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Ayahuasca, the sacred brew, has long been used in ritual practices of the upper Amazonian region. It has been used in warfare, healing, divination, artistic inspiration, and referenced in cultural narrative. Shamans and indigenous people who used ayahuasca were persecuted by missionaries, health officials, and guerilla organizations. Once commonly used in indigenous healthcare, it completely disappeared from use in some communities while other communities have only begun discovering and using ayahuasca.
In Amazonian healing lore, to take ayahuasca is to drink from the healing spirit of nature. Ayahuasca healing has transcended over more than one thousand years. Some legends attribute healing plant knowledge and the brewing of ayahuasca to the Incans. The Incans passed this knowledge to the people of the Peruvian Amazon Basin and they, in turn, passed their knowledge to the “mixed blood” Mestizos.
Ancient traditions and knowledge evolved and melded through the centuries with the resources and practices of other areas and tribal communities. Ayahuasca is now incorporated into newer traditions, such as the Santo Daime and Uniao Vegetal spiritual practices, that began in the 1930s.
More recently, the Peruvian Institute of National Culture declared the knowledge and traditional use of ayahuasca to be a national cultural heritage. This declaration helps ensure the cultural continuation of ayahuasca within native Amazonian communities. The Institute further states that the base ayahuasca plant (Banisteriopsis capi) has “extraordinary cultural history” and is considered to be a master plant. This declaration is a statement to the world that the tradition of ayahuasca is acknowledged and respected.
Although the ayahuasca ceremony and healing practices have been adapted throughout centuries, some traditional elements remain similar to their foundation.
Knowledge of the plant spirits
From ancient times, the indigenous peoples have believed that plant spirits share their knowledge of healing and enlightenment with those people who seek their knowledge. Healers will spend years in plant study, including extended periods of solitude in the Amazonian forests, even ingesting plants in “dieta” to enable the plant spirit to enter their bodies and impart both plant spirit and knowledge into the healer.
In the Amazon, traditional healing, plants are not only used to heal a patient emotionally and physically, but also to help the patient gain insight into themselves and into their lives.
The healer/shaman may communicate with other plants in addition to the ayahuasca during the ceremony. In some traditions, only the healer drinks the ayahuasca, not the patient.
Other elements of traditional ayahuasca include a restricted diet and no sexual activity for a period of time prior to and following the ceremony. There will be periods of silence and introspection during the ceremony and the ceremony will usually be held at night in near darkness, guided by the healer or shaman.
The near-interchangeability of terms can make it difficult to consistently describe the healer, too. It is important to note that some ayahuasca communities will have different levels of healers. The term “shaman” may not be used at all in some cases; the shaman in some communities will be more of a witch doctor than a healer.
The indigenous and mestizo peoples of the Peruvian Amazon refer to healers – those qualified to actually conduct the ceremonies and treat patients –as “curanderos” or “medicos”. A curandero has spent a lengthy apprenticeship (10 or more years) in plant study, years of dietas, solitude with the plants in preparation for serving as a healer. A curandero may be considered a very brave healer for he or she will be called upon to address the darkest energies and spirits of a patient.
In other communities, the healer is referred to as an “ayahuasquero”. This person may have less training than the curandero. The ayahuasquero may be the person who is able to prepare the ayahuasca, and may even hold a ceremony, but is not usually the person who does the healing or works directly with the patients. Unlike the curandero, the ayahuascquero who is able to perceive serious issues or negative spirits will call on the curandero for the actual healing services.
A growing challenge to tradition and the effectiveness of healing with ayahuasca is that more people are seeking healing through this ancient system. However, many traditional healers have little experience in working with the integration process some patients may require during and after healing. These people, familiar with western medicine practices, must find ways to incorporate (or integrate) the elements of their ayahuasca experience with their western knowledge and experiences. It is to be hoped that as more people seek this healing, the healers themselves will become more knowledgeable in helping their patients bridge their western/traditional spiritual and energy needs.
The plant spirits impart not only knowledge of their healing properties to the shamans but also very specific songs called icaros – the songs of the plants. They will convey their songs to the healer during the ayahuasca ceremony; the healer acts as a conduit for the plant spirits.
In some healing communities, the songs of the shamans will incorporate the icaros of the plants with the “music” of the environment – bird song, rustling leaves, etc., or elements of other shaman songs. Healers may also use plant rattles.
It is believed that music serves to protect the ceremonial environment, help retrieve lost souls, and move the ayahuasca further into the patient’s body to release negative blockages. Through icaros, the plant spirits help the healer/shaman guide the patient safely through their healing journey.
Tobacco is considered an essential element of any ayahuasca ceremony. The healer/shaman uses tobacco as protector, healing agent, cleaner, and sustenance. Tobacco smoke may be blown over the ayahuasca, inhaled by the healer, or blown over the patient.
Chupar and Soplar
Chupar is the practice of sucking heavy energies from a patient. This may be accomplished by the healer literally sucking the patient’s skin at the point of illness, by placing cupped hands at the site (like using a straw), or by pulling with the mouth from a distance. The chosen method varies from practitioner to practitioner.
The Soplar is typically completed by blowing tobacco smoke over the patient to transmit the plant spirit’s medicine into the patient.
Both the chupar and soplar practices are truly ancient elements of the ayahuasca ceremony.
During an ayahusca journey, a person should follow very specific dietary restrictions (“la dieta”). The dietary shifts that occur prior to, during, and after healing, will help prepare the body for healing and to complete the body’s transition from the healing process back into daily living.
Through this dietary process, the participant’s body becomes open to the positive healing energy of Mother Ayahuasca.
There may be considerable variation in specific content of the diet. But in almost all cases, some form of dietary restriction and abstinence is essential in order for full healing and enlightenment to occur.
Most shamans require that the participant commence the diet at least three days before the first ceremony and continue for two to three days after the last ceremony. Alcohol and pork should be eliminated from the diet for an even longer period than the three days, each, mentioned; they, along with alcohol, sugar, fermented foods, some dried and fresh fruits, and many types of medications including prescription, non-prescription, and recreational drugs. A number of organizations that facilitate ayahuasca ceremony travels to the Amazon will have a list of foods and medications to avoid.
The other dietary restriction, sexual abstinence, may be viewed by some as honoring taboo tradition. A belief in the Amazon is that Mother Ayahuasca has a jealous spirit and wants the seeker’s undivided attention when in her presence. Other practitioners consider sexual abstinence necessary for the participant to focus more fully on his or her own spiritual personal dimensions.