When everyone asked what I was doing for my 30th birthday, I lied. I used “luxury yoga retreat” as a decoy to go off-grid. In reality, I was planning to sit in a circle of strangers, with a bucket and roll of toilet paper, to (hopefully) vomit my way to enlightenment with Ayahuasca right here in Australia.
Ayahuasca retreats are commonly referred to as “ten years of therapy downloaded in a night.” A life-altering hallucinogenic experience, which can grant unfiltered entry into your subconscious and reveal your life purpose. As a single freelancer wondering what the fuck I was doing with mine… I was curious if Ayahuasca could reveal that ‘ah-ha’ moment I hoped to have by my big 3-0.
The “call” to Ayahuasca had been seeping into my subconscious through my podcast library for some time. Tim Ferriss revealed using Ayahuasca to recall childhood trauma. Aubrey Marcus has produced a feature documentary on Ayahuasca, and Joe Rogan can barely make it through an episode of the Joe Rogan Experience without mentioning psychedelics.
But I was holding out for a sign. A way to dip a toe in before dropping serious coin on a potentially unrequited vision quest to South America.
Sure enough, it came. A recent attendee (with a PhD in Psychotherapy, no less), worded me up on an “Ayahuascero” retreat facilitating Ayahuasca in Australia. It was within two weeks of my big day, and two hours of Melbourne. A done deal.
My experience with Ayahuasca was profound, in the best possible way. In fact, I was so satisfied, I wiped ‘vision quest in South America’ off my bucket list entirely. And lucky I did. The Ayahuasca retreat was weeks out from Australia’s outbound Covid-19 travel ban, which stripped away my option of travelling there altogether.
The bad news, international travel is still off the cards. The good news, you can have an authentic experience with Ayahuasca in Australia right down the road.
This is a field guide for Ayahuasca first-timers. It includes my preparation, as well as the transformational effects Ayahuasca can have in your life.
Disclaimer: Ayahuasca is absolutely potent and not for everyone. It is one of the most powerful hallucinogens in the world. If you’re not in the right headspace, or in the hands of dodgy operators, it can be harrowing, at best, and extremely dangerous at worst.
What is Ayahuasca?
Ayahuasca is a powerful psychotropic tea used medicinally throughout the Amazonian jungle. In Quechua language, it translates as “vine of the death” and “vine of the soul.”
The tea, brewed over several days, combines:
- The stem of the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), with
- Leaves of a DMT (N,N-Dimethyltryptamine) plant, such as Chacruna (Psychotria viridis).
The vine contains monoamine oxidase inhibitors (MAOI), which prolongs the effects of DMT in the body. Extending a standard dose of DMT from twenty minutes to approximately 4-8 hours. The vine is legal in Australia but extracting DMT is not. DMT is a Schedule 9 substance and it is against the law to use, sell, distribute or manufacture it.
The brew varies according to the skill of its specialist maker – a Shamanic healer often called a “Curandero,” or “Ayahuasquero.” They are trained in the art of Ayahuasca for over twenty years, living reclusive Yoda-esque lifestyles on the fringe of the jungle.
Yet no amount of training can mask its flavour. Ayahuasca is a thickened brown brew that tastes disgusting. I still shudder at the memory of its taste. It commonly causes nausea and purging, known as “La Purga.” Purging is both physical due to the DMT in the body, and psychosomatic – a byproduct of the transformational experience in releasing ‘stuck’ energies.
Unlucky for some, the purge comes out of both ends. And as if to rub it in, you are expected to wear white to the ceremony.
The benefits of Ayahuasca
Potentially shitting and vomiting in front of strangers does sound like an odd way to celebrate my 30th. But the potential benefits outweighed any standard piss up with my mates.
Tribes across the Amazon basin have been drinking Ayahuasca for a thousand years with the goal of spiritual healing, connecting with the divine, and cultivating telepathy. Shamans are said to be able to drink the brew and locate an animal of prey in the spirit world, then instruct hunters to its location in the physical world.
Like most of the Silicon Valley tech-bros making an Ayahuasca pilgrimage to South America, my intention was to get beyond my five senses and enhance my way of thinking with Ayahuasca here in Australia. It is common to experience therapeutic visuals which enable you to distinguish between your “true self,” and the stories you have built up, as a form of self protection over your lifetime.
If not for anything else, I was sure I could derive some comedic value from the weekend. Like Thomas Mitchell notes in Today I F****d Up, everyone finds stories about shitting funny, so it at least it wouldn’t be a total waste of time.
Ayahuasca is also used for healing and solid scientific data is starting to back it up. American biologist Richard Evan Shultes canoed up the Amazon River to obtain a sample for his New York laboratory in 1973. Ever since, studies like The Hoasca Project and numerous psychopharmacology studies are exploring its potential to curb addictive and detrimental behaviours.
