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Adventures in Ayahuasca: A Ceremony of Transformation

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Adventures in Ayahuasca: A Ceremony of Transformation: The Subculture of Spiritual Healing

Upstater Magazine   |  By   |  Photos by John Garay
ayahuasca ceremony transformation

Soul searching. Depression. Anxiety. Trauma. Addiction. Plain old curiosity. The many roads that lead to ayahuasca—an ancient Amazonian plant medicine that’s ritualistically ingested for its purported psychospiritual properties—are distinct, if convergent. For many centuries, ayahuasca’s mysteries were hidden away from the world at large, confined to the depths of the Amazon, where shamans from indigenous tribes served as gatekeepers to the plant’s psychoactive and seemingly otherworldly realm.

Most of ayahuasca’s early history is undocumented, lost to the jungle. The plant’s first reported brush with Europeans occurred in the 16th century, when Spanish and Portuguese Christian missionaries observed indigenous South Americans utilizing the plant, proclaiming the rituals “the work of the devil.” In the intervening centuries, news of encounters with ayahuasca came intermittently from botanists and explorers; perhaps only since the dawn of the new millennium has ayahuasca’s reputation fully pivoted from frightening to fascinating for Americans—and people around the world. And, thanks to its curative and visionary potential, ayahuasca use is growing in New York City and the Hudson Valley.

Ayahuasca New York

Recently, several celebrities have openly recounted their transcendental ayahuasca experiences, including director Oliver Stone and musicians like Sting, who said it made him feel “wired to the entire cosmos”; Tori Amos; and Paul Simon, who chronicled his ayahuasca journey in the song “Spirit Voices.” But reports of the plant’s reported mystical powers first emerged in American culture via the mid-20th-century musings of Beat writer William S. Burroughs and poet Allen Ginsberg; later on, its uses were documented in several books and memoirs by psychedelics proponent Terence McKenna and his brother Dennis McKenna, an ethnopharmacologist.

In today’s materialistic modern world—where our days are dominated by screen time and digital distraction, mental health seems to be in decline, and spiritual angst is on the rise—ayahuasca’s nascent US arrival fits well into the subculture that is calling for a more holistic, self-soothing lifestyle. In an age where yoga, meditation, detoxification, and organic diets are being embraced, ayahuasca promises the potential for powerful personal growth and healing. It’s a Mother Earth-prescribed medicine, perhaps, for our increasingly troubled times.

Aya-what-sca?: Jungle Medicine Defined

Administered via a bitter brew, ayahuasca frequently triggers hallucinations along with an introspective state of mind that is marked by insightful encounters with vivid memories, emotions, and past traumas. Used ritualistically for centuries by Amazonian tribal societies, the chemical soup of ayahuasca is concocted by the boiling down and brewing of two (or more) plants: always, the woody ayahuasca or Banisteriopsis caapi vine, and most commonly, the leaves from the chacruna shrub. Pharmacologically speaking, the two plants synergistically combine dimethyltryptamine (DMT) and monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOIs) to activate the brain for full hallucinogenic effect.

Ayahuasca New York

Devotees are loath to call ayahuasca a drug, however. Instead, they refer to the potion as “plant medicine,” and view ayahuasca in spiritual terms as a “teacher plant” or a plant spirit that’s sentient, self-aware, and intent on healing. Indeed, ayahuasca is hardly a recreational drug experience, and its place is far removed from college dorm rooms filled with mindless giggles: An informed ayahuasca user is looking not for a party, but rather for healing, enlightenment, and therapeutic potential.

The Drive to “Drink”

While Amazonians revere ayahuasca as a vehicle for physical, mental, and spiritual healing, they also attribute magical undertones to the visionary and mythological landscape in which the ayahuasca experience unfolds. Tori Amos, for instance, described her experience of the drug like “walking around Fantasia.” This alternate reality, laden with spiritual entities and archetypes, is reachable via participation in traditions-rich ceremonies conducted under the watchful eye of a shaman intermediary, who is trained in liaising between the two worlds.

