In recent years, ayahuasca retreats have transformed from an obscure cultural phenomenon into something of a trend, with the psychedelically curious traveling as far as Peru and Costa Rica to trip on this powerful brewed drink. But ingesting a substance that causes hallucinations and vomiting, among other effects, can be frightening even under the best of circumstances. Under less-than-ideal circumstances, it’s downright dangerous.
Having gone on 12 ayahuasca retreats in my lifetime, I’ve witnessed my fair share of ceremonies, from the spiritually-enriching to the shitshows. I’ve seen shamans take too much ayahuasca themselves and go on yelling tirades, and others rugby tackle people trying to run out of the ceremony space and into the woods.
In short, retreats can go very wrong if the right person isn’t guiding everyone as they spelunk into the dark caverns of their minds. But it’s not all on the leaders: you can also sabotage your own experience by neglecting to prepare for or be mindful about what’s taking place.
So, how can you avoid these situations and have a positive experience? Here is our definitive guide to going on an ayahuasca retreat.
What is ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a brownish-colored tea usually made from the leaves of one plant (Psychotria viridis) and the vines of another (Banisteriopsis caapi). The leaves contain the psychedelic drug DMT and the vines contain MAOIs (monoamine oxidase inhibitors). Our gut ordinarily deactivates DMT before it is absorbed into our bloodstream, but the MAOIs in the vine inhibit your gut from functioning normally and allow the psychedelics to be absorbed. The effects, which usually begin around 30 minutes after consumption, include profound insights and visual hallucinations, as well as nausea, vomiting, and the general feeling that your entire body is being purged. In the Quechua language, the word ayahuasca roughly translates to “vine of the soul”.
Ayahuasca has been consumed for thousands of years by indigenous groups from South America as part of their spiritual ceremonies. As it has spread to other parts of the world, people have adapted it to different formats incorporating those traditions to varying degrees. I’ve been to ceremonies in the Mexican jungle where the shaman sang icaros (old Amazonian songs), as well as one led by a spiritual life coach in the Netherlands who played us Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All.” In short, you don’t always need to go to South America to have a good experience.
What happens on an ayahuasca retreat?
Ayahuasca retreats typically include one or more ceremonies. During a ceremony – which usually lasts around five to six hours – people sit in a circle while a shaman or other leader passes around the tea. Some shamans also perform music or do energy work on participants (meaning that they come up to each participant and move or chant in order to aid the psychedelic experience). After the ceremonies, you typically have group discussions focused on helping people process their trips. So you’ll get to hear about how some guy saw his mother in the form of a moose, and will probably burst into tears in front of everyone at some point.
People usually come to ayahuasca retreats with goals, whether they are related to self-discovery or healing from past experiences. At a good retreat, there will be staff to guide participants toward these goals and work through any difficulties that arise. Retreats also sometimes include other activities, like nature excursions, yoga, and meditation. Or, if you’re me, pacing around the facility as you strive to cope with unscheduled blocks of time away from your phone.
How to pick the right retreat
There are people out there known as “SHAMans” – imposter shamans – who are not well-trained in leading ayahuasca ceremonies and/or are in it for the money. There have also been reports of sexual abuse by people serving ayahuasca. So, it is important to be selective when seeking out a retreat.
Danny Santos, an ayahuasca shaman in training through the Peruvian Shipibo lineage, suggested getting a referral from someone you know and trust. For the sake of safety and support, it may also be helpful to bring a friend who is committed to “establishing a foundation of mental, physical, and emotional health,” said Nan Hébert, a psychotherapist who helps people process psychedelic experiences. “Even better,” she continued, “is a friend who has already done this work and can be a mentor or guide in some way.”
That said, even your best friends can lead you into shitshow ceremonies, so you need to do your own research as well. Your early interactions with the center will tell you a lot: Do they ask you about your motivations, your mental health, and your medical history before allowing you to sign up? You can also ask them to put you in touch with past participants. A definite green flag to look out for is ceremonies led by indigenous people, said Jesus Dagua, president of the Sacha Wasi tribal community in Ecuador. “Find a person who is actually from a tribe where the plant is born,” he said.
How to set an intention
Many people believe in setting an intention prior to a psychedelic trip; something you’d like to learn or explore. Then, if you start to get lost, you can bring your mind back to your intention. A good intention is emotion-focused: You might ask the ayahuasca, for instance, “Teach me about love and how to experience more love in my life,” said psychotherapist and ayahuasca guide Jenna Fletcher. My own intentions have included developing a healthier relationship with anger, and overcoming fears around money.
What to eat beforehand
Before participating in a ceremony, some like to follow an “ayahuasca diet,” which involves avoiding foods such as pork and dairy, as well as alcohol and drugs. In indigenous cultures, this is done to “connect with Grandmother Ayahuasca,” which is the spirit of the ayahuasca plant, said Dagua.
Some parts of this diet are an absolute must. James Giordano, professor of neurology and biochemistry at Georgetown University Medical Center, explained that it’s dangerous to take SSRI or MAOI antidepressants, or recreational drugs like cocaine, MDMA, or opiates, soon before ingesting ayahuasca. It’s also wise to avoid foods high in the amino acid tyramine, such as cured meats and aged cheeses. Your average ham and cheese sandwich may seem innocuous, but tyramine combined with ayahuasca can really raise your blood pressure. Other restrictions will vary based on the center you’re going to; good and competent organizers should be able to tell you what’s okay and what isn’t.
How to deal with the inevitable fear
Before my first retreat, I became fixated on the possibility that there would be snakes in the jungle. Looking back, I was probably projecting my general anxieties about the retreat onto the first thing I could justify being afraid of. I didn’t encounter any snakes, but I was plagued by visions of them while I was tripping, which led me into an exploration of why I’d been afraid of snakes since childhood.
The truth is: whatever you’re afraid of will probably come up in the ceremony. If you’re scared of reliving a traumatic event or confronting something in your life that’s not working, then the chances are you will have to deal with that. If there’s something you’re particularly worried about, then talk to a facilitator in advance. They can help you figure out if you’re actually in danger (for example: if you have a preexisting physical or mental health condition) or if the fear you’re experiencing is something for you to explore and learn about on the retreat.
How long does ayahuasca last – and what does it feel like?
The effects are said to last about four hours, though it can be longer; I’ve been in ceremonies that lasted five or six hours.
Possible effects of ayahuasca include euphoria, profound insights, visions or other hallucinations, nausea and vomiting, and emotional release. Under the influence of ayahuasca, I have personally gotten inspiration for new creative projects, ideas about how to take better care of myself, and realizations regarding how to be a better person.
How to make the most of your experience
Journaling on your retreat is a great way to clarify intentions and dispel nerves before a ceremony, as well as to remember what you learn on the ayahuasca. Dagua also recommended spending time in nature before and during an ayahuasca retreat. “You need to have your mind clear,” he said. “Connect with plants, rivers, waterfalls, or animals. You need to be very relaxed.” Most importantly, he added: “Trust yourself… Trust that the medicine will carry you wherever you need to go.”
How to take what you learned back into your normal life
The journey doesn’t stop when you get back home. Instead, it’s important to remember the lessons the ayahuasca taught you and apply them to your life. The process of bringing the insights you gained through a psychedelic experience back into your daily existence is known as ‘integration’. Integration can include speaking to a therapist about the trip, journaling, and taking time alone to reflect. It often helps me to listen back to the music that was played during the ceremony, if you can get your hands on it.
Lastly, ayahuasca can help people feel a sense of love and connection to others, and it’s crucial not to lose this feeling just because you’ve plunged back into the hustle and bustle of everyday routine. “When you get home, you have to have your heart open,” said Dagua. “One of the things you can do to maintain and make the best of your session is to help people.”