I’ll never forget it, three years ago a friend mentioned to me in passing the name ‘ayahuasca’. He said it was a plant that could heal you, show you incredible things, and reveal profound insights. He didn’t know more than that at the time, but I was determined to find out more.
Six months later, after dozens of books, articles, podcasts, and conversations, I found myself standing in Iquitos, Peru, waiting to embark on a 10-day ayahuasca retreat. What followed was a remarkable, mind-bending, and transformative series of experiences that profoundly changed the way I look at myself and the world around me.
Perhaps because of these results, the rise of the internet and podcasting, as well as popular books like Breaking Open The Head, ayahuasca has seen an incredible surge in interest in the last ten years.
Now more than ever, Westerners are heading to the jungles of South America (or occasionally not going much further than round the block), to work with this sacred plant medicine and see what it can offer in terms of healing and insight.
Like many things in life, there is so much more to the experience than the popular moniker “10 years of psychotherapy in 1 night”. Many people come from the West with the hope of a quick fix to long held psycho-emotional challenges. This is sadly not the case with ayahuasca or indeed any other self-discovery and healing practice. There are no quick fixes.
Instead, ayahuasca will work with you to help guide you at nature’s pace back to wholeness and into true alignment with yourself. It is a beautiful, benevolent, and compassion medicine that looks for a true partnership with you in this work. Therefore choice to work with the medicine is a big one, and the preparation, approach and integration processes are crucial to getting the most out of the experience.
So in this guide, I’m going to explain everything you need to know about ayahuasca so you can make the most informed decision possible about whether its right for you and then know how to make the most of the experience. I’ll cover:
- What ayahuasca is
- Why people are working with it
- What happens when you ingest it
- How to prepare mentally and physically
- Setting your intent
- Ceremony + the role of the shaman
- How to make sense of your experience
- Integration back into normal life
- My personal recommendations
And if you want to listen instead you can jump right into my own experience in Peru through the podcast episode which covers these same topics through the lens of my retreat.
What Is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant medicine that has been used for centuries, possibly thousands of years, by indigenous shaman across the upper Amazon throughout Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil.
It is one of the most powerful and well-known natural entheogens known to man. The name ayahuasca comes from Quechua: aya means “soul” or “spirits” and huasca means “vine.” The full name, therefore, means “vine of the soul” or “vine of the spirits.” It is a powerful plant-based medicine that can open a doorway to communication with the inner worlds and spirit realms.
It is made from two plants – the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaf of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Both plants are collected from the jungle and boiled together for several hours to create a thick green soupy liquid.
In chemical terms, the chacruna plant contains the psychoactive dimethyletryptamine (DMT), which, by itself, is not orally active because it is metabolized by the stomach enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO). However, certain chemicals within the ayahuasca vine contain MAO inhibitors in the form of harmine compounds that result in a psychoactive compound with an identical chemical makeup to the organic tryptamines in our brains. This mixture circulates through the bloodstream into the brain, where it triggers powerful visionary experiences and enables us to access otherworldly realms and our hidden, inner subconscious landscapes.
It remains something of a mystery how the Amazonian shamans learned to combine these two ayahuasca vine plants. In the Amazon Rainforest there are approximately 80,000 catalogued leafy plant species, of which as many as 10,000 are vines. Neither the vine nor the leaf is especially distinguished in appearance or co-exist. If you ask the shamans, they simply say that the plant spirits told them.
The statistical probability of them being discovered by accident is millions to one, so either it was extreme luck, there were a lot of rather unlucky trial patients, or as you’ll potentially come to realize, it was guided to them by the plants themselves.
Why Are People Working With Ayahuasca?
People come to the medicine for many reasons. It is a powerful tool for healing, introspection, meditation, therapy, inner cleansing, auto-exploration, and self-awakening.
Ayahuasca has incredible healing properties that can offer transformative experiences for healing deep-seated physical, emotional, and mental conditions. It has formidable power to unlock the subconscious mind and allow the receiver to see, feel and let go of blockages, trauma, painful memories, and self-limiting beliefs. In doing so it can help drastically cure long-held symptoms of depression, anxiety, PTSD as well as negative thought and emotional patterns.
At its core, it facilitates an encounter with your true self, your soul, and effects a spiritual healing that can considerably better your relationship with yourself as well as your relationship with the world and people around you.
