It was the botanist Richard Spruce who, in 1851 collected the first specimens of a hallucinogenic vine that was being used by Amazonian shamans to effect visionary trances in their healing ceremonies. Naming it Banisteriopsis Caapi the vine has become more commonly known as Ayahuasca or Yage ( pronounced ya-hey ). Translating literally as “vine of the soul”, Ayahuasca remained scarcely known to the public until the publication of “In search of Yage”, by the author William Burroughs, in a collection of letters between the author and Beat poet Allen Ginsberg, chronicling their respective journeys into the Amazon in search of what Burroughs had called “the ultimate fix”, a fix he would later describe as “space-time travel”. In the last few decades Yage has been comprehensively studied by anthropologists and has finally become a subject of great interest in the Psychedelic sub-culture, becoming much more widely available on the internet and in head shops, even finding its way onto festival stalls. Black Poppy has therefore asked me to give a peek into the world of this legendary hallucinogenic brew.
There has been much confusion over what the name Ayahuasca actually refers to botanically. Ayahuasca refers specifically to the vine Banisteriopsis Caapi. Approximately six inches thick Caapi climbs adjacent trees to reach the sunlight and contains many alkaloids, the most essential being the Beta-Carbolines Harmine and Harmaline, both Monoamine Oxidase inhibitors. Technically this vine is what we call Ayahuasca. But in practice it is the combination of this vine with many admixture plants containing the powerful hallucinogen Dimethyltryptamine (DMT) that is meant. To distinguish the two brews I will use the name Yage to refer to the Harmine/Dmt combination.
Placing the ingredients into a cauldron Yage is boiled and simmered whilst the shaman sings and blows tobacco smoke over the brew to invoke its pure spirit and guard against any sorcery or negative influences upon it. The variations in strength can be numerous and it is generally the quantity of DMT containing plants, most commonly Psychotria Viridis, which determines the power of the brew. After much preparation the resultant product is a thick bitter liquid which is difficult to swallow without throwing up almost immediately, a subject we will return to later.
Anyone intending to experience Yage outside of it’s Amazonian setting must first fully understand the principles of Monoamine Oxidase inhibition thoroughly. Monoamine Oxidase (mao) is an enzyme which acts to break down any potentially threatening amines in our digestive processes. An mao inhibitor such as Harmine or Harmaline clearly seeks to restrict this important enzymatic filtering process. Mao inhibitors fall into two categories; reversible and irreversible. A reversible mao is usually neutralised in the body in between 6 to 8 hours. The effects of an irreversible mao, though not truly “irreversible” can last several weeks. Indeed an overdose of reversible mao can induce much the same effect leading to a prolonged psychedelic blow-out, leaving the body vulnerable to negative chemical interactions ordinarily blocked by mao. Under no circumstances should mao inhibitors be used in combination with any amphetamines such as MDMA or Mescaline. The notoriously strict ayahuasca diet prior to its ingestion is not a romantic appeal to ascetic spirituality; it is a definite chemical principle. Prohibited substances include such delicacies as cheese, beer and yoghurt to name but a few. So here we must emphasise the non-recreational nature of Ayahuasca and the curious are encouraged to investigate the subject fully. As always the first place to start are the internet resources, particularly The Vaults of Erowid, The Lycaeum and Yage.net. These sites are voluminous in detailed information regarding “Ayahuasca Analogues” and the principle of mao inhibition. The mao inhibitors render the DMT orally active producing an intense psychedelic experience which usually lasts between 6 to 8 hours.
Throughout the Amazon Yage is taken under the guidance of the shaman or “ayahuasquero”, usually at night, and the sacred nature of this plant teacher is afforded maximum respect by all participants. No one takes it for fun. The casual tripper should take note. This is not the gentle world of fluffy ego MDMA style. The visual intensity of Yage can be deeply shocking to the uninitiated. It is a creature of the jungle and not at all conducive to raving ! To be frank Yage is for those who have reached a certain degree of spiritual integrity and a willingness to truly surrender to the experience. Fine words but often painfully difficult in practice. But that is the nature of psychedelic shamanism. Depending on set and setting, mental preparation and right intention the purgative quality of Yage can range from repeated gut wrenching vomiting to a truly ecstatic release of psychic and physical impurity. Releasing the toxic waste and psychic trauma of a lifetime of delusion the visions of Yage wash through you in ever stronger waves of energy reaching a kind of transcendental critical mass. The very fabric of reality is torn asunder and what has lay hidden is revealed.
Jungle Visions, Shamanic Guides
Beyond the initial geometric visuals lie breathtaking vistas of astonishing complexity. One curious quality of these visions is the emphasis on jungle animals, serpents and other classic motifs of shamanic iconography. This seems to happen no matter who takes it and in whatever setting. It is as if Yage is a kind of visual repository of all the visions of all the shamans who ever took it and much more besides. It is a deeply shamanic confrontation with yourself and the classic archetypal experiences of bodily dismemberment, death and rebirth are made explicit.
