Dieta, the Under-appreciated Foundational Shamanic Practice

As I mentioned in the previous post “How  Ayahuasca Works”, Ayahuasca gets all the attention, but in my opinion, and I am not alone in this, the “shamanic dieta” or “dieta” could be viewed as the foundation of amazonian shamanism. 

The dieta is not as exciting as Ayahuasca with her providing intense body sensations, purging, and visions, all of which happen within about a six hour time frame.  A dieta is a much more subtle yet very effective cleaning and healing process that takes anywhere from 5-12 days.  In some cases a dieta can last months or years.  A dieta is often the prescription curanderos gives his patients for various ailments and multiple dietas are required if one wants to become a curandero and/or eventually a Maestro.

I need to be clear that when I say “dieta”, I am not talking about the “Ayahuasca Dieta” that readers may have already come across in their research regarding Ayahuasca.  The “Ayahuasca dieta” is quite common in many retreat centers in Peru and involves food restrictions such as no salt, no sugar, no oil, no pork, no sex, no drugs etc…  This type of “Ayahuasca Dieta” is helpful when working with Ayahuasca, and when we bring in other trees or plants into the mix such that it is a shamanic or plant dieta it really turbo boosts the healing, cleansing, learning and energetic protection that an “Ayahuasca Dieta” does not necessarily provide on its’ own.

What I am referring to when I talk about a “dieta” is dieting specific trees or plants.  Some of the trees that are commonly dieted are ayahuma, cumaseba, bobinsana, capirona, huiara-caspi, and lupuna- just to name a few.  Some plants that are used are chiric sanango, uchu sanango, tobacco, pinon negro, pinon colorado and Ajo-sacha- again, just to name a few.  There are also diets that are based on Agua Florida (a cologne/perfume used in shamanic work) and even gasoline….yes gasoline.

The components of a tree or plant dieta are generally (remember each curandero/lineage may have slightly different methods, restrictions, etc..) as follows:

The curandero makes a “tea” using the bark of the tree, leaves or roots of the plant.

The tea is drunk 4 or more times during the course of the dieta. 

The length of the dieta lasts between 5-12 days (in some cases much longer- months or even years)

There are food restrictions during the dieta such as no salt, no sugar, no oil, no pork, no processed foods and no stimulants such as caffeine.

In most cases any pharmaceutical medicines must be stopped prior to entering the dieta.

No usage of toiletries such as soap, shampoo, perfume, deodorant, make up etc…  The skin is porous and anything placed on the skin will be absorbed.  Also, during a dieta we are doing our best to get away from social vanities.

One must refrain from all sexual activity and in some cases touching of other people in general during the dieta.

No alcohol, other teacher plants or recreational drugs.

Traditionally, and in my opinion, ideally a tree or plant dieta is done in isolation out in the jungle and no ayahuasca is drunk during the dieta.

The idea behind doing the dieta in isolation is that in isolation there are not many distractions.  One can focus on the trees or plants that they are dieting.  The trees and plants provide subtle teachings to watch an listen for during the dieta.  These teachings can come during the day or at night during one’s dreams.   This isolation also allows concentration or contemplation on the energetic and or emotional shifts that come up internally during the dieta. 

During a dieta one is expected to rest, meditate and generally not do much.  Again, this is an effort to remove our tendency to distract ourselves with the external, material world and focus internally and on the plants.  In addition, when one removes salt, sugar and oil from their food diet (particularly salt), physical energy levels drop significantly.   Around day two or three during a dieta it is normal for a “dietero” (someone doing a dieta) not to want to do anything but lie around all day as this is the point at which salt has left the body.  It is also around this time that toxins are starting to exit and as these toxins are being removed from the tissues of the body, they enter the bloodstream such that the dietero starts to feel “sick” (this is also very common with fasting). 

It has been explained to me that during a dieta while our physical energy drops significantly, we don’t notice that our spiritual energy is actually increasing.  We don’t notice our spiritual energy increasing because our minds are still so attached to our physical bodies. It is the proverbial spiritual error that we think that we are our physical bodies.  This error in perception causes us to miss this increase in our spiritual energy during a dieta.   Then at the end of the dieta, the dietero will take salt to “cut the dieta”.  Once salt is taken the physical energy rises up again very quickly (sometimes in just minutes) to levels higher than when the dietero started the dieta.   The physical energy rises up to meet the spiritual energy that has been developed during the dieta.   

