The Amazonian brew ayahuasca has been given many names: “The Great Vine”, “the mother”, “vine of souls” (ayawaska in Quechuan), and “yagé” (the Colombian name) are a few. Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew made from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine and the leaves of a DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) containing admixture plant such as chacruna (Psychotria viridis) or chaliponga (Diplopterys cabrerana). The ayahuasca brew is also regularly referred to as a tea.  

Sometimes other admixtures might be put in the brew, according to region or availability, but the traditional brew is made up of the vine and the DMT plant. The ayahuasca brew is a traditional medicine used by Amazonian tribes for both spiritual and physical healing. Today this powerful medicine is finding its way around the world, with more people than ever before seeking it out for its powerful healing properties. 

The region of traditional Ayahuasca use is the western part of the Amazon Basin (the Upper Amazon) and the indigenous peoples of Colombia, Peru, Ecuador, and Brazil continue to use ayahuasca to date. It is also common in Costa Rica, Venezuela and Bolivia, and retreats and ceremonies are now popping up all over the world; ayahuasca tea consumption is no longer limited to the Amazonian jungle.

Consumption of ayahuasca

The ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) contains what is known as monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). MAOIs are necessary in order that the DMT can become active in the human system; when taken orally, the monoamine oxidase enzymes in the stomach would render the DMT useless if the inhibitors were not present to prevent it. This is not the case when DMT is smoked, at which point it is able to instantly cross the blood brain barrier uninhibited by enzymes.

Ayahuasca is generally brewed for around 8 hours but it can be brewed for significantly longer. Traditionally only the shaman would drink it in order to gain the understanding required to heal his or her patient. Today it is much more common for those seeking healing to drink the ayahuasca tea along with the shaman. Since doing so became popular with travelers seeking self-understanding, healing and spiritual advancement, it is now the norm in retreat centres around the world.

What it is interesting is that although Amazonian tribe members generally only drank ayahuasca a couple of times in their entire lives due to the challenging nature of the experience, it has become normal for non-indigenous people to drink ayahuasca many times – some report to have drank it more than a hundred times.

The effects of ayahuasca  

The effect ayahuasca has on the human body and mind is profound. Some refer to it as an entheogen and some as a hallucinogen, but it seems that most whom imbibe the brew do not attribute its powerful psychoactive effects to imaginings of the mind; the general consensus appears to be that the ayahuasca vine has an intelligent spirit that acts as a guiding force during the experience.

The vine is also responsible for the purgatory aspects of the experience; most imbibers will vomit or defecate at some point during the experience, which is seen as a physical and energetic cleanse; the release of ‘stuck’ energies that create illness within the body.

The DMT-containing admixture plant provides the visionary side of the experience, and without this the vine would evoke little to no visions in most users. Due to the incredibly potent visual effects of the DMT, it is easy for users to consider this the prominent factor in the experience; something that was probably encouraged further by Terence McKenna’s plentiful, articulate (and now famous) descriptions of his visions.

However, it would be inaccurate to attribute the healing benefits of the ayahuasca brew entirely to DMT; this is only one part of the experience, albeit the most intense part. B. caapi is more than just an enzyme inhibitor, and those who have consumed brews with different monoamine oxidase inhibiting plants (analogue brews or anahuasca) tend to describe the experience as differing in quality.

For example, Peganum harmala (Syrian Rue) is often mixed with DMT and provides a similar experience, but those who consider these plants to be entheogens regularly report that the plant had a different spirit. It is clear that one of the reasons ayahuasca is often referred to as ‘the mother’ is that the perception of a maternal female guiding force is present throughout, and this is rarely said of similar brews. This lends further credibility to the theory that all plants have intelligence.

History of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is widely reported to have been around for around 8 millennia, but there is no evidence to substantiate such claims and it is not possible to find the origins of them either. However, ayahuasca is generally considered to be an ancient tradition because it has for at least several hundred years been one of the most potent medicines of the indigenous Amazonian tribes.

In recent times its popularity among the indigenous peoples has risen concurrently with its popularity in the West. Although the ceremonies we are now so familiar with may actually be a relatively new development in the consumption of ayahuasca, the rate at which such ceremonies are spreading around the world, they appear to be a practice that is here to stay.  

There is arguably something about the quality of the visions that lends credibility to the idea of ancientness, but this is not necessarily true for everyone. So far the origins and age of ayahuasca have not been conclusive, but there is evidence to support that snuffs containing DMT were being used around 900BC. Iconographic depictions on ceramics and other artefacts from Ecuador are some of the most compelling indications that the practice of drinking ayahuasca dates back to at least 2000 B.C.

What is known for sure is that a number of Brazilian sects (including União do Vegetal and Santo Daime) were using the brew as a sacrament by the middle of the 20th century. Members of the sects believed that ayahuasca was responsible for an increase in their mental health and decline in addictions and detrimental behaviours, so the Medical Studies section of the large sect União do Vegetal invited psychiatrist Charles S. Grob (of the Department of Psychiatry at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center) to undertake a biomedical investigation.

Grob, who is a leading clinical researcher of psychedelic-assisted therapy, worked with Dennis McKenna on this, and the Hoasca Project was born. The pair studied the history, pharmacology and effects of the ayahuasca, as well as reviewed past and current scientific research on the tea. Back in 2006, the US Supreme Court ruled in favour of the União do Vegetal’s New Mexico branch and they were granted the right to legally consume ayahuasca.  

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