How does Ayahuasca Work??

Ayahuasca has gotten a huge amount of attention from the west due to its’ ability to heal.  Most generally it is known to help with anxiety, depression, PTSD, feeling disconnected from the world, disconnected from “Spirit/The Divine/God” and addiction.  There have also been some anecdotal stories of physical healing as well, albeit seemingly less consistent results for physical healing than the aforementioned conditions.

This attention from the west regarding Ayahuasca has led to somewhat of a belief that Ayahuasca is some sort of “magic bullet” cure all.  While I love Ayahuasca immensely, I do not think that this is the case.  I would like to propose that the plant or tree “dieta” is equally as powerful and in some cases much more appropriate for healing than Ayahuasca alone.

I come to this conclusion based on my own personal experiences over the past several years.  This has been supported by the results I have seen working with guests over several years in the Peruvian Jungle and having seen the dramatic results or shifts made when guests participate in a dieta along with drinking ayahuasca vs. when they drink Ayahuasca by itself.  Finally, through commentary by the Maestros in our lineage it is very clear that the dieta is absolutely key to the healing process in many cases.   

It makes sense that Ayahausca has gotten so much attention from the west.  It provides some very obvious and dramatic effects- vomiting, diarrhea, visions, and physical body sensations.  Most westerners, whether we admit it or not, like the dramatic and the obvious.  We often times have a hard time seeing and understanding the subtle.

The dieta is much more subtle than Ayahuasca, but no less powerful.  The dieta is something that takes place over a period of 5-12 days (sometimes longer) and involves drinking the tea made from tree barks or plants 1-4 times during the dieta.  Through this process the trees or plant spirits will take up residence inside the energetic/spiritual body.  As they move into their new home they clean out and straighten anything (energies) that they see as detrimental to them living in you body.  Luckily for us their needs for their new living space is 100% congruent with what is actually need to straighten and clean out of your energetic body and thus bring well being and balance to one’s life. 

I will get into how the dieta works in more detail later in this chapter as I will start first with Ayahuasca and then move on to delve deeper into the dieta.


How does Ayahuasca Work?

In this section I will not focus on the western scientific definitions of how Ayahuasca works.  There is already significant scientific information available via other books and the internet in regards to DMT in the chacruna and MAOI’s in ayahuasca.   That stuff is kind of “old hat” now.   

It is also true that the scientific research thus far is somewhat limited in regards to how Ayahuasca heals.  That information is improving and at the same time I am somewhat skeptical as to whether science will ever be able to fully explain the process of healing vis a vis Ayahuasca. 

Science and the scientific method need consistent verifiable, quantifiable results for the scientific community to accept any conclusions.  Scientists are reductionists and they would like to find the key components in the brew/plants such that they can extract them, synthesize them and produce a pill or serum.   Scientists tend to/want to ignore the multitude of co-factors that exist in plants.  Unfortunately these co-factors help the key factors in a plant that produce the desired effects.

Cannabis is a perfect example of this.  As cannabis has become more and more accepted in science as a true plant medicine, scientists have tried to extract the TCH only to find that it does not work very well in many applications.  Now they discovered CBD which has been shown to kill cancer amongst other benefits.  My concern is that if they isolate this too, will it limit the entourage effect of the entire plant?  There are numerous cannabinoids in cannabis that work together as in a holistic  manner to produce healing.  Trying to separate and concentrate the “key ingredient” is really selling the holistic plant approach short, and I think this is an error in their approach.  Ayahuasca is very similar in this sense.

The scientific process is particularly dicey in regards to Ayahuasca and shamanic healing because the process involves not only all of the plants’ co-factors, but several other external factors that are exceptionally variable. 

The most variable components  in the process are actually the people both serving (the curandero) and drinking the Ayahuasca.  Each person brings their own special collection of “conditioning” or “baggage” that affects their mental patterns- conditioning that determines how they deal with issues and how they react to various stimuli.  This conditioning not only affects one’s mental processing but it also flows through to physical issues as well.  It is fairly accepted that mental states are very much connected to physical states. Due to this connection mental health can affect physical health.  I would argue that this is very much the case.  I wold like to bring in the more spiritual idea regarding one’s energies i.e. it, the body, is ALL energy.

