With ayahuasca being cast into the spotlight, curious minds from all over the world are heading to Central and South America to experience it for themselves.
And while tales of profound healing are common, there exists a shadowy underbelly within the realm of such experiences — from the onset of psychotic episodes to acts of sexual exploitation.
So it begs the question: is ayahuasca the real deal? Can it profoundly change your life as the evangelists say, or is it just another fad that will fade if psychedelics fall out of the Western spotlight?
Over the last several years, my interest in exploring shamanic traditions led me to work closely with ayahuasca in Peru, Mexico, and Ecuador. I’ve sat in 20 ceremonies, and during a six-month period at a shamanic retreat center, I supported hundreds of individuals through their processes, witnessing various kinds of transformations.
Our left brain driven approach to understanding this medicine tends to fall short, as research and studies struggle to capture the subtleties and complexities of this undoubtedly strange but powerful teacher plant. Rather, we turn to tradition, ceremony, and wisdom passed down over countless generations to explore the consciousness-expanding properties of this plant medicine.
While ayahuasca shows promise in many cases, I want to emphasize that it’s not a miracle cure for anything. Not everyone benefits from it, and there are many instances where people are harmed by it. As with any psychedelic substance, many factors, most notably an individual’s physiology, intentions, circumstances, and location, influence the result.
So before we dive into some of the ways ayahuasca can change individuals, it’s important to preface: though I’ve witnessed and experienced positive change from ayahuasca, I’ve encountered individuals who suffered after consuming it.
For example, one woman reported frequent panic attacks following a ceremony. In another instance, I met a man struggling with bipolar disorder, who developed psychosis and required constant support post-experience. Unfortunately, it’s not uncommon to hear stories of sexual exploitation by shady shamans and cases of retraumatization.
Fortunately, I’ve mostly witnessed the positive side of this medicine, observing deeply transformational experiences that individuals have had on all levels of well-being.
Drawing from collective experiences and those of many people I worked with, here are some of the ways in which ayahuasca may bring about positive changes in individuals’ lives.
How Ayahuasca Affects the Physical Body
Ayahuasca has profound effects on consciousness, but it may also serve as a potent remedy for physical health. Whether it’s cleansing the body or restoring the brain to optimal function, there are many lesser-known physical health benefits this medicine carries.
Look at it this way: the body is a vessel, and the spirit prefers to live in a beautiful temple rather than a dilapidated mansion. This medicine cleanses this vessel to create space for the full expression of your soul.
Potential for Physical Cleansing
Ayahuasca is believed to remove impurities from the body, such as harmful toxins ingested from particular substances and products. While clinical research that validates this idea is lacking, some people have reported that ayahuasca detoxed their bodies from harmful medications and substances. The cleansing process involves purging, which can include vomiting, crying, sweating, and spontaneous rushes to the bathroom.
One man, who had previously worked with harmful chemicals, believed that ayahuasca flushed them out. Having suffered the long-standing consequences of radiation poisoning, he reported smelling those chemicals in his bucket after purging.
Purging serves as cleansing on a physical level, and it doubles up as an energetic release. After purging, many people report feeling much lighter on both a physical and emotional level.
Potential for Resetting Brain Chemistry
According to some individuals I worked with, ayahuasca helped restore their brain function to a more neutral state. This phenomenon was particularly evident in people with a history of substance abuse, where frequent use of specific substances resulted in physical and psychological imbalances.
These imbalances could manifest as hyperactivity, a lack of focus, mood swings, and depression. Some individuals displaying such behaviors reported feeling healthier following a ceremony, discovering a newfound sense of calmness and composure.
In the Be Conscious Podcast: Drug Addiction and the Power of Ayahuasca, Curandero Michael Thornhill, trained in the Noya Rao lineage, suggests that addiction often stems from deep-rooted trauma. Ayahuasca can aid in healing this trauma, eliminating the urge to escape reality via substance abuse. By considering substance abuse as a coping mechanism, ayahuasca has the potential to help individuals address the root cause, rendering the coping mechanism obsolete. However, an individual I encountered relapsed in the months following an ayahuasca retreat. This illuminates the necessity of ongoing support post-ceremony to solidify new habits and prevent reverting to old ones.
While ayahuasca holds promise, it’s a powerful medicine that can impact individuals differently, yielding unexpected results. Responsible exploration and informed decision-making are crucial when considering its use for addiction recovery, with a strong support network following the experience being necessary.
