What really happens at an ayahuasca retreat

What Really Happens at an Ayahuasca Retreat?

If you’ve stumbled upon this article, you probably have a vague idea of what ayahuasca is. No doubt you’re intrigued but probably also somewhat intimidated. The vulnerability, remoteness, and physical effects on your body are all sources of concern for all but the most uninhibited psychonaut. But what really happens at an ayahuasca retreat? We’re here to help you find out.

How to Prepare for an Ayahuasca Retreat?

So, you’re considering attending an ayahuasca retreat? Before you dive in, though, there’s a little prep work left to do. Trust me, showing up with your gut full of fast food and a mind buzzing with stress is not the way to go. (Luckily not one of the life lessons I had to learn the hard way 😉). Preparation before you leave for the retreat is the first part of the journey.

Here’s what you can do to prepare:

  1. Set Intentions: Reflect on what you hope to gain from the ayahuasca experience and try to have a clear intention. (While also keeping in mind that rigid expectations are the downfall of every good intention.)
  2. Cleanse your body: Ayahuasca can be tough on your body. A healthy diet; avoiding alcohol, drugs, and other toxins; and drinking plenty of water will go a long way. Typical dietary restrictions involve abstaining from alcohol, caffeine, and certain foods, such as red meat and dairy.
  3. Be mindful of your mental state: It’s not just about what you put in your body; it’s also about what’s going on in your head. Ayahuasca is a powerful psychedelic substance that can bring up intense emotions and experiences. Be aware of any unresolved emotional difficulties or past traumas you may have, as these might be brought to the surface. Of course, that’s precisely the point of your journey!
  4. Follow the retreat’s guidelines: Every center is unique. Check the schedule, what to bring, and any other important information.
  5. Consult with a healthcare professional: Make sure you are physically and mentally prepared for the experience.
  6. Be open to the experience: Come to the retreat with an open mind fully prepared for the unknown.

Tip! It’s recommended to stop taking any prescription medications that may interfere with ayahuasca’s effects at least two weeks beforehand.

What Really Happens at an Ayahuasca Retreat? The Ceremony

To understand what really happens at an ayahuasca retreat, we will now focus on the actual ceremony.

The details will differ, but there are some common things to expect.

The Role of the Shaman

Traditionally, ayahuasca ceremonies are led by a shaman or curandero – the spiritual leader who guides the sessions. They are said to act as a bridge between the physical and spiritual worlds.

The shaman often begins by purifying the space by burning sage or palo santo. They might then lead the group in a series of rituals, prayers, and songs.

Ceremonial ‘tobacco snuff’ is sometimes offered, such as the sacred Rapé. Blown into the nostrils with a special pipe, Rapé not only focuses the mind but also detoxifies the body and promotes overall well-being. 

Flower baths for cleansing your energy at Naturalia Retreat Center Ayahuasca Retreat Iquitos Peru
Flower baths for cleansing your energy at Naturalia Retreat Center Ayahuasca Retreat Iquitos Peru

The Brewing and Drinking of Ayahuasca

During the ceremony, participants will drink ayahuasca. What does it taste like? Well, let’s just say it’s an acquired taste. The thick, dark liquid is rather bitter, and experiencing nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea is not uncommon. These effects are considered part of the purging process, cleansing the body and mind of negative energies and emotions.

The Effects of Ayahuasca

After drinking ayahuasca, you typically feel the first changes within 30 to 60 minutes.

What happens next can vary widely, but many people report experiencing intense emotional and spiritual states and changes in perception.

The ayahuasca experience is often described as a journey through the subconscious mind, where you may encounter mystical entities and uncover profound insights. This tends to lead to an entirely new perspective on our world, or at least a deeper understanding of oneself.

The Role of Music and Chanting

Throughout the ceremony, the shaman will use music and chanting to help guide the participants through their journeys. These songs and chants are called icaros. They are believed to hold powerful healing energy and can help to bring balance and harmony.