There is also mounting evidence that it has anti-inflammatory effects and is a potent treatment for depression, PTSD, anxiety and substance addiction and abuse. The University of Melbourne-led Global Ayahuasca Project surveyed 10,838 Ayahuasca users across the years 2017 – 2020. Of the 1571 participants, 78 percent who reportedly used Ayahuasca to treat clinical depression reported their depression was ‘very much’ improved or ‘completely resolved’ following their experience.
It has incredible potential as a naturally derived, one-off treatment alternative to a life of prescription medication.
How is Ayahuasca traditionally taken?
Traditional Ayahuasca ceremonies take place in a group setting overnight. One to three cups are served in timed intervals under the guidance of an Ayahuascero healer.
They drink the tea with you while singing “Icaros,” healing songs, traditionally believed to have been delivered by Mother Ayahuasca, the spirit of the plants.
The healing is understood to come collectively through the Shaman, but also affects each individual participant’s psyche; delivering them the exact wisdom they need, in the exact medium they are open to receiving it. Most commonly; visions, words and emotions.
Consecutive Ayahuasca ceremonies are recommended for a deeper experience. The most intensive Ayahuasca retreat offers 2 – 4 sessions, alongside intention setting exercises and post-integration work.
Ayahuasca Australia Retreat: The Run Sheet
I participated in two Ayahuasca ceremonies in Australia, with a night off in between. Night one was a dress rehearsal, while night two was a blow-the-doors-off opening night, standing ovation kind of production.
We were a group of forty, made up of one support staff per attendee. We sat in a concentric circle around the Shaman and his Amazonian musical instruments. We were in an indoor space on a private rural property.
- Begins with “intention sharing” after dusk. My curiously vague, “show me what you want to show me,” paled in comparison to the trauma other attendees were trying to address.
- The first (shot) glass of brew is consumed, followed by 1-2 hours of music.
- The second (shot) glass is consumed, also followed by 1-2 hours of music.
- Break, lights off for 1 hour to rest inside or by the fire pit.
- The third (shot) glass is consumed, followed by music until dawn.
- Line up one by one to take Ayahuasca from the ceremonial cup.
- Remain silent, unless you’re singing or checking-in with the Ayahuascero before your next cup.
- Ditch your phones and electronics.
- Sit upright as much as you can.
- Lean into the music because it maximises the “Mareacion” – visionary effects of the tea.
- Staff will accompany you outside the room, and to the restroom.
- A reclinable seat on the floor, pillow and blanket.
- A song book.
- A bottle of water, or coconut water.
- A vomit bucket and toilet paper roll.
- A handful of grapes to wash down the brew.
What Ayahuasca did to my mind and body
After taking Ayahuasca, my personal experiences were highly visual. After thirty minutes a binary code sequence launched whenever I closed my eyes. Tiny circular red, green and blue dots appeared through a field of blackness that felt infinite and all around me.
Focussing on one dot launched me into a series of visualisations with incredible geometric patterns, colourful designs and silhouettes. It was unfolding effortlessly, yet I could also co-create the imagery. I called on friends and places, which became interweaved in the animations.
I had the ability to be wholly immersed in my visions, but simultaneously able to dissect their meaning. My biggest learnings when taking Ayahuasca came through the following experiences:
Cup 1: Death of ego
My ‘death’ came at the very start of the night. People’s faces began to blur and fade at the edges, and the room which had felt so real just seconds before began to dissipate into a sea of darkness.
I was terrified. Until I realised it was just an intermediary voice in my head, telling me to fear the darkness. While the darkness itself was objectively neutral. I surrendered to the fear and became enveloped in the darkness which felt peaceful and calming. It felt like an obstacle I needed to overcome as part of my experience. And only if I did, would I be rewarded with deeper and more profound visuals.
DMT is renowned for an experience of dying, which if you surrender to can feel transformative. DMT dampens the brains Default Mode Network (DMN) the part of our brain “the ego” inhabits. The ego helps us to classify and quantify our reality, and has significant effects over out thoughts.
Cup 2: One with nature
During the second cup, I embodied the snake from Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden… and no, I’m not religious. Yet I could perfectly make out the colours and details of every tree, bush, frog, bird and animal in the Garden. We all seemed to be hyperconnected, breathing in and out in a singular harmonious rhythm. I could ‘see’ a translucent mist-like blanket that surrounded all of us and tied us to each other.
Suddenly, the moment came when Eve betrayed ‘me’ for offering her the apple. And I felt a visceral reaction in my chest as if I was physically heartbroken.
It felt symbolic of the moment where humankind disconnected from its environment, considering its needs more superior than the rest of nature. This was especially powerful because it came off the back of the Amazon jungle fire, and fresh out of the the devastating Australian bushfires.
Ayahuasca commonly produces visuals of interconnectedness between life, nature and the environment. And the desire to heal separateness that has developed.
Cup 3: The Amazonian warrior
I knew immediately after tasting the third cup that I was going to bring it back up. I just didn’t know when…
The entire mood of the room shifted after the third cup. It felt completely primal. I was transported to the Amazon jungle, paddling up the river in a canoe. The visual seemed more real than life itself. In the reflections off the water around me I saw ‘myself’ covered in tribal paint, carrying a spear and darts.
I was an Amazonian warrior, completing my training. I was on a mission beyond my village to acquire the skills a warrior needs: courage, agility, strength. Instantly I felt nauseous and reached for my bucket. The purge was complimentary to my visual.
It felt as if I was ‘bringing up’ the emotional blockages, fears and stories that stood in my way of embodying that true warrior spirit. True fearlessness. It was brief, and it was an incredible relief. I then moved from the river into the jungle, caressing black jaguars and walking on top of serpents completely fearlessly.
Amazonian fauna and flora are the most common archetype of Ayahuasca visions – no matter where in the world the brew is consumed. Shamans put it down to the plant spirit drawing imagery from its own environment.
- Situations are objectively neutral. It’s your perception of the situation which determines your experience. Rather than the experience itself.
- We are a part of the environment and so too feel the cause and effect of polluting the environment.
- Whatever was going to come of my thirties, fear of the unknown would be the only thing that would hold me back from enjoying it.
- Don’t watch Netflix’s The Last Shaman as any sort of research. The real deal is completely different.
What happened after the ceremony?
A debrief is essential because your experiences can render you pretty raw, with a lot more questions than you received answers. Unbelievably, every single participant had visualisations of being in the Amazon during the third cup. We had thought we were having an individual experience, but it had been a collective.
There were overwhelming transformations visible in some attendees from the opening to the closing ceremony. It especially had profound and immediate impacts on peoples sense of self worth.
The day after I felt completely rejuvenated, refreshed and full of energy and had no issued completing my drive back to Melbourne by early afternoon.
Key takeaways from Ayahuasca retreats in Australia:
A trustworthy Ayahuascero is key, so you need to vet your retreat.
I was awe-struck by the demands of the gig. They have to balance the effects of the tea while hammering out Icaros and helping people negotiate difficult journeys. You want them to interrogate your motivations and ask about your past experiences with drugs, medications and mental state. In turn, you should be brutally forthcoming with information. You are equally entitled to ask about their apprenticeship, experiences, and support and integration program.
Your physical and mental state of mind is essential.
You have to be in the right mindset, physical and social setting. The Ayahuasca retreat is traditionally done in a group. Don’t go near a 1:1 session. Not only is your experience magnified by the energy of others but you’re going to be in an extremely vulnerable state.
Do your research on the Ayahuasca drug itself.
The brew is illegal, so observe alternate code words. Replace Ayahuasca with Brazilian medicine, sacred healing ceremony, spiritual guide, medicine circles, teacher plants and shamanic healing.
It’s not as expensive as you might think.
Approximately $200-250 per session, inclusive of meals. Rates can inflate in South America as part of luxury accommodation packages. But since the Ayahuasca retreats are underground in Australia, you should be paying a humble sum and found outside of the prying eyes of any Aussie CBD.
You’re either all in or all out.
It’s fine to have a healthy dose of scepticism but you detract from your own experience by not respecting the spiritual elements infused throughout the retreat. Not to mention, your mindset can break you. Believing it’s all BS can create more blockages, stopping you from surrendering to the experience.
Don’t expect a joy ride.
Ayahuasca is a shit tonne of effort. To sit upright and brave the nausea and fatigue can feel unbearable at times. Let alone navigating whatever bliss or darkness might unfold. But ultimately it will be breaking through the difficult periods which lead to the most cathartic release.
You can get in your own way.
Ayahuasca can dig up serious baggage you had no idea you were hauling. And you have to be able to let it play out without fear or anxiety. You are both an observer and co-creator in your experience, so your mind can get in your way. If you can’t persist through your own nagging thoughts in at least 10 minutes of meditation daily, don’t pass go. Seriously, you’re not ready.
Stick to the Ayahuasca Diet – “dieta”.
The purging is part psychosomatic, so you can’t entirely eliminate it. But following a recommended “dieta”, in the lead up can reduce it. A good shaman will provide it to you. Caffeine was the hardest for me to cut, but I committed and experienced a single purge. Abstinence is also recommended a few days before and after the retreat… you’re probably only doing Ayahuasca once, so you can manage it.
Consider a follow-up session.
Depending on how your experience unfolds you might come out very confused and highly vulnerable. Consider pre-booking a therapy session to chat through the meaning behind your experiences. Or enquiring if the Shaman offers follow-up integration sessions.
I have more in me. But not yet.
A good journey with Ayahuasca in Australia should leave you with enough to chew on before you feel “the call” for more. It is not addictive. On the contrary, it actually feels like there is some spiritual aspect of it which will completely mess with you if you approach it with bad intentions, or the intention to abuse it.
My Ayahuasca retreat in Australia met my expectations. Only if and when I have something greater or deeper to resolve will I go back for more. If I do, I hope by then I can shake the taste of the brew which still haunts me to this day.