It’s common for newbies to be nervous before an ayahuasca ceremony. I know I was. Here are 10 tips to help see you through.
1. Food prep. I can’t say enough good things about preparation. First let’s talk about food. If you research the “aya diet” you’ll encounter lists of what not to eat and some of these differ. The lists usually discourage or forbid red meat and pork, salt, hot spices, alcohol (that’s a big one), avocados and a few other items. At a minimum all these things should be strictly avoided 48 hours before ceremony, but really two weeks is my rule. That doesn’t mean you have to suffer, though. If there was ever a time in your life to get turned on to good vegetarian or vegan cuisine (ideally raw), this is the time. You can eat delicious, simple food for a couple of weeks before your big experience, which isn’t much of a sacrifice. Pity the fool who finds herself backpacking in Peru and decides to drink ayahuasca on a whim after a week of hamburgers and mohitos.Mama aya gonna smack her up the side of the head real good! Note that there’s real science to support some of these restrictions. Certain prohibited items interfere with how aya interacts with neurons in the brain. I guess thousands of years of experimentation taught the indigenous people of the Amazon a thing or two, huh? Some prohibitions are just pragmatic. Spicy food may not offend the gods so much as your butt and mouth if you vomit or get diarrhea…
2. Sex. Yes, let’s talk about sex. The first time I drank aya sexual abstinence was easy because I was between relationships; there was no one to disappoint by skipping the wild thing for a couple of weeks. While I’m normally libidinous, I got lucky in a different way the month before and just didn’t feel like it for about three weeks before ceremony, and that included self-pleasuring. In Asia they call this preserving one’s chi — one’s life force — and it’s all about cultivating energy. (You know, the type that allows the Kung Fu masters to break stacks of concrete blocks with a single hand chop.) In the Upper Amazon, Mother Ayahuasca is described as a jealous lover. Whatever you call it, leave it alone for a while. If you’re seeking a super-duper big-ass experience, try being abstinent for, like, six weeks or longer, if you can manage. (Now you see why not a lot of young people in South America are apprentice shamans…) Anyway, I practiced abstinence and had powerful visions my first time. I’ll never know what would have happened otherwise, but I imagine my experience could have been less.
3. Paying attention. I imagine one of the most neglected areas of preparation among people traveling from busy industrial society to ayahuasca retreat centres is the simple act of paying attention, by which I mean noticing (really noticing) your mood, what’s around you, nature, and so on. I don’t understand people who finish a work deadline, jump on a plane and drink ayahuasca the next day. I was fortunate because my trip with Pulse Tours gave me four days hanging out and trekking in the Amazon to really s-l-o-w d-o-w-n and absorb that unrushed living-with-nature vibe. I’d flown into Iquitos a day early, too, so I’d had more time to shift gears. But what I’m talking about is even more than that. I believe the moment you decide to participate in ayahuasca ceremony the medicine starts working on you. That may sound bat-shit crazy (hey, a lot of this stuff sounds bat-shit crazy) but the medicine takes you to meet universal consciousness and the funny thing about “U.C.” is she, um, knows everything. So (big surprise), when you make your decision, she starts communicating with you. It’s subtle, but if you watch for it, it’s there. You might even find yourself talking to plants.
4. Flower power. Okay, so the big day has arrived and you’re in some ayahuasca retreat having eaten super-healthy vegan food for weeks and weeks, avoided alcohol and had no sex for what seems like forever. Lucky you! Now what? This is when things start to become ritualistic. Remember, you’re not having a “drug experience” — this is a shamanic experience (something not emphasized enough in descriptions, I feel) and certain things are done that seem odd to a person raised in a non-shamanic culture. These are for your benefit and your protection. In the Amazon, this would be thought of in terms of guarding against evil spirits, dark energies, and so on. You don’t have to think of it in those terms, if you don’t care to. I quite like it, but then I like the Lord of the Rings movies, so finding out there really is a spirit world is quite cool in my books. Anyway, I was instructed to take a flower bath (or what I prefer to call a “flower shower” for the alliteration) before ceremony in which I sponged water over myself filled with flower petals. This is to make oneself more appealing to the plant energies. In any case, it’s nice. (Some practitioners simply spray some floral water on you that smells a bit like the stuff they use in old-fashioned men’s barber shops.)
