What it feels like to do ayahuasca, according to people who’ve tried it

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Most people travel to get out and see the world, but a growing number are looking to journey inwards with the help of ayahuasca, an ancient Amazonian brew with hallucinogenic—and potentially healing—properties

It’s been a challenging couple of years, but people are increasingly unafraid of seeking help, and even travelling thousands of kilometres to get it. In July 2022, Bloomberg reported that, according to InsightAce Analytic, the market for psychedelic therapeutics—substances such as LSD and magic mushrooms—could be worth US$8.31 billion by 2028, following growing interest among doctors and mental health professionals who see them as a novel treatment for conditions such as anxiety, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder.

One form of plant medicine in particular that’s piqued people’s interest is ayahuasca, a psychedelic brew traditionally made from vines and leaves found in the Amazon rainforest—the use of ayahuasca in the indigenous shamanistic traditions of South America appears to date back several thousand years. The drink is typically prepared as part of a ceremony, led by a shaman or curandero, and is associated with vivid visions or hallucinations that help participants to confront and release deep-rooted fears or trauma.

Athletes, Silicon Valley head honchos and celebrities have sworn the experience is “life changing”. In 2005, British singer Sting said it was “the only genuine religious experience I’ve ever had”, claiming there is “definitely an intelligence—a higher intelligence—at work in you during this experience”.

“With the help of this plant you can overcome your fears, you can overcome things that are holding you back. In the end, the process of overcoming liberates you.”

– Boris –

“Sometimes people are afraid of going into ceremony with this plant medicine, but there is nothing to be afraid of because you will never face anything that isn’t already in you,” says Boris Kon, a co-founder of APL Journeys,  which hosts ayahuasca retreats in Spain and Mexico. “With the help of this plant you can overcome your fears, you can overcome certain things that are holding you back. But the moment of overcoming is not an easy one, and everyone who wishes to participate must be ready for this. In the end, the process of overcoming liberates you.”

In recent years, with a greater focus on mental health and deep healing dominating the wellness space, there’s been a meteoric rise in interest in ayahuasca among travellers. People from all over the world are flocking to retreats in Peru, Brazil, Spain and even California to discover what “Mother Aya” has to show them, with the hopes of a transcendental and transformative experience.

APL Journeys connects traditional Amazonian plant healing with a modern therapeutical approach, with a team of master healers from the rainforest, and therapists from Europe and the US. “We host our ceremonies in the most traditional way, with deep respect to the knowledge that Amazonian people have carried through thousands of years,” says Kon, “but it’s another thing to know what to do with the experience. That’s why our therapists step in to help our participants to find a way to make a real change in their everyday lives.”

As each “journey” is deeply personal and individual, Tatler asked three people to share their ayahuasca experience, including what they saw and felt, and what to look for if you’re curious about taking a trip yourself.

Stacey Monaghan, Model, Hong Kong and Australia

What inspired you to go on an ayahuasca journey?

I had been moving through my own spiritual and healing journey for a few years before trying plant medicine. I would describe myself as being something of a seeker since early childhood, with a strong desire to understand myself, life and my place in it. I had heard about plant medicine and was curious.

I was presented with an unexpected opportunity to attend a ceremony in 2020 in Brazil, and I’m so glad I did. I’ve tried it twice now with my partner, and both places we chose were based on the personal recommendations of friends. Both had people there to assist anyone needing physical or emotional support before, during and after the ceremony. I always felt safe, which was so important. When doing any kind of deep work and working with trauma, especially when in a mind-altered state, feeling safe in the environment and around the people there is imperative.

How would you describe your experience?

My second experience, in May 2022, made my first seem like a walk in the park. My first ceremony was deep and profound—a really beautiful experience that left me with a lot to ponder. The only purging I did during that ceremony was through tears, not the vomiting I had heard and read about.

My second ceremony was the most intense initiation I have ever experienced. In some moments, part of me was terrified that I would never come out of it; the other part of me held this deep knowing and courage that whatever I was seeing and experiencing was exactly what I needed. This is the essence of the medicine—it shows you what you need to see, reveals what needs to be revealed and, at times, that moment will lead you through a journey of a metaphorical death in order for something new to be born.

It can take anywhere between 30 to 60 minutes or more to feel the effects of the medicine and commence your “journey”. As I mentioned, there is always someone there to check that you are OK. The journey itself took place overnight and in total lasted for about five hours or so, but you have no real concept of space or time during it. There were traditional music and instruments being played to guide everyone on the journey, timed in a very specific way. Some people even choose to get up and dance and express themselves through movement and sound.

Did you experience any major breakthroughs?

There were moments I thought I wouldn’t make it through, and I wanted so much to reach out—for someone to save me and to [provide] comfort because I had never really trusted in myself. I didn’t believe in my own strength to move through life on my own, yet that was exactly who I was left with—me. It was “me with me”, and no matter how intense and scary at times the experience got, I carried myself through it. I kept repeating out loud this one mantra that came to me, for what could have been hours: “We can do hard things.”

Whenever I felt like I was about to crumble and collapse, I would hold myself up. And I’ve continued to do so ever since, in my life, whenever fear or doubt creeps in.

How did life feel after your journey?

Although circumstances have challenged me in the last six months since the ceremony, I know that everything I went through prepared me to face my current reality with more trust, faith and courage. I’m continuously learning to surrender and to let go; to allow things to come together as they are meant to. Surrender is not resignation—one is a feeling of defeat, of giving up, and the other comes from an empowered place of trust. 

What was missing was integration support post-ceremony. I now understand the importance of integrating the experience into your life moving forward. Some centres work in tandem during and post-retreat with trauma-informed licensed therapists to provide therapeutic support as needed, meeting periodically afterwards on a call to further integrate any insights that come through, and even to help navigate any challenges or grief that may arise. Now I really understand how valuable that is and that’s the one thing I felt was missing for me.

