What Is Ayahuasca?

Ayahuasca is an Amazonian plant medicine that has been used in a sacred context by indigenous and mestizo healers in Peru, Colombia, Ecuador and Brazil for hundreds, and possibly thousands, of years. Made from the mixture of 2 (or more) plants found in the Amazon jungle – the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi), and the chacruna leaf (Psychotria viridis), which contains the powerful psychoactive dimethyletryptamine (DMT), it is a brew capable of inducing altered states of consciousness. The word ayahuasca is based in the Quechua language and translates to “vine of the soul” or “vine of the spirits”. It goes by many different names according to region, such as onicaapi, natema, yajé, yagé, nepe, shuri, kamalampi, kaji and others throughout the Amazon Basin1.

Traditionally, ayahuasca has been used in a variety of contexts: as a therapeutic tool to diagnose and treat illness; as a means of shamanic communication; and for the communal purposes of hunting magic, warfare, and collective ritual2. While the true origins of ayahuasca have been lost to history, with no written records prior to the 16th century Amazon invasion of Spanish conquistadors, archaeological evidence suggests its use stretches back at least two millennia. Its practice and spread since appears to be as complex and diverse as the people who use it, embodying and blending various cultural frameworks, spiritual belief systems, economic and political landscapes, and social hierarchies. Today, it is the foundation for the traditional medicine systems of over 75 different cultures in the Amazon, and has spread to various regions across the globe, offering healing for many illnesses and dis-ease where modern medicine has failed.

Addressing Root Cause – Healing the Emotional, Energetic, and Spiritual Bodies

Far from being part of the “New Age” movement, plant medicine healthcare has existed for thousands of years and was a well-established system long before Western medicine developed in the last few hundred years. Just as modern medicine has excelled at getting to the physical causes of illness, plant medicine – in particular, ayahuasca – offers a chance to get at the emotional, energetic, and spiritual roots of dis-ease by opening channels of communication to our subconscious inner landscapes.

From a shamanistic point of view, most illnesses and diseases are manifestations of blockages or “knots” in the energy of a person, or where excess or insufficient energy creates imbalance in the overall system. This often happens throughout our life from trauma in its various forms. Shock trauma – often the result of abuse, attack, or loss – is one form, but trauma can result from many common occurrences of life: surgery, accidents, illnesses, injuries, relationships, financial difficulties, cultural and societal pressures, betrayal or anger from close ones, even problems from birth we may be unaware of – just to name a few.

With the help of ayahuasca, trained and ethical healers can address and correct these imbalanced energies through healing ceremonies.  This is contrary to Western medicine, which focuses on the physical body and outward symptoms of an illness. Such an emphasis can end up blocking our innate healing process by suppressing these symptoms without addressing the root energetic cause, denying or invalidating the experience and associated emotions, or over-emphasizing adjustment or control. As a result, insufficient importance is placed on the energetic body, which encompasses the mental and emotional well-being of a person.

“One of the most frustrating failures of Western medical practice is its lack of awareness of the unity of mind and body despite voluminous, elegant, and absolutely persuasive research evidence that the distinction between mind and body is false, unscientific, and – in real life – impossible.”

Dr. Gabor Maté, from foreword of The Fellowship of the River by Dr. Joe Tafur

When we are young, we often inherit the patterns, habits, and ways of life from our parents, relatives, or those who raised us. We are also heavily shaped by the events in our lives that happen to us at a young age. Ayahuasca can take us back to this time and revisit memories which shaped the way we perceived life, created our values, and shaped our beliefs. When negative events or emotions happened, our tendency as children was to turn away from that pain, avoid it and push it down into our subconscious. This created energetic imprints that we carried into our adult life, manifesting in a multitude of ways and practices, including how we handle stress, our predisposition to addiction, depression and anxiety, and the way in which we connect with ourselves and others. In this work, we are invited to engage with our inner child, and rescue those parts which still carry pain through reflecting upon, integrating, and then releasing the associated negative emotions and their energetic hold on us. By healing the inner child, we heal all that which follows, and can return to a place of authenticity, presence, and peace.