This of course leads us to the question of: how does the dieta raises one’s spiritual energy?

As with Ayahuasca (and frankly Amazonian shamanism in general),  there a significant focus is around energetic cleaning.  Those energetic blockages and pools of stagnant energy that we have keep our energetic bodies from operating as they should from a physical health standpoint and they block our spiritual connection or growth as well.  It is all interconnected.

When we take in plant or tree medicine as part of a dieta we do our part to make our bodies hospitable for plants by eating food that is exceptionally clean and simple.  We avoid chemicals in the food and by not using toiletries.  We are not exchanging energies with each other by touching or having sex.  We are essentially doing what we can to open our energetic and physical bodies to receive the plant spirits and invite them in to live in us. 

Now, the idea of having a plant or tree spirit living in one’s body may seem a bit odd or disconcerting to some and it is important to point out that the plants or trees that we work with are chosen based on their ability to help us, to heal us, to protect us and to teach us.  These plants and trees are doctors (medicinal), teachers, and protectors.  They also have their own particular characteristics.  Bobinsana for example is known for opening the heart.  Ayahuma appears as a headless giant and is known as a particularly good protector spirit.  Sanango is known as a stern, but loving grandfather who is all about integrity.  Pinon negro is known to be very good for clearing witchcraft and protecting against it.

As I mentioned before, we do our part to open ourselves to the plants and trees such that our bodies are welcoming and hospitable as possible.  Then we introduce those plants into our bodies via the tea that the curandero makes and they start to “move in”.  I really like to use the analogy that plants are “moving in” and making a nice home for themselves.  This is because while we do our  part to invite them in, they will set up their new home such that it is comfortable for them.  This means that they will clean, re-arrange and chase out any varmints/parasites as they see fit.  It is fortunate for us that they want to live in an energetically balanced environment which of course is beneficial to us.  Plant and tree spirits form a symbiotic relationship in our bodies vs. negative energies or spirits that form a parasitic relationship. 

When we look at plants and trees, it is important to notice the qualities of plants and trees that we diet.  Plants and trees do not have an ego, they are tolerant, they give life to other beings.  They grow around obstacles, vs. trying to fight head on. Plants don’t complain. It is these qualities that we can learn from as we diet the plants.  When we adopt these qualities in our lives, they get easier, we flow vs. resist and we are more tolerant.  Adopting these qualities of a tree or plant can help bring us well-being. 

Now, one may say that there are plants that are toxic or have thorns…they can be aggressive in their own plant manner.   This is true, and this is why a curandero practicing “pura medicina” (pure medicine) will not diet plants with these aggressive characteristics.  These “aggressive” plants would be dieted by Amazonian brujos, dark shamans or sorcerers as this type of shaman would be interested in power (via aggressiveness) instead of healing.

During a dieta one is told to take lots of showers, baths or jump into a river many times during the day.  We tell guests to take at least 4 showers a day.   This is because during the dieta the trees or plants are kind of “simmering” the body.  This simmering is driving energies that are not serving us to upward to the surface and upward towards the head such that they can be expelled.  This manifests in a couple of ways.  One can get headaches.  Feeling groggy or feel like one has the flu is quite common.  Negative emotions can start to rise to the consciousness.  It is common to notice negative feelings such anxiety, frustration, sadness and even anger.  Taking showers washes this energy off the surface.  During a retreat if anyone approaches me with concerns regarding physical or emotional issues, the first thing I ask that person is, “When was the last time you took a shower?”  If the person has not taken a shower in the last hour, they are instructed to do so immediately.  Taking a shower works in 90% of these cases.  If the shower is not sufficient to clear the issue, then someone on healing team can take further action to remove the energy such as performing a “ventiada” (the shaman stands over the patient and sings an icaro while sending healing energy to accelerate the removing of the offending energy and thus relieve the symptoms). 

This simmering process during a dieta is very much akin to what is called “a healing crisis”.  A healing crisis is a term used in many alternative modalities in the west.  What this means is that the medicine or technique being used will bring the illness to the surface such that it gets expelled.  It can be disconcerting to the patient because the condition in question will get worse before it gets better.  Again, the concept is that the imbalance or the illness needs to come to the surface before it can be expelled such that balance and healing can take place.  This is what happens during a dieta and in the case of a dieta it manifests in physical, energetic and emotional ways instead of just at the physical level. 