It is the energetic perspective that the shaman or curandero takes when working with a patient.  This is why shamanism and Ayahuasca shamanism are so confounding to science.  The curandero is looking at each individual case and is seeing a very different energetic picture despite the “symptoms” displayed by the patient.  Yes, from a shamanic viewpoint the symptoms and the energies are related, but in the end possible diagnosis and prescriptions are much more individualized and diverse.  Western science and medical doctors want to know the symptoms of the patient such that they can put that patient in a diagnosis “box” and then prescribe medicines or procedures that fit that “box”.  The unfortunate thing with western medicine is that often times the drugs being prescribed are actually harmful to the body and often times a doctor will have to prescribe various drugs over a period of time before the one that “works” is found.

The curandero, as I mentioned above, takes a more individual, case by case approach to the matter.  He uses Ayahuasca to help him see clearly where the energetic kinks or imbalances are.  Then he uses Ayahuasca further to straighten out those kinks in the energetic channels such that energy flows as it should.  This also releases pent up energy pools that add to the energetic imbalance in the body, thus when the process is finished the body’s energetic system is functioning as it should such that it balances out producing health.

In reality it is not the curandero that is straightening and clearing the energy blockages/pools, but for this conversation it is the easiest way to explain what is going on using words in this particular context.  I will talk about this from another perspective in other parts of the book.

During my time working with guests in Peru and watching people go through the healing process vis a vis Ayahuasca we have come up with the concept that there are three parts that contribute to one’s outcome when working with Ayahausca:

The ayahuasca brew.  How the brew was prepared, what ingredients were used, the quality of the ingredients used and how concentrated the brew was made.

The curandero (shaman).  How skilled is the curandero in helping accelerate the healing process.  Essentially it comes down to how much medicine (healing energy) has the curandero accumulated in his/her body in their training with the plants and/or how clean is the curandero’s body or energetic body.

The participant’s state.  Is the participant truly ready to be healed?  Is the patient ready to “do their part”?

While focusing on the components of the brew seems straight forward it really is mis-leading.  To only focus on the the brew’s ingredients, in my opinion, somewhat short sighted as plants themselves are inconsistent.  Personally I have found that each batch of ayahuasca (using the same recipe and same dosage) has its’ own characteristics.  Sometimes the experience will be extremely visual, sometimes there is more mental activity resulting in realizations, sometimes it is more of a “body buzz”, and sometimes it is just mellow without many of Ayahuasca’s famous effects- just a general feeling of peace.  This is because there are factors that affect the plant such as the age of the plant, where it was grown, how it was grown, etc….  Another very important point here is that the physical or visual sensations do not correlate to the final healing effects (mind bending and counter-intuitive, I know).  To top that off, it is kind of funny, as I write this I am realizing that the curandero  and the person drinking are still playing a part in this “analysis” of the characteristics of the Ayahuasca brew itself.  Factors involving the curandero and the patient can not be escaped, it is a truly holistic process and all three parts are completely intertwined.

The quality of the curandero is a bit less clear to define than the brew.  This is largely because there are no set standards as it relates to shamans.  That is, there are no shamanic diplomas, certificates etc…. That said, there is a loose set of definitions that exists in amazonian ayahuasca shamanism which are as follows:

Ayahuasquero- someone who simply knows how to brew the ayahuasca, set up the ayahuasca space, knows how to sing icaros and generally run ceremony.  This is the “lowest” level of ayahuasca shamanism as this sort of shaman has not done extensive dietas in order to learn how to cure, they have not learned how to accelerate the healing process.  They simply let ayahuasca do all of the work.  This is fine as long as there is not anything major that comes up during the ayahuasca ceremony i.e. significant energies that need to be removed or in extreme cases, spirit entities that need to be removed.  If something major needs to be released, the participant is on their own with ayahuasca.  Unfortunately, this “class” of shaman makes up the majority of ayahuasca shamans that are working with westerners in Peru and around the world.

Curandero- this is someone that has proven that they can heal in and out of ceremony.  They know how to accelerate the release/healing process.  Curanderos have done a significant amount of dietas in order to learn from the plants and these dietas have cleansed their bodies/energetic bodies such that the medicine has been built up and that medicine energy flows from them.  It is this medicine energy that promotes and accelerates healing or removing of negative energies.

