Preparing a Proper Ayahuasca Brew

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The following on ayahuasca brews is excerpted from Rainforest Medicine: Preserving Indigenous Science and Biodiversity in the Upper Amazon, published by North Atlantic Books.

A good batch of yagé must unite the heavenly and earthly energies, and to realize this, subtle elements are necessary in the preparation. This is among the most refined essences of nature, fit to be drunk by the traditional elders. This article documents many of the guidelines for preparing yagé according to standards which the Secoya say come down to them from the Ñañë Siecopai, the Multicolored People of God. Note that methods as well as plant mixtures vary throughout the Amazon basin.

Sourcing and Harvesting Ayahuasca

“I have observed in using both yage and Peyote a strange, vegetable consciousness, an identification with the plant. . . . It is easy to understand how the Indians came to believe there is a spirit in these plants.” —William Burroughs, The Yage Letters.

The brew is carefully prepared from a mixture of yagé (Banisteriopsis caapi) and yagé ocó (Diplopterys cabrerana) vines. (Remember, this is the Secoya admixture of choice; people in other parts of the upper Amazon tend to use chacruna, Psychotria viridis.) These vines are usually cultivated in private gardens, which are reserved for this purpose and visited and cared for only by the yagé drinker. He is considered the father of the vines and stays in communion with the yagémopai (yagé people), the spirits of the yagé. Only with permission from their human father are the vines respectfully harvested, often after being softly sung to.

The thick central “mother vine” is usually not harvested. It is the abode of the plant spirit. The yagé vine is viewed as a house within which resides its owner, the spirit mother of the yagé. Many kinds of yagémopai or spiritual entities can live in this house, depending on the ability and grade of the yagé drinker or shaman who owns the vines and the depth of his/her wisdom. In visions, these can present themselves in multiple forms, such as a big complex insect with many eyes and many legs, or a large showy green grasshopper, or as many little people, or as a jaguar, a colorful snake, or a beautiful beaded goddess.

Usually new vines are planted regularly, and eventually, if need be, an entire vine can be harvested, including the thick central vine, but only if the shaman has not used this central vine to trap trickster spirits (something explained below). In the case of wild vines, the region where they grow will largely determine the quality of the spirits that have been attracted to live inside them.

In the Secoya and related traditions, the woody vines as well as leafy branches and offshoots of the mother vine are harvested for cooking down into a thick tea. The plants may be wild or cultivated, but it’s always good (if not essential) to know something about the source of the ayahuasca as well as the admixture plants. Traditionally, students on the path find a trusted master to provide guidance and an appropriate source of sacred plants. In healing ceremonies as well as ayahuasca churches, people trust their healers, shamans, and spiritual leaders to find and provide safe and appropriately handled materials. Urban ayahuasqueros do not have a forest nearby, so they must obtain plants on field trips or from vendors of medicinal plants. They might have a small garden but it’s not likely to support jungle-sized lianas.

In this regard I can offer the example of don Solon Tello, a great urban healer from Iquitos and master ayahuasquero, who owned no property in the bush and depended on friends and relatives to prepare medicine for him. On one occasion I met one of these friends, a humble elder of dignified stature. Don Solon had once healed this man’s daughter, and they became friends. One afternoon while I was there visiting, he brought don Solon a bottle of medicine as a gift. Don Solon uncorked the brew and knew instantly that it was good. He held it to the light and none could shine through; the liquid was deep dark brown and syrupy thick. It was well prepared, he said. Don Solon told me if it were not for this modest man’s virtuous solidarity with his healing practice, or his own son, who, at times, brought him medicine as well, he might not even be drinking. A master often relies on the inspired gifts and assistance of other people who believe in him and want him to continue his beneficial work. This was certainly true of don Solon, who did not rely on any fixed pattern or set deals to keep his practice going—only on the power of his skill and virtuous intent to attract what he needed to continue healing.

Often it will be the patient who provides the medicine. Among the Secoya as well as urban dwellers, frequently if a healer is requested to attend to a patient, those who call the healer must provide the brew. It is not always well prepared, but a worthy master can sometimes circumvent setbacks and call the spirits anyway in order to do his work.

In the case of curious Westerners seeking experiences, it’s pretty much a crapshoot as to what type and quality of brew they will be served, either in a city or a jungle hut—or on another continent where bottles of already-prepared brew are brought in. There are a few reputable retreat centers in the Amazon where people come to be healed from addictions, or to pursue dietas and spiritual experiences, and their stewards are known to provide quality rainforest plant medicines.

