What is Ayahuasca and how does it work?
Ayahuasca (pronounced – EYE-uh-WAH-skuh) is an entheogenic brew made from Amazonian plants that has been revered in the region for centuries for its medicinal and mystical effects.
The word “ayahuasca” has three different meanings. Firstly it refers to a plant, a vine whose botanical name is Banisteriopsis caapi Secondly it refers to a brew which is made by boiling cuttings of the vine together withparts of a plant called “chacruna”, which contains dimethyltryptamine, DMT (the main vision-inducingcomponent). Thirdly it refers to a female spirit, the Spirit of Ayahuasca, who often appears to those taking the brew ayahuasca. People in Peru who use ayahuasca are known as “ayahuasceros”. Peruvians distinguish between what they call“curanderos” and “médicos” – who are healers – and “brujos”, who are sorcerors and practice so-called “black magic”. Peruvians visit a curandero or a médico mainly for medical problems and, if they are seeking knowledge of thespirit world, for cleansing the body and mind of impurities, whereas they go to a brujo partly to seek healing forillnesses but also for more worldly aims such as success in romance and business, Actually curanderos also use black magic sometimes, since there is a lot of rivalry between ayahuasceros of both sorts. A curandero who is trying to heal a patient must discover what is causing his patient’s illness, and if the cause is the patient of another curandero then this can lead to a fight between the two of them. The word “shaman” originated in the work of Western anthropologists, and has only recently been adopted by Peruvians from Westerners who come to Peru looking for ayahasceros with whom to take ayahuasca. Ayahuasceros who are not “shamans” in this sense are called “médicos” by Peruvians, or “curanderos”, and they mainly havecontact with Peruvians rather than Westerners.I shall refer to curanderos, médicos and brujos collectively as “ayahuasceros”, simply meaning anyone who uses ayahuasca in some kind of practice, whether for healing, magical orartistic purposes.
The word – ayahuasca comes from the Quechua language, spoken by indigenous peoples of the Western Amazonian and highland regions of Ecuador and Peru, in which it denotes a species of jungle liana, Banisteriopsis caapi. Its literal translation as – spirit vine or – vine of the soul alludes to its uses in traditional Amazonian indigenous cultural belief systems to connect with ancestor or forest spirits. In contemporary English, ayahuasca may refer to B. caapi, but more commonly the term refers to a brew prepared from B. caapi and the leaves of another plant, Psychotria viridis.
Although ayahuasca is the most common term for the brew, it has many other names in various Amazonian indigenous languages (including yagé in Tukano and natem in Shuar), and is also known as Daime tea or – hoasca‖ by different Brazilian religious groups.
Ayahuasca is a pharmacologically unique preparation, as the primary alkaloids in its constituent plants – B. caapi and P. viridis – produce a biochemical synergy in the human body that results in profound altered states of consciousness. Its capacity to induce remarkable visions and ideations has made it one of the most valued medicines in the traditional Amazonian indigenous pharmacopoeia, esteemed for its diagnostic, healing and divinatory properties. For the same reason, ayahuasca has recently become an object of curiosity for people seeking to experience its psychosomatic effects, an object of inquiry for researchers studying it from a variety of academic disciplines, an object of post-colonial cultural controversy for indigenous peoples concerned about protecting their intellectual and spiritual heritage, and an object of legal and policy concern for governments in various parts of the world confronted by its use within their jurisdictions. The brew is thus a nexus for sociological trends such as new religious movements and alternative healing practices that defy conventional modern understandings of religion and medicine. Ayahuasca is also a significant part of a revived field of academic inquiry into the potential beneficial uses of psychedelics or entheogens, a topic which for several decades was mostly shunned by mainstream academia and elided in dominant public and political discourses informed by the Western mechanistic worldview. Modern scientific knowledge about ayahuasca is paltry in comparison with the rich oral indigenous, mestizo and religious experientially- informed knowledge of the brew, its constituent plants, and its uses, effects, risks and benefits.4 However, while academic research on ayahuasca has gradually increased in the past few decades, it has not matched the scope or pace of the transnational spread of contemporary drinking practices.
In Amazonian culture, there exists a very ancient healing tradition that, at its most basic level, utilizes a panacea of medici- nal plants. This practice has been cultivated over thousands of years, evolving as various tribes lived and thrived throughout the different regions of the South American rainforest. The elders learned to use specific plants to heal all manner of illness, and through a very deep, intimate understanding of their immediate jungle surroundings, a symbiotic relationship was formed between man and nature. The tribes were healed, nourished, and guided by the plants, and in turn, these communities nurtured the forests and became keenly aware of each plant’s healing properties.
In this manner, the medicinal plants have been an ever-evolving foundation of these cultures for millennia. This ancient tradition works with both plants that are seen as strictly medicinal – those that work solely on the physical level and can occasionally have psychological benefits – as well as with those that are considered spiritually sacred. Western medicine categorizes these plants as “entheogenic”.
The medium through which this communication travels most strongly has been, since the beginning of the region’s recorded history, a tribe’s curandero, or medicine man (also known as the shaman, a word that actually originated in Siberia, but is appli- cable to the role that is present in indigenous tribes around the world). Unlike more developed, modernized cultures, in which a person’s doctor, therapist, and priest or spiritual advisor are separate people and separate aspects of society in general, the curanderos singularly serve all of those functions within a given tribe or community. This man or woman makes it his or her life’s purpose to serve other fellow human beings, and to also act as
a guardian of sorts for the local forest and the plants from which they derive their remedies. The curandero remains dedicated to acquiring new wisdom and knowledge about the rainforest plants and their properties, as well as to a broad array of other healing techniques and rituals, offering his or her services to those in need, and in return takes only what is required for the basic sus- tenance of his or her family. Rather than being driven by salary, public recognition, career trajectory, or fear of lawsuit, the curand- ero’s only motivation is a genuine desire to heal. Some feel
that this method is superior to occidental health care because it allows the curandero to invest more deeply in each patient, and to address the underlying problems behind the illness, rather than giving a diagnosis or prescribing treatment based on a single visit.
Another cornerstone of traditional Amazonian healing is the focus on a patient’s spiritual and mental state, in conjunction with his or her physical well being. While Western medicine tends to treat the body and mind as separate entities, a curandero will consider a person as a whole, with physical, spiritual, and psychological aspects all affecting one another on a profound level. Stress and diet in particular are considered supremely influential factors on the state of the human body, as are more deep-seated psychological issues such as guilt, shame, and long-repressed sentiments that can continue to plague a person long after the immediately apparent emotional distresses have subsided. Often times this manifests in other unforeseen forms. These ailments could re- veal themselves as moderate inconveniences like stress and high blood pressure, or in more serious ways, such as stomach adhe- sions, tumors, or other full-blown chronic illnesses. To an Amazo- nian medicine man, simply treating symptoms on the surface level is a superficial and ultimately ineffective way to address a patient’s illnesses, even if at first glance it appears to be strictly physical. Only when these deeper spiritual and emotional issues are con- fronted can the true healing begin.