Deciding to take ayahuasca
The decision to participate in a session should always be one taken by the individual, not by their relative or friend. This decision should be based on a clear understanding of the potential risks and benefits in relation to your medical history, mental health, and general emotional condition. Ayahuasca is sometimes presented as a panacea for any illness, and it may seem like an easy solution to personal problems. However, it is only a tool which, if used properly, can catalyze a therapeutic or personal growth process. Every person is different and a large part of our internal thought processes and emotions are unknown territory. This is where this tool can have its function: it can allow an individual to gain more awareness of their emotions, thoughts, behavior, body and relationships. This increased self-awareness can facilitate a process of adjustment of these different aspects, resulting in an overall improvement in life.
Types of sessions
Ayahuasca sessions are usually done in a group setting ranging from five to twenty-five people; occasionally, there may be as many as one hundred participants in a session—or even more. The sessions take place mostly at night, although there are infrequent day sessions as well. An ayahuasca session usually lasts between three and seven hours. There are centers or groups where one stays to sleep after the session, but this is not always the case. The session is always led by a facilitator who can be a healer, a shaman or ‘neo-shaman’, a therapist, a padrinho or Mestre in the ayahuasca churches, or any other person that has extensive experience with ayahuasca and has learned to facilitate sessions. In the beginning of the session, there is often some time reserved for the participants to share their intentions for the session and why he/she has decided to participate. Once the sharing of intention is finished, the ayahuasca is distributed for the participants to drink their cup.
The ayahuasca experience can have different phases. Sometimes, exploring one’s inner world can be accompanied by emotional pain or other form of suffering. It can also be accompanied by a release of stress. Therefore, it is not uncommon to hear participants crying or expressing this release in ayahuasca sessions, especially those oriented towards healing, throughout the night. Also, due to the purgative effects of ayahuasca, vomiting occurs frequently, which is done into a bucket inside the room or at a designated place outside. In general, the music made by the facilitator is what leads the experience, although there are also people that work with silence.
In general there are three types of sessions: traditional/shamanic, religious and therapeutic, although all three types are interconnected: a religious or shamanic session can have therapeutic outcome, or during a therapy oriented session a mystical-religious experience might occur.
The shamanic session
There is a wide range of traditional and shamanic sessions. These sessions are usually led by shamans, also called ‘curanderos’ (healers) or ‘vegetalistas’, originating from South America or Western disciples who have been trained in these indigenous traditions, sometimes called ‘neo-shamans’. These sessions are usually oriented towards healing, they have a spiritual focus and may involve purging practices prior to taking ayahuasca, for example by ingesting tobacco, in order to ‘cleanse’ the body of possible toxins. The sessions are usually held in the dark or around a fire, where the experience is guided by the signing of the shaman, live music with instruments like maracas, drums, mouth harp, etc. The type of music is different in different countries and traditions. For example, in Peru they perform songs called Icaros.
The shaman or healer is usually accompanied by assistants who help participants with practical issues, such as going to the toilet, or in difficult moments, and are also involved in the musical performance. The shaman uses techniques such as blowing tobacco smoke on the participants, odorizing the room and participants with incense such as Palo Santo or Agua Florida, besides leading the session with music and/or singing. These types of sessions require generally an intense personal labor. The worldview of these sessions is based on the one of traditional indigenous culture, which has a spiritual and spiritualist focus, in which these sessions defer mostly with the sessions that have a western therapeutic approach.
The therapeutic session
In settings that have a therapeutic approach, understood within a framework of Western psychotherapy, ayahuasca is considered a useful tool for therapeutic or personal growth processes. These sessions usually incorporate a preparation phase before the session and an integration phase after it. These sessions vary according to the facilitator and his/her way of working. Some variants may be the possibility of individual sessions, the use of different types of music, alternating digital music with live music, or working with silence in different ways.
Sessions in which therapeutic work is performed before and after the experience are more common to find in occidental therapeutic contexts than in shamanic contexts, in which the session is usually merely the experience itself, and, in the best case, an integration session the morning after. Of course, there are exceptions.
In many parts of the world, you can find syncretic churches that use ayahuasca as a sacrament, originating from Brazil. The most important ones are the Santo Daime, União do Vegetal and Barquinha. The members of these churches take ayahuasca as often as two to four times per month. While the context of the church is religious, there are healing sessions, as well as others. The religious and healing objectives as well as the aim to create cohesion of the community are often intertwined. These sessions are highly ritualized and have very precise rules and guidelines on how to participate and behave. Hymns are usually sung during the ceremonies, but there are also sessions in silent concentration. In some group’s participants ask the mestres questions about philosophical and religious issues during sessions. There are sessions in which the participants are seated and others in which they dance simple and repetitive steps. Depending on the group, participants do or do not go home after the ceremony, with or without integration work. There is actually as much variety as there are churches. In any case, because these are small communities, there is often follow-up of each person’s process that may be more or less formally supervised.
How to select a place
If you’ve decided to take ayahuasca, it’s important to choose an appropriate context, in line with your intentions and what you seek to get out of the experience. In general, it is best to avoid attending sessions where no preparation and integration of any kind is offered. It is also advisable to choose sessions in which those responsible do some form of follow-up for the participants. This way, if you happen to experience any issues in the period following the session or difficulties with the integration of the experience, you can receive support for the time needed. In general, it is advisable to choose a place where individuals can stay overnight after the experience is over, or perhaps spend the entire weekend.
For most people, an ayahuasca experience is an introspective experience, most of which is spent looking ‘inwards’ with closed eyes, although the group element plays an important role. It may be that you feel uncomfortable being surrounded by a group of strangers with whom you will share the session. Knowing your teammates before taking, or sharing group intentions often helps to relax.
Another important aspect for choosing a center or group is based on whether they have exclusion criteria. This means that the center should have an interview prior to the admission to the session and exclude the participation of individuals that are suspected to potentially be subjected to harm instead of benefit due to specific conditions. If they have no exclusion criteria, do not ask you for your medical history or possible psychiatric conditions, do not objectively inform you about the potential risks of taking ayahuasca or present ayahuasca as a panacea that cures everything, then they will probably not offer you a responsible and safe setting. If a healer or other facilitator has ‘guru’ behavior, presents him/herself as “the world’s best ayahuasquero” or is not sensitive to your personal situation and the reasons why you want to participate, it is highly recommended not to put your faith in his/her hands. This applies to anybody who approaches you with behavior conveying sexual connotations. If you are promised guaranteed results for the session, this is not a good indication either.
Basically, it’s a good sign if the information about ayahuasca provided by the organizer before the session seems objective and in line with the information provided in this text, if he does the sessions in small groups with no more than twenty participants per session, and if there are assistants present during the session and she does a preliminary selection of the participants. Even then, it is still a good idea to hear the opinions of people who have previously participated on the center or group through social networks or direct contact.
When you have decided with whom you wish to take ayahuasca, make sure to have a personal interview with him/her a few days or weeks prior to the session. Many facilitators advise changes in daily habits before the session, such as reducing the ingestion of salt, sexual abstinence, etc. Each person has his/her own criteria, and if you decide to place your trust in him/her, their recommendations should be followed even if you do not entirely find them useful.