It is not uncommon for people to report profound, sometimes miraculous healings, from physical, emotional, and mental health disorders, as they come back into alignment with their true self through working with the medicine.
Lots of people change jobs, careers, relationships, cities, and lifestyles, after experiencing the medicine. Post-experience, Facebook groups for the retreat are fabulously beautiful places to watch the life-change unfold.
What Happens When You Ingest Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is traditionally consumed at night in a ceremonial context with between 5-30 people sitting in circle ready to receive, and 1-5 shamans holding space, singing icaros (more on this below), and working with the plant spirits to catalyse healing.
There are typically also facilitators that help people going to the bathroom or to provide support in challenging parts of the experience.
Typically in ceremony, each person takes a seat in the circle and is called up to drink. The cup is similar to the size of a shot glass and contains the ayahuasca brew which tastes absolutely horrific. It can be quite the effort to keep it down once it touches your tongue. There are no mints unfortunately.
Every experience of ayahuasca is completely different, its ultimately you + ayahuasca = the ceremony, and because you’re unique and constantly changing, so will be the experience.
That said, there are some formulaic qualities to the experience which tend to follow this path:
Upon ingesting, you return to your seat and wait. It typically takes 15-45 minutes for the experience to begin. The start of which feels like you’re getting lighter and warmer, almost a euphoric sense resembling the early stages of ‘coming up’ on MDMA. It is not uncommon to start to see flashes of light and geometric shapes in your vision during this time.
Soon you start to feel a jolt in your stomach, a bit like something desperately wants to come out! Within a few short minutes you start for feel extremely disoriented, like very aggressive car-sickness, and then you’ll throw up rather spectacularly into the provided bin. In retreat settings, you fast all day before you ingest ayahuasca, and therefore there isn’t much physical liquid, but you’ll feel like you’re having quite the purge!
After the purge, the medicine really begins to take hold of you mental faculties and it’s not uncommon at this point in the experience for very strong psychedelic visuals to begin. Usually this is the time you will remember your intention for the ceremony (more on that below) and inform the plant of what you’re there to work with.
This is the most unpredictable aspect of the experience and is totally different for everyone. Just like nature, the healing journey is totally non-linear and defies logical explanation or rationale. What tends to be the case is that you begin a deep dive into your unconscious mind, revisiting past memories and experiences, to be with them fully and reintegrate them back into consciousness.
The ‘Trip’ can be subjectively very pleasant or very unpleasant (and varying shades between), but is almost always, without fail, entirely beneficial to you. As the saying goes, “you don’t always get what you want, but you always get what you need.”
Depending on the strength of the dose and your personal makeup, you may be in the experience for anywhere between 2-6 hours, with the option to drink more during that time if you come out of the trip and want to go deeper. Around the 6 hour mark is when the shamans look to close the ceremony and you’ll come back to earth in a gradual process.
By the time you wake up, you’ll feel no physical after effects, but it’s very common to have a lingering emotional hangover, having shifted a lot of deep energy over the course of the evening.
Over the course of a 7-12 day retreat, you’ll likely hold ceremony 5-7 times, each time going deeper and deeper into the experience as the medicine’s strength compounds with each incremental intake. The daytime is usually used for deep rest, reflection, and group integration (more on this below), in order to understand the experience you had and process through it further.
Some of you will lose you minds this week and that’s the best thing that will ever happen to you.
Preparing Yourself Physically
One of the most important aspects of working with ayahuasca is adhering to the time honoured tradition of following a special diet in order to prepare not just the body, but also the mind and soul to incorporate the healing energy of ayahuasca.
This is known as the dieta, and is observed 2-4 weeks before and after the ceremony/retreat. It varies between retreat centres but typically looks as follows:
2-4 weeks before, abstain from:
- Sexual activities of any kind, including masturbation
- All street drugs (cocaine, MDMA, amphetamines, etc.)
- Spicy foods
- Ice, ice cream, or ice cold drinks
1 week prior, abstain from:
- Refined sugars
- Red meat
- Junk foods
- Salt or pepper
- Sweets or chocolate
- Oils (if you must use oil, use olive or coconut oil very sparingly)
- Animal fats (lard, etc.)