During a dieta the plants or trees are literally pushing out unwanted energies.  In addition to this cleansing and healing process one forms a relationship with the plants being dieted.  It is often reported that the spirit of the plant will come and introduce themselves to the dietero during a dream or during an Ayahuasca ceremony.  It is also common for people as they are contemplating and meditating to receive realizations about themselves and the world during a dieta.  The plants not only clean and heal, they teach.

The morning of the last day of the dieta the dietero takes salt to cut or end the dieta. Once the dietero cuts their dieta they still have to follow restrictions such as avoiding really intense sources of refined sugar for a period of time, avoiding sex and sexual activity for 15-30 days, avoiding alcohol and street drugs for 30 days, and avoiding pork in general. 

Again every curandero will have different rules for the restrictions and every curandero will insist that their method is correct.   In a way they are all correct in the sense that each curandero will have their own special relationship with the plants.   They have acquired their own energetic medicine through learning from the trees and plants and they are bringing this unique and individual relationship to the process. This combines with the plant medicine that they are serving and the rules and restrictions of a dieta in such a way that each dieta provided by each curandero is it’s own unique process/ unique container based on how the curandero interacts with the plants themselves individually in order to bring about the desired results of a dieta.  It is funny how curanderos and gringos can both turn into fundamentalists when it comes to the differences dieta rules and restrictions (I have been guilty of this).  It could be said, yes- follow the rules and restrictions of the dieta prescribed by the curandero you are working with as they are important.  Also, if you decide to diet with more than one curandero, do your best not to be attached to how those restrictions may change from curandero to curadero.

The two questions we get most about the restrictions post dieta are about sex and the use of “recreational drugs, other teacher plants and alcohol”. 

I find it kind of funny that so many people are concerned about waiting 15-30 days after ending a dieta before they can engage in any sexual behavior.  It really shows how sexualized our society is.  We are bombarded by it via media, friends and partners and we think that 15-30 days without sexual behavior is such a long time!  Is it really that important of an issue that we can not refrain for a mere 2-4 weeks? 

All that said, there are reasons for this restriction.  First is that we need to remember that when we have sex it is the most intense energetic exchange two people can do with one another.  We also need to keep in mind that going through a dieta is like an energetic surgery as the energetic body is opened and unwanted energies are removed.  In the time after a dieta it is like we are recovering from that surgery.  The “stitches” need time to heal.  We also want to stabilize our new energetic structure by minimizing the introduction of new energies.

Another reason for the sex restriction can be linked to the yogic or taoist ideas of maintaining or increasing ones sexual energy, and therefore our overall energy by avoiding sexual release.  We can look at the dieta process itself as building up of one’s energy and the restriction period post dieta as a time to maintain and refine that energy.

Some people say that the reason for the sex restriction is that Ayahuasca or the plants are “celoso” or jealous.  This can sound a bit odd to westerners.  Why would you want to get involved with a plant that is jealous and may react as such if a restriction is broken??  I actually think that this is a case of “lost in translation”.  The word “celoso” in Peruvian/jungle spanish does literally mean jealous.  However, I discovered that it can also mean “fragile”.  I discovered this one afternoon as I took a shortcut across a field of watermelon plants.  As I was walking across the field, the owner came running out to me and asked, “Hey when you walk across my field can you please stay on the marked pathway?  The watermelon plants are very “celoso””.  When I heard this, I was like, “WTF?  The watermelons are jealous?!?”  Then it hit me that he was saying that the watermelon plants were fragile and do not respond well to disturbances such as me walking close to them.  With this new understanding of the word “celoso” it all makes a bit more sense….the plants and trees we diet are still in a fragile state for those first 30 days after a dieta.  We need to give the plants and our new energetic structure time to settle in and strengthen.

