Lately I've been writing about my experiences with ayahuasca/yagé. If you've read them, you'll know that my experiences have been overwhelmingly positive. Every day, my life seems to be transformed in a positive way.
While I have touched on some of the inner work I've done, I have not shared many of the finer details as it's deeply personal. And while inner work can be scary since you have to face who you truly are, I have not had any nightmare scenarios where I'm terrified and want to die or the whole thing to be over.
Yes, I get a lot of amazing, trippy visions on ayahuasca. However, it's not that common after looking online and talking to other people who've taken it. So don't think that by reading my blog, you are in for a similar treat if you decide to take it. Every night is different, every ceremony is different, everyone's experience is different, and you literally don't know what you are going to get. Remember that ayahuasca is a healer and a teacher who demands respect. If you're not prepared to take an honest look at yourself and possibly experience an 'ego death' so that you can heal and learn, then don't do it. It's not a recreational drug.
Image by @carlgnash, with permission
If you type ayahuasca into youtube and you will find numerous 'documentaries' of Westerners jetting off to South America in search of this life-changing medicine. What they get is completely different to what I've described in my posts. To be honest, if I'd seen them before going to Rythmia, I may have thought twice about going. Many of these participants face demons and experience the worst nights of their lives. If you have a ton of shit that you haven't dealt with—or pushed way down and ignored—then you will probably experience something like this, especially on the first night. It's also likely you won't be able to move on until you've dealt with it. I've heard of people getting stuck in loops until they've got the lesson Mama Aya is trying to teach. Only after you've faced your inner darkness does she show you the sweetness.
That said, what if the fear you see is not coming from your own mind but something external? When should you "go into your fear", as Gerry Powell of Rythmia says, and when should you be extremely cautious? It's a good question and one that's not talked about nearly enough.
As ayahuasca tourism has exploded in recent years, so too has the number of scammers and fake shamans who don't have your best interest at heart. Sit in the wrong ceremony and not only may you face a repressed memory you don't know how to deal with, but you might also be attacked by black magic. Both can affect your mental state for a long time afterwards. First, if you are not in a place where you can process your trauma—which is where Rythmia shines since they have trained psychologists on staff who can help you between ceremonies if required—ayahuasca is likely to fuck you up more. And second, what do you do if you've been infected by a negative entity that's now attached itself to you?
A friend of mine has been involved in organising yagé ceremonies for quite a while and has told me several stories, all with the same theme. People have come to her after drinking medicine who now have mental and/or energetic problems because a shaman 'did something to them' during ceremony. Removing these entities is a process in its own right.
Jonathan Evatt wrote a very detailed review of how unscrupulous shamans can negatively and seriously affect your wellbeing. If you are thinking of taking ayahuasca/yagé, you should absolutely read this so you're not going in blindly, as most people do. And if you think he's making it all up, then I encourage you to read through the hundred or so comments at the bottom of his post.
Evatt argues that the majority of shamans in Peru, in particular, have at least some mal-intent towards participants. Building on this, I have it on good authority that black magic is practised by many 'shamans' around Iquitos, who are looking to cash in on the ayahuasca trade. So what is driving this growth in bad/fake shamans? The usual suspects of course: money, influence and power. Just like their Western counterparts (aka, doctors) Indigenous healers are not immune to the ego boost and status that come with being a recognised healer. They are still human after all. Alternatively, anyone with access to the plants, some accommodation, and basic website skills can set up a 'retreat' and market themselves as a shaman, regardless of their background, knowledge and intent.
Real or fake, shamans are making all kinds of promises to unsuspecting gringos wandering the streets of Iquitos (and now further afield), looking to fill the void that our materialistic, consumption-driven lives have left so many of us with. These days, it's almost impossible to tell which shamans are the real deal, and which are seeking to make a quick buck.
I have a friend in Peru at the time of writing, who I will use as an example of why ayahuasca can be so dangerous. She messaged me earlier saying that the owner and shaman at this '#1 rated retreat' are practising black magic. The first ceremony was full of first timers except for her and her friend. However, both of them realised things weren't quite right when the staff didn't even do something as basic as sage smudging, and things went downhill from there. The shaman and the assistants refused to help anyone, even those calling out in terror. Then adding to the already abundant fear in the maloka, the shaman sang icaros with dark messages. My friend speaks enough Spanish, which many tourists do not, and could tell they were not songs of healing. My friend also felt the shaman trying to insert a psychic dart into her. She held it off thanks to her light being stronger than his dark, and because she only took one cup and thus, was not fully under the influence of the medicine. She left in disgust the next morning. Her friend only stayed because he's paid for a week's worth of food and accommodation. However, he has not participated in any more ceremonies saying it's just not worth the risk.
