Ayahuasca: Vine of the Soul
Ayahuasca, known as soga del alma (vine of the soul) in Spanish, is a potent and transformative plant medicine originating from the Amazon rainforest, where it has developed a rich legacy of traditions, myths, therapies, rituals and art practices. Spanning from the primordial roots of the indigenous tribes of South America to diverse syncretic spiritual movements such as the Brazilian Santo Daime and Uniao do Vegetal that embrace the medicine as a religious sacrament, ayahuasca was recently honored as a national treasure by the Peruvian government for its “extraordinary therapeutic value” and its important place in Peruvian cultural history.
Called yagé by the Tukano peoples of Colombia, the ritual use of Ayahuasca is a common thread linking the religion and spirituality of almost all the indigenous peoples of the Upper Amazon, including the mestizo (mixed Spanish and indigenous) population. Ayahuasca use is found as far west as the Pacific coastal areas of Panamá, Colombia, and Ecuador; southward into the Peruvian and Bolivian Amazon; among the Quichua, Waoroni, Shuar, and other peoples of Ecuador; and in Amazonian Brazil. Anthropologist, Luis Eduardo Luna, has numbered seventy-two indigenous groups reported to have used Ayahuasca.
Crossing Borders, Crossing Paradigms
The Ayahuasca medicine is becoming more visible all around the world as a powerful “Doctor” and there has been a dramatic increase in people traveling to South American countries such Peru to experience it. Ayahuasca is an integrative medicine. It challenges the Euro-western paradigm that the body and the mind are divorced from each other and reveals the fundemental role that the spirit and soul play in the healing of the Self. Known as almost universally in South America as la purga (the purge) for its ability to cleanse the body not only of illness but of negative energies and emotions built up over the course of one’s life, many have experienced profound emotional and spiritual and indeed miraculous physical healings subsequent to working with Ayahuasca. Of course, the visionary aspects of Ayahuasca are well known as the medicine produces some very powerful and unique psychedelic experiences. It is here where much of the healing work can be done. As a visionary medicine, curanderos and vegetalistas have used Ayahuasca as a diagnostic tool for discovering illness in the body and a medium for the purpose of communicating with spirits and journeying to other dimensions in space and time. It is a widespread belief among many indigenous peoples, including those of Amazonian regions, that illness is caused in part in the spirit world, and that disease may be attributed to a loss of a part of the soul, which has been led astray or oppressed by a dark spirit. One of the roles of the curandero (shaman) is to travel and collect knowledge in these visionary realms to aid a person’s journey to healing and wholeness.
A purgative and an emetic, it has been supposed that Ayahuasca was used originally by indigenous peoples for cleansing the body of parasites. The Ayahuacsa brew has many variants but the main two components are the sinuous Ayahuasca vine (banisteriopsis caapi) and the broad leafed chacruna plant (psychotria viridis). The psychoactive ingredient of the Ayahuasca tea is dimethyltryptamine (DMT), which found within the chacruna. Normally, DMT is inactivated when it encounters enzymes in the stomach. However, compounds within the ayahuasca plant acts as a MAO inhibitor that prevents the breakdown of DMT in the digestive tract. Combining the ingredients of the ayahuasca drink allows the DMT to produce its hallucinogenic effect when orally ingested. It is regarded as somewhat of a miracle that these two plants, out of all the millions of plants in the Amazon jungle, could have been brought together to create this powerful medicine.
It is important to stress that though the ayahuasca tea has psychoactive components, it is not a drug. It is a medicine that must be used in the proper ritualized context. People who experiment with ayahuasca recreationally are generally not bound to receive a beneficial outcome. According to Peruvian Amazonian Vegetalismo, ayahuasca is the “mother of all plants” and possesses its own anima, or powerful entity that can become angered or jealous if not shown the proper intention or respect. The process of brewing ayahuasca is also very important as an “energy medicine,” a medium that conducts the energies, positive or negative, of those that work with the medicine and drink it. Special preparation must be given to the brewing of Ayahuasca and it is a time-honoured ritual.
Only recently western science has shown interest in Ayahuasca. In 1993 both American and Brazilian scientists conducted the Hoasca Project in the Amazon Delta, where a group of long term users of Ayahuasca (belonging to the religious organisation Uniao do Vegetal) was compared to a group of non-users. In addition to the biochemical, pharmacological and physiological investigations the subjects were given a thorough psychological/psychiatric examination. A large percentage of the long-term users of ayahuasca were cured of alcohol and substance abuse. Contrary to the control group, they were found to be more trustworthy, loyal, optimistic, spontaneous, energetic and emotionally mature. In addition the long-term users had better results than the control group regarding tests that measure concentration and short-term memory. There were not found any side effects due to long term use of Ayahuasca.