The same concept applies regarding the restriction on “recreational drugs, other teacher plants and alcohol”.  Once again one needs to remember that post dieta, while the energetic body has been closed back up with energetic protection, it is still in a relatively vulnerable or fragile state.  When we drink alcohol, take other teacher plants, or recreational drugs we are opening up our energetic body which makes us vulnerable to unwanted energies and entities.  This is compounded by the fact that when we ingest these things we are sending out a beacon.   This beacon is a signal to various entities i.e. “bing, bing, bing, I just opened my energetic field over here and I my perception has been shifted such that I am more apt to see and receive from another “dimension”.”  Energies and entities hear or feel this beacon and are attracted as they are curious and sometimes they are looking for a host.  The problem being that if we do this we are generally not trained in how to protect ourselves.  Thus post dieta,  breaking some of the dieta restrictions can put us in a very vulnerable state.  A state that is more vulnerable because our energetic body is still recovering from the dieta. 

In the case of other teacher plants such as San Pedro/Huachuma, mushrooms, or marijuana we also want to let the teachings of the plants you dieted settle in and integrate.  If we bring in another teacher plant too soon it can cause confusion.  It is like getting on a boat and then putting a foot on another boat going in the same direction and trying to straddle the two.  Yes, they are going in the same direction, but it is foolish to try to ride two boats at once for obvious reasons.  It is best to take one boat to a destination and if one wants to continue the voyage on another boat that is fine, just wait to get fully on another boat for the next leg of the voyage.

What Happens if One “Breaks the Rules” or if One Does not Believe in the Rules of the Dieta? 

When I first started working with Ayahausca  and dietas it was common for people at the center I was working with to talk about the bad things that could happen if one broke the post dieta restrictions.   They talked about various forms of suffering that could come about due someone consciously breaking these restrictions.  It was said that breaking the restrictions led to crossed energies and bad things could happen in one’s life.  The way I perceived it at the time was that the spirits of the plants would get angry at the person who crosse the rules that they had laid forth.  This is a shamanic perspective and can be viewed as true from that perspective.  However, I have come to another perspective or conclusion that takes a more internal “personal responsibility” perspective and less of an external fear or blame based perspective (when we use the shamanic perspective the external plant spirit causes the suffering). 

The perspective that I put forth is that when we break the post dieta rules it is actually us punishing ourselves.  It is something internal, not something caused by an external spirit or entity.  The concept is that when we decide to do a plant dieta we are making a commitment.  We know what we are signing up for.  The restrictions during the dieta and after the dieta are all laid out for us.  It is our responsibility to make the final decision about taking on that commitment.  We know it is a significant endeavor and it is not to be taken lightly. We have accepted this agreement with the plants and most importantly we have made an agreement with ourselves. 

I think we can all agree that one’s integrity is key to well-being in one’s life.  If one is out of integrity in life, then that life eventually produces unhappiness, imbalance and even disease.  When we agree to do a dieta, we are agreeing that we will be integrous regarding the rules of that dieta.  Therefore, it makes all the sense in the world that if one breaks their agreement with the plants things may start to go awry in their lives.  That person is simply out of integrity.  They made a promise to the plants and most importantly themselves. If one breaks the rules of the dieta, that promise was broken.  This lack of integrity then rolls domino like through that person’s life to cause problems.  It is a simple case of lying to one’s self.

In the case of someone claiming that they do not believe in the rules to begin with, these people are lying or out of integrity from the “get go”.  If a person enters a dieta with the idea that they do not believe in the plants or the process, they are lying to the curandero, they are lying to the other people who may witness the process, and ultimately they are lying to themselves.  It is as if they are “crossing their fingers” as they  commit to do the dieta.  Crossing one’s fingers as one tells a lie does not mean that they are telling the truth.  It is fine if one does not believe in the dieta or the dieta process, but if one does not believe in it, don’t do it.  If one does this they are wasting their time, they are wasting other peoples time and they are perpetuating the pattern of lies in their lives that they had before doing the dieta.

With all of that said, let’s talk about “intent” and breaking the restrictions post dieta.  The plants are actually pretty damn forgiving.  Remember they love you, they want to clean, heal, and teach you. 

If one makes a mistake by going over to a friends house for pasta and that friend puts some pork sausage into the sauce without saying anything that would be a “pass”.   The intention was to keep the agreement and something unbeknownst to the dietero was put into the pasta.  That is an honest mistake.  Now if the dietero discovers that there is pork in the sauce and continues eating it….that is someone being out of integrity and this can cause problems. 