As the energy of a cook is passed to the food he or she makes, the energy and intent of the people preparing an ayahuasca brew are as important to the final product as the plant sources. As with many things in life, one’s experience often depends upon attitude (of both the maker and consumer of a commodity) and approach (mainly one’s own relationship to a substance, experience, being, etc.).

In all cases, regardless of tradition or lack thereof—and I mean even for the most clueless ayahuasca tourist—one must approach the plant or the drink with respect. This means not to touch it without permission of the owner, to handle it slowly and calmly when harvesting, and to avoid loud noises, disrespectful jokes, and excessive small talk, gossip, or jabber when working with the plant. As botanist and educator Kathleen Harrison notes, it’s wise to model our use of ayahuasca and all plants, particularly sacred plants, “on the indigenous traditions that have a long history of using these substances to build respectful, reciprocal relationships and to achieve healing on many levels.”

Harrison states the importance of a plant’s source in the medicine world so well that I will quote her directly here:

“[T]he source of a sacred medicine is very important. It certainly is among native people. Before using a plant, they want to know exactly who has grown it or collected it in the wild, and they want to be sure it’s someone they know very well and whose intentions are pure. But it goes further than that. Let’s say I’m a Mazatec shaman [of Oaxaca, Mexico] and my best friend was in the highlands and found the species he was looking for and collected some and brought them back, but along the way, a strange incident occurred. In that shaman’s worldview, the fact that something strange had happened was considered a bad omen and the mushrooms would be deemed tainted; no one would take them. Indigenous masters of this type of botanical wisdom consider this kind of medicine so vibratory in nature and so absorbent of human intention and events that they take the history of a plant’s origin very, very seriously. I recommend we follow their lead.”

In the case of ayahuasca, these are often not wild forest plants, but are grown in the shaman’s garden. Who grew these plants? How pure were the intentions of that shaman as he grew, harvested, and brewed the plants? Every single brewing is a different recipe on a different day in a different pot, under a different sky. All these factors combine in an incredibly intricate mix to affect our experience. This is not something you should just get out of a bottle from somebody and not know where it came from or what happened to it along the way. It’s not just a drug. It’s something else.

To further understand why the plant’s source is so important, let me impart a few details related to sourcing and cultivating ayahuasca vines that I was enlightened about over the years. It’s known that when a good master needs to accomplish an advanced spiritual healing, he might trap a harmful spirit in a place where it can do no more damage, and this might be within a yagé vine. In turn the master will lead the heavenly spirit to a new vine, one that he has cultivated in a more remote part of his garden. After this occurs, the old vine is never again used; it is left to overgrow and return to the wild, becoming the “jail” of the negative spirit. This is why the Secoya never drink from an old vine that is left in the overgrown garden of a deceased shaman. They are showing respect and also acknowledging the uncertain history of ceremonies related to each vine.

It is considered extremely dangerous to take a live cutting of an ayahuasca vine from an active shaman’s garden without having been granted permission. The Secoya say that if this happens, when the person prepares the drink he will see in his vision that he is attacked and strangled. Shortly afterward, he might become very ill or die, unless the vine he has stolen from is cut down and destroyed. The same can happen if one takes a wild vine without first asking permission from its spiritual owner, as wild vines from remote wilderness areas are homes to particularity powerful spirits who need to be appeased and recognized so that they willingly give of their energy to those interested in learning.

Traditionally, when a vine is passed along from its cultivator to someone else, it is given as if in a marriage ceremony, with several witnesses present, usually two couples on each side of the benefactor and beneficiary of the vine. The recipient humbly accepts the vine, which is given over fully charged with celestial energy. In all cases the recipient would need to be a disciple or relative of the shaman, as the vines are not passed on lightly.

These are some of the reasons why in the Amazon most new students who do not have a teacher and want to drink look for a wild vine in a remote wilderness area, even though these vines cannot be touched without precaution, either. The hopeful gatherers pray to the spiritual owner of the vine and they fast. Just because the vines are growing wild does not mean they do not have an owner—wild plants always have spiritual owners or guardians.

The aspirants may drink strong yoco (Paullinia yoco, a caffeinated jungle vine) or a beverage called mëto that is prepared by mashing strong native tobacco in water and letting it settle in the sun. These drinks help one concentrate energy and facilitate the necessary contact with the spiritual owner of the wild yagé vine. One must meditate on the question of harvesting the wild yagé and actually see the spiritual owner and request and receive authorization before harvesting these vines.

