Preparing for Ayahuasca: Everything you need to know
Across the globe, an increasing amount of people are looking to work with the sacred and powerful plant medicine, Ayahuasca. The psychedelic tea usually brewed from the banisteriopsis caapi vine (often referred to as the Ayahuasca vine or “vine of the soul”) and the leaves of the psychotria viridis shrub (commonly known as chacruna), Ayahuasca has long been used by indigenous people in healing ceremonies in Central and South America. Groups like the Shuar of Ecuador, the Shipibo of Peru, and various Tukano groups in Colombia maintain a culture of traditional use, and many of their practices, as well as the plants have been transported around the world with the rising demand for Ayahuasca experiences.
For a culture living in the tropical Amazonian jungles, preparing for an Ayahuasca ceremony was fairly straightforward. In the Amazon basin, ceremonial participants didn’t have to worry about detoxifying from recreational drugs, alcohol, processed foods, and the like — unlike modern-day seekers of plant medicine healing, these elements were not available. Participants would undergo a period of preparation to purify the body to interact with the plant spirits on a deeper physical and spiritual level. This usually included eating a specific diet, abstaining from certain behaviors, and intensifying spiritual practices of preparation.
For the modern seeker in a time of Ayahuasca tourism, preparation for an Ayahuasca ceremony might feel a little complicated. The use of prescription medications, the variety of common dietary restrictions, and use of recreational drugs can leave a Peruvian curandero unsure about how an individual will respond to plant medicine work; therefore it becomes crucially important that you do your Ayahuasca research and preparation ahead of time.
So, although the last line of decision and advice ultimately lies with the curanderos facilitating your journey, here’s an in-depth look at what you need to know to prepare for your first time sitting in an Ayahuasca ceremony.
But first: What is an ayahuasca experience and why should you sit in ceremony?
In the tradition of shamanism, it is believed that all illness and malady has an energetic or spiritual component. Seekers would come to work with a shaman or curandero to address this issue and promote overall well-being in their lives, families, and communities. The prescriptions for healing varied widely depending on the individual’s needs, but the Ayahuasca brew has been used as the central gateway for deep, transformative experiences.
Today, many are seeking out a healing experience with Ayahuasca to either deepen their spiritual journey, or to heal modern maladies like depression, anxiety, addiction, and emotional trauma. In some cases, people suffering from a serious illness, such as cancer, turn to the medicine for guidance and physical healing, or even to find peace with the looming possibility of death. Because of Ayahuasca’s (sometimes) hallucinogenic properties, many say they feel like they journey to meet the Divine. This experience has a powerfully transformative effect on how people view themselves and the world following their experience. There have even been cases where plant medicine has relieved addiction, depression, and other psychological problems.
The structure of an actual Ayahuasca experience itself differs depending on what type of Ayahuasca retreat or ceremony you attend. After western spiritualists like Terrence McKenna, William Burroughs, and others began traveling into the mountains of the Amazon in the 50’s to seek a direct experience with shamanism, the face of Ayahuasca ceremony as we know it throughout the west has certainly gone through a transformation. Now, we could categorize the types of Ayahuasca experiences available into broad categories:
- Traditional jungle ceremonies that require significant and rugged travel to reach an indigenous healer. Ceremonies are small and offer a lot of individual attention from the maestro. There are typically multiple ceremonies over an extended period of time and additional plant medicines may also be used in concert with the spirit of Ayahuasca. In these ceremonies, you’re likely to hear the Icaros and other traditional medicine songs throughout the course of your journey.
- Group ceremonies at small, forest retreat centers with indigenous or mestizo shamans who maintain a strong thread of traditional ceremonial structure. Ceremonies are often performed in a maloka, or an open structure with just a roof, where participants are provided with a mattress and only minimal items of comfort. Participants are usually attended by the primary curandero as well as a team of supporting facilitators, often comprised of the healer’s family members. Retreat centers often provide more structure for a participant to prepare prior to ceremony and integrate afterward, including on-site lodging and meals.
- Group ceremonies at a large retreat center, typically in a more urban setting, will cater to those who desire more Westernized creature comforts or, in some cases, need access to medical care. Ceremonies may be attended by therapists or medical doctors in addition to a shaman, and often the ceremonies have a more rigid structure to accommodate healing issues like addiction, serious diseases, emotional trauma, or other significant maladies. Some large retreat centers maintain a more traditional flow to the ceremony while others have a more hybridized feel.
- Underground ceremonies in countries where the medicine is not legal, like in the United States and Canada, happen in a wide range of contexts. Personal homes, forest retreat centers, even in healing studios and meditation centers. Because Ayahuasca contains dimethyltryptamine, a Schedule I drug in North America, ceremonies are usually kept secretive. Sometimes curanderos travel through these countries offering their healing songs and medicine. Other times, Westerners take it upon themselves to facilitate plant medicine work. As a result, the structure and experience of the ceremonies vary.
- Experiences with the Native American Church, Uniao de Vegetal, or other religious organizations are typically only open to members who have made a commitment to a particular religious path. These ceremonies are typically held regularly in the church itself and have a significant amount of structure and ritual that depend on the particular organization.
Whichever you decide, it’s a good idea to look up the legality of Ayahuasca in the area before you book your retreat.
How can I prepare for an Ayahuasca ceremony?
The practices and dietary protocols followed leading up to a ceremony are known as a dieta — and though the word most obviously refers to food intake, the preparatory practices extend to behavioral abstinences and spiritual practices as well. Here are the overarching principles of each.
