciation for life. The missing piece for many is a spiritual life and Ayahuasca is a powerful teacher in showing through direct experience that there is much more to the Universe than our ordinary experience of consciousness.
Once the body, emotions, and spirit are healed, many of the so-called diseases of the modern world resolve themselves as the body comes into harmony and resonance. This includes the emotional diseases that plague the West, such as depression, anxiety, and PTSD. But Ayahuasca, as powerful as it is, is not a panacea. Indeed, much of the benefit of Ayahuasca comes from the changes people make to their lives after they work with Ayahuasca. This process of integration is extremely important for Westerners who choose to work with this powerful medicine, otherwise the results will be short-lived.
The Ayahuasca Experience
As a sacred plant medicine discovered by the people of the Amazon, Ayahuasca is traditionally consumed as a sacrament during an Ayahuasca ceremony. It is not the type of medicine one drinks casually and the experience must be guided by someone experienced with the medicine. There is no uniformity in the way ceremonies are conducted and even amongst the same tribes of the Amazon there will be differences between each curandero (Spanish for “healer” or “medicine man”). Hamid apprenticed in the Shipibo tradition, which is one of the most hands-off approaches to working with Ayahuasca. In this way, the Shipibo ceremonies largely let each individual do their own processing without intervention, unless help is requested. While each person is laying or sitting on their mat in the dark of night, the person leading the ceremony will sing and sometimes play other music to guide the experience.
Drawing upon this basic framework, most modern practitioners have adopted the hands-off methodology, which is designed to allow every person to do their own healing. Some practitioners and lineages are more hands-on, offering anything from talk during ceremonies, to energy work and body work. Ayahuasca, however, is an inside job and it seems as though the greatest self-healing occurs when one is allowed to simply be with oneself and do the work internally. In choosing a type of ceremony to attend, it’s important for the participant to understand how the ceremony will be conducted. For many, the prospect of spending a dark night on the floor of a wooden hut in the jungle, fending off bugs, while also dealing with the overpowering effects of the medicine, all without much guidance might appear to be a scary proposition that adds unnecessary fear to an already challenging experience. For such people, it may be better to choose a more comfortable environment to work with this medicine–one that allows for a complete letting go and release into the experience. For others, being in the jungle may add to the experience as one can connect with the spirit of the jungle in ways that are just not possible outside of that environment.
Risks of Working with Ayahuasca
Ayahuasca is one of the safest medicines in the world when used in traditional ceremonies. And while one can easily overdose on over the counter drugs like aspirin or acetaminophen, it is nearly impossible to overdose on Ayahuasca. Studies attempting to determine its LD50, which is the lethal dosage for 50% of a given test population, were unsuccessful. Notwithstanding the absence of toxicity, there are risks. Every year there are reports of deaths from Ayahuasca, though infrequently. In the cases in which details are available, there are usually complicating factors related to the person’s health and/or the nature of the Ayahuasca brew taken.
The safest Ayahuasca brews are those that contain the fewest plants. In many traditions, those plants are the Ayahuasca vine and one other plant containing high amounts of DMT, such as Chacruna, Huambisa, Jurema, or Acacia. When additional plants are added to these brews, the possibility of adverse reactions increases. For anyone drinking Ayahuasca, even if working with an experienced facilitator, one should always inquire into the ingredients contained in the brew and ask about the safety of the plants.
While Ayahuasca is physically quite safe for most people, Ayahuasca is not for everyone. Any person who is taking medication that changes the composition of their brain chemistry, such as SSRIs or SNRIs, could experience a dangerously high level of serotonin after consuming Ayahuasca. Therefore, it is necessary to have fully come off of these types of medicines prior to consuming Ayahuasca. Those with advanced diseases like terminal cancers, progressive heart failure, and severe high blood pressure, can also be vulnerable to the experience.
Another reason Ayahuasca cannot be recommended for everyone is that it is a teacher that shows us all aspects of ourselves. Unlike a some compounds that work to take our pain away temporarily, Ayahuasca works towards taking our pain away permanently. But, its method of taking our pain away permanently is to have us experience and fully process pain that has not been felt. For many, this experience can bring up old wounds, traumas, and even repressed memories that have been too painful to feel and address. Under the influence of Ayahuasca, one has the opportunity to resolve such wounds from the past permanently, but one must be willing to go into those wounds with an open heart. If one is not ready for this and instead of opening fully, closes themselves off more, then the experience may not lead to any healing of the old wounds. Indeed, in some instances, where a person is unable to hold the emotions that are brought up, they may experience a set of new symptoms and defense mechanisms after working with the medicine. For some people, this type of intense experience is simply too much and they would be better served by a more gentle approach to healing, such as somatic experiencing, EMDR, and similar therapies.