Potential for Clearing Bodily Dysfunctions
Ayahuasca’s physical effects may go beyond potentially cleansing the body; it may assist individuals dealing with persistent bodily dysfunctions. These issues can span the digestive system, sexual organs, respiratory system, and even nervous system dysregulation.
Several women I spoke to reported experiencing regulation of their menstrual cycle following a ceremony. This suggests that ayahuasca may contribute to restoring our bodies to a more optimal function.
It’s noteworthy that many individuals who believed these dysfunctions to be lifelong conditions have experienced a contrary outcome with ayahuasca. While an ayahuasca ceremony isn’t a substitute for seeking medical advice or treatment, I have witnessed instances where ayahuasca has contributed to the healing of stubborn dysfunctions that individuals have accepted as a part of themselves.
How Ayahuasca Affects the Mental Body
The mental body encompasses the realm of the mind, a powerful tool for organizing your reality. However, the mind is susceptible to wear and tear.
Thoughts, mentalities, and beliefs about the world and oneself originate from the mind. Limiting belief systems can hinder reaching your full potential, as the quality of your thoughts lays the foundation for your life experience.
Needless to say, the mind has a huge influence on well-being. When it’s not functioning optimally, it can contaminate your reality. Ayahuasca, in this context, accesses the roots of perception, resulting in a healthier outlook on life.
Deconstructing Outdated Programming
A potential benefit of ayahuasca lies in its potential to deprogram harmful beliefs and perceptions. During youth, we often absorb information without discernment, forming the foundations of our reality. This can result in a warped or disadvantageous perception of reality, and of ourselves.
For instance, an individual might have developed an aversion to strangers due to parental advice. They may have formed the belief that money is a scarce resource or that humanity is a lost cause, ultimately leading to a reduced quality of life. While these beliefs may have served a purpose at some point, they often become burdensome if not discarded.
Ayahuasca has the potential to bring awareness to our deeply held beliefs, providing an opportunity to replace them with healthier perspectives that enhance one’s life. This may include embracing the belief that change is exciting or recognizing everyone’s potential to experience abundance regardless of their circumstances.
Following a transformative ceremony, an individual chose to reconnect with his estranged father after a decade of avoiding contact. He revealed that during the ceremony, he gained a fresh perspective on the situation, leading to the dissolution of long-standing resentment.
Illuminating Limiting Belief Systems
One’s belief systems play a crucial role in navigating life experiences. Those with spiritual beliefs will likely have a different perspective than those who identify as atheists. These differing belief systems contribute to distinct understandings of mortality, morality, and principles for leading a happy life.
Some people who experienced ayahuasca reported a shift in specific belief systems, most notably the fear of change. They expressed being more at peace with life changes and that they no longer felt the associated anxiety.
Additionally, a common experience reported among individuals was a deepening of curiosity about life after death. Many described significant realizations and insights into their personal lives. It became evident to me through hearing these stories, that ayahuasca can help many individuals connect the dots and perceive certain events in their lives from a different perspective.
Changes to Your Self-Perception
During challenging times, it’s common to criticize oneself. Small mistakes can be magnified into perceived failures, leading to a diminished sense of self worth. This negative self-view can set life on a downward spiral, as our life experiences often mirror our internal landscape.
Feelings of self-worthlessness were common issues faced by individuals I supported during ceremonies. Many of them reported that ayahuasca illuminated the origins of this distorted self-perception. This awareness allowed them to begin empowering themselves and working on their self image.
The Emotional Body
Emotions serve as a powerful medium through which we experience life. The ups and downs, joy and despair, love and heartache are essential to prevent life from becoming mundane. However, life can also be brutal.
The emotional body represents your connection with feelings. A healthy emotional body means being in touch with feelings, allowing you to be in harmony with your emotions and experience the world in its full colors.
Many people have turned to ayahuasca when grappling with emotional issues like repressed anger and resentment. In many of these cases, ayahuasca illuminates healthier ways for people to experience and express their emotions.
Some individuals may realize the repercussions of bottling up their anger, prompting them to seek healthier outlets for expression. Others might correlate their lack of assertion with childhood experiences of walking on eggshells, leading to an understanding of the importance of speaking up and asserting oneself.
Ayahuasca, as a sacred medicine, is renowned for healing the emotional body, enabling individuals to feel the amazing spectrum of life. With that said, here are a few ways ayahuasca works on the emotional body.