Maestro- “Maestro” literally means master.  One can be a Maestro Ayahuasqero (Ayahuasca Master), Maestro Palero (Tree Medicine Master), Maestro Sanangero (Sanango Master), etc….  It is also possible that a curandero is a Maestro of many plants or disciplines.  For example a Maestro can be a Maestro Ayahuasqero, Maestro Sanangero, Maestro Palero and a Maestro Vegetalista.  It is important to note that a shaman may call himself a Maestro, but they may not be a Maestro of Ayahuasca or the plant/tree that you are about to do work with.  This last point is very important if one plans to do work with Sanango or Toe.  Sanango and Toe are very strong medicinal plants that need special training by the curandero such that they are administered properly and safely. 

Banco- Banco is the highest level of amazonian shamanism.  Banco literally means “bank”.  You can interpret this as someone who has so much medicine in his body that he is like a “bank of medicine”.  A Banco is often the head of a lineage and they act like a bank vis a vis the Maestros under them, he is the trunk that supports and feeds the branches of the lineage.  There is also a definition of Banco that says a true Banco has studied all the magics: white, black, red and green without falling to the egoic temptations of magic- sex, money and power.  Under this definition, there are few if any true Bancos that exist today.

While it would be nice for participants/guests if there were a set of “shaman standards/regulations”, it would be an absolute nightmare to try to institute a set of standards vis a vis curanderos or shamans.  Almost every shamanic lineage has their own way of doing their medicine, and they all think that they are practicing medicine in the correct manner.  This is compounded by the cultural phenomena within Ayahuasca Shamanism of envy, greed, and perceived competition that makes it extremely challenging for shamans to work together (we will cover the politics of Ayahuasca Shamanism in another chapter).

Given the above loose classifications of Ayahausca shamans, it might be preferable that one drinks with at least a curandero, especially in the beginning of one’s journey with Ayahuasca.

Even within the classifications of curandero and Maestro, there are obviously going to be variables.  Unfortunately these variables are totally subjective and experiential vs. objective and quantifiable.  To find a good Ayahuasca curandero or Maestro is quite difficult.  A friend of mine who lives in Peru spent four years in Iquitos and other parts of Peru looking for a decent shaman who was available for him to study under and work with.

The curandero brings so much to the table in ceremony as (in the best case scenario) he/she has been dieting and working with the plants and trees for years and years.  This work by dieting and working with the plants is like charging a battery, an “energetic body battery” full of medicine.  The more work that has been done, the more his/her body is charged up…sometimes to the point that they are radiating medicine all the time, even outside of ceremony.


It is also indicative as to the amount of medicine a shaman has by the healing they can do outside of an Ayahuasca ceremony.  If one can heal just by singing an icaro/doing a ventiada outside of ceremony, that is an indication that his or her body is charged full of medicine.  I have heard a story that one Maestro had so much medicine in him that when he sweat, he smelled like Ayahuasca.

What all this means in ceremony vis a vis healing is that depending on the curandero and how much preparation they have done/how much medicine do they have built up in their system and  how energetically clean they have kept themselves, the effects can vary greatly in terms of the visions/patients experience and the healing.  This is because the curandero’s medicine is able to add to and interact with the medicine that is in the patient’s body.  A good curandero is able to call in and increase the mariacion (the effects of the medicine) for all participating in the ceremony through a communication process using his own medicine charged up in his body.   Sounds crazy, but I have seen it and I have felt it many times.  This of course just throws yet another wrench in the works for science to try to figure out.  It is also a significant factor to consider when you, the reader, are deciding to drink ayahuasca. 

The final and possibly the most important factor in regards to Ayahuasca and healing is the patient, or YOU.   That’s right, you.  It sounds counter-intuitive, but one has to “do one’s part” during this process.  The patient needs to accept that there are some energetic kinks that need to be straightened and that energies, or sometimes entities may be present in the body that need to be cleaned out.  One needs to accept and commit to the process at hand.  It is needed to trust the process once it is committed to.  The process can be difficult, but one needs to keep moving forward in the process no matter what. 

If one is not willing to do their part, the Ayahuasca nor the curandero can do anything at all.  This is a team effort and participation by all parties needs to be present.  What is interesting is that I have talked with other healers such as bodyworkers and they say the exact same thing.  The patient has to want to be healed and they need to put forth their effort in the healing process.

Doing one’s part can be particularly difficult if one is participating in a “dieta” along with drinking Ayahausca.  In the context of a dieta/Ayahuasca combination.  The process and the medicines go extremely deep, pulling up the highest priority issues/energy blockages in perfect order.  This means that one will be facing their toughest “demons” or issues at or near the beginning of their process.   At the same time if someone needs some serious healing a “dieta” is probably what needs to be done.  Ayahuasca alone may not be enough.  Again, see the section after this for more details about the “dieta”.