And in the scientific world, helmed by organizations like the California-based Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies (MAPS); the UK-based Beckley Foundation; and the International Center for Ethnobotanical, Education, Research and Service (ICEERS), an international coalition of ethnobotanical professionals, the effect of this psychedelic brew on the brain and psyche has been the subject of exciting headlines for some major publications, including The Guardian (“Is ayahuasca the future of PTSD treatment?”), Business Insider (“This psychedelic drug seems to affect the brain in ways that are surprisingly similar to meditation”), and New York Magazine (“It’s time for cautious excitement about ayahuasca as depression treatment”). In the same vein, The New Yorker ran a story in 2015 by nature, culture, and food writer Michael Pollan on how “research into psychedelics, shut down for decades, is now yielding exciting results,” and documented similar breakthrough clinical studies with psychedelic mediums like LSD and psilocybin mushrooms.

Ayahuasca New York

Meanwhile, small-scale scientific studies, led by institutions like the University of São Paulo, the Brain Institute at the Federal University of Rio Grande do Norte in Brazil, and Sant Pau Institute of Biomedical Research in Barcelona, are producing evidence of the plant’s potential to deal with dilemmas of consciousness that have traditionally fallen under the realm of psychotherapy, including alleviating conditions like anxiety, depression, addiction, and post-traumatic stress disorder. Many people in scientific, psychiatric, and spiritual circles are eager to see whether ayahuasca will influence the Western approach to addiction and mental illness, especially in cases where psychotherapy and pharmaceuticals alone have not been successful.   

Finding Ayahuasca

Pilgrimages to ayahuasca’s source in the Upper Amazon are on the rise, sending Westerners deep into the jungles of Colombia, Brazil, and Peru, where the plant’s spiritual and botanical roots are indigenous and the culture is laden with shamans and ceremony. The South American ayahuasca trail finds its epicenter in the rainforest river city of Iquitos, Peru, where ayahuasca healing retreats cater to foreigners. But these retreats vary widely in quality, so if you’re thinking of traveling in search of ayahuasca, be forewarned: In this Wild West of spiritual healing, for every legitimate shaman, there is an unscrupulous charlatan vying for the dollar of the “spiritual tourist,” making research and vetting essential.

There are potential risks involved in taking ayahuasca, particularly in relation to dangerous interactions with prescription drugs like antidepressants, so it’s best to avoid centers that don’t screen applicants for physical and mental wellbeing. Likewise, stay away from centers that fail to prescribe preparatory purification diets that aim to more fully prepare a participant’s body and mind for the experience by temporarily eliminating dietary “impurities” like pork, sugar, salts, and spices—as well as sex. Regardless of where it unfolds, no ayahuasca journey—which can trigger intense emotional, psychological, and physical responses—should be embarked upon without the guidance and support of a well-trained, trustworthy guide.

Among the best-reputed options in the Iquitos area of Peru is the Temple of the Way of Light, which was the retreat center of choice this summer for Amanda Villalobos, a 36-year-old graphic designer and artist. She and her husband, a geologist, own property in Kerhonkson and plan to build a house there, but are currently residing in Brazil, where he works at a mine. During her 12-day stay at the center, Villalobos experienced seven group ceremonies, which were intermixed with a regimen of special plant and fruit remedies, massages, meditation sessions, floral baths, and yoga classes. She says she was impressed by the Temple of the Way of Light’s “strong commitment to adhere to the traditions of working with the medicine,” and its utilization of both female and male shamans from the local Shipibo community.

Ayahuasca New York

However, it isn’t necessary to board a plane to encounter ayahuasca: There are numerous underground retreats unfolding stateside as part of an under-the-radar, word-of-mouth subculture that reaches across the country, from tech hangouts in the Silicon Valley to yoga studios in Brooklyn and hideaways in the Hudson Valley. Although ayahuasca is illegal in the US (with DMT outlawed as a Schedule I drug), like any such illicit substance, it is regularly smuggled in. Forget the grapevine: Rest assured, you know someone who knows someone who can lead you to the ayahuasca vine locally.

Musician and artist Natavi Kozicz, 31, and his business partner, Miguel Mendez, 29, a chef, yoga teacher, and healer, are both former Brooklynites who relocated to Stone Ridge in 2016, and have tapped into the Hudson Valley ayahuasca circuit—having met at an underground ceremony upstate in 2015. (Mendez has also participated in several ayahuasca sessions in a Downtown Manhattan yoga studio.) Individually, they’ve been experimenting with the plant for four years now for its curative properties. As Kozicz recounts, “We both had such a good experience that we continued to work with the plant.” Today, when requested by ayahuasca facilitators, they are collaborating on bringing elements of ceremonial sound healing sessions to regional ceremonies, which often incorporate elements of music, scent, touch, and healing.