- Carbonated drinks (including diet sodas, energy drinks, non-alcoholic beer)
- Dairy products
- Fermented foods
- Caffeine & other stimulants
Afterwards the same restrictions apply. Whilst all of these are important and should be adhered to, the majorly important ones are pork and street drugs/alcohol. You can do incredible damage to yourself if you consume street drugs before, and particular after an ayahuasca retreat.
Lastly, if you’re taking any SSRIs (anti-depressants) of any kind, you must consult with the retreat centre first and typically are required to come off of these as they can mix with ayahuasca with fatal results.
Preparing Yourself Mentally
Working With Your Shadow
Ayahuasca facilitates a soul-encounter and this includes meeting all the aspects of ourselves that we have ever disowned, avoided and kept in the dark – our ‘shadow’ self.
Just through the process of growing up, we have all turned away from pain at some stage in our life, especially during our childhoods, yet whatever we have not processed gets relegated and hidden in our shadow.
Our shadow requires enormous life force to keep in place, pushed away and compartmentalised. Ayahuasca facilitates a counter-habitual approach of turning back towards the pain, to open yourself up to it, become intimate, accept, and integrate it back into ourselves.
Working with ayahuasca is a deeply courageous act of self-awareness, forgiveness, and ultimately self-acceptance. The mission of every experience is ultimately to bring love to all aspects of yourself, so that nothing is rejected, everything is loved, respected, and cared for as it should be.
In the West we are very used to a transactional culture. You pay for something, you receive an outcome. This has become deeply entrenched in our way of doing things and even into healthcare with the way we take drugs and expect a specific outcome.
Ayahuasca is quite different. The best way to approach the medicine is to develop a relationship with it and not seek to simply ‘take’ the medicine. When working with ayahuasca in a healthy manner, you enter into a relationship of reciprocity – receiving the healing and teachings, and giving back through taking responsibility for your “shadow,” a long-term commitment to change, courage to face your fears, and a willingness to find and offer your gifts to the world.
The importance of this cannot be understated, the medicine is fundamentally benevolent and extremely powerful. If it senses hostility, expectation, or a forced outcome from you, it will exert its full (and considerable!) power on flattening your ego for your own benefit. Take it from me, this is not a pleasant experience! Humility and an approach of apprenticeship versus entitlement is the most productive inner attitude to cultivate.
Setting Your Intent
Ayahuasca is a highly-intelligent spirit. If it’s your first time working with plant medicine or you have a particularly materialist outlook on life, it can be unusual to onboard this information at first. It may require 2-3 ceremonies before you come round to this viewpoint.
In any case, going into the experience, it is important to set an intent for the ceremony, to guide you to the healing and insights you wish to receive.
There is a clear distinction between setting an intent versus an intention. Setting an intention is a popular term these days so its important to establish the difference.
To “set intent” is to connect deeply with and actively surrender to your soul’s unfolding. From a physical perspective, setting intent involves tuning into your gut, your core. It is opening yourself up to being guided by your deepest knowing, longings, and intuitive capacities. You are not specifically asking for or directing something to happen; rather, you are consciously pledging yourself and humbly agreeing to whatever will serve your soul’s unfolding and purpose. It is an total acceptance of and surrender to, the great mystery that is life and indeed ayahuasca.
In contrast, to “set an intention” is akin to setting a specific goal – something that you can describe, measure, and possibly achieve in a tangible manner. To set an intention is to apply a strategy to reaching a specific outcome. Setting intention is a head-oriented, thought-based process that is often disassociated from body consciousness.
As ayahuasca facilitates deep but very non-linear, non-logical healing, it’s important to hold an intent without an agenda/design on the outcome or process. This will be challenged through your experience, often as we tend to label some experiences as good and bad, and so holding to your intent as your north start and continuing to trust is deeply important.
The soul speaks to us through image and metaphor. It conveys information through feeling, not through thought.
Ceremony & The Role Of The Shaman
Ceremony in a retreat-setting typically consists for 5-30 people sat in circle with 1-5 shamans overseeing the medicine and control of the spirit space that opens up following ingestion. Typically you begin in the early evening, around 7pm, and watch the shamans open the space with incense, prayer, and song.
You usually have a yoga mat, a bin, some comfortable clothes and blankets, and a whole lot of courage stored up for the proceedings.