I do want to point out (THIS IS IMPORTANT) that when I say that one has to face their issues, this does not mean one will literally face each and every one of their issues with Ayahuasca.  One could have visions as such (directly relevant visions or messages), or those visions/experiences may be in some sort of abstract form that one does not recognize at all.  This is where Ayahuasca works quite mysteriously.  She may provide very linear logical visions or messages about an issue and how to heal it, or she may not be so specific and the person may not know at all what the visions mean.  Ayahuasca works on multiple levels in the mind and body.  She works on the linear logical level: clear and direct messages/visions that are easily understood.  She works in the non-linear/non-logical:  non-sensical patterns, visions that have no logical meaning at all.  In fact I would argue those visions/experiences that we don’t understand with Ayahuasca are more powerful than the straightforward “you need to change this in your life” type of message.  This is why one needs to let go and trust the process, trust Ayahuasca.  (I can feel the scientific minded readers start to squirm now. LOL)

Ayahuasca knows exactly what you can handle and exactly what you need and in what order of priority each issues needs to be addressed.  Ayahuasca knows your edge and she will take you to your edge.  The “rub” is that your true edge is further out than your mind thinks it is.  Your true edge is right outside of your comfort zone.  Getting outside one’s comfort zone is what is needed. Staying within one’s comfort zone has been part of the problem.  When you move outside of your comfort zone, there is growth, there is learning and healing.  One can also ask Ayahuasca to be gentle.  She will do her best and, at the same time, she will do what needs to be done within one’s true limits. 

Ayahuasca is unconditional love.  Ayahuasca is a gift from the divine, a connection to the divine.  She wants to clean you. She wants to heal you and she wants to teach you.  Unconditional love is not the emotional “luvy dovy” stuff we tend to associate it with.  Unconditional love is what an ideal parent provides.  It is not always what we want, but it is what we need.  Most of us can look back at a time when a parent or a parental figure has told us something like “do not touch that hot stove, it will hurt”.  As young children we might not understand about hot stoves yet and we might get upset about not being able to touch that attractive shiny thing (that happens to be hot).  We might actually throw a temper tantrum and suffer and cause suffering to others due to this tantrum.  We also might not listen and touch the stove anyway, causing yet another level of suffering.  This is “ok” as it is another way to learn, the hard way to learn.  Conversely when we listen, let go, and trust the person (who is trustworthy) or entity like Ayahuasca we find that life is easier.  Through unconditional love we also experience that blissful love.  Love of a parent holding a child or teaching them something important, fun and new.  Ayahuasca is unconditional love.

One of the big challenges is that those issues/demons/energies have found a very nice home inside the body.  It is nice, warm and comfortable in their home.  Food is provided there too…they are like parasites living in the energetic body, living off of your energetic body.  These parasites are literally sucking energy and therefore health out of the energetic body such that they can continue living.   Once these parasites realize what is going on i.e. they are getting evicted by the medicine/the process they start to resist/fight….these parasites are literally fighting for their lives. 

Often times these parasites have been living in the body for years and years.  They have become deeply attached, much like a barnacle becomes attached to a boat.  When we take barnacles of boats, we often pull some of the paint and or a piece of the boat with the barnacle.  It is this analogy that we can use to see how some suffering can be experienced as these parasites are removed through the process as often times there can be some pain associated with the removal of the energies or parasites that need to come out. 

Another way to look at this is that we have become attached to the habits these energies have brought with them.  We have had them for years and we actually find some comfort in having them around.  They can be like an old “bad friend”.  A friend that we know is not a good influence and we know that we always get into trouble with them when we hang out….”but we are friends”, we say.  They are friends and they don’t serve us and our higher goals in life.  Breaking up can be scary, painful and difficult.  At the same time we know it needs to be done.  It is really a matter of whether we are ready to go through the break up process.  Ayahuasca can help with this.

Some of the most common forms of suffering during a dieta/Ayahuasca process include lots of vomiting, diarrhea, and nausea.  There may also some dark visions to be experienced as one faces their fears or issues.  This of course is necessary in order to let them go.

These parasites can also be extremely tricky in preventing the process from progressing.  In some cases those energies can move to the mind.  In fact, often times they have been doing a lot of their work in the mind manifesting as depression, anxiety, etc…  They can start to bring up negative thoughts and doubts about the Ayahuasca/dieta process.  This can manifest in thoughts such as  “these people serving the Ayahuasca are bad guys,  these guys don’t know what they are doing, you don’t need Ayahuasca, this is a cult, etc…”  These types of thoughts are somewhat normal, especially in cases where serious healing needs to be done.  At some point in the process those thoughts will be cleaned out or released with the help of Ayahuasca.  Those negative thoughts are energies and they are energies that hold one back in life.  This is why they need to come out.  Negative thoughts cause imbalance, Ayahuasca brings us back into balance.

One of my favorite stories that illustrates this was when a young guy from Kansas who showed up for one of our retreats.  It was clear that after the first ceremony,  that he had some serious cleaning that needed to be done.  That first ceremony went ok for him though. It was during the second ceremony that he had an extremely tough time of it. 

The next morning he asked to talk to me, I already knew what was coming….he asked to leave the retreat early.  He was shocked that I said, “Ok, no problem, we will arrange transportation shortly and you can leave in a couple of hours.”  It turned out that he was convinced that we would not let him leave.  His negative patterns/ energies/ parasites had gotten into his mind and convinced him that we were a cult and that we were never going to let him leave the camp.  Obviously this illusion was just that, an illusion.  Of course we got him on his way home that same day.  We also told him that if he wanted to come back that he was welcome.  Of course the energies had done such a job on him that we never saw him again. 

It breaks my heart when a guest leaves early and does not complete the retreat process.  When they do this, they are essentially giving up on healing themselves.  In fact they are giving up to those energies and thought patterns that have been disrupting their lives in the first place.  They are giving those energies more power.  More than once I have found myself crying after a guest decides to leave the process early.  That said, it is a lesson in acceptance.  I have to accept and realize that those who leave early are not ready for the healing that needs to be done.  I have no control over that, and in fact, the truth is none of us have control over anything.   We just have to let go.

The only way through this is to complete the process, complete the dieta, trust in the medicine, and trust in the process.  By doing this, all of those negative thoughts (energies) are removed and one can be liberated from these energies/parasites that are holding us back in life.  Once these parasites are removed that person feels lighter, healthier, and happier.  It is true, I have seen it happen EVERY retreat.  The work up to this “breakthrough point” is hard work and it is TOTALLY worth it.

In fact for most people, during a dieta/Ayahuasca retreat, around ceremony number three these negative thoughts subside and one experiences a “breakthrough” wherein there are absolutely blissful states experienced.  Once one is clean of these little buggers, one gets to fully experience the love, joy, and teachings of Ayahuasca.

One of my guests relayed to me a very poignant message that Ayahuasca had told him, “Ayahuasca said to be very very careful of what one says about her.  Ayahuasca said that any negative experiences while drinking Ayahuasca are not actually Ayahuasca.  Any negativity experienced is actually YOU and your stuff.  Therefore, please do not relate negative stories about Ayahuasca because in truth those experiences are not Ayahuasca.”  In other words when we begin to drink Ayahuasca, the negative experiences that one might have are actually Ayahuasca cleaning those things out.  Those energetic buggers are blocking you from truly experiencing Ayahuasca and life.  Once you are somewhat energetically clean (there is always cleaning to be done, it just gets a lot easier) you get to experience her directly as there is nothing between the two of you.  Ayahuasca is unconditional love and to experience that love is truly something special.

Cleaning out negative energies and straightening kinks in our energetic system is how Ayahuasca heals.  Once those energies are gone and all the meridians/nadis are functioning as they should, balance is brought to the body.  With energetic balance and  correct energetic flow comes health and wellbeing.

One who has already gone through full process with Ayahuasca and has cleaned out their energetic channels can go further than just “wellbeing” with Ayahuasca.  Ayahuasca can be a wonderful tool for creativity and for progression along the spiritual path.  That said, we still have to do our own work.  Ayahuasca will help show us what is possible and it is up to us to execute.

In closing this section, I do want to say that some people come through and don’t really have much of a rough time during an Ayahuasca/dieta  retreat.  The common theme with these people is that they have already done significant amounts of personal work.  This work was usually through meditation, therapy, spending lots of time in nature, yoga, qi-gong, etc…  People who have already figured out how to “go with the flow”, relax, breathe deeply and let go generally have a much easier time of it.  These people can often go almost directly into the blissful “Ayahuasca love” state right away.

Part II Will Discuss The Plant/Tree Dieta in More Detail

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