9 Thoughts I Had While Taking Ayahuasca
Just what is it like to try ayahuasca? From the visions to the vomiting, here's a first hand account...
Even if you’ve never tried ayahuasca, chances are you’ve at least heard of it.
It’s increasingly popular on the backpacker/traveller scene for anyone travelling through Peru, and its increasing celebrity status as a hallucinogenic therapy du jour.
Chelsea Handler tried it in her recent Netflix series, while everyone from Lindsay Lohan to Jim Carrey, Tori Amos, and Father John Misty have also spoken about their experiences.
So just what the hell is it, and why do people do it?
We travelled to Peru to try it ourselves, and find out the truth behind the mystical myth.
Full disclaimer up front: Ayahuasca has varying legal status around the world. Many countries state the plants by themselves are fine, but mixing them into the ayahuasca compound is the issue.
It was legalised in Brazil in the mid-1980s for ‘religious use’ after official inquiries concluded that ayahuasca is not a recreational drug and has valid spiritual uses.
While in Peru, it’s widely considered an ancestral medicine used by shamans to heal a variety of psychological and spiritual illnesses, with a strong emphasis on Mother Nature and re-connecting with the world around you.
There have been deaths associated with the ingestion of the drug, but they've been attributed to unscreened preexisting heart conditions, or interactions with drugs such as antidepressants, recreational drugs, caffeine or nicotine - all things which a reputable outfit would demand you refrain from pre-ceremony (more on that later).
The retreat I visited was fully kitted out with psychologists, doctors and nurses, as well as shamans - with pre and post-ceremony consultations as standard, and an array of support (both medicinal and personal) throughout.
In short, while it’s possible to experience ayahuasca in a number of ways, it’s purely for 18+, and should only be done with a safe, professional, legitimate outfit.
Step one in ensuring they’re looking after you, weirdly, involves pooping. Lots and lots of pooping.
1. I thought I knew pooping. I did not know pooping
Before the experience, you’re advised to do as much as you can to cleanse your body naturally. While not mandatory, it’s recommended you don’t eat red meat, pork, spicy food, smoke, take drugs, or even drink alcohol for a full 14 days before the ceremony.
Then, a full 24 hours before arriving, you have to drink a substantial amount of ‘purgative Andean medicinal water’ that, to put it frankly, turns you into a walking (well, sitting) firehose.
Throw in a ‘nil by mouth’ order for the day of the medicine water, and you end up having a comically propulsive experience, as you painlessly expunge literally everything from your bowels over the space of around two hours.
2. Everyone here is completely mad
The moment you meet your ceremony-mates is as nerve-inducing as the experience itself. Likelihood is that you’re severely questioning everything about your life choices, and concerns about having gone ‘full Hippy’ are rife.
So when the first person I got chatting to started merrily talking about the insectoid aliens that had repeatedly abducted him (you know, the ones who had driven the fairies from the planet), I started slowly moonwalking out the way I’d came.
Thankfully, he was an outlier - and everyone else in the group was friendly, open, funny and - refreshingly - wryly cynical about what was to come.
3. Wait, Ayahuasca means WHAT?!
Upon arrival, you sit down with the shaman and the doctor for a briefing. Which is when we’re cheerfully told that ‘ayahuasca’ comes from the Quechua (Inca language) meaning ‘Death’s Rope’ (Aya = Death, and Huasca = Rope).
You could hear the collective gulp in the room.
One melodramatically long pause later, and we’re assured it doesn’t infer a physical death, but rather a psychological and spiritual opportunity for rebirth.
Thanks Google Translate shaman, for that minor cardiac arrest.
4. Well the shaman is definitely shaman-y
As darkness falls, you’re led outside into the calming, nature-flanked grounds of the retreat. As you stand under the light of the moon, the now colourfully adorned shaman (dayglo bobble hat, and flowing robes as standard) gives you a pre-ceremony blessing - which mainly involves chanting at you in a language you can’t understand, and gently hitting you over the head with a leafy branch.
Bad karma brushed away, and blessings intoned, it’s time to head into the yurt to get settled in for the night.
5. I really do not care that I’m vomiting
After drinking your Doctor-advised dosage of the plant/vine smushed-up mixture (it tastes like soy sauce, FYI), you snuggle into your sleeping bag and many, many blankets, and watch as the fire in the middle of the room burns out.