Once everyone has drank a cup and returned to their seating space, the shaman(s) will begin singing the icaros to call in the spirits and initiate the ceremony in earnest.
The icaros are like shamanic hymns, healing songs sung by the shaman(s), that enlist the energetic and spiritual forces of various plant allies, including ayahuasca itself, to open up the minds and hearts and energetic systems of those who journey, and to effect healing and greater knowledge.
Icaros fulfil a variety of functions. Some icaros are for establishing protection in a space. Others are for calling in specific spirits. Some are designed to accelerate the energy in the space, and others drive participants to purge, eliminating physical and emotional toxins.
What is fascinating is the power these songs have to guide and accelerate the medicine within you. From my own experience I’ve been in ceremony and seen that when a purging icaro has been sung, within a matter of minutes almost everyone in the room was vomiting vigorously.
Once the ceremony has moved further in, it’s common for the shamans to break away and come and sit in front of you to sing a personal icaros directly to you. This is an incredibly powerful and profound experience. I had many cases where the shaman would sing and bring up huge energies within me for rather spectacular and spontaneous purging right in front of them! It is one of the many aspects of the experience that defies conventional explanation, it simply is the case that deep spirits and energies are at work, helping to heal you.
Depending on the retreat and local custom, some ceremonies may also incorporate other plants to help. Mapacco (a form of raw tobacco) is common as a clearing smoke, as is rape. It’s usually up to you if you want to have these accompanying your experience.
As you probably got loud and clear from the trip summary section, you’re going to throw up, likely a lot, and you might also need to go to the toilet. Thankfully I’ve not had to content with a mid-ceremony poop, but its meant to be quite the experience! Facilitators will guide you as walking can be like you’ve got sea-legs. As for the toilet experience, you’ll have to let me know 🙂
Making Sense Of Your Experience
“Some of you will lose you minds this week and that’s the best thing that will ever happen to you”
If you thought your conscious mind was chaotic, wait until you see inside your unconscious.
Mixed with DMT, the experience of going through your unconscious in non-linear fashion can be extremely disorienting and hard to piece together afterwards. Even with the most sincere intent, any expectation you have for how a healing might go can be firmly thrown out the window.
Here implies the incredible value in the retreat setting and the expertise of the workshop facilitators to help you process the event. What tends to happen over the course of a 7-12 day retreat is that you’re given time either in a group-setting or 1-1 to process through the experiences you’ve had whilst in ceremony.
The soul speaks to us through image and metaphor, not through clear words and language. It conveys information through feeling, not through thought, and so ayahuasca experiences don’t tend to yield well to literal or overly analytical approaches to analysis. Instead, its best to reflect on the experience metaphorically, like the way you might analyse a dream. For example, falling out of the sky doesn’t mean you’re going to die, it means you need to become comfortable with surrendering control. This is a basic example, but it shows the power of perception to colour your perspective post event. One was a fearful interpretation, and the other a loving one. Two ways of looking at the same thing that come out very differently.
Here is a more nuanced example from my retreat that shows the importance of correct interpretation:
On the 4th night, a young Canadian guy sat next to me had an extremely difficult ceremony experience. His intent had been to ‘see his true self’ and whatever he saw during the course of the evening, the next day he looked white as a ghost. When the afternoon group-session rolled around, he opened up about how he had gone through a 6-hour experience of feeling no aspect of his body or his personality, he was just in a blank space, observing everything. His interpretation of this was that it was terrifying. Instead, the facilitator pointed out that his ‘true self’ is just his soul, silently witnessing everything going on around him, with no physical boundary or sense of personality (an ego). So in fact, ayahuasca gave him exactly what he wanted. Within 10 seconds of receiving this insight, his mood completely changed. He was absolutely elated and said he now found the experience incredibly positive and profound.
Same experience, different viewpoint. Whilst there is incredible complexity and nuance to each person’s ayahuasca trip, I think the fundamental truth is that the loving, benevolent, non-judgemental interpretation, is the one that fits the highest truth of the matter.
My overarching recommendation is that if you feel uneasy or disturbed by a trip experience, turn towards it with love and gentle enquiry, and seek the advice and counsel of seasoned facilitators to help you uncover that loving truth underneath.
Wait two weeks before you make any big decisions.
Integration Back Into Life
“Wait two weeks before you make any big decisions.”
