The 5 Essential Elements of a Safe Ayahuasca Journey
If you feel called to experience the “vine of death,” read on.
Interested in trying ayahuasca in a country where it’s legal?
My recent stay at Rythmia Life Advancement Center in Costa Rica offered great insight into the most important factors to ensure safety in any ceremony.
With these present, you can safely experience this controversial plant, which has the power to cure chronic diseases from addiction to immune disorders to PTSD.
Some people think that the recent surge of spiritual tourists clamoring to do medicine ceremonies is tarnishing the indigenous tradition of taking ayahuasca for personal and communal health. Others believe that it’s ayahuasca that’s corrupting Westerners.
The capitalization of this sacred tradition does mean that naive participants are ingesting it without proper context and preparation. Ayahuasca has become a cash cow for fake shamans, who can easily trick Westerners into paying up to $300 a night in a black market economy for irresponsibly produced ceremonies.
We can all learn from the precautions that Rythmia has taken to help Westerners experience this plant with minimal risks and maximum benefit.
Wellness seekers can respect both indigenous cultures and their own limits.
If you feel called to experience what “the vine of death” has to offer humanity, read on for the five essential components that must be present to ensure a safe and ethical ceremony.
1. A medical assessment reporting your psychological and medical history.
This includes an intake form where you report any substance abuse problems, mental health disorders, and what pharmaceuticals you are taking. Anyone taking antidepressants in the form of MAOIs or SSRIs needs to be off these medications for at least six weeks before drinking ayahausca — or they risk having a fatal reaction called serotonin syndrome. For a full list of all drugs that are dangerous to combine with ayahuasca, click here. It is also imperative that you avoid all other recreational drugs, as combining the plant with many of these substances can be fatal as well.
2. Instructions for a dieta (diet) to follow at least one week before drinking.
Just as some drugs don’t combine well with ayahuasca, neither do some foods. This includes: unfresh meat, soy, pickled foods, overripe fruits, anything with MSG, various forms of nuts and beans, and caffeine. Click here for a full list. While eating the wrong foods before ceremony is highly unlikely to lead to death, it can cause unnecessary discomfort, like heart palpitations, for up to a few days post-ceremony. The dieta is more of a way to cleanse the body to maximize the healing impact of the plant. It also serves to cultivate an intention for the ceremony.
3. A description of the plant, direct knowledge of where it came from, and how it was harvested and prepared.
Not all ayahuasca is created equal. Effects vary according to the region in which the vine is grown. The shaman leading your ceremony needs to have an intimate relationship with the brew. They ideally should be the person who harvested it (sustainably, to ensure the lifespan of the plant), and turned it into liquid form. They should know the plant so well, through working with it themselves, that when they pour a certain amount in your cup, it’s an appropriate amount for your unique constitution.
One of the benefits of a place like Rythmia is that the staff spends hours teaching you about the different plants you drink, so you are mentally prepared for what you experience (the visions, the physical sensations, the memories arising from your ancestral DNA, and the vomiting). While other ceremonies will likely not offer you that level of education, a good shaman will share with you some knowledge about the variety of the plant and what to expect, or else it is a sign that you are with a churn-and-burn ceremony leader. Keep in mind that for a true shaman, who has been initiated by an elder to lead ceremony, sharing with Westerners (whose culture is threatening the indigenous way of life and land) is a sensitive and sacred undertaking. It is ultimately a form of political peace-building that should be held in complete reverence by all parties.
4. Access to a community and integration support.
Ayahausca, while a deeply internal and often purgatory experience, is meant to be taken in community. Your relationship with the plant will change as you change — and as the plant changes you. People who work with ayahuasca in indigenous tribes don’t need the “processing” time that Westerners so often do to make sense of their experience and integrate it into modern society. In indigenous tribes, drinking ayahuasca isn’t some kind of experience you have once in a while. It’s a path through life, a form of prayer, and an integral part of lived culture. For many Westerners, however, getting kicked back out into society after a night of jarring visions and deep bodily purges can be highly disruptive to their regular functioning.
Ayahuasca so often reveals to us the sickness of the modern world, the horrific ways in which we treat each other, and the destruction happening to our natural environment. And it unearths this traumatic content all it once. It’s for this reason that ayahuasca is such a powerful healing mechanism for both individuals and our culture at large. It is also for these reasons that ayahuasca, without the proper integration support, has the potential to damage people’s psyches and is not recommended for people with certain psychological conditions.
This is why immersing yourself inside a week-long retreat center like Rythmia may be a wise choice for those trying the plant for the first time. To do so will ensure that you get that integration support, which you will not find in a traditional one-night ceremony. In addition, Rythmia is a licensed medical center with an ICU on site and has a full-time psychotherapist on staff in case of any emergencies. You also connect to a community of people who can continue to be a support system after you leave.
5. Musical accompaniment and space holders.
Music is the last key factor that makes the experience of journeying into the dark recesses of your soul therapeutic, instead of re-traumatizing. The songs played, called icaros (“magic songs”), allow you to dually process being deep inside the psyche, experiencing sometimes violent and other times blissful hallucinations, while your physical body rests in a safe space, alongside safe people in the present moment. The music creates vibrations that move toxic emotional energy out of your body and replace it with peaceful sensations.
“Space holders,” who perform limpiezas (energy clearings) on participants who need individual support, are also imperative. A mindful, ethical shaman will keep their ceremonies well-staffed with gatekeepers and guardians who can attend to people while they play music continually to keep order inside the room.
If all of these components are part of your ayahuasca experience, there is a very high likelihood that you are fine to drink. In fact, you might leave far better than fine. You might leave feeling reborn, like you’ve experienced a miracle.
NOTE: Rythmia Life Advancement Center offered the writer a free visit to experience some of the content described in this article.
Check out NuMundo’s recent interview with Rythmia integration specialist Kendra Birdsall to learn more about the importance of integration:
About the author
Alison Sher is a journalist, organizational consultant, wisdom seeker, and the author of The Millennial’s Guide to Changing the World.
Editor: Toby Israel