At this time the vine’s spiritual owner appreciates soft and harmonious music, especially singing or flute music. With proper intention, it won’t be long before the spiritual owner of the airo yagé, the wild or forest yagé vine, responds and authorizes the harvesting. The permission is received through a vision, dream, or other indication, such as colorful birds flying out of the vine, either in one’s inner sight or in actuality—for example, the jëesaipë, pisasá, or mapia, the blue-necked tanager, paradise tanager, and scarlet tanager, respectively.

A kind elder told me that once in his youth he went to a wild vine with the intention to gather some of it. He drank yoco and concentrated in order to encounter the spiritual owner of the vine. Suddenly a scarlet tanager flew down and landed on his right shoulder. It perched there for a moment, chirped some, then jumped off and flew back into the canopy of the vine. This was how the spiritual people of the yagé accepted his request and authorized him to proceed with his harvest.

Praying to the Vines

When harvesting the vines and branches of yagé, one first must blow on the vine. Soft chants of gratitude can be offered for the medicine that is complete and effective, and prayers of thanks to God the Creator who governs these vines; to the earlier masters of this tradition who taught and followed the sacred ways; and to the mother of the vine and the guardian spirits of yagé, asking that they be kind in releasing their wisdom, the deopai yagé toyá, “good-people’s yagé designs”— that it may follow the vines to the place where they will be cooked and permit the drinkers to benefit from this most sacred medicine. Here one can bring forth one’s intentions. The spirits of yagé are capable of sensing one’s innermost vibrations, so it is necessary to be sincere. With heartfelt prayers, the vines are spoken to, as if speaking to an old and trusted spiritual master, guide, and friend. The yagé is contented with sincere prayers, song, music, and aromatic smoke.

I am able to present three sample prayers, courtesy of the gracious elders who allowed me to record some of their rituals and stories.

In April 1993 I accompanied Taita (Father) Casimiro Mamallacta on a voyage to his purina tambu (literally, “a shelter that is walked to,” but meaning much more than that—this is a wilderness region where the ancient ways are upheld, a retreat area) at Napo-Galeras. We respectfully harvested the ingandu, the ayahuasca vine, after blowing tobacco smoke on it and leaving an offering of homegrown jungle tobacco at the vine’s base. Then Casimiro kneeled before the offered materials, raised his hands in the air, looked up to the sky and prayed:

“Spiritual masters of this land, beings of the trees, of the stars, spiritual owner of Galeras Mountain, please look upon this moment. I am your son, and here I am with my children, your children, to prepare this sacred medicine. Please make it so that it may be strong, so that we may see clearly, so the ancient knowledge of my ancestors will continue.”

Early one morning in July 1996, I accompanied Cesareo Piaguaje to harvest yagé. He blew on the vines, first with his own breath without tobacco. Then up into the branches he blew the smoke of a cigar containing homegrown natural tobacco rolled in a banana leaf. He shook the vine a little and offered up some prayer through softly spoken song. I asked him the essence of the prayer and he shared it with me in Spanish:

“I have come to learn, great elder teacher, with a humble heart and a willing hand. Please teach me, help me to see and better know the correct way of life. Help me to be a better healer so I may be of service to the people, so that I may follow the way of service, to be part of God’s highest plan, grant me strength to rise above my inertia, my lassitude, my weakness so I may be stronger with each passing day, so I may correctly follow the medicine way of life, so I may be wiser with each new day that comes, more upright, more sincere, better, more willing to serve. I come to you now, great medicine vine, I come to harvest of your branches, and ask of you, hear these words, read these thoughts, owner of these vines, may the pinta come with them, fill them with your life-giving energies, allow them to be effective so we may cook yagé.”

Don Esteban Lucitante shared this next prayer with me in August of 1997. We were sitting around one afternoon watching the river flow, and I asked him what kind of prayer he offers to the yagé when harvesting. He said his prayer goes something like this:

“Thank you, great medicine vine, from all my being, from the most sincere depths of my being, from my heart, from my body, from my willing feet and willing hands, from my mind and soul, from all aspects of my united being, from my spirit to your spirit, I thank you. Thank you for this medicine tradition that my grandfather taught me, thank you for helping me to see the celestial people of my origin, the doctor people, the medicine people of my ancestors. Thank you.”

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Teaser image by JDRorer, courtesy of Creative Commons license.

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