Those were the words of advice of our retreat facilitators and sound advice it is too. Coming out of the ayahuasca retreat experience can feel positively womb-like. You’re vulnerable, sensitive, and full of new insights (more of which will follow). Its absolutely paramount that when you return back to civilisation that you set up a calm 3-5 days to land back into normal life. Returning to work within a day is a really bad idea as the medicine is still working inside of you and you’re extra sensitive as a result.
Similarly, you might have strong desires to quit long-held relationships, jobs, commitments etc. Its good to let things settle for 2-3 weeks back into the real world, see if you still feel the same way, and then act from there. From my own experience, I had a very strong desire to quit my job, but I deliberately held off for 6 weeks before making the decision and I’m very happy I did. I got to experience the ups and downs of life and really feel through the full emotional spectrum of the decision ahead of formally committing to it.
“A third of the work takes place in the jungle, two thirds takes place out in the real world.”
If I’ve learnt anything over the years, it’s that there’s no substitute for ordinary life experience. Ayahuasca lays an incredible foundation, but it’s the real world and day-to-day experience that will trigger you to react as you did the in past, or respond from a place of new awareness.
What can often happen is you get into a similar social dynamic with someone, and then you’ll receive a flash, a feeling, an intuition, reminding you of some aspect of your ayahuasca experience, and that’s the call to change. In that moment is where you take a different path (if you choose to), a new neural pathway is created, new action is taken, and a belief system is changed.
These micro-magic-moments as I like to call them, constitute the gold of all of the hard work you put in during your time in the jungle. So how do you maximise these moments? By staying mindful and conscious as possible.
Personally I kept going with not drinking for many more weeks after my experience, I also kept a very diligent meditation practice, and if I could go back I would have spent much more time journaling each day. You can really architect how much value you get from the whole experience by how mindful you remain in the weeks subsequent to your retreat. Honour this advice and you’ll be bouncing down the streets with new perceptions for weeks, its truly a wonderful and liberating experience!
My Top Recommendations
Wow… Well done for making it this far down.
We’ve covered a lot here. To close, here are the four things I always say to people that are heading off on retreat:
- Try to adopt an apprentice versus entitled mindset
We’re all students of life and I can think of fewer places this is more sorely tested that on ayahuasca retreat. When times get tough (and they will), just remember it’s all happening for your benefit, keep looking to learn, and keep out of victim/entitlement mindset.
- Try not to evaluate the experience as good or bad
Every day we make choices and we make judgements, it’s the bedrock of egoic consciousness and the human condition. Up in the astral planes of ayahuasca though, there is no duality. Your experience of anything as good or bad is entirely subjective, your choice, and your perception. So choose love, compassion, self-forgiveness, and self acceptance.
- Practice conscious breathing + meditation
Things can get a little dicey in ceremony, particularly in the more powerful part of the experience. If you feel like you’re getting pulled under or swept off into a storm, just remember to come back to your breath. If you don’t have a yoga or meditation practice, consider some kind of mindfulness practice for a month before you go in. That way, when rocky times come, you know your centre and can return to it for stability.
- Go to the best retreat + give time for integration
Set and setting is everything with psychedelics. Surround yourself with the best people in the best place. Ayahuasca might look like a funny green tea, but it is soul surgery. You wouldn’t have a triple-bypass in a back alley, so don’t treat your soul the same by working with ayahuasca in questionable surroundings or with inexperienced people.
Please, please, look after yourself.
Thankfully with the internet, YouTube, and podcasts, there are hundreds of sources of information to help you out. I sifted through dozens before I embarked on my own journey and highly recommend you do the same.
Below is some of the best reading I’ve found and a list of highly recommended retreats that I’ve visited or know of through trusted friends.
For more from me, you can check out the podcasts on my ayahuasca experience which add more to this guide and contain no shortage of comical moments from my experience.
You can also check out the community-led Q&A on plant medicine to listen to the most frequently asked questions about working with psychedelics:
Recommended Further Reading
The Ayahuasca Test Pilots Handbook: The Essential Guide to Ayahuasca Journeying by Chris Kilham (highly recommended)
National Geographic Article by Kira Salak
Recommended Retreat Centres
Aubrey Marcus on Ayahuasca (Joe Rogan Podcast)