Removing Emotional Baggage
In my experience, a common reason why people seek out ayahuasca is to release painful emotions linked to past experiences. I’ve seen individuals struggle to move on from past circumstances, then continue to suffer as a result.
Significant unaddressed past trauma can potentially lead to adverse physical and emotional effects. If the trauma remains unhealed, its manifestations often accumulate as emotional baggage, described by many as a weight or burden.
As highlighted in a HealthCentral article by Lisa M. Basile and Jessica Rodriguez, trauma can have lasting effects on both physical and mental health, leading to conditions like chronic autoimmune illness, heart disease, diabetes, and even cancer.
Within conventional medicine, symptoms are often addressed, but the root cause is not, prompting individuals to seek out traditional alternatives for a holistic approach to healing. Ayahuasca is renowned for helping people identify the root cause of their issues rather than alleviating symptoms, which can lead to genuine healing and growth.
Notably, I’ve worked with individuals who harbored long-standing resentment from childhood abuse, shame from childhood abandonment, and grief from past relationships. Some expressed feeling lighter after addressing the root cause of their pain during ayahuasca journeys, such as the fear of being alone. I witnessed significant transformations in individuals who claimed to have let go of the past by addressing the trauma associated with specific memories.
Clearing Deep-Rooted Trauma
The notion that one sitting with ayahuasca is equivalent to years of therapy attracts many seeking healing from trauma. In my time working with ayahuasca, I supported people who endured extremely traumatic events such as rape, physical abuse, and the loss of children. Some also grappled with war-related PTSD. Despite years of therapy and medication, many became disillusioned by these approaches, prompting them to explore every healing modality under the sun. For some, ayahuasca became a last resort.
Several individuals who suffered severe trauma reported turning a new leaf in their lives after engaging with the medicine. While ayahuasca cannot rid the pain associated with losing a loved one, those experiencing grief expressed feeling more at peace following a ceremony. A few even believed they had connected with their loved ones in spirit, providing closure.
If ayahuasca has a reputation for anything, it’s helping find light amid life’s tragedies. Needless to say, this isn’t always the case, and a single session may not be enough to facilitate deep healing on this scale. I have also witnessed cases where people became more disillusioned after taking ayahuasca, underscoring the importance of integration and support.
Removing Emotional Blockages
Many issues we face are manifestations of emotional blockages, which come in various forms and result in different emotional challenges. Essentially, a blockage prevents you from fully experiencing life.
Common blockages include struggles with love arising from issues with the heart, avoidance of intimacy and sexual expression due to sexual blockages, challenges in holding authority, and difficulties with self-expression, often leading to an inability to open up.
Past experiences can cause people to build an “emotional dam” as a protective mechanism. For instance, if you had an abusive partner, you might lose the spark for romance. If your parents scolded you for expressing certain needs or desires, you might find it challenging to express yourself later on in life.
In this sense, ayahuasca can act like a drain cleaner, restoring the flow. During ceremonies, individuals often experience the opening up of different parts of themselves and the resurrection of specific feelings that were long buried.
The Spiritual Body
Reality is like an onion, where what we perceive is but a tiny figment of an incomprehensibly grand system. Energetically, we’re always tethered to other dimensions of experience, and our consciousness is thoroughly rooted in them.
Like a tree growing from its roots, your life experience manifests from your soul nature. This is what your spiritual body signifies — your consciousness in its entirety. Your entire reality is a manifestation of your consciousness.
Ayahuasca affects the deepest layers of who you are because, in shamanic traditions, it’s not a drug, it’s not even a psychedelic. “Mother ayahuasca” is a spirit — a conscious, highly intelligent entity that exists within these higher dimensions.
With that said, we’re going to look into the spiritual component of ayahuasca and explore how this medicine can help people tap into their core nature to recreate their reality.
Seeding New Philosophies and Ways of Being
Ayahuasca can be a humbling experience that can allow an individual to step outside their body, mind, and emotions, exploring the deepest layers of self. This opens the door to a whole new world of possibilities, unseen through the clutter. While you will return to reality, what you experienced can never be forgotten.
Ayahuasca can plant new seeds, which if tended to, can flourish in many ways. It can guide individuals to cultivate new ways of understanding our place on this planet, fostering a deeper sense of meaning. Whether it imparts lessons on not taking life so seriously, unveils death as another chapter, or empowers us to become the creator of our life experiences, the insights gained have the potential to drastically improve the quality of our lives.
