If you’re considering drinking ayahuasca then you’re probably wondering what you might be letting yourself in for, and a common question you might have is just what actually happens during an ayahuasca ceremony?
I don’t like to write much about what people actually experience on ayahuasca (internally) because everybody experiences ayahuasca in their own unique way, and when people read too much about other people’s experiences it can often to lead to them having a lot of expectations and that’s something I want to discourage. Therefore, this article will just focus only on what actually takes place during an ayahuasca ceremony.
I should also add that I’m going to be talking about traditional mestizo ceremonies from the upper Amazon. There are many different indigenous cultures in the Amazon that use ayahuasca, and they may have different ways of conducting their ceremonies.
Additionally, there are also several religions such as Santo Daime that use Ayahuasca as a sacrament and their ceremonies are also quite different.
Where do Ayahuasca ceremonies take place?
I’ve heard that in the old days, ayahuasca ceremonies traditionally took place outdoors in the jungle. Participants would sit in a circle, usually around a fire, and nobody would be allowed to break the circle for the duration of the ceremony. Any puking or shitting would need to be done behind (or in front of) your seat. However, this is not the way things are usually done these days.
Today, ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon usually take place either in a room in the shamans house or in a ceremonial maloka. A maloka is a large jungle hut that’s often octagonal in shape with a high, sloping thatched roof that reaches a point in the center.
If the ceremony takes place in a house, then participants will often be given a chair to sit on during the ceremony. If it’s in a maloka then people will be given a small mattress they can sit or lie on during the ceremony. Most Ayahuasca retreat centers have their own ceremonial maloka which can usually fit between 10 and 30 people in a circle, depending on their size.
Arriving on time
Ayahuasca ceremonies always take place after dark. Here in the upper Amazon, it gets dark pretty early because it’s close to the equator. It’s always dark before 7pm and the length of the day is pretty much the same all year round.
Usually ceremonies start between 7 and 8pm, but I’ve attended a few ceremonies that haven’t started until 9 or even 10pm.
Participants are usually expected to arrive at least 30 minutes before the ceremony begins. This gives everyone enough time to find a place in the room and relax a little before the ceremony starts.
To put yourself in a relaxed state of mind, it’s a good idea to meditate or practice breathing exercises before the ceremony begins. Talking to other people in the ceremony space is strongly discouraged.
Drinking the Ayahuasca
Once everybody is positioned and the shaman is ready, then it’s time to drink the ayahuasca. Each person in the room will take it in turns to sit in front of the shaman and drink a cup of ayahuasca.
When a person goes forward, the shaman will pour a dose of ayahuasca from a larger bottle into a small ceremonial cup. The shaman will usually intuit the dose needed for each individual.
First-timers will often be given a smaller dose than people with experience. The shaman will then blow mapacho smoke over the cup, and he might also put his own intention or prayer into the cup before handing it over.
After receiving the cup, most people will spend at least a few seconds, focusing their intention into the cup, and perhaps saying a prayer, before quickly drinking it down. It’s always a good idea to drink the brew as quickly as possible, due to the rather foul taste of the liquid. The quicker you can get it down, the easier it is and less likely you will vomit it straight back up again.
Once you have drunk the ayahuasca, you will then return to your place in the room and the next person will go forward until each person in the room has drunk their dose. The shaman will usually drink last.
Protecting the space
One of the main roles of the shaman during a ceremony is to protect the space and everyone in it. This is why it’s very important to drink with an experienced shaman in my opinion. Without the protection of a good shaman you are potentially vulnerable to negative energies and spirits.
Once everyone in the room has drunk ayahuasca, some shamans will go round to each person in the room and blow mapacho smoke over each person, primarily over their crown chakra and then over their hands. Mapacho is pure jungle tobacco and is said to be one of the most sacred plants in the jungle. The mapacho smoke acts as protection from negative energies and spirits. Some shaman will also blow mapacho smoke around the edges of the room before the ceremony begins.
After blowing mapacho smoke over everybody it’s time to turn the all the lights (or candles) out and the rest of the ceremony will take place in total darkness, although if the ceremony is taking place in a jungle maloka then moonlight can make the room less than pitch black.
Some shamans, including Don Lucho, will start singing their icaros almost immediately after turning off the lights. Other shamans will wait until they start to feel the effects of the ayahuasca, which can be anything from around 15 to 45 minutes after drinking. Some shamans will sing their icaros throughout the entire ceremony without stopping, while others may take breaks from singing and sit in silence for periods.
Icaros are sacred songs or chants that have been given to the shamans, either by their teachers or directly from the plant spirits. Each icaro has a specific purpose. Some icaros are sung to call in different spirits for healing or protection, while others are used to intensify, or even reduce the ayahuasca visions, and many icaros are used for the purpose healing.
Feeling the effects
Most people will start to feel the effects of ayahuasca within about 30 minutes after drinking, but for some people it can be much longer or even a lot sooner. Typically, most people will feel the effects of ayahuasca for about 3 to 4 hours, and usually the first 2 hours are the most intense.
There’s absolutely nothing you need to do during a ceremony except remain seated (or laid down) and allow the ayahuasca to work her magic on you. Usually you will be provided with a bucket to puke in should you need to purge during the ceremony, and a toilet will always be close by should you need to go.
If for any reason you’re having a really difficult time then it’s always okay to call out for help, particularly if there are facilitators in the room, which there will be on most retreats; however, please understand there’s not always a great deal people can do to help you other than hold your hand and try to reassure you that everything will be normal again within a few hours!
Also, if the effects of the ayahuasca seem to be pretty mild after about an hour, or you’re not feeling any effects at all, then it’s always okay to ask the shaman for another cup.
Most shamans will perform individual healing at some point throughout the ceremony. Don Lucho usually does this during the last hour of the ceremony. He will go round to each person in turn and perform a healing using his shacapa while singing an icaro directly into the person. He will spend about 5 to 10 minutes with each person.
During an ayahuasca ceremony, it’s important that you don’t speak or interrupt anyone else’s experience unless you are requesting help for yourself. Although that’s not to say you always have to be totally silent, although you should be if you can help it; however, during a really strong ayahuasca experience you don’t always have total control or even full awareness of your actions, and ayahuasca may cause you to laugh, cry, shout out, talk to yourself (or the spirits) or even sing out loud. This is generally ok and acceptable; however, if people are being excessively noisy or disruptive, then facilitators or the shaman will usually intervene and calm the person down.
If you hear a person requesting help during the ceremony, then you should always leave that to the retreat facilitators or the shaman himself.
If you need to use your flashlight to go to the toilet, always point the light downwards and cover it as much as possible. Never shine it in anyone’s eyes.
Closing the ceremony
The shaman will close the ceremony when he feels it’s safe to do so and that his presence in the room is no longer necessary. This is typically 4 or 5 hours after the ceremony begins.
Usually a ceremony is closed with some form of thanksgiving prayer, and then the shaman may formally declare that the ceremony is over, or he may just get up and silently leave the maloka.
It’s important to maintain silence in the room after the ceremony has ended because some people may still be experiencing strong ayahuasca effects even after the ceremony has ended.
If the ceremony takes place in a maloka then usually you can choose to go to sleep on your mattress in the maloka, or you can go back to your bed in whatever accommodation is provided.