5. Tobacco. I don’t smoke and personally hate the smell of cigarettes, but tobacco is a sacred plant in shamanic practice so you need to get used to it. But be reassured it’s not “your dad’s tobacco.” Instead, it’s mapacho tobacco that has a rich, sweet smell that’s quite unlike the chemically adulterated stuff in commercial cigarettes. Tobacco is used to “seal the container” — meaning it’s blown in places around the maloca (sacred meeting place) whether this is a purpose built round building or any kind of space adapted for the purpose. The smoke is also used on participants. This is sometimes done by the shaman lighting a cigarette made from hand-rolled mapacho tobacco and inhaling it and blowing it on you (e.g., on your head/crown chakra and chest/heart chakra). Sometimes I’ve seen the smoke delivered like a smudge, waved over a person with a large feather. In Peru, participants were allowed to smoke mapachos during ceremony, which on one level I didn’t mind except for the light in my eyes when they lit up, which was almost blinding (your eyes become highly light sensitive on the medicine) and some people seemed to light up out of a sense of boredom and restlessness, which annoyed me (since I was breathing their smoke). Of course this all became a moot point as people were overtaken with the medicine and fell into visions or writhed around their mattresses. But if you do smoke during ceremony, cover up the light as much as possible and smoke minimally.
6. Setting an intention. You’ll be encouraged to “set an intention” for your ceremony. This can be perplexing to newbies, who may be there for a wide variety of reasons, including healing, curiosity or even thrill-seeking. The fact is, the medicine meets you half way: You must make an effort to ask questions and interpret the lessons. This is work, and you’ll find out quickly why no one would ever drink ayahuasca as a recreational drug (one reason why it’s so ridiculous that it’s illegal in North America and many other places). As the shamans often say, if you bring no intention to the ceremony, you may see a pretty light show and colors and not much else. In truth, the first time I drank I felt it was worth the price of flying to Peru just for what I saw in the first 15 minutes. But I get far more out of the experience when I set an intention. Beginners are advised to keep their intention simple the first time. An example might be, “I want healing” or “I seek purification” or “I want guidance with the path forward in my life.” If you set your intention as something like, “I wish to clear up the relationship with my mother who makes me so angry sometimes because she keeps comparing me to my brother, and just because he excels academically I know he has a lot of issues she doesn’t know about…” or something like that, you just won’t be able to remember it when you’re in ayahuasca’s thrall. A good intention is kind of like a mantra that you can repeat and come back to if you start losing your way.
7. Your gear. At different ceremonies you may encounter people who surround themselves with stuff: crystals, little vials of different healing potions, favorite objects, shoe options, etc. I like to keep things simple. At a shamanic centre, a mattress will normally be provided and some pillows. Let’s assume here, though, that you have to bring your own stuff. I prefer an inflatable camping mattress to lie on. Note that this is not the thick kind you inflate with a bicycle pump, but rather the thin kind hikers use, that can be rolled up tight. Anything more than that and I’m rolling around too much; anything less and I become sore from the hard floor. I divide my time during ceremony either lying back propped up on pillows or sitting up fairly straight, in a meditation pose. (I rarely lie down flat except for stretching out my back — the visions just become to overwhelming.) As I can’t easily sit with my legs crossed for a long time, I find it very useful to bring along a yoga chair (there are versions used by hikers) that’s basically a legless item made from two pieces of nylon-encased foam, held together with straps. I bring a sleeping bag rather than blankets, and usually keep this unzipped like a duvet. I also bring a water bottle and a thermos bottle in that contains Amazon bark tea that I buy from panaceaperu.com. Note that I only sip the water as needed, and the tea is more for the latest part of the ceremony when the medicine is dissipating. I find it soothing at about 3:00 am to sip something warm. I also bring a small flashlight with a fresh battery the end of which I cover with transparent red tape (so I don’t blind my fellow seekers in the dark). If you can’t find the red tape, always turn your flashlight on under your shirt. You just need enough light to navigate your way to the bathroom or whatnot. Remember people’s eyes are sensitive. I also bring a hard case for my eyeglasses and I put this along with other sundry items like my cell phone (which is turned off completely) and keys in a cloth bag. Trust me, when you’re under the medicine it helps to not have to feel around in the dark for things. Most venues will supply a bucket and some tissues in case you throw up; if you have to bring your own, a large empty yoghurt container with lid is a great idea. (Note: Don’t place your bucket where people may accidentally kick it over in the night.)
