In PART 1 we established that when choosing which ayahuasca retreat is right for you, the first thing is to decide on a location and what type of accommodations you would be most comfortable in. Now we can begin to look at 3 factors that are actually going to affect what kind of experience you have: The ayahuasquero, the ceremony and the brew.
SHAMAN – The ayahuasquero - shaman - facilitator will be the one that essentially determines the energy and flow of the experience so it is very important that you know who you will be drinking with and what the ceremonies will be like.
Some people feel very strongly that only indigenous peoples can be true shaman and work with ayahuasca. They believe that since ayahuasca originated in the Amazon that only natives from that area can have a true connection to the plants.
On the other hand, many westerns may feel more at ease drinking with a ‘gringo’. It is easier for one westerner to communicate to another westerner the struggles or stresses that affect them on a daily basis from a fast paced and materialistic society without trying to navigate language or cultural barriers.
Either way, whether indigenous or gringo – experience is key. Just because an individual is from the Amazon does not mean they are qualified to serve ayahuasca. On the other hand just because a Westerner is not from the Amazon does not mean they can’t be qualified to work with ayahausca. Ethnicity and skin color are irrelevant, the training and knowledge are what really matter. Information on the retreat facilitator should be available on the website, but if not feel free to ask questions. How long have they been serving ayahuasca? Where did they train and what traditions do they follow? Do they drink the medicine with the group to guide they experience? (the should!) The ayahuasquero is the person that will be accompanying you and guiding you into the great unknown - so get to know them and see if you are comfortable. From there we will move on to consider the ceremony itself.
CEREMONY – Ayahuasca ceremonies can vary significantly from one retreat to the next. With the rise of ‘new age’ spirituality and the growing interest in ayahuasca, a number of different kinds of ceremonies are now offered. Some retreats go very nontraditional and play recorded music, electronic music or have a live music set up (think burning man/envision festival). Some don’t even offer a ceremony, only serve the brew and ‘sit’! The ceremony will guide your experience so it’s really important to know what kind of environment you will drink in. However, most ceremonies typically adhere primarily to one of the following most common ceremonial traditions:
Shipibo/Peruvian Traditions – spiritual practice, done at night, one ceremonial facilitator singing Icaros (medicine songs) for a group of participants
Santo Diame/Brazilian Traditions – religious organization, wears all white, members all participate in song and dance together
Some facilitators require silence for participants for the duration of ceremony, while others encourage you to ‘go where the medicine takes you’ (although in my opinion, this practice can be extremely distracting, especially in large groups).
You will also want to know how many other people will be participating in ceremony with you. Some retreats can be as small as 3-5 people with others reaching up to 90 participants! That’s a lot of people to share such an intimate experience with, and also would require a lot of facilitators and assistants to maintain proper care of the space. Keep in mind that you, along with all the other participants, will be processing and releasing energy into the ceremony and those energies affect everyone in the group. Ayahuasca can be a form a release (purge) and sometimes the release is vocal through laughing/crying/moaning/talking so when you get ceremony groups with close to a hundred people there are bound to distractions. Personally, I do not recommend such large group sizes as it feels overwhelming and chaotic. NLA limits our retreat groups to 10 or less.
Now let’s talk about what you’ll be drinking (and how much of it).
AYAHUASCA BREW - The ayahuasca brew is arguably the most important factor of any ayahuasca retreat. Without a quality brew, it doesn’t matter how great the center is or how skilled the shaman is. Of course, those things play a role but at the end of the day it is truly the ayahuasca that determines the value of your experience.
Ayahuasca brew is made by combining the vine ( Banisteriopsis caapi or b. caapi for short) with the leaves of a DMT containing plant such as chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana) or chacruna (Psychotria viridis). Some shamans add other plant materials to their brew such as tobacco or flowers to infuse the spirit into the medicine. Generally, this is okay and does not affect the quality or potency of the medicine, however there is one extremely poisonous and powerful hallucinogenic flower called Datura (Toé ) that can have dangerous effects.
With the boom of ayahuasca tourism to poor countries, some natives have seen this as an easy way to make money. Unfortunately, many of these people are unskilled and knowledgeable. Gringos come to their country expecting a magical psychedelic visionary experience (which is not always the case with ayahuasca) and they either don’t have the knowledge to make quality medicine or lack the resources, so they use Datura alone or mixed into weaker ayahuasca to increase the visionary aspect of the experience. Datura can be deadly in high doses and in lower doses can land you in the hospital for psychosis or disassociation.
Do not be afraid to ask about the source of the brew for your retreat. Ask if any additional plants are added. Ask if the shaman/facilitator drinks the same brew with the group.
DOSING – How much ayahuasca will you be drinking at the retreat? How is dose determined? Do you have the opportunity to drink more if you aren’t having an experience? Do you have a say in how much you drink? Can you drink more or less if requested? At some ayahuasca retreats the shaman will decide how much you drink and when/if you should drink more. Other retreats, like ours, start everyone with an ‘introductory’ dose to determine each participants level of sensitivity and then offer an opportunity to drink more during the ceremony. From there the dose can be adjusted for subsequent ceremonies.
PART 2 SUMMARY:
Who is leading the ceremony and what experience do they have?
What type/tradition is the ceremony?
What type of music is provided?
Is silence required?
How many participants are in each group?
What brew is used and what is in it?
How is dosing determined?
Are there opportunities to drink more during the ceremony?
Does the ayahuasquero/facilitator drink the brew with the group?
Now that we’ve covered the shaman, the ceremony, the brew and dosing let’s move on to PART 3 for our final tips on choosing an ayahuasca retreat.