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What is a shaman?  How does a shamanic practitioner differ from other types of plant medicine facilitators, and which one is best for you?

The first time I head the word "Ayahuasca" was in 2001 when a good friend of mine just returned from a retreat in Costa Rica where she had gone seeking relief from her anxiety and depression.

It was like trying to describe color to the blind as she searched for the words to convey her experience to me, the profound spiritual healing, and the change that had taken place within her.

The words never did come, but I could feel it. She was different now.

Different, and yet somehow more like her. It was like finally meeting someone in-person that you've only ever known from the other side of a frosted glass. Brighter, clearer, my new / old friend, eyes beaming at me in hi-fidelity.

I wanted some. I was 20 something at the time, living in NYC and chasing the dream (still not sure who's). I was emotionally/spiritually bankrupt, and seeing her in this way awakened a seeking light in me that is probably not unlike the one that brought you here today.

I began an earnest search that took me to the far reaches of every imaginable rabbit hole. I researched retreat centers and facilitators, reading forums, threads, talking to veterans of the medicine, and in my research I came across one piece of advice more than any other:

"If you drink Ayahuasca, make sure you do it with a real shaman."    

A piece of advice that is as foreboding as it is ambiguous.  A real shaman? I knew, sort of, what a shaman was, but how would I validate if one was "real"?  

Do shamans have resumes?  

Are shamans given a certificate of authenticity?  

What will happen to me if I DON'T drink Ayahuasca with a shaman?

Further into these inquiries, I quickly began to notice that all the opportunities I was coming across to attend Ayahuasca ceremonies were with people who were not from an indigenous culture. In fact, most, if not all, were of European descent.  

Ultimately, the person I first drank Ayahuasca with was a Jewish guy from New Jersey.

This was a man who had been serving Ayahuasca for many years in Costa Rica, who went out of his way to tell me he was NOT a shaman, and truthfully, did very little during our ceremony other than tend a fire and create an impenetrable sense of safety which allowed me to fully surrender into an experience which changed my life forever.

In the morning, I understood: The energy that heals originates from the motherland of nowhere in particular.   It takes no preference for training, lineage, or popularity. Healing is the restoration of our original nature. It is activated from within, not something that is bestowed upon us.  To understand distinction this is the difference between knowing your power, and giving it away.

That's not to say you should drink Ayahuasca alone just because you can order the ingredients online.  If you continue down this path and want to do it right, you will need to choose a guide, and the person you choose as your facilitator can make the difference between profound spiritual healing, or more trauma than you came in with.

This blog is written with the intention of helping you make a conscious and well-informed decision.  We will explore:

  • The different types of facilitators and how they generally work.
  • The advantages and disadvantages of the difference facilitation styles
  • How to choose the best facilitator for you, and where to find them.

Looking for qualified healers for transformative retreats with Ayahuasca, Psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT?


What are the different types of plant medicine facilitators?

1. The Shaman

A Shipibo Curandera preparing medicine. "Curandera/o" is the title for one who heals with plants.

There's an inherent misnomer in the word shaman.   Somewhere between here and ancient Siberia (where the word actually originates), "shaman" became a pet-word of the New Age movement, snuggled in between our natural human thirst for earthly wisdom, and native american / oriental fetishism. There are many talented and religious practitioners who describe themselves as a "shaman" but it's important to understand that it is somewhat culturally inacruate.

Semantics aside, a shaman, in the context of this blog, is understood to be someone with a high level of actual extra-sensory and spiritual talent and works with trance, ritual, and divination.  A shaman works as an intermediary between the human and spirit world.  Under the care of a shaman, ancient songs, incantations, offerings, and prayers are made to spirit guides in exchange for support in your healing.

Getting down to its absolute essence, a shaman is basically a priest without the safe-haven of a organized religion.

A shaman will typically serve medicine that is indigenous to the same land as they are, and are intimately involved with the medicine's preparation.  These would be people like the Huni Kuin, the Shipibo, the Matses, the Katukina, and many others.  From tribe to tribe, the shamanic method and spiritual practice can vary greatly, as well as traditions for preparation, interpretations of visions, whether they work in a trance state, and whether the ceremony happens in the day, or the dead of night.

Advantages of working with a Shaman:


Receiving medicine from someone who comes from a ancient tradition of indigenous healers is a life-changing experience. There is so much wisdom carried in these traditions, wisdom that the world desprately needs, and sadly, many of these traditions are struggling to survive. Deforestation, policical corruption, and genocide are pushing tribal peoples (and the widsom they hold) to the brink of extinction, so any supporting indigenous healers in their medicine work is a great way to make a positive contribuition.

Psychic Skills.

Someone who is legitimately on the shamanic path can work on you in ways that can only be described as miraculous. They can detect and remove dark or stagnant energies.  Depending on their shamanic tradition, they might perform a soul retrieval, deliver messages from your ancestors or spiritual guides, perform shamanic extractions of parasitic entities or an or evil spirit - which all sounds unbelievable until you experience it.

Disadvantags of working with a Shaman:  

Cultural Context & Language Barrier.  

We westerners are a unique breed.  So many people who seek medicine are suffering from illnesses of culture (anxiety, addictions, depression, PTSD) so facilitators coming from indigenous traditions, while still very talented, may not have the cultural context to really know where you're coming from.  Not speaking the language can create challenges if you need some focused attention.  

Group size.  

Oftentimes legitimize indigenous healers, once most of us have heard the name in the West, already have a strong reputation, which often means large ceremonies and a lack of individualized attention. There are many websites purporting the "right" way to do an ayahuasca ceremony is in a group ceremony of 15-50 people, as the indigenous people have done for generations.  What this overlooks is that westerners are often coming down with generations of trauma from colonialism, war, and urbanization.  It's one thing for a tribe to come together in community to clear the year's disagreements.  It's another thing for a room full of westerners go into a full blown shamanic journey for the first time. ENTIRELY another. Another problem with larger group size is that there's a much greater chance that someone else's difficult experience will become distracting to your process.  

Looking for Ayahuasca ceremonies for under 10 people or even 1 to 1?


2. The Healer

In this blog, "healers" are skilled practitioners who are not descendants of a particular lineage or tradition, but still may do great work in facilitating plant medicine ceremonies.   The quality of non-indigenous healers varies greatly, but is not considered more or less effective than the work of a shamanic practitioner or clinical therapist.  It's just a different lens.

For those serving Ayahuasca and other shamanic medicines, a non-indigenous healer may have undergone a period of study with a tribal elder and are serving medicine either by formal initiation or self-appointment.  They may be totally self-taught, intuitive prodigies.  They may incorporate different belief systems or healing modalities into a session, like crystal work, reiki, breathwork, meditation, art therapy or even working with different medicines together.

Advantages of Non-Indigenous Healers:

Potential for Deeper relationship.

Westernized Healers tend to build a longer-term relationship with the clientele vs what I've seen with Shamans which is more ceremony/retreat-centric.  

No Culture Gap.  

Sharing a common language is a big trust factor for someone you'll likely need to be pretty vulnerable with.  Surrender is a huge part of this work.  A shared cultural background will help your healer to be totally understanding of what your needs are.  They may be able to anticipate your concerns and help answer any questions you have leading up to the ceremony.  

Disadvantages of Non-Indigenous Healers:


Non-indigenous healers tend to charge a lot more for a ticket to the spiritual world.  Sometimes the price you pay is matched 100% to the quality of the experience, and sometimes not so much.


There's probably someone in your neighborhood who will serve you Ayahuasca tonight if you look hard enough.  More and more, people are popping up claiming to have the competence to guide you through a shamanic healing. Maybe they've undergone years of shamanic studies under a master healer. Maybe they just took an online course in shamanism.