8. Clothing. Of course what to wear for ceremony is a highly personal decision, and there are no hard rules. I’ve seen people wearing everything from full-on Shipibo costumes to jeans and Metallica T-shirts. Does it matter? Sort of yes and sort of no. I mean, when I think of the profundity of what I might experience, it seems like a copout to not “dress for occasion.” I wear white Shipibo clothing with beautiful embroidery because of the pleasure it gives me wearing it and for the statement it makes via which I honor the whole experience. At a minimum I’d lean toward wearing white, light, breathable loose cotton shirt and pants. There’s a school of thought that wearing white attracts light energy and bright spirits. By extension, it may be that dark clothes attract dark energies. I can’t prove it, but I noticed in my last ceremony that the people wearing white clothing had gentler, positive experiences, but who knows? I bring sandals or flip-flops because these tuck in nicely beside my mattress and are easy to put on or off in the dark. I bring an eye mask — the thin cloth kind people wear on planes. These allow me to sleep in the morning after the sun comes up. They’re also handy if my visions are interrupted by people lighting tobacco or candles, as may happen if the shamans need to work on someone.
9. The medicine. The ayahuasca experience itself varies from person to person and from day to day. Some folks are purists about what recipe they will or will not imbibe. Banisteriopsis Caapi, a jungle vine, is usually combined with other plants that supply the DMT, commonly Chacruna/Rainha (
10. Staying inside the circle (and a tip about other people). You may have attended yoga meetings or New Age gatherings of different types in which the leader talks about ‘holding the space” for another person or the group. I was always thought this was charming, but a little flaky sounding. However (trust me) you’re going to find out the meaning of really holding the space when you’re in the presence of a real shaman, under the influence of ayahuasca. The shaman uses ritual and the force of their own spirit to create a kind of “magic circle” in which you’re kept safe. Some people don’t take this seriously enough and go wandering out in the night. It’s okay to leave the space for a few minutes to use the bathroom or catch a breath of fresh air. You might want to look at the Milky Way for a few minutes. But don’t linger! Every minute you’re outside of the circle you’re subject to other forces. Remember you are openand the portal can let other energies in, and they’re not all benevolent. Pay only minimal attention to other people during ceremony. Your journey is your own and you need to focus on it. Don’t try to help the person beside you or interrupt what they’re going through, even it it’s tough. They need to face their demons and it’s not your place to interrupt what could be a life changing teaching moment for them. This is especially difficult if you’re a healer, who will want to share your positive energy. Leave it to the shamans and their assistants who are trained. You can make sounds or stand up and even dance if you like, but try not to distract people around you by being too loud or boisterous. Note that the icaros are an important part of the experience. You’ll notice everything subsides when they stop, then get going when they start again. Enjoy them and ride them, but don’t interrupt them for others.
Guy Crittenden is a writer who lives in Collingwood, Ontario, Canada. You can read more about his adventures on his blog at http://guycrittenden.