Although Kozicz and Mendez traveled to the Amazon last fall, they say trying ayahuasca back at home can be just as positive an experience. “There is no right or wrong,” says Kozicz. “There’s just a whole different context around the medicine in the jungle.”

The Ceremony and Its Aftermath

Amazonian retreats like the Temple of the Way of Light typically incorporate several small-group ceremonies over several days or weeks. But in New York City and the Hudson Valley, because ayahuasca is illegal, ceremonies are frequently conducted over a single night. In either setting though, the hours-long rituals are traditionally begun at nightfall, as light is said to affect the experience, and are overseen by a shaman or group of shamans or indigenous healers known as curanderos. The ceremony begins with the shamans or curanderos purifying and setting the ceremonial stage by burning tobacco and/or sage;  incorporating musical instruments; singing; and chanting icaros, or sacred ceremonial songs. Typically, the ceremony’s leaders share in drinking the psychoactive concoction—an unpleasant-tasting brownish tea—with the aim of being able to better diagnose and guide their patients.

Within an hour of drinking the ayahuasca brew, an altered state of consciousness comes into play, and participants are strongly encouraged to set strong intentions for their experience, in order to avoid the rabbit holes that can pop up for nonfocused minds. The most common and least pleasant side effect is an ensuing physical—and psychic— purge, involving nausea, vomiting, and sometimes diarrhea. Typically, the ayahuasca experience ends several hours after ingestion, with users most regularly reporting feeling fatigued, hungry (as a result of fasting), and emotionally vulnerable immediately afterward.

While the ayahuasca journey is never predictable, commonplace accounts of its psychological effects involve the disintegration of the ego, perceptual distortions, psychedelic visions, and the emotionally charged and vivid revisiting of repressed or traumatic memories. Some users have described mystical—and sometimes challenging or even frightening—encounters with archetypes as well as presumed spirits or interdimensional beings who may act as guides or messengers.

Often  shamans don’t speak English, so they employ translators to communicate with their guests, a role that Luis Robayo, a 51-year-old artist and Columbian native, played at the Sachamama Center in Lamas, Peru, for three years, before moving in 2016 from Brooklyn upstate to Bearsville, where he now resides with his wife and daughter.

Ayahuasca New York

Robayo originally traveled to Sachamama Center to escape the challenging atmosphere of post-9/11 New York City. “I was depressed at that time in my life,” he recalls. But he says the Peruvian ayahuasca ceremonies “did something to my life to help me heal. My life totally changed.” When the shaman at Sachamama Center proposed that Robayo stay on as a translator and shamanic apprentice, he gladly accepted the offer. Robayo participated in approximately 150 ceremonies, during which he says he witnessed “so many transformations.” His advice for practitioners? “The most important thing is to have a clear, good intention.”

For many people, the ayahuasca experience is said to be equitable in its results to years in therapy or meditation practice, providing a sense of conflict resolution that leads to catharsis, psychological purification, spiritual renewal, and the alleviation of suffering. Some users have also noted a lingering sense of euphoria, tranquility, harmony, compassion, and interconnection with the universe. So perhaps putting up with vomiting and an encounter with a grouchy spirit or two is a small price to pay for admission to this earn-what-you-learn ride—and the chance to become a better version of yourself.

Adherents advise that ayahuasca’s work continues well beyond the encounter itself. “It’s like a seed that you plant inside yourself,” says Mendez. “You learn to cultivate it with your daily actions.”

Villalobos, a childhood abuse survivor, turned to ayahuasca to deal with resulting lifelong anxieties. “The hallucinations weren’t as intense, it was more emotional,” she says, but notes that the journey allowed her to do transformative internal work on forgiveness and acceptance. So far, says Villalobos, the experience has paid off. “The anxiety has dissipated since,” she says. “It’s not completely gone, but it’s more subtle.”

For Robayo, ayahuasca has opened up creative channels that he finds are continually being reflected in his artistic process. “I started doing a lot of drawings with memories of the trips,” he recalls. Now, he adds, the direction of his artwork work has “turned more spiritual and more in touch with nature. Before it was all over the place. Ayahuasca got me more grounded with my drawings.”

Ultimately, says Villalobos, her journey was even more than what she hoped for. “I walked away feeling like everybody in the world should experience this,” she says.