Ayahuasca: Vine of the soul

Ayahuasca

Common names: Huasca; Yagé; Brew; Daime; The Tea; La Purga

Plant source: Banisteriopsis caapi (Ayahuasca vine), Psychotria viridis (Chakruna plant)

Legal status in Canada:

  • ayahuasca vine – legal, unscheduled
  • chakruna plant – legal, unscheduled
  • DMT – Schedule III controlled substance
  • Harmaline – Schedule III controlled substance

Price: $50 per dose on the underground market

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The word ayahuasca comes from the Quechua language of the indigenous Amazonian people, which in direct translation means “vine of the soul”. In a spiritual context, this phrase carries the meaning “channel to the invisible world,” and it was into this invisible world that I hoped to venture when I landed in Lima, Peru, the first stop on my journey, to seek out a life altering experience with the plant medicine ayahuasca.

I spent one night in the modest comfort of a hotel room, savouring the Westernized conveniences I knew I would leave behind the next day. At dawn I began a three day trek by vehicle, boat, and foot deep into the Peruvian rainforest. It was there that I met those who would be my guides: the curandero’s, traditional healers and keepers of the ancient knowledge of the ceremonial use of ayahuasca.

The use of ayahuasca dates back to 2000 BCE, and continues to be used to this day for the purposes of healing, diagnosing illness, and as a spiritual tool to facilitate a connection to the supernatural.

Geographic origins

The traditional, ceremonial use of ayahuasca is centralized to the indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon in South America. Ayahuasca users are most highly concentrated in the area of the map outlined in fuchsia. The majority of indigenous groups in the pink-outlined area also use ayahuasca traditionally, and groups in blue areas have adopted the use of ayahuasca in modern times.

For an extensive list of communities and ethnic groups on record as traditional users of ayahuasca, visit the Ayahuasca.com website.

Botanical aspects and preparation

Since ancient times, the drug Ayahuasca has been prepared using two plants: Baanisteriopsis caapi, the Ayahuasca vine, and Psychotria viridis, the Chakruna plant. The psychotropic effects of the drug are due to the interaction of two substances. The first, Harmalina, comes from the Ayahuasca vine, and the second, dimetiltriptamina (DMT), comes from the Chakruna.

There are many methods for the preparation of Ayahuasca, varying from community to community, but a basic procedure is followed. The bark or stem of the ayahuasca vine is shredded or ground up and soaked with Psychotria viridis leaves in water. The resulting liquid is heated at a high temperature for half a day by a shaman, who enacts a ritual of chanting and blowing smoke over the liquid at various points in the cooking process. The product is a bitter tea, brown and cloudy in appearance.

Chemical constituents and neural action

The pharmacological activity of ayahuasca depends on the interaction between the alkaloids in the two component plants. The bark of Banisteriopsis caapi, contains ß-carboline alkaloids, which are monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI). The leaves of Psychotria viridis contain dimethyltryptamine (DMT). The addition of an MAOI allows DMT to be activated orally. In the brain, DMT stimulates the serotonin-2 receptors.

My experience

The camp was basic but homey, if you ignored the frighteningly large bugs. My fellow spiritual tourists had also made the trek to this paradise from Westernized parts of the world: two men and one woman from Canada and the US, and two Europeans, one from England and one from Sweden. We spent the day together meditating and fasting, in preparation for the spiritual journey of the night ahead. In speaking with them, I learned their reasons for being here were similar to mine. They sought enlightenment, a novel experience, and an opportunity to transcend the dull little boxes of their working lives to touch the divine.

That evening, we had our first experience with the “vine of the soul”. After dark, we met in the main hut. After blessing the brew, the curanderos passed each person a cup with an individualized amount of ayahuasca. The taste was disgusting. After choking it down I sat in the dark to wait for my experience to start. Suddenly colourful, shapeless forms began to appear superimposed over the scene in front of me. More minutes passed and my vision slipped into darkness, and the colours were replaced with disturbing images of demons. I began to hope that the ceremony wouldn’t last the four or five hours I had been told it would take.

Dark feelings of fear began to take hold and I started to panic, at which point a curandero came over to sit with me, singing to help me through my pain. After some time I vomited a colourful, foamy stream. Vomiting is a common side effect of taking ayahuasca.

What followed was a surreal journey through what I perceived to be my unconscious mind. Hours later, exhausted, I walked back to my tent and collapsed. I can’t say I’m looking forward to doing this again tomorrow.

For more info

If you are interested in learning more about Ayahuasca and its traditional use in a shamanic ceremonial context, I would highly recommend a fascinating documentary entitled Vine of the Soul.

For more photos demonstrating the steps involved in the preparation of ayahuasca for consumption, visit the photostream of Ayahuasca in San Francisco.

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