The most common way people break their dieta restrictions is by having sex before the restrictions are finished… shocker.  LOL.  It is not surprising that repercussions really depend on the context of the sex.  If one breaks this restriction say 75% through the restricted time period with a long term partner that they are in love with and if that person is relatively clean energetically, it is probably not a big deal.  Most likely, the benefits of the dieta one just completed will be erased.  That is, it will be as if one never did a dieta.  Some of the bad habits dropped through teachings produced by the dieta may re-appear and they might be difficult to let go of again.  Conversely, new positive habits gained through the dieta may fall away.  In this example one may go back to square one.

On the other hand if one goes out to a bar, gets drunk or high and has a one night stand based purely on lust…that is a different story.  That is a huge breach of integrity and it is just not healthy on many levels.  This action can roll through one’s life like a tsunami.  A tsunami that is self-created.  We really can not escape ourselves.

It is always hard to tell what will happen if one breaks the post dieta restrictions.  My thesis is that it really depends on the person, the action, and their ability to be compassionate with themselves.  These are all factors that will contribute the extent of the repercussions.  In the end it is best to really consider and understand what the dieta is prior to doing one and following the post dieta commitments.  Why go through all that time and work to just throw it all away in a very short time?

How does one correct breaking the dieta restrictions?  Usually this involves doing another dieta at a minimum.  Sometimes it is necessary to do more than one dieta and or doubling the length of the restrictions after the dieta.  This is simply a process of facing ones error, accepting it and making another commitment such that one gets back inline with integrity.  There is a possibility that one can fix the error through other means such as a long meditation retreat or other modality.  However, please do not quote me on this.   That idea as it is purely speculation and a thesis at this point.

Some Variations on the Traditional Shamanic Dieta

When I first started working with Ayahuasca and dietas I was introduced to the traditonal “shamanic dieta”.  This type of dieta is designed for those who are on the shamanic path, those who are studying to become shamans.  This type of dieta is quite strict as the food is not at all varied (think all white food:  white rice, yucca, chicken, fish, unripe plantains and cucumbers) and the restrictions post dieta are quite long (30 days no sex, etc..).  I was also introduced to the dieta as  being part of an Ayahuasca retreat, that is we were drinking ayahuasca while still in the dieta.  This was very effective and I received exactly what I needed.  For a long time I believed this was the only way to do a dieta.  What I subsequently learned was that there are other variations on the dieta depending on what one’s goal is and how much time one has to work with the trees and plants.

When we look at one’s goals vis a vis a dieta I have discovered that there are two main goals at hand.  The first being a dieta is used to form a relationship with the plants and trees such that one can work with them and to eventually become a curandero.  The second being a purely personal goal of cleaning out energies and healing.  Of course the two can overlap and for this explanation I will separate the two out for the sake of simplicity.

Traditionally if one is studying to be a shaman they go out  into the jungle on their own, in isolation and diet trees selected with the help of a Maestro.  During this time the dietero being alone in the jungle and not having much energy or resources, such as a refrigerator, would  take food with them that was readily available in the community and would not spoil quickly.  This meant food such as rice, yucca, eggs, farina (dried yucca), chicken (live chicken to be killed before eating, and one would fish in a nearby stream or river).   Things like fruits or vegetables were not good options as they spoiled quickly or would be eaten by insects.  The dietero would survive on a bare minimum of food supplies.  Again, the dietero would be in isolation much of the time with the Maestro, family or friends checking in on them periodically during the dieta.  As mentioned before the length of the dieta could be five or more days, sometimes going months or even longer.

Then, once the dieta was completed, the dietero would get together with their Maestro to drink Ayahuasca.  The dietero would drink ayahuasca in order to look back at the recent dieta to gain more insights as to what was cleaned, learned and the relationship formed with the plants or trees.  Ayahuasca is used then, as a way to get a better view about the dieta that was just completed. 

In a retreat setting for westerners, the traditional dieta is closely replicated by the guest having their own space in a camp out in the jungle.  The guests are encouraged to limit communication with others and remove other distractions such as noise, music, electronics (computers, internet, i-pods etc…).   These dietas are often done in small bungalows or private rooms at a retreat center with food being provided by the camp.  There is always someone around for the guest in case something that needs immediate attention comes up.  Obviously this type of dieta or retreat is much more palatable for most westerners.  We have not grown up in the jungle and we are “soft” relative to peruvians who have lived in the jungle all of their lives.