I have another friend who told me about a retreat in Mexico. In that one, three people left the day after the first ceremony, convinced the shamans were practising black magic and appearing as demons to them. I don't have any further information on this one, except it adds to my message of 'be careful'.
Ayahuasca absolutely opens up portals to other realms and dimensions—and no, it is not all love and light. Dark entities exist and some shamans actively work with them to feed off the fear of ceremony participants. If you are not operating in a high state of vibration to begin with, then these low vibration energies/entities can attach themselves to you. Even if you are strong, you still might not be a match for black magic.
A shaman's job to create and hold a sacred space during ceremony and keep the participants safe. This begs the question, how do you find a trustworthy shaman? At the very least, do some googling, although given the glowing reports of this retreat in Peru, I wonder how useful even that is. What kind of magic is the shaman doing that so many people are willing to give it such a high rating?
For me, talking to people who've drunk a particular shaman's medicine is the best way to make an assessment, although I realise that can be difficult. Simple questions like What was your experience like? Did you feel safe with that shaman/those shamans? What about the other people in ceremony? Did anyone leave after the first night? Why? These are good questions to start with. You should also ask these questions. The more information you have, the better.
I would also look at what the different retreats are offering. Are they just serving ayahuasca/yagé or do they offer other plant medicines like San Pedro, Peyote, DMT, etc. and frog poisons (Sapo/Kambo)? If it's the latter, approach with caution. These medicines all work differently and you shouldn't chop and change between them without allowing time for integration. Furthermore, legit trained shamans typically only work with one entheogen and are definitely not experts in all of them. So naïve Westerners think they are getting a good deal by going to a one-stop shop and taking something different every night. At best, they are cheating themselves out of the healing/lessons each medicine has to offer. At worst and they are putting themselves in the hands of an inexperienced shaman.
From my own extensive research, I was confident that Rythmia offered a safe space to take Ayahuasca/yagé. Although it's run by Westerners for Westerners, they take their work very seriously. All the shamans have received at least 12 years of training from a specific Indigenous lineage and make their own medicine. This means they know exactly what's in it, including the intentions and icaros that go into each brew. Each week, 80-100 people show up and almost no one leaves without completing all four ceremonies. I've never heard anyone mention black magic and Rythmia in the same sentence and there are literally hundreds of positive testimonies online.
Similarly, I did my research when I drunk with the Colombian taitas (shamans) that came to Panama in May. I couldn't find any bad press on the shamans. Furthermore, the organisers answered all my questions, and genuinely cared about the people that were coming to ceremony. Their honesty and commitment to creating a safe space is even more obvious to me now that I've gotten to know them better.
I will be drinking with a different Colombian taita next weekend. In the lead-up, I have spoken to several people who've attended his previous ceremonies and I feel comfortable with my decision to sit with him. I know the organisers and I know the shaman makes his own medicine. Of course, since this will be my first time with him, there's still a risk. However, I do feel like I've done my homework.
What about drinking by yourself?
Given what I've said above, you may be thinking that drinking ayahuasca on your own is the way to go. The short answer is no. If you're by yourself and you go to a dark place, no one can pull you out. This is dangerous and could leave you with serious mental issues/suicidal thoughts. My favourite aya blogger, Tina 'Kat' Courtney, goes into more detail about it here.
What about drinking with your mates?
"If you sit with someone who pours and hopes for the best, you are at risk of facing energies that neither of you are equipped to handle." Tina 'Kat' Courtney
Like drinking alone, drinking with your hippy mates who've done ayahuasca a few times won't help either if you get into serious trouble. One of the worst stories I've seen online on how not to take ayahuasca is here. This woman basically did everything wrong and the people she was with were reckless. You can scroll through the comments to find out why.
Similarly, if your mate says "just neck it and listen to Bob Marley", which someone did say to another friend of mine, then walk away. This person doesn't have a clue or any respect for the plants. (Thankfully my friend didn't follow his advice.)
I cannot stress the importance of having a good and experienced shaman to guide you if you decide to take ayahuasca. However, knowing who to trust is becoming increasingly difficult. The best way is to find people who know/have worked with the shaman/s you're considering. At the very least, try to talk to someone has attended their ceremonies. And if all that fails, save up and go to Rythmia.
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