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What Is Ayahuasca? Explanation, Experiences, Retreats

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What is Ayahuasca? 

Ayahuasca is a powerful psychoactive brew that has been used for centuries by indigenous cultures in the Amazon rainforest for spiritual and healing purposes. It is typically prepared by combining the leaves of the chacruna plant ( Psychotria Virid) which contains the psychoactive compound dimethyltryptamine (DMT), with the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi / b caapi) containing monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) to prevent the breakdown of DMT in the stomach. Ayahuasca ceremonies often involve drinking the brew under the guidance of experienced Shamans, leading to profound altered states of consciousness and transformative experiences. The effects of Ayahuasca can last for several hours, with an onset typically within 30-60 minutes, and often include intense visions, emotional release, and purging.

Ayahuasca, meaning the “vine of the soul” in the Quechua languages, forms an important part of many Indigenous cultures in South America. These peoples, such as the Shipibo of Peru and the Shuar of Ecuador as well as many others, use this vine to make the psychedelic ayahuasca tea, which is used in shamanic rituals.

Ayahuasca holds deep cultural and spiritual significance in these cultures, where it is considered a sacred plant medicine and is revered as a teacher and healer. In the animistic worldviews that are common in these native cultures, worldviews in which nature is seen to be full of spirits, ayahuasca is seen as a way of connecting with this spirit world.  The brew is used in ceremonial settings to gain insights, and to address physical, mental, and emotional ailments. 

What is DMT?

The psychedelic effects of ayahuasca are produced by the compound nn-dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is found in the leaves of the chacruna plant, and these leaves are cooked with the ayahuasca vine to produce the brew itself. This compound, also known as “The Spirit Molecule”, possesses a similar molecular structure to serotonin, a neurotransmitter that plays a crucial role in various physiological functions, including the regulation of mood and wellbeing [1].

DMT occurs naturally in a variety of sources, including certain plants, animals, and even the human body and brain. Researchers have speculated that the DMT produced by the brain is responsible for near death experiences [2], with research finding that DMT does in fact increase at the moment of death [3].  As DMT is produced by the brain itself, we can think of DMT as the prototypical psychedelic drug, with all other psychedelic experiences being an approximation of different aspects of the DMT experience.  Some have connected the psychedelic effects of DMT with similar experiences produced by breathwork, with figures such as Wim Hoff and Dr. Joe Dispenza suggesting that the DMT produced by the brain may be the common factor that connects these experiences [4]. Scientific research on DMT continues to grow and will undoubtedly shed light on these potential connections in years to come.

What else is in ayahuasca?

In addition to DMT, the ayahuasca brew contains many other chemical compounds. The ayahuasca vine itself does not contain DMT but does contain beta-Carboline compounds such as harmine, harmaline, and other harmala alkaloids [5].  These organic chemicals inhibit the activity of an enzyme called monoamine oxidase (MAO) that otherwise destroys DMT in the gut, preventing it from reaching the brain [6]. These MAO inhibitors prolong the duration and enhance the potency of DMT, leading to an immersive journey that lasts several hours. Due to it being brewed from natural plant substances, ayahuasca contains many more chemical compounds than synthetic psychedelic substances produced in a lab, which typically only contain a single substance [5].

The effects of ayahuasca on the brain

Both DMT and the MAO inhibitors found in the ayahuasca vine have been found to promote neurogenesis, the process of new brain cell creation [7, 8].  DMT has been found to put the brain into a state that is similar to dreaming, where neural theta oscillations dominate [9].  This may go some way to explaining the unique character of the ayahuasca experience, which often takes on a narrative structure, as occurs with dreaming.  DMT activates serotonin 2A receptors, a specific subset of serotonin receptors that mediates the hallucinatory effects of all classical psychedelics, from LSD to psilocybin [10]. This receptor activation has been shown to increase neuroplasticity, the ability of the brain to learn and change itself [11]. 

Clinical research has shown promising results regarding the therapeutic potential of ayahuasca in treating various mental health conditions. Research using ayahuasca has demonstrated positive outcomes for conditions such as depression, anxiety, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) [12]. These findings highlight the potential of ayahuasca as a complementary treatment alongside psychotherapy for these clinical issues.

The ayahuasca experience

Ayahuasca is not just beneficial for those struggling with a clinical diagnosis, it is widely used for self-exploration and personal growth more broadly.  In order to understand the effectiveness of an ayahuasca retreat in producing significant transformation in the individuals that consume the brew, it is necessary to explore its effects on the mind and body.

Drinking ayahuasca can produce a profoundly altered state of consciousness, in which one feels one is seeing other realms or dimensions that possess an atmosphere of sacredness [13].  Some aspects of the experience can be very personal, with long-forgotten memories being recalled and past traumas being released and healed.  On a physical level, ayahuasca can induce purging or vomiting, which can supercharge the process of psychological release through a corresponding process of embodied physical release [14].  Other aspects can feel deeply spiritual, with individuals coming to insights that transcend their personal concerns.

Entities and Mother Ayahuasca 

Reports from diverse cultural backgrounds reveal common aspects of the ayahuasca experience [13]. Visual experiences typically include vivid colors and geometric patterns, as well as nature scenes, with animals like snakes and jaguars being particularly common.  People often feel as if they encounter and interact with seemingly-autonomous benevolent entities when under the influence of ayahuasca [15]. 

One experience that is very common is of meeting “Mother Ayahuasca”, a feminine presence who embodies the entire ayahuasca experience for many [16]. Mother Ayahuasca is often described as a loving, benevolent teacher who can bring about profound transformation. She typically combines a mix of strictness and gentleness, firmly guiding the ayahuasca drinker to whatever they need to see in order grow.  Some believe this figure is a maternal archetype generated by the brain, with the expectation of meeting her making it more likely that the tripping brain will construct this particular experience.  Others believe she is a real spiritual entity who devotes herself to helping those who drink ayahuasca.  Either way, the experience of meeting Mother Ayahuasca is often profound and transformative. 

Spiritual and transpersonal Insights

This seeming encounter with otherworldly realms and entities can produce a state of “ontological shock” in those who drink ayahuasca [17].  This is a state of profound surprise that the nature of reality may not have been what one had previously assumed, and can lead people to a belief in the spirit world.  Ayahuasca is also known to produce “nondual” insights in some, a deep realization of the unity and interdependence of existence, although this does not occur for everyone [18].  The power of love as a guiding force for one’s life is another common theme of the ayahuasca experience [19]. 

The nature of ayahuasca ceremonies

The impact and effectiveness of these ceremonies extends beyond the mere consumption of the brew. It is important to make sure that one is mentally and spiritually in the right place to undertake deep inner exploration.  The setting in which the ritual takes place also plays a crucial role in shaping the overall experience and facilitating profound transformations [20]. 

Ayahuasca retreats (ceremonies) typically occur in carefully selected and prepared spaces, often within the context of indigenous traditions or established retreat centers [21]. These settings are designed to create an environment that is conducive to the Ayahuasca experience, promoting safety, comfort, and spiritual connection.  These spaces are sometimes cleansed and adorned with natural elements, creating an atmosphere conducive to spiritual exploration. Rituals such as the creation of an altar, the burning of sacred herbs, and the sharing of intentions help establish a focused and intentional container for the ceremony. 

The shaman, or ayahuasquera/ayahuasquero, plays a central role in guiding and holding the space during an ayahuasca ceremony. With deep ancestral knowledge and expertise, the shaman helps to contain and guide the experience of the participants. They lead the ceremonial proceedings, facilitate the intake of ayahuasca, and provide individual support when needed. Participants are encouraged to approach the ceremony with openness, respect, and a willingness to surrender to the transformative process.  Traditional practices that are included in the ceremony vary among different indigenous cultures, but common elements include chanting icaros (sacred songs) and the use of medicinal herbs and other plants alongside ayahuasca. 

Preparation & safety 

Participating in an ayahuasca ceremony requires careful preparation. These preparations often involve dietary restrictions, such as abstaining from certain foods and substances, in order to purify the body and enhance the effects of the medicine [22]. It is essential to approach the ceremony with a clear intention, as this sets the stage for personal exploration and growth. Open communication with the shaman and a willingness to trust the process are vital during the ceremony. Integration practices after the ceremony, such as journaling, meditation, and engaging with supportive communities, aid in assimilating the insights gained from the experience into everyday life. 

Ayahuasca is a powerful substance and it is essential that it is experienced in a safe setting with experienced facilitators.  Ensure that you choose a professional and reputable retreat center for your experience.  It is also important to be aware of any interactions with medications that you may be taking.  Ayahuasca should not be taken in combination with most antidepressants, due to them both acting on the serotonin system [23].  By undertaking your ayahuasca experience with a provider that can provide top-level support throughout the experience, from preparation through to integration, you can set the stage for a potentially life-changing transformative journey. 


Ayahuasca is a profoundly powerful plant medicine that holds deep cultural and spiritual significance in Indigenous traditions of the Amazon. Ceremonies are conducted in carefully prepared settings, guided by experienced shamans, and require proper preparation and integration practices to ensure the best experience possible. The DMT-containing brew produces profound psychedelic effects, such as experiences of encountering benevolent entities, including the commonly reported Mother Ayahuasca. These experiences often lead to spiritual insights such as a recognition of the interconnectedness of all of existence. In addition to the spiritual effects, ayahuasca also produces deeply grounded experiences that relate to one’s personal life, leading to the embodied release of past traumas and emotional challenges.  By approaching ayahuasca with respect and openness, individuals can embark on a potentially life-changing journey of self-exploration and personal transformation. 



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