30 minutes later, and one by one, everyone starts to vomit. Thankfully, there’s a bucket at the end of your sleeping bag, and nurses on hand to rub your back whilst you’re projectiling all over the place.
Bizarrely, this is not your ‘crowded around the toilet, the morning after 17 jagerbombs' kind of vomit. It feels weirdly needed. In short, as it’s not painful, and everyone’s doing it (bye bye dignity/anxiety), it’s really not that horrendous.
The vomiting kickstarts the hallucinogenic process, and the process by which DMT is absorbed into your blood stream. Cue the crazy stuff.
6. Well they weren’t kidding about the hallucinations
As the visions take hold, everything gets a little trippy. Depth perception distorts in front of you (the shaman looked around 12ft tall, the person laying six feet away from me looked about 100m away), and colours and shapes vibrate, shine and morph appropriately.
Seeing animals and nature is common, while the more psychadelic/hilariously creative end of the spectrum brought me visions of the galaxy, universe and parallel universes (all of which I saw in about two seconds), mother nature (I met her and had a chat - she's adorbs), or - for others - fantasy realms where they were riding dragons naked, or chatting to a shaman who had casually turned into a panda.
It's not all fluffy unicorns and puppies though. At one point I saw demons and giant spiders coming towards me, which was, unsurprisingly, a tad bewildering. But by laughing at them, they simply vanished, and didn't come back.
Not everyone's reaction to the darker side of their brain is as positive. One woman in our group found the experience harrowing, extremely upsetting and spent a good 30 minutes afterwards sobbing, as she was forced to confront some of the darker moments in her life. Meanwhile, another became so anxious the first time around that she had to leave the room, and was given a sleeping pill by the attending doctors to calm her down.
As the feeling reached its peak, the images were being projected so vividly that I couldn’t tell if my eyes were open or closed.
But as you sink deeper into the ‘trip’, the majority of people’s experiences become far more focused and personal, with all manner of subconscious presenting itself in the weirdest of ways.
7. Hello childhood, my old friend
Ayahuasca has the ability to allow you to relive past, childhood, and often repressed memories.
I was fully ‘in’ moments from when I was four, six and seven respectively, recreating life events I had completely forgotten (I’ve spoken to the ‘rents since, and yep - they definitely happened). Not only that, but I got to experience a ‘greatest hits’ of all the moments in my life where I fell in love.
I saw my exes, family, friends, colleagues, and felt a whirlwind of emotion that was predominately loving, but with splashes of heartbreak. Yet even when you’re seeing the darker side of things, it’s tempered with an acceptance that you just need to let it ride itself out. You’re fully aware of what you’re hallucinating whilst you’re hallucinating it, which gifts the experience a self-awareness that many find mentally and emotionally beneficial in helping process the event.
According to the video above, the Default Mode Network is an area of the brain that, if overactive, is associated with depression, anxiety and social phobia. MRI brainscans show that ayahuasca causes a significant decrease in activity in the DMN. This is also the part of the brain linked to meditative states, which explains why many people who try it find a renewed sense of inner happiness post-ceremony.
You can understand why the Incas are so keen to stress that it's a 'medicine' and not a 'drug'.
8. Who knew group therapy could be so funny?
The day after each session, you sit down with the wider group and discuss what you saw, along with the shaman and psychologist.
It’s a great opportunity to discuss all the slightly barmy stuff you saw, as well as get a balanced reflection that hits on both the spiritual (the shaman will talk a lot about Mother Nature), and the psychological (the psychologist will talk a lot about your past life experiences).
As well as helping you process everything, it’s also unexpectedly hilarious, as each person talks through the complete lunacy of what they saw in their psychedelic visions.
Segueing from one person’s heartbreaking trauma to another’s incredibly flippant adventures in dreamtime is quite the juxtaposition.
9. I may not understand it, but sweet muppety Odin, that was very unique
Ayahuasca is such a singular, personal experience that it's hard to express the kaleidoscopic nature of its effect.
The way in which your unconscious and subconscious presents and then processes itself meant that everyone in our group - even those who had an initially distressing experience - walked away with, if not a life-changing new outlook on life, a subtle and reassured acceptance about the ups and downs that life inevitably brings.
Disclaimer: This was the account of one writer, is not condoned by MTV, and any experience is fully at the risk of the individual.