The most glaring change in behavior that is suggested before meeting the plant spirits is abstinence from sexual activity, both with others as well as on your own. Shamanism understands sexual intimacy as a form of energetic connection between the people involved; it would make sense then, that in ceremony you might feel the energy or presence of that person in a strong way. This can lead to a confusing experience, distracting from your ability to focus on your own healing and to see your connection with the other person clearly.
Sexual activity with yourself is said to deplete the individual of spiritual energy that would otherwise be used in the healing process during the Ayahuasca ceremony, limiting your ability to dive deep and preventing the medicine from communicating with you clearly. The recommended length of time varies, so follow the recommendation of your healer; most retreat centers recommend at least 1-2 weeks before and after the ceremony.
Physical and dietary preparation
Simply stated, it is best to simplify your diet as much as possible in the months and, in particular, two weeks leading up to ceremony. Eliminate processed foods, colorings, and preservatives; avoid salty, sugary, and spicy foods; cut out animal products, particularly meat; and eliminate all addictive substances like alcohol, tobacco (though the curandero will likely smoke a mapacho, or ceremonial tobacco), and recreational drugs. Work with your doctor to determine if you can also reduce or eliminate your reliance on prescription drugs where possible, particularly if you are on MAOI or SSRI drugs. These medications will interfere directly with the effects of Ayahuasca and, in some cases, the interaction can have serious health repercussions. Do not attempt to work with Ayahuasca while taking these medications.
Step back and take a look at your current lifestyle. Where are there pockets of negative energy that you can reduce or eliminate in preparation for your journey? If you live in the middle of New York City, for example, can you take a trip to the forest to connect with nature and clear your head before you travel? The spiritual preparation for a healing experience involves clearing your mind and your energetic space. Take a break from your television and Netflix subscription, cut down your internet time, and spend more time in quiet solitude. Get out into nature as much as you can to breathe and connect with Earth.
Your first time working with Ayahausca will not be the same as someone else’s first time
This is incredibly important to remember: two people who prepare for a ceremony in the same exact way are highly likely to have two very different experiences. The Ayahuasca tea offers each individual what he or she needs — and needs are incredibly variable. So while you might prefer to have some sense of what’s coming, the best way to prepare your mind for the night is to let go of your expectations and become open to possibility. There is no use in judging your experience as right or wrong, or, better or worse than anyone else’s. It simply is.
Ayahuasca diet before ceremony
Simply stated, eat basic, bland foods without red meat (including pork) and dairy for at least two weeks or more prior to ceremony and immediately afterward. Eat no less than four hours before the start of the ceremony, and even then it is best to eat soft foods and vegetable broths to be gentle on the stomach.
At least 6 weeks before:
Any medication that has an effect on the serotonin system, including Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors (SSRIs) and MAOI drugs, should be cleared from your body through a slow weaning process with your doctor.
At least 4 weeks before:
- Eliminate pharmaceutical drugs (prescription & over the counter). This includes allergy pills, hormonal supplements, NSAIDs, and more. Again, always consult with a medical professional.
At least 2 weeks before, eliminate:
- Sex of any sort, including self-pleasure or erotic fantasizing
- Violent or disturbing media
- Recreational drugs of any kind, especially synthetic DMT or other psychoactive substances
- Salt and salty foods
- Spicy food
- Processed foods
- Pork, red meat, cured meats
At least 1 week before, eliminate:
- Sugar, natural or artificial sweeteners
- Fermented foods
- Fried foods
- Yeast or yeast products
- Vinegar or pickled foods
- Caffeine (coffee, caffeinated tea, synthetic energy drinks)
- Dairy products, especially yogurt
- Animal fats, including butter
- Nutritional supplements like protein powders that may contain tyramines
- Sweets and chocolate
- Synthetic soaps, perfumes, toiletries, etc.
- Unsalted vegetables and vegetable broths
- Well-cooked whole grains
- Organic chicken or turkey
- Low-sugar fruits
- Coconut or olive oil, sparingly
- Drink plenty of water to stay hydrated
Whether you journey to the jungle to drink yage (the Colombian Ayahuasca brew) or meet the caapi vine in the concrete jungle of an American city, how you integrate your healing experience is just as important, if not more so, than how you prepare. As your shaman will likely tell you, the plant spirits will be working with you and continuing your healing process for weeks and months, maybe even years to come. The question is: How can you be intentional about integrating your lessons and providing space for continued healing while navigating your friends, family, work commitments, and westernized lifestyle?
Follow the dietary guidelines
Continuing with your dieta while you integrate not only supports your body in continued healing but is a tangible reminder of everything you have experienced. Maintain the diet for 1-2 weeks, slowly reintroducing salt and spices. Be cautious about reintroducing processed foods, caffeine, or sugar, and avoid alcohol and recreational drugs as long as possible. Honor your body by keeping it as clean and free of toxins as you can!
Spend time in nature
This is especially important if you live in the city. Find a way to ground yourself into the earth, sit beneath a tree or near a river, and reconnect with the rhythms of the earth. This supportive practice will help keep your rhythm aligned with that of the earth, keep you grounded, and support your healing.
Create a practice
This can include meditation, walking, yoga, or prayer. Find a way to intentionally connect to the spirit of the plant and the divine on a daily basis. Carve out time to be present with your feelings and your process by stilling the mind. In the first few weeks after your journey, you may find it useful to journal or do more active reflection.
Find a community
Many retreat centers offer continued opportunity to connect with facilitators or fellow participants after the ceremony. This creates a supportive container for you to continue learning and understanding your process — these are people who understand what you went through. If your retreat doesn’t offer such a structure, find people in your local or online community who can provide that support. This will protect you from feeling isolated in your healing process.
Many blessings on your journey.