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What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is an entheogenic drink prepared from segments of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi. Sections of vine are boiled with leaves from any of a large number of other plants (such as Psychotria viridis or Jurema preta) yielding a brew containing the powerful hallucinogenic alkaloid DMT combined with an MAOI, such as harmaline, harmine or d-tetrahydroharmine from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine (or from seeds as Peganum harmala). So the species may vary but the alkaloids are always consistent.
The potency of this brew varies radically from one batch to the next, both in strength and psychoactive effect, based mainly on the skill of the shaman producing it, as well as on other admixtures that may be added.
It is significant to note that none of these plant substances by themselves, would normally be psychoactive in oral doses. Harmine/harmaline is said to effect hallucinosis at highly toxic levels, but in less heroic quantities it is at best a tranquillizer, at worst an emetic. DMT, in any quantity, is not orally active unless used in combination with a monoamine oxidase (MAO) inhibitor. This principle is precisely what makes ayahuasca effective; the harmala alkaloids in the Banisteriopsis caapi vine are potent short term MAO inhibitors which synergize with DMT-containing plant material to produce what has been described as one of the most profound of all psychedelic experiences.
Harmaline was first isolated from Syrian rue seeds in 1841 and the first Western record of the psychoactive effects of Banisteriopsis caapi (in Peru) dates from 1851. Several reports were published in the mid-Nineteenth Century about the use of Banisteriopsis caapi. In 1922-1923 a film of traditional yage ceremonies was shot and then shown to the annual American Pharmaceutical Association meeting. The popularization of Ayahuasca in writing and in the media during the late 20th Century has lead to many North Americans and Europeans travelling to South America to take ayahausca in "traditional" settings, creating a new industry around this "entheotourism". This industry helped cause a major shift in how ayahuasca use is viewed in its native lands.
Nowadays this drink is widely employed throughout Amazonian Perú, Ecuador, Colombia, Bolivia, western Brazil, and in portions of the Río Orinoco basin. It has probably been used in the western Amazon for millennia and is rapidly gaining popularity throughout South America and elsewhere through the growth of organized syncretic religious movements such as Santo Daime, União do Vegetal (UDV), and Barquinia, among others.
Botanical information on the most common contents of ayahuasca:
Banisteriopsis caapi, itself also known as ayahuasca, caapi or yage, is a South American jungle vine of the family Malpighiaceae. The active substances of this climbing-plant are found in the inside of the bark of freshly cut stems.
Phalaris arundinacea, also known as Reed canary grass, is an invasive, tall, coarse looking, perennial grass that commonly forms extensive single-species stands along the margins of lakes and streams and in wet open areas. The stems can reach 2 m in height. Leaf blades are blue-green when fresh and straw-colored when dry. The flowers are borne on the stem high above the leaves and are pinkish when fully flowering.
Syrian Rue (Peganum harmala) is a member of the Zygophyllaceae family. It grows from the Mediterranean to northern India, Mongolia, and Manchuria.
Psychotria viridis is native to the Amazonian lowlands, but is also cultivated throughout northern South America and much of Central America. It is an evergreen tropical tree or large shrub growing in full sun to half shade. It has large (up to 24cm) leaves, which are oval with pointed tips. Its small brown seeds are shed from red berries. It usually grows in very rich and fertile soil.
Jurema preta, or Mimosa hostilis, is a plant that grows naturally in Brazil. Some of the roots grow above ground; they are fibrous and easy to break. Usually there is a beautiful pinkish colour to the flesh to be seen.
Principal active biochemicals: the ß-carboline alkaloids harmine, harmaline, tetrahydroharmine, harmol, harmic acid, methylester harmic amide, acetyl norharmine, harmine N-oxide, harmalinic acid and ketotetra-hydronorharmine are present in the bark, stems, and trunk of Banisteriopsis caapi, Banisteriopsis inebrians, and other species of Banisteriopsis.
Tetrahydroharmine occurs in greater concentration in Banisteriopsis caapi than in other plants bearing harmala alkaloids such as Peganum harmala (Syrian rue) and certain species of Passiflora sp. (passionflower). This may account for the more profound and enduring therapeutic effects produced by genuine ayahuasca compared to "analogue" preparations.
Onset depends on how much and how recently one has eaten and on individual variation. Effects begin between 20 and 60 minutes after ingestion. With lower doses effects last shorter, larger doses make for a longer lasting effect. They range from 2-6 hours of peak effects with 1-8 hours after of lingering effects, depending on dosage and individual user variation.
Ayahuasca's different effects follow a progressive path that includes cathartic and abreactive processes. Time is an important factor in this progression. Every experience reveals patterns and degrees of understanding according to the depth of previous experiences and the participants' level of consciousness.