It is only recently, with the advent of the “Ayahausca industry”, that people started to combine a dieta with drinking Ayahausca.   The same can be said for groups of people dieting together vs. in seclusion.  I believe that this variation came about because of the short vacation times of westerners.  Another factor is that westerners are easily bored.  Then there is the fact that  Ayahuasca retreats for westerners are viewed by the participants in an odd classification of holiday/retreat.  The retreat is often viewed as combination of an experience, a spiritual journey, a healing journey, and at the same time, whether they want to admit it or not, westerners want to minimize their discomfort as they are on holiday.   All of these factors, in my opinion, have led to this type of Ayahuasca/dieta retreats we see today.

If one wants to travel to Peru, diet in the traditional manner, and drink Ayahuasca in one trip, it could mean at least about three weeks of vacation time.  This is due to travel time to the jungle and the separation of the dieta from the Ayahuasca ceremonies.  This is compounded by the fact that most westerners are  mostly interested in Ayahuasca.  Ayahuasca is the attraction and often times there is little information or understanding about the importance of the dieta.  This is especially true as one is jus at the beginning of their journey with Amazonian plant medicines.   Then there is the fact that during a dieta, one really does not “do” much at all.  So, having Ayahuasca ceremonies during a dieta and having other guests around during the dieta can break up the perceived “monotony” of a dieta.

Traditionalists and fundamentalists might have a negative reaction to this relatively new development regarding retreats combining Ayahausca and a dieta, but for me it is fine.  There is still immense value in having retreats that combine dieta, ayahuasca and doing all of this with other people in a group setting.


Combining the dieta with Ayahuasca is still significantly more powerful from a cleaning and healing standpoint than just drinking Ayahuasca.  I have heard the following quote, “You can drink Ayahuasca one hundred times without a dieta and it is still not as powerful or healing as doing one dieta and three to five ceremonies within that dieta”. 

Having other people around during dieta can also be beneficial as the group, in my experience, forms a very strong bond and as the retreat progresses starts to gel into one flow of energy.  On a similar point I have noticed that those who “breakthrough” first in a retreat vibrationally help those that are still struggling, such that an energetic momentum is formed that helps all those who are in the process.  It is also, helpful for participants to deal with other people’s personalities and processes  as this is another opportunity for learning.

You may have heard the story about the monk who spent years up alone on the mountain top in isolation.  At one point he thought he achieved enlightenment and therefore thought it time to return to society.  He entered the town at the base of the mountain he had been staying on and went into the market.  In the market it was very crowded and someone stepped on his foot.  When this happened, the monk flew into a rage and started hitting the man who stepped on the monk’s foot.  So much for enlightenment.  This is points to how doing spiritual work in isolation is not always the “end all be all”.  Sometimes being around other people during a challenging process is exactly what we need.  I think this is especially true for those who will have to go back into “society” after the retreat is finished.

There can be a disadvantage in some cases when combining the dieta and Ayahuasca, and one needs to consider where they are personally when looking at attending a retreat. 

As I mentioned before, a dieta is challenging in its’ own right.  During a dieta one’s physical energies literally dive, one can feel physically sick as negative energies are pushed out, and negative emotions can also come to the surface.  When we throw Ayahausca into this mix it can amp up the intensity for all of the above.  During Ayahuasca ceremonies one may face some of their issues head on through visions etc..  Then, Ayahuasca induces cleaning through purging which can add to physically demanding nature of the process.    Finally, to top it all off, because one is participating in Ayahuasca ceremonies there is less “normal” sleep to be had. 

All of this adds up to a possibly intense and tiring experience that may be too much for some people.  This is particularly true for those who are working on deep seated issues such as trauma or abuse.  If this is the case, it may be better to do a dieta followed by Ayahuasca ceremonies after the dieta is finished.  To give you some idea or context, when La Familia Medicina does retreats that combine Ayahausca with a dieta, we see about 10-15% (average) of the guests drop out before the process is complete. 

In the end though we need to realize that each individual has their own “work” or starting point.  It is ultimately up to the individual to decide what they can handle in terms of selecting retreat that is appropriate for them.

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