The alchemy of transformation comes from engaging directly with our shadow selves, our emotional pain and discomfort. It is not a process that one can simply “think through” – it is one of the heart, and can only be truly dealt with through the direct experience of the emotions and traumas we’ve been avoiding. When we fully integrate our shadow self, transforming the energy from it and using it instead for life-affirming purposes, we can enter into a state of love and gratitude that can only come from walking through the fire and coming out on the other side. By bringing the subconscious blockages to the surface, amplifying the patterns and processes that no longer serve us, and helping us face it, ayahuasca allows us the ability to transform that darkness into the keys to our liberation.

“There is no coming to consciousness without pain. People will do anything, no matter how absurd, in order to avoid facing their own Soul. One does not become enlightened by imagining figures of light, but by making the darkness conscious.”

— Carl Jung

Shipibo Culture, Icaros, & Plant Spirit Shamanism

The Shipibo people are one of 14 indigenous cultures living in the Amazon Basin in Peru. They are a long-standing people credited with maintaining a time-honored history of plant-spirit shamanism, particularly surrounding the ritual use of ayahuasca. For them, much of their knowledge and worldview comes from a deeply-rooted relationship to plants, animals, and the natural world. This is evidenced in their pottery, textiles, baskets, art, and beadwork, which display patterns representative of the harmonious energy field that pervades all things. This concept of an all-encompassing reality of oneness can challenge the typical Western mind, but it is what informs and influences the efficacy of their shamanic practices. These patterns represent not only the oneness of creation, the non-dualistic nature of all things, the union or fusion of perceived opposites – they are also an ongoing dialogue or communion with the spiritual world and powers of Nature.

The visionary art of the Shipibo brings this paradigm into a physical form. In the same way, the icaros, or healing songs, sung during ayahuasca ceremonies are the audial representation of these patterns. Thus, during ceremony, the shaman is accessing the geometric patterns of energy from the plants, which transform through the vessel of the Maestro to a chant or icaro. The icaro is therefore a conduit for the patterns of creation, which then permeate the body of the shaman’s patient, bringing harmony in the form of the geometric patterns in order to re-balance the patient’s body. In effect, they are transforming the visual code into an acoustic code, which allows the healing energy to penetrate much deeper into the system of the patient and release negative energy blockages and their emotional counterparts. The shaman knows when the healing is complete, as the design is clearly distinct in the patient’s body. Oftentimes it takes multiple ceremonies to complete this, and when the completed healing designs are embedded in the patient’s body, this is called an arcana. This internal patterning is deemed to be permanent and to protect a person’s spirit going forward.

It is only through years of training, apprenticeship, and dietas with master plants, that healers are able to access and recruit a team of plant-spirit healers to work with and heal their patients’ energetic body. Typically, Shipibo curanderos (healers) undergo a number of dietas normally lasting one, three, six, or 12 months, over many years, in order to become a conduit for transferring the healing energies of the plants. While the curandero is not the one carrying out the healing (this is the role of the plant spirits), they are certainly a part of the equation, and as such, must be highly trained, psychologically and emotionally balanced, well-intentioned, and have an open and loving heart. It is vital that the curandero is able to protect the ceremonial space and guide participants safely along their journeys through the use of icaros. As such, master curanderos spend years training apprentices and passing their knowledge and practices down through generations.

The Shipibo traditions, practices, products, and culture as a whole embody the rich and complex cosmological system that is their heritage. The Shipibo are comprised of approximately 50,000 people centered around the Ucayali River in the northeastern Peruvian Amazon. Previously two distinct cultures, the Shipibo and the Conibo, cultural similarities and intermarriages eventually formed one cohesive group. Like many indigenous peoples around the world, their culture has changed dramatically in recent centuries due to the pressures of colonialism, corporate resource extraction in the rainforest, and the influence of missionaries. Nevertheless, much of their traditions persist today in the form of ayahuasca ceremonies and rituals, and active effort is being made by Soltara and many other groups to protect, maintain, and elevate their culture and wisdom.


1. Dobkin de Rios, Marlene. Visionary Vine. Waveland Pr Inc, 1984.
2. Labate, Beatriz Caiuby. Ayahuasca Shamanism in the Amazon and Beyond. Oxford University Press, 2014.

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