Without applying what you’ve learnt to your life and relationships, the experience becomes just like another self-help book full of “aha” moments that are quickly forgotten. If you’re a first-timer, look to a reputable retreat centre that offers pre- and post-support.

What advice would you have for someone looking to try ayahuasca?

Explore why you are feeling drawn to plant medicine and what you’re looking to receive from the experience. Intention setting is always a powerful practice before any kind of ritual or ceremony.

Something I knew about but didn’t do properly was [physical] preparation pre-ceremony, as they recommend detoxing and preparing your body for weeks beforehand. Again, a good retreat will guide and support you through all of this. That’s something I really regret because my stomach was so sick for weeks afterwards.

Lastly, I do not believe this is for everyone. Particularly if you suffer from severe mental health issues, depression or have a complex trauma history, I think it’s imperative to seek professional guidance beforehand and let the people involved know about your history and any medications you take, so they can assess whether this would be a correct and safe fit for you.

Lindsay Jang, Entrepreneur, Hong Kong

When and where did you have your ayahuasca experience?

In October 2018. I would call it a pretty premium experience—my friend invited me to a three-day ceremony at a beautiful home in Malibu, California with a small group of people led by a shaman.

My relationship at the time was starting to unwind; I felt whatever could help me get through that phase, I was down for it.

How would you describe your experience?

Only six of us did the ceremony, I was the only woman; the others were Navy Seals with PTSD, and mental and physical trauma from serving in Afghanistan, who had seen a lot of improvement physically and mentally, from doing these ceremonies.

We did ayahuasca at around 10pm. Everyone got their own space, and you’re guided into it. They start to dose you and you kind of just hang out until it kicks in. It’s very feeling-based.

I anticipated vomiting—and to be honest, that was the thing I was scared of the most. But I didn’t vomit at all. I cried, but it was very involuntary—it just comes out. I could hear other people moaning or screaming in my peripheral, but you’re not really tuned in to that, you’re very deep in your own journey.

[I experienced] waves of very intense anxiety—every question, every thought in my mind made me anxious. It felt like my brain had a thousand bouncy balls in it that I couldn’t catch or stop. Then there was a moment of serenity, like a calm breeze, and you hear the answers. Through all the self-loathing, self-deprecating thoughts, tranquillity came.

When it was over, hours later, at around 9am, it was a very natural end. People would take a shower or have some breakfast. As soon as you’re out of it, they tell you not to share, to try and keep it to yourself. I actually had a few days to myself after, where I turned my phone off. I think you need to fully unplug and just give yourself space around it.

What was your biggest takeaway?

[Learning] that your own mind is your worst enemy but also it can be your best friend. It was this sense of knowing that your brain can wind itself up so much, and back you into your own corner, but it’s all in your head; and in the same way that your brain can create these problems, it can solve them.

I would love to be in a place where I could consistently do ceremonies, because I think you start to just see things much more clearly and practically. That said, they call it plant medicine because it’s not drugs; it’s not remotely fun; it’s not even escapism. It’s a deep exploration of your inner self.

How did life feel after your experience?

I wouldn’t say my life changed dramatically … I think it just showed me the inner strength that everybody has—it’s there. Whether or not you are willing to face those things is something completely different. Nobody, myself included, necessarily wants to face all the things you already know are not the best things about you. And if you’re scared, just remember that all of this stuff lives in you, so it’s not like you’re going to be surprised by anything.

My personality is quite strong, and not so vulnerable, so it was a great exercise in letting go and facing all the things that maybe I don’t deal with or push aside. Knowing that I’m capable of doing that was really what I wanted—and what I got.

See also: Biohacking & Beyond: Lindsay Jang and Other Experts Weigh In on the Pro-Ageing Movement

Paul*, Finance, Singapore

When and where did you have your experience?

December 2020 at a resort in Costa Rica called Rythmia, which was founded by Gerard Armond Powell who wrote Sh*t the Moon Said: A Story of Sex, Drugs and Ayahuasca. I recommend reading it—especially if you’re curious about plant medicine.

What inspired you to go on an ayahuasca journey?

I had experienced serious burnout, which led me to go within and work on myself. I started to meditate, and met a monk in Bangkok who taught me a form of meditation to do every day. After five or six weeks of doing it, I had the most profound vision and experience while in a meditative state, and came to the realisation that there was so much more out there. I wanted to do more of this.

I’m good friends with Sean Hancock, whose father is Graham Hancock, the filmmaker who has made many documentaries including The Medicine, which takes a close look at the healing powers of ayahuasca.

Sean had invited me to an ayahuasca retreat before, but I thought it was weird. During my spiritual journey, though, I told him about my experience meditating. He said that on ayahuasca, you can have that experience for up to seven hours. I thought, why not? So I went to Rythmia with Sean and his family. 

What was the biggest takeaway from your experience?

It’s been three years and I still feel like I’m integrating some of the work. It made me understand myself better, in terms of realising it’s not all about me. The experience of “ego death” was pretty intense; I realised I need to find beauty in everything I see, and not seek out perfection.

It helped me through a lot of my trauma, and to deal with a lot of [stuff] I went through when I was younger, including sexual abuse. I saw myself as a kid, and I was holding hands with him. I realised that a lot of my angst as an adult came from feeling like that child was a part of me that I had lost. Once I realised that, and understood it, that’s when real healing could begin. But that healing is hard work—it’s not recreational.

It definitely changed my life. I used to get a lot of anxiety and was on medication. I couldn’t spend time alone … I’ve been single now for 18 months. Another breakthrough is that consistent healing comes from sharing. When you share your stories, you learn more about yourself.

I would do it again.

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