Sometimes, when icaros are sung or whistled, a chakapa is used alongside. This is a bundle of leaves thats shaken to create a rattling sound, with each unique movement generating distinct sounds and energy waves.

What Really Happens at an Ayahuasca Retreat in the US?

Yes, there are ayahuasca retreats in the United States, but their legal status is somewhat complex. Ayahuasca is a Schedule I controlled substance. This means that it’s illegal to manufacture, possess, or distribute under federal law.

While some religious organizations and churches have been able to use ayahuasca in their practices under the protection of the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA), other US ayahuasca retreats have been shut down by law enforcement.

For those that are operating, they are commonly run by Americans who have experienced a profound ayahuasca-led change, and they are seeking a way to ‘pay it forward.’ They may have trained in the administration of ayahuasca with indigenous leaders in South America or elsewhere. And how closely they follow these traditions is up to the operator, though it’s common for a true believer in ayahuasca to try to adhere closely to their teachings.

How Long is an Ayahuasca Retreat?

How long is a piece of string? It really depends.

The length of an Ayahuasca retreat varies depending on the specific program. Some may be just one day, while others may last for a week or more.

A longer retreat potentially allows for a deeper and more transformative experience, but if you’re new to ayahuasca, a shorter one may be a better starting point. 

Base the decision on your personal goals and needs, as well as your budget and schedule. Take some time to reflect on what you hope to achieve and choose a length that feels right for you.

What Else Happens at an Ayahuasca Retreat?

While your ceremony experience will in many ways define your visit, a visit to an ayahuasca retreat offers many other highlights. You will work to integrate your ayahuasca-led personal insights into your conscious mind. You will probably participate in other activities meant to calm your mind and bring focus, including yoga, breathwork, or a visit to a temezcal. And you will have some downtime to enjoy the facility, go for a hike, visit the beach, or get to know other guests. Many centers also take great pride in their kitchens, with incredible, wholesome meals prepared fresh 3 times a day.

Ceremonial circle at Temple of the Way of Light Ayahuasca Retreat in Iquitos, Loreto, Peru
The ceremonial circle at Temple of the Way of Light Ayahuasca Retreat in Iquitos, Loreto, Peru

How to Choose the Right Ayahuasca Retreat

Choosing the right ayahuasca retreat is crucial for a safe and transformative experience. So, how do you go about this?

Here are some things to consider:

Research the retreat center and the facilitators: Make sure they are reputable and have experience leading Ayahuasca ceremonies. Look for reviews from previous participants and read about the center’s safety protocols.

Check the retreat’s philosophy and approach: Different retreat centers have different approaches. Some may focus more on spiritual or therapeutic work, while others may focus more on the ceremonial or cultural aspects of the experience.

Consider the location and setting: The center’s location and setting can affect the overall experience. Think of the difference between a remote or natural setting versus an urban one.

Look at the schedule and activities: What kinds of activities are offered? Make sure they match your goals and meet your needs.

Review the costs: Compare costs and what’s included in the retreat package. Some centers may include meals and accommodations, while others may not.

Tip! Keep in mind that the use of psychoactive substances should always be done under the guidance of a trained professional and with proper precautions and an understanding of the potential risks involved.

So What Really Happens at an Ayahuasca Retreat?

During an ayahuasca retreat, you’ll engage in ceremonial ayahuasca rituals led by a shaman. The inner exploration that follows can lead to transformative emotional and spiritual experiences that catalyze profound growth. 

You will work with trained practitioners to absorb the learnings you experienced during your journey. You will find time to ponder, reflect, rest, and heal.

Taking part in an ayahuasca ceremony can be a life-changing experience, and it’s important to approach it with respect, preparation, and caution. For more information about ayahuasca retreats, visit our Ayahuasca Retreat Guide.

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About the Author

Eline is a freelance writer with a natural curiosity and love of learning. After obtaining her bachelor's in Tourism, she later discovered her true passion and started studying Psychology. She now writes about all things psychology and therapy. She has both extensive personal and professional experience with psychedelics as well as other "alternative" healing modalities such as sound healing and hypnagogic light therapy.

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