Ayahuasca is not a substance that can be defined through a consistency of effect. The memory constellations activated by ayahuasca cannot be programmed, although the journey can be directed. The pharmacological properties of the psychoactive compound in interaction with the biological antecedents are not enough to define the influence on the psyche. The compound will always interact with the psychological set of each individual (motivation, attitude, personality, mood, previous experiences) and the structure of the setting. The equation of those structures will be the result which influences the effect and the kind of journey to be experienced. The substance changes its effect on the brain according to the outside influence of the setting, a synthesis of the surrounding environment and the presence of one's teacher, even more than the current emotional state of the participant. A person who takes it alone, for example, will have a totally different experience than if taken with someone who can direct the energy created by the ayahuasca, enhancing its effects and shaping the journeys toward the place in the mind where God resides, which is the source for transformation.
After ingestion you will experience some nausea, possibly with vomiting. This is a phase you have to go through, so don't fight it. It is considered part of a purification process. When this is finished the first stage of the effect comes, which regards change of modality of the senses. During the first ninety minutes, hearing becomes accentuated and feelings expand. From here the journey can take any direction. As one enters other dimensions, leaving the plane of the physical body, a sense of floating in the air may occur.
A person experiencing ayahuasca sessions shows remarkable mental and psychical improvement, comparable only to that sought through intense psycho-therapy. Ayahuasca establishes significant changes in a very short period of time.
Ayahuasca nurtures an essential acceptance and alignment with the simplicity of one's spiritual identity. The resulting change in our values and priorities transforms our presence, our abiding sense of Self.
Some visionary experiences with ayahuasca showing heavenly landscapes with angels, spiritual beings or mystical realms, make the journey very rich and create a bridge to the sacred within, fulfilling various aspects of the spiritual search.
All those experiences are of great importance for the healing of the individual as it creates a common ground to explore the many aspects of his or her spiritual identity in a space of love towards oneself and surrender, trusting one's inner guidance.
At least 42 indigenous names for this preparation are known. It is remarkable and significant that at least 72 different indigenous tribes of Amazonia, however widely separated by distance, language, and cultural differences, all manifested a detailed common knowledge of ayahuasca and its use.
So ayahuasca has been used for thousands of years. We know of five different applications: as religious inauguration medium, as healing remedy, to trigger clearvoyance, to make astral journeys en to relax/meditate. The Indian tribes know many ayahuasca rituals in which there is singing and dancing.
Not long ago a new catholic spiritual movement has arisen in Brazil. In it ayahuasca plays a central role. In short, the aforementioned Santo Daime church is a trend, especially amongst poor Indians in the cities. It encourages them to return to the Amazon and erect small religious communities. On their gatherings, in which also children are involved, everyone drinks ayahuasca. The entheogenic ecstasy is enjoyed while singing and dancing together.
Not much exact information is known about the specific healing aspects of ayahuasca. Mainly, due to the possibility to become clairvoyant when in trance, it is also used to trace the causes of a disease or situations that cause illness in some way. In other South American countries, for example Peru, ayahuasca is actually used for healing purposes by shamans known as curanderos or ayahuasqueros. Through its assumed intercession with spiritual entities, ayahuasca reveals the proper remedies or brings about healing spiritually or magically. In contrast to Western notions of medicine, ayahuasca is believed to be curative whether the patient or the healer swallows it. Summing up these processes, someone said, "Nature cures the disease while the healer amuses the patient."
As mentioned before, there are many different varieties of ayahuasca. Many recipes are circulating (on the internet) with various combinations of plants/seeds.
Modern usage of ayahuasca is highly debated. Many people approach ayahuasca as just another hallucinogenic drug to "trip" off on. Most of those people will never try it again. A more accepted use is entheogenic in nature. People seek answers from the plants of ayahuasca. But even then reverence and the sacredness of ayahuasca is often forgotten. It is important to emphasize that the more one puts into the experience the more one will get out of it. 'Ayahuasca tourism', places in South America where one pays to join a ayahuasca ceremony (or retreat), is also a hot topic nowadays. Some see it as a sacred old tradition that is being commercialized by westerners.
There are few, if any, serious injuries or deaths associated with ayahuasca use, but it is quite possible to hurt oneself with it . Because one of the major components of ayahuasca is an MAOI, which acts to inhibit a key enzyme in your body responsible for processes in the brain and throughout the body, it is possible to have severe negative reactions to Ayahuasca. Take care to find out about MAOI interactions with prescription medications and with certain foods before attempting any use.
When an MAOI is combined with a wide array of over the counter, prescription, or black market drugs, the results can be very unpleasant or even fatal.
Also, as with any intense psychedelic, ayahuasca can precipitate short or long term changes in personality or catalyze psychotic or neurotic episodes.
Ayahuasca can have extremely negative side effects if taken with some prescription drugs, especially anti-depressants and serotonin re-uptake inhibitors. Unless you have specific knowledge about the interaction between MAOI's, serotonin re-uptake inhibitors and ayahuasca, avoid ayahuasca experiences if you are using anti-depressants.
Links / Futher reading
This article is based on the following pages: