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    ayahuasca guide practices ICEERS

    The Story Behind the First Ayahuasca Guide Published by a Governmental Health Agency


    In 2019, the Department of Health of the Government of Catalonia published the guide Towards Better Ayahuasca Practices, a groundbreaking document. Not only was it the first of its kind to bring together good practices around ayahuasca, it was also the first time a public institution took a proactive step to reduce risks relating to ayahuasca practices.

    The guide was initially published in three languages – Catalan, Spanish and English – and since then it has taken on a life of its own. The number of translations has grown to more than a dozen, and it has become, in its own right, the guide of choice for facilitators and participants for ayahuasca ceremonies outside the Amazonian context. This post reveals the inside story of how the guide came about, as told by its protagonists.

    The guide’s origins

    Ayahuasca has been in the genes of ICEERS since the organization was founded in 2009, although it was another plant, in this case iboga, that brought Benjamin De Loenen to Barcelona.

    “In 2010, I was working with Joan Colom, head of health at the Generalitat. That year we organised a conference on ibogaine. It was the first time that a government institution had organised a conference on this African plant in Europe. Benjamin had made a documentary about ibogaine [Ibogaine, rite de passage] 6 years earlier. That was the beginning of a collaboration that continues to this day,” explains Óscar Parés, ICEERS deputy director and founding team member.

    At that moment, the seed was planted that would bear fruit several years later, after the second World Ayahuasca Conference, which ICEERS held in Rio Branco (Brazil).

    “When we returned from Brazil, we went to see Colom to propose a good practice report, as a way to deepening our long collaboration, and as part of a risk reduction strategy related to ceremonial ayahuasca use,” says Parés.

    The ayahuasca community

    To develop the guide, the ICEERS team turned to the experts in the field – ayahuasca guides and facilitators. Once again, ICEERS acted as a bridge between the different lineages and institutions, as ‘best practices’ do not always circulate with ease, since ayahuasca is in a legal grey area in most countries.

    “At ICEERS we have always gathered the best knowledge on health and ethics and to disseminate it. A large part of the content came from people who have been working for many years developing their own ‘best practices.’ What we did was compile them in one place,” Jerónimo Mazarrasa, ICEERS’ project lead for the publication.

    In developing the guide, the ICEERS team turned to the best experts on the subject – ayahuasca guides and facilitators themselves. ICEERS acted as a bridge between the government agency and the diverse people and groups who work with ayahuasca.

    In the case of ayahuasca, circulating “good practices” has been challenging.

    “If one imagines other new practices that have been developed in society, for example, the fashion of foam art on lattes,” says Jerónimo Mazarrasa, one of the guide’s authors. “We have all seen how, in recent years, the quality has really improved. People discovered new techniques, which spread as they learned from each other. With any practice, this kind of improvement is a process that happens organically as useful knowledge expands. Yet with ayahuasca practices, which may be underground or in a legal gray area, knowledge does not flow in the same way. This leads to a type of isolation among participants and to information being kept in islands, or silos.”

    Much of the work ICEERS does with teacher plant communities around ayahuasca is as a pollinator.

    “We foster conversations about safety and ethics among a multitude of actors within the community. We gather the best solutions from each place, and bring them to the next place, thereby expanding knowledge. The goal is to improve safety and quality of experiences for the entire community. A large part of the content of the guide originates from these pollination processes. It was simply a matter of compiling what we had learned into one document.”

    Who is the guide for?

    “That was the first question,” explains Jerónimo Mazarrasa. “Who is this for? It was obvious that an NGO from Barcelona had nothing to say to Indigenous peoples or other Amazonian traditions about better ways to work with their cultural treasures. To do that would be an act of cultural arrogance, if not worse.”

    “On the contrary, the guide is directed to others, to people from outside the Amazon, who have a much more recent relationship with ayahuasca, just years or decades old. This group is divided in two: on the one hand there are the participants, the people who are going to take ayahuasca, which is the biggest group. On the other hand there is a much smaller group, but much more influential: those who serve or offer ayahuasca to others, who we have called ‘guides.’ Each of these groups has different needs that needed to be addressed in the document.”

    TOWARDS better practices

    The development of the guide encountered several dilemmas. The first had to do with its name.

    “We didn’t want to talk about ‘best practices’ because it seems that if you talk about best practices, it means that you are doing the best possible job and we wanted to make it very clear that this was not the case. These are minimum safety standards, and that’s why the document is called Towards Better Practices,” explains Mazarrasa.

    The first draft of the guide was based on texts and observations written by Marc Aixalá, a psychologist who ran the ICEERS support service for several years, helping over 1,000 people with integration processes or adverse situations.

    “He played a very important role in the guide,” recalls David Londoño, another of its writers. “When we sat down to write the guide, we started from the basic ethical principle of ‘do no harm.’ And then, we asked ourselves: how can someone who takes ayahuasca harm themselves? Because it is true that, although the safety margin is high, there are people who can experience harm from participating in a ceremony.”

    Risk reduction

    According to Mazarrasa, in order to make an informed decision about participating in an ayahuasca ceremony, participants need to understand its potential risks and benefits, its contraindications, and, finally, they need guidelines support them in choosing between centres or guides. Or, failing that, to know how to identify red flags and avoid the most problematic ceremonies. All of this is in the guide.”

    These are, as the authors point out, the minimum safety requirements for a traveller to arrive safely. However, there are other, more subtle risks also described in the guide. One of them has to do with taking literally everything that emerges during the session as true.

    Londoño explains: “Sometimes people have visions and then have an interpretation of the vision: ‘Ayahuasca told me that… I have to get divorced or I have to quit this job’ or, ‘… I need to become a shaman.’ This comes from the encounter between the subjectivity of the person and the plant, and there are a lot of people who have been hurt by taking what ayahuasca ‘told’ them literally.”

    The second risk has to do with what Dr. José Carlos Bouso, ICEERS’ Scientific Director, calls “the ontological clash.” What happens when a person from Europe participates in an ayahuasca ceremony hosted by someone from an Amazonian tradition who holds a worldview that is very different from theirs?

    The issue of worldview

    Another challenging issue is the translation of Amazonian indigenous cosmovisions into Western language. David Londoño, who worked for several years at the Takiwasi Centre in Tarapoto (Peru), argues that the view of ayahuasca as a “safe medicine” is not shared in its place of origin.

    “In the indigenous world, ayahuasca is not considered safe but delicate. In our world, when we think in terms of its safety, we’re thinking about nobody dying, nobody getting (too) unravelled. Among those with a long relationship with the plant, I have never heard that it is a safe plant. Many years of study are required before it can be given to others,” he said.

    For indigenous peoples, risks related to ayahuasca are on the energetic level, a dimension that is unknown, if not denied, by the Western scientific worldview. It was a challenge for the writers to introduce this topic without generating unnecessary resistance, because it may have been dismissed as folklore. The final wording of the document elegantly resolves this conflict.

    The pregnancy issue

    Ayahuasca practices in the West have undergone significant adaptations from their place of origin. For example, among indigenous groups and in Brazilian ayahuasca religions, pregnant and lactating women take ayahuasca regularly and, as far as is known, without any problems for mother or child.

    However, the guide published by the Generalitat, following the guidance of ayahuasca facilitators, does not recommend that pregnant women take ayahuasca, “as a matter of common sense,” explains Jerónimo Mazarrasa.

    Although a footnote was included in an early draft that explained that women in the Amazon sometimes take ayahuasca during pregnancy, this footnote was removed from the final draft.

    “A person who consults a guide on good ayahuasca practices is not likely to be to be either a daimista [member of the Santo Daime church] or an Indigenous person, so the principle of prudence prevails, and prudence tells us that it is better for them not to take ayahuasca,” concludes Mazarrasa.

    This brings us to another critical point: who is the intended audience for this guide?

    The final draft

    The guide drew on knowledge accumulated by dozens of ayahuasca facilitators. ICEERS was commissioned to write the report by the Catalonian government, who then published and disseminated the guide, within their collection of resources on “Drugs” and alongside other similar guides on risk reduction.

    “We started with a first draft, polished it to ensure we were avoiding stigmatising language or ideological overtones,” recalls Òscar Parés. Special care was also taken with political correctness, to mitigate adverse reactions as much as possible, “so that no one would think that we were encouraging the consumption of ayahuasca. This is a step beyond risk reduction.”

    The final… end point?

    As mentioned above, the guide’s title is intentionally open-ended because ICEERS considers “good practice” to be an ideal, almost idealistic goal. There is always room for improvement, therefore if you have any corrections or suggestions about the guide, write to

    You can download the guide here:













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    Tags: ayahuasca , public health , guide