Picture yourself in a dilapidated, candlelit house in the suburbs of Cusco, the historic capital of the Incan Empire, surrounded by blankets and small percussion instruments and drinking a bitter, dark brown syrup. The lights go off.
20 minutes later the most phenomenal visions begin. Fast forward four hours and it’s all over. You’ve been the closest you’ve ever gotten to leaving your body, Mother Earth has pointed at your colon and told you that you’re about to soil yourself and you’ve almost been moved to tears by the incantations of your shaman.
All the while, you’ve been deep-throat vomiting into a big orange bucket as you melt into the floor next to your best friend who thinks she’s a giant baby.
This, friends, is ayahuasca.
Made from a mixture of an Amazonian vine known as banisteriopsis caapi and at least one other plant, ayahuasca is an hallucinogenic plant medicine that has been used in the Amazon for centuries for healing and spiritual purposes.
Along with inducing audio and visual hallucinations and altered states of consciousness, ayahuasca is reputed to be a cure for anything from addiction to cancer. These days it’s also a substance sought out by travelers who just want to get high and see what all the fuss is about.
Ayahuasca is everything you expect it to be and more, so it’s probably worth having at least one experience of it in your life. And now, with an estimated 50 to 100 ayahuasca groups in session on any given night in New York City alone, you don’t even need to travel to Peru to experience it. But, you do have to do it right: the better quality homework you do before your ayahuasca experience, the more you’ll get from it (and the less likely you are to (a) be arrested for it, and (b) die).
So, with that said, here are 10 things to swot up on before your first ayahuasca experience:
Be Ready (Really Ready)
Some dedicated practitioners of the plant medicine believe that ayahuasca “calls you” to it – but how are you meant to know when that’s the case? A seasoned cynic might interpret it like a leap of faith: turning off your rational, analytical filter before taking ayahuasca is directly conducive to successful journeys into the medicine. In that sense, ayahuasca is calling and you would be wise to listen.
You’d also be wise to make sure you’re in a “good place” first, because taking ayahuasca is like facing your worst demons in yourself: it’s uncomfortable, at best. There’s no definitive rule for who gets the green light, but there's a consensus among practitioners that some people should certainly steer clear. Mixing ayahuasca with antidepressants, for example, can be fatal.
On the other hand, if you know you're going to puke your guts out and roll around wrestling with your subconscious for a few hours while crying for your mommy, yet still feel compelled to do ayahuasca, then it’s probably calling you.
It’s a Ceremonial Experience
When you decide you’re ready, make sure you experience ayahuasca in a ceremony. The ritual, the setting and the state of mind that you’re in will all affect the experience that you have.
The space is always the same in terms of formality: whether it’s a retreat in the Amazonian jungle or a converted yoga studio in New York, you’ll get a sleeping mat, blankets, a bucket and sometimes Agua Florida or hand-rolled cigarettes to “cleanse and purify” (translation: nice little pick-me-ups for when you’re heaving your guts out). Aside from the shamanic chanting and occasional check-ins from facilitators, the space is silent. There's no talking and no touching.
The session is always led by a facilitator who can be a healer, a shaman, a therapist, an “ayahuascuero” or any other person that has extensive experience with ayahuasca and has learned to lead sessions. It’s hugely important to make sure you’ve got a good one, which leads to the next point...
Get a Legit Shaman
The shaman's job description is almost comical in scope. He’s the ringmaster for an en masse hallucination, some of whose participants are rookies; some of whom are on their 37th trip and hoping to travel back in time in order to confront their darkest childhood traumas; some of whom are simply rolling around on the floor, gurgling and gleefully smashing a pandeiro.
Without the shaman, things could go very wrong indeed. Do your research into shamans and centers, rather than just accepting the first cup of ayahuasca that comes your way.
There’s a bevy of stories from travelers drinking ayahuasca from cowboys and then being robbed or assaulted while they’re under (the female facilitator in our most recent ayahuasca ceremony was overheard whispering that the shaman “touched her inappropriately” and that he’d “better be watched closely around the girls”).
Go With Intentions
Perhaps you’ve been through a bad breakup and now you have trust issues, or maybe you’ve got a physical ailment that Western medicine has failed to alleviate. You might be trying to kick an addiction or an eating disorder.
At the start of the session, there’ll likely be some time reserved for you to share your reasons for taking part. Approach the experience with intentions, but without expectations.
Shamans say that it helps to think about what your goals are, so that you can focus your attention as you feel your mind slowly begin to stumble out of control.