WIthout direct experience, and with no system of accountability in place, it can be very difficult to spot fake gurus, narcissists, and people who have no business serving medicine.  If they are making fantastical claims about their supernatural powers or shamanic ability, or they ask very few questions about you, its probably better to keep searching.

Looking for qualified healers for transformative retreats with Ayahuasca, Psilocybin, and 5-MeO-DMT? Check out our upcoming retreats in Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Thailand.


3. The Therapist

As legislation begins to move in favor of psychedelic decriminalization, people who want to try psychedelics with the security and accountability of conventional medicine now have an option. Therapists, in particular those practicing Psychedelic Assisted Therapy, typically use plant medicines as a means to facilitate therapy, not the other way around.  

In 2015, the California Institute of Integral Studies (CIIS) started a formal training program called the Certificate in Psychedelic-assisted Therapies and Research. The hybrid residential, in-person and online curriculum is a roughly 9-month course with rotating guest lecturers and a weeklong retreat, It covers classic psychedelic medicines (e.g., psilocybin, ayahuasca, peyote, LSD) as well as the newer medicines (sometimes labeled empathogens or entactogens) like MDMA and ketamine.

MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, is releasing a similar program in anticipation for of FDA approvel MDMA for PTSD treatment by 2023, which should open the way for medicines like Ayahuasca, psilocybin, and San Pedro.

Advantages of a Therapist:


Psychedelic Assisted Therapy tends to be extremely safe, consistent, and you can be sure your facilitator has been properly trained in safe administration of the medicine.    


The skills of a well trained therapist can be life-changing on their own merit, so when you combine the heart opening, default-mode-deactivating power of psychedelics, the results can be very very profound.

Disadvantages of a Therapist:

Limited Access - At this point in the game, access to affordable and legal psychedelic care is pretty hard to come by, unless you live in Oregon or Colorado, where the laws are especially favorable.  

Lack of knowledge / capabilities in the energetic/spirit realm. - It seems like science and spirit are finally starting to sit at some of the same tables, but still, we've probably got a little ways to go before clinical therapists fully embrace the spirit world, which many see is a fundamental, almost oxymoronic flaw in clinical work with psychedelics.

How to Choose the best Facilitator for You?

This may be one of the most important decisions of your life, one that should be made with patience, care, and honest self-evaluation.  And as you've probably gathered, there are lots of options.

Those seeking a healing ceremony with plant medicines like Ayahuasca should have no problem finding places to explore, and there are indeed a few reputable places in the USA working under religious exemption (Ayahuasca is still illegal in most countries).  

Other practitioners run retreats in nearby countries like Costa Rica, Mexico, the Netherlands, Portugal, and of course, South American countries like Peru, Brazil, & Ecuador. The first question to ask yourself is, "What style of facilitation do I resonate with the most?"  Remembering, of course, that what you think you need might be very different from what you actually need.  

Are you a pragmatic, science driven atheist?  If so, you might gravitate more towards a clinical practitioner when, maybe, what you really need is a week in the jungle with someone shaking a rattle over your head.  Growth should always be a little bit uncomfortable.  

Need some help deciding? We're here to guide you towards the right experience for you.


Regardless of the type of practitioner one chooses to work with, make sure that multiple people are present to ensure safety and security, and make sure someone asks you about your medical history to clear you of any contraindications.

This is a good time to get in touch with your intuition.  Reach out and talk to people, ask questions, and notice what you feel in your body when you talk to this person.  Do they make you feel calm?  Curious?  Anxious?  Excited?  Sacred?  Listen to your body. The journey of facilitator selection is an opportunity to get to know yourself as much as it is someone else.

At Behold Retreats, one of the things we pride ourselves on is making time to speak 1 on 1 with everyone who reaches out to us.  We know what an important decision choosing a psychedelic facilitator is, and we're here to help guide you towards the right path, whether or not it's a path we walk together.

In good health and gratitude,


Check out our upcoming retreats in Costa Rica, Mexico, Portugal, the Netherlands, and Thailand.


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