It is important to listen to those who are most experienced with this brew. Indeed some Amazonian shamans now come to the western world to oversee groups who take this drug. If the reader is really interested they would be wise to seek one of these groups on the net, for this hallucinogenic experience is awesome. Yage literally pours the biology of our species out in front of us in all its’ glory and it all its’ darkness, the triumphs and the tragedies and we are invited to sink or swim. Perhaps this is the real source of the western minds fascination with Yage. We sense, rightly, that far from just being a drug, Yage is truly a technology.
For centuries materialism has relegated man to the edges of a cold dead universe as if any subjective experience is an error in the data, not to be trusted. What psychedelic shamanism shows us is that this very subjectivity is science. Call it quantum theory, call it shamanism, call it what you like, the very page upon which this is written is a construct of your own imagination.
The reality of Yage is that as the active alkaloids make themselves felt, the familiar anxiety of central nervous system stimulation and sometimes overwhelming nausea can be very uncomfortable. This is where the presence of the shaman really counts. There is a sense of identity loss as we merge with the visions as if knowing a thing is now subordinate to becoming it. The shaman song creates a kind of psychic template upon which we pour our senses. We become the other. Our narrow view of reality was but a window on the world and now consciousness at large walks through the walls. Ever stranger spirits and entities crowd round us and greet the initiate. Huxley called this ‘the antipodes of the mind’ and despite this unimaginable ecology of transcendental soul we sense an affinity with what we find there. We are changed. Our alienated awareness is healed and we make a pact with our soul. More than just an invigorated will toward ecological awareness we experience our spiritual childishness through the eyes of an adoring maternal biosphere. Gaia. To the Indians, Pachamama. Yage is an umbilical cord that connects us to the source of our awareness and we salute the shaman as one who has made their way out of the womb. Yage is a eucharist as the Brazilian Santa Daime churches who employ Ayahuasca would testify. The cold obsessive and misguided sense of religious morality is reconciled to self acceptance in the infinite blink of an eye.
Not in the sense of an ideal but in a kind of merging with our deepest instincts. We discover reality and take our refuge there. We are sat in our lap. Tao.
So if I have any advice to the budding Yage participant what would it be ? I guess the familiar context of set and setting is the best way to start. By set I mean the emotional preparation we bring to the experience. You must question sincerely why you wish this upon yourself. Is it just the urge to try every high ? To get wasted ? If so then this is wasted upon you ! And you will get nothing from it. It is a Zen. You will be left to sweep floors when there was joy to be had counting the sky! We must place ourselves at the threshold of Yage humbly and let it lead the way in. There is much talk of Ego and how to overcome it . This is often misunderstood. It is to saw off the very branch we sit on. The truth is that there is nothing we can hide from Yage. We experience ourselves in all our humaness. Sure we may shave our head and shuffle our robes, but it takes real courage to be the coward we are. Yage will welcome the true coward. This is the gateless gate of ego death. The panic and fear we feel is the ego itself that thought it was dead. So we need not fear our shortcomings if we are honest with our self about them. Episodes of panic are so common with this type of experience and the only thing we can do is sit it out and above all surrender. Meditation is good practice as it teaches us to just sit and breathe and sometimes that is all there is to do. Just breathe and behind closed eyelids the adventures of ideas will unfold. Not everything will be pretty and why should it ?
As for setting it is fair to say that not many of us will get the chance to explore Yage in its’ traditional Amazonian setting. As I have said, finding a recommended group to take this sacred plant teacher with is the way I would suggest. The shamans who have kept this mystery intact have long known that the western world was the new frontier and many now visit to oversee these groups and give their experience. I do not have room to even touch upon the experiential intricacies of this kind of tripping, the telepathy, the entities that abound, the magic and the sciences of millions of worlds upon worlds. That is not the brief here so you must trawl through the literature for anecdote and insight. Here my emphasis is to applaud Yage as one of the great mysteries of life. That here in the alkaloid backwaters of an Amazonian vine the mystery and the myth, the itch we can never scratch, remains alive and unscathed and open to anyone whose intent is sincere.
The Tao of psychedelics is more than just a catalogue of experience, it is refining the way we relate to experience. This is true of both the course of a night with Ayahuasca and the following months and years we spend absorbing the insights gained. The subheading of this magazine is “A drug user’s health and lifestyle magazine”. It is important to keep this in mind. It is the fertile ground where our experiences take root and produce what fruit they may, our Tree of Life. As Blake once remarked, sometimes “fruitless, false, though fair to see”. Out of the thousands of plants in the Amazon the central mystery is how did the Indians stumble across the two plants which when combined produce this experience? The principle of mao inhibition was undiscovered by the west until the last century. The shamans have used this technique for thousands of years. How can this be ? When questioned the shamans say it is simple ” the plants told us”. This is in fact true. Truth is an open secret. Keep you’re eyes peeled!
Ayahuasca: Things to Remember
It is NOT taken for fun!
* It is important to research foods to avoid before taking yage. i.e cheese
* Never mix with any other drugs especially stimulants and MDMA
* Preferably, have an experienced person or shaman to support or guide you throughout the experience.