It’s Essentially DMT
Ayahuasca’s bitter brew is a combination of vines and leaves. The first ingredient is chacruna, which contains the quintessential ingredient of dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is naturally occurring in small amounts in humans and the medical researcher J. C. Callaway suggested in 1988 that it might be connected with visual dream phenomena. Higher doses of DMT stimulate altered states of consciousness and it’s for this reason that ayahuasca is seen as a pathway into another dimension.
If taken by itself, DMT stays in the body no longer than eight to 15 minutes. Therefore, ayahuasca combines two plants that mix DMT with monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs). The MAOI prevents your gut neutralizing the DMT, so your psycho-spiritual epiphanies can last for hours.
Although never commonly available in the States, DMT was made illegal in 1966, along with LSD, mescaline and psilocybin. Be clear – possession in the U.S. can get you up to 20 years in the slammer.
One Good Trip Is “Better Than 10 Years of Therapy”
Previous studies have shown that, in people with depression, PTSD, OCD and anxiety, parts of the brain associated with self-reflection tend to be overactive, and experts believe that may contribute to some of the rumination and negative thinking that’s the hallmark of these illnesses.
The active ingredients in ayahuasca (DMT) is thought to bind to some of our brain’s serotonin receptors in the cortex, kicking off a process that ultimately decreases brain activity there, which may calm these psychological ailments. The “medicine” has even been called equivalent to 10 years worth of psychotherapy in one night.
Watch this space – a trip to a therapist's office might soon mean a trip inside the therapist’s office. But that doesn’t mean your first experience is going to be all chaise lounges, warm smiles and Kleenex. Oh, no.
It’s Not Pleasant
Sometimes, your divine experience will be preceded by getting so high that you’re seeing streams of electricity shooting back and forth between your eyes and your brain. Purging in any direction and from multiple orifices is also a distinct possibility. No matter how smug you might feel after your ayahuasca trip, there’s nothing sexy about vomit dribbling from your nose.
What’s more, ayahuasca tastes more disgusting than anything you’re likely to have ever tried. Imagine a tree threw up and then a mushroom ate that and threw it up again, buried it in the ground for 100 years and then strained it through a shaman's dirty underwear. That’s about right.
Yes, You Do Have to Listen to That Music
A very specific style of music has been developed for ayahuasca ceremonies and it may or may not remind you of your cognitively dissonant college days, where you and your hacky sack-playing pals lounged on long stretches of grass, banging insipidly on a bongo made of vegan leather and singing songs about patchouli. Yes, the music can be painful.
But as bad as it might initially sound, the “icaros” – the music sung or chanted by the shaman – is an integral part of the ceremony and one of the tools used in assisting you to connect on a deeper level. It supposedly has the ability to take you from feeling a disconnect with the medicine to having a full-blown visual.
The idea of incorporating music into your trip isn’t unique to ayahuasca, either. Researchers have found that listening to music can actually affect psychedelic experiences on a neurological level – and they have brain scans to back it.
You Have to Diet Like Gwyneth Paltrow
She starts her mornings off with a green juice and maintains a gluten-free, mildly vegan diet throughout the day – you should too. Depending on where you take ayahuasca, your shaman will prepare you in a different way, but you will always need to diet.
If you don’t adhere to the ayahuasca diet before your ceremony, the plants will assist your body in ridding itself of the chemicals (salt, sugar, alcohol, caffeine, meat and other “toxins”) that you’ve ingested. This is commonly known as purging. And “purge” is a just a nice way of saying “puke your guts out.”
Incidentally, you’re also supposed to abstain from sex in the lead up to your trip. Shamans believe that. during your hallucination, your sexual energy should be at a peak, as it tells a lot about your person.
That means no masturbating beforehand. It also means that the first part of your trip is likely to be dominated by floating, psychedelic clitorises.
Learn From the Rest
Over the last 25 years or so ayahuasca has gone global, with thousands of people traveling to Peru and other South American countries to drink it. Recently, the medicine cropped up in the Jennifer Aniston/Paul Rudd flick Wanderlust and the Showtime series Weeds. Proponents include everyone from Sting to VICE magazine’s Hamilton Morris.
Heck, even as far back as ’63, Beat author William S. Borroughs chronicled his visit to the Amazon in search of the stuff. His book, The Yage Letters, follows his search for the “ultimate fix” and marks the point when he believes to have moved into his own “fully-realized universe."
Perhaps the most active proponent of ayahuasca, though, is British journalist Graham Hancock, who’s behind the banned TED talk called "The War on Consciousness." Hancock gives a compelling presentation about our ancient relationship with psychedelic plants, as well as his own personal experiences with the medicine.
The talk was removed from TED’s archive because it spoke too candidly about the effects of psychedelics on consciousness, but you can watch it below.
Speaking of opening up your mind, Young Thug wants us to "stop believing in genders."