Cultivating a Deeper Connection with Spirit
Many turn to ayahuasca to help them find meaning in life, seeking answers to questions about who they truly are and why they’re here. The majority of people I’ve encountered sought spiritual exploration through ayahuasca, while others were drawn to it by a deep interest in the afterlife.
For many people who drink this medicine, it steers them toward a journey of discovery. They seek to understand the mysteries of their experiences, to comprehend why they’re here, and to distinguish truth from illusion.
This quest for understanding propels people further down the rabbit hole of self-discovery, nurturing a deeper connection with spirit. As a result, people who take ayahuasca typically open up to different modalities, bodies of information, and practices that they may not have been interested in before.
Although some believe that ayahuasca is solely a drug-induced experience, I found the majority of people who sit with the medicine are convinced that it’s a bridge to hidden realms of consciousness. Many people reported that ayahuasca reinforced their spiritual beliefs, while others stated the experience created spiritual beliefs.
This newfound path often creates a sense of peace in individuals’ lives, allowing them to ultimately recognize their true nature, as souls having a human experience — conjuring feelings of relief and inspiration.
Raising Your Vibration
Ayahuasca’s beauty lies in its capacity to help evolve us into our best selves while showing us the abundance of happiness accessible to all. After all, that’s what the journey is about — discovering the master within, who has an unlimited plethora of wisdom that can be tapped into.
With wisdom, one realizes that happiness is synonymous with love and that destructive behavior grows from suffering. Ayahuasca has the potential to help in recognizing these fundamental truths, significantly impacting well-being and happiness by steering individuals away from attitudes, beliefs, and feelings associated with suffering.
People commonly report increased gratitude after participating in an ayahuasca ceremony. In my own experience, ayahuasca helped shape a “glass half full” perspective, and many others reported feeling more optimistic afterwards. The medicine is often mentioned for its ability to alleviate the fear of death and the unknown, a common motivation for seeking it out.
However, ayahuasca can also cause unwanted effects, including retraumatization. One individual I supported felt existential dread following a retreat, and another reported frequent panic attacks in the months that followed. Feelings of disorientation or confusion after a ceremony underline the necessity of integration work.
These newfound outlooks must be actively maintained or the potential of reverting to old patterns is likely. Without the right support or motivation to follow through with newly developed attitudes, many individuals regress.
This illuminates the importance of seeking out proper support following an ayahuasca experience, especially during the delicate stages post-ceremony, before new outlooks and behaviors have settled.
Remember: Your Mileage May Vary
Ayahuasca is a powerful plant medicine, but it’s certainly not everyone’s cup of tea. While it can be blissful, it can also be vivid, intrusive, erratic, and extremely weird. I have had experiences where I felt deeply disconnected from my mind and body, thrust into an incomprehensibly complex and bizarre alien world. Without a thorough understanding of your mental ecosystem, it’s easy to see how the experience can overwhelm people, potentially causing more harm than good.
Given the multitude of factors involved, it’s important not to view ayahuasca as a miracle cure. I’ve met many who believed ayahuasca would do the work for them, only to be disappointed. Ayahuasca serves as an aid; the individual does the work. It may reveal what needs attention, but the effort to address those aspects is up to the individual. It might illuminate a better path, but you must then walk it.
The experience is not a walk in the park or an observation of pretty patterns. The healing process can be extremely difficult requiring a certain level of mental preparedness. It often involves vomiting, reliving trauma, and confronting one’s demons that some may be ill-prepared for.
Given the vulnerability during these experiences, finding a safe and reputable location to take the medicine is paramount. Sitting with shamans who don’t have your best intentions in mind is a potentially dangerous recipe that should be avoided at all costs.
Furthermore, it’s important to acknowledge that the experience is unique to every individual. Approach the medicine with an open mind, understanding that the experience is different from typical portrayals, and each experience is unique. While it may cause significant shifts in healing, it can also leave you confused or underwhelmed.
While there is a degree of consistency with many psychedelics, ayahuasca is a powerful medicine of its own, with results varying drastically. My best advice: don’t expect the medicine to automatically heal you. However, if you approach it with the best intentions, well-prepared to enter the darker chasms of your subconscious, it may change your life in ways you might never predict.