Unlike the previous blogpost, the following account is written more like a Ayahuasca case study – with the subject being me.
As I had discussed in Part I, about two years ago I had reached a point in my life where I was feeling quite stuck and apathetic towards life. This worried me greatly as twice before I had already experienced this kind of empty heaviness and I knew from experience, it could act as a precursor to a darker hole of depression and suicidal ideation if I did not get out of it soon.
The discipline of Yoga is what pulled me out of that darkness years ago. I believe due to its direct work with the vagus nerve as theorized by Dr. Stephen Porges and its relationship to the psycho-biological aspects of trauma, it continued to offer me the energy necessary to continue with daily life, but I knew I needed to go deeper. I could tell that there was something hidden inside of me that was stubbornly there, causing me to doubt my own worth and the beauty life was always offering me.
Therefore, due to the years of research and personal stories that I had listened to and read previously on DMT and plant based psychedelic therapy, I decided to take the jump and explore this experience for myself. This is when I was presented with the opportunity to participate in five different ceremonies of Ayahuasca with a Brazilian Shamana from the Santo Daime Tradition and a therapist associated with the research group ICEERS, in Barcelona, Spain.
Ayahuasca and the Santo Daime Tradition
Only in the tropical, eclectically spiritual and diverse environment of Brazil could such an interesting mix of ancient tribal traditions, plant medicine and catholic ritual be fused together to create the Santo Daime tradition. Dai-me means “give me” in Portuguese. The Portuguese phrase, Dai-me força, dai-me amor (“give me strength, give me love”), recurs in the doctrine’s hymns. It was founded around the 1930s in Brazil by Raimundo Irineu Serra and incorporates elements of several religious or spiritual traditions including Folk Catholicism, Kardecist Spiritism, African animism and indigenous South American shamanism. Ayahuasca, referred to as Daime, is drunk as part of the ceremony. The combination of both music and silence are integral in the experience of these ceremonies.
Ayahuasca itself is a kind of thick tea that is composed of two different plants. The ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). These two plants are mixed together because without the ayahuasca vine the hallucinagentic effects of the chacruna will not be experienced.
In other words, without the ayahuasca vine the DMT found in chacruna will not be absorbed by the body and will essentially move through the system without any effect*. It is the the ayahuasca vine that provides the necessary alkaloids which inhibit monoamine oxidase type A, thus enabling the oral absorption of dimethyltryptamine (DMT) found in the chacruna leaves. The historian Grahm Hancock points out that this is pretty amazing since there are more than 150,000 plant species in the Amazon and of these 150,000 species, the healers and Shamans of the Amazon were able to figure out how to marry these two different plants together and boil them in water so that the effects of DMT could actually be experienced. The people of the Amazon do not take credit for this discovery though and rather acknowledge that the spirits taught them the wonders of this botanical miracle.
This mix of chacruna and Ayahuasca ´tea´ is administered by a shaman in quantities dependent upon the experience of the participant and potency of the plant, but in general, each ´toma´, or dose, is around 50 – 70mg. If you are interested in learning more about the chemical make-up and history of Ayahuasca in greater detail, I suggest visiting the ICEERS website here.
*Diplopterys cabrerana is another common plant that is used instead of P. viridis, depending on availability in the region.
Objectively, my experiences of Ayuahuasca in the Santo Daime Tradition were all very similar. The same songs, the same eclectic mix of spiritual icons, with the same Shamana and the same Ayuahuasca formula. However, even though there were somatic expressions and images that were experienced repeatedly, the subjective experience of each one of these ceremonies was completely different from the other.
One of the somatic expressions that repeated itself in each Ayahuasca session was a physical trembling from my right leg all the way up deep into cavity of my pelvic floor and iliac crest. A similar tremble was felt along my left shoulder. Curiously, these physical tremblings were very similar to what I had experienced in the trainings and workshops of Somatic Experience and are the areas in my Yoga Asana practice where I am most often stuck.
Due to my training as a therapist, these tremblings sent my analytic mind off trying to find an explanation. As my mind mulled and ruminated over what these tremblings could possibly mean, I heard something in the distance start laughing. This is when I was introduced to my little friend Ka, a wiggling, sarcastic and humorous snake character that would come into my minds eye and tell me to stop interpreting my experience. It’s exact words that I will forever remember were ´your mind is very poorly educated and rebellious, shut-up and let me do my job´.
With my eyes still closed, laying face up on the floor, I laughed out load at this very sharp and accurately honest commentary. My loud belly laughter then transformed into a quiet and delightful giggle as I watched, in my minds eye, the spinning and joyful dance of this little snake as my body trembled and my right hand spun around and around as if it was dancing sevillanas. At the end of session I experienced an ecstatic joy and sense of clarity that kept me up all night writing down and drawing everything I had experienced as well as rambling away to my dear friend David who had volunteered to keep watch as I delved into this new and unknown experience.
The next evening session was completely different from the first. It took me towards a deep sense of grief and sadness. After two ´tomas´ I continued to tremble much as I had in the session before, in all the same places, but now I had tears and snot running down my face and soaking my shirt as I let out deep, gasping sobs.
The songs of the Shamana and the sensation of wind upon my face as she shook a fan of feathers over me, eventually led to me to a space of calm where I felt totally enveloped in a universal embrace of love. I saw, in my minds eye, the vision of a Mother Mary figure with a dark blue robe of stars, taking me into her arms, as a mother would a small child. In that universal space of start light and dark blue sky, a sensation of pure, unconditional love, without expectations, eased my breath and completely relaxed and released all trembling as I fell into what can only be described as a blissful state of oneness.
Interestingly, upon visiting a church in Puerta Jerez Spain a few months later, I revisited this vision when I happened upon a statue of a beckoning Maria, wrapped in a cloak of stars, standing upon a crescent moon wrapped up in the coils of a serpent. I was raised Mormon (LDS), not Catholic, and such iconography is basically non-existent in the LDS faith. So I found it both fascinating and intriguing from a Jungian, collective unconscious, archetypal perspective that this image had manifested FIRST, from my immaterial subconscious, and THEN in the very dense form of stone and mortar (see photo above left).
Those first two sessions have been the most memorable to date and worked well in kicking me out of my apathy and into a space of greater acceptance and motivation. The insights I had gained from those first two sessions helped me to deepen my own Yoga practice and look at my own behavior patterns with greater objectivity and with a great deal of humor. I found myself chuckling at destructive and critical thought patterns. This humorous self-observation ultimately resulted in me being less self-critical and more willing to flow and creatively react to the unexpected circumstances so common in the life of an entrepreneur living in a forgiegn country.
Then came Christmas. Christmas has always been a strange time for me. It isn’t that I don’t like the season or holiday, I just always feel a bit out of place and disconnected from the festivities. I am sure past childhood experiences as well as the current reality of living as a perennial expat has something to do with that. I had another friend who had been raised as a Jehovah Witness and he felt much the same. So, due to his own traumas he was working through, he expressed interest in exploring the lessons a Ayuahusca ceremony could offer. I was in yet another turning point in my personal life and suggested we go to the next available ceremony together.
For my friend, his first session, was an incredibly positive experience. For me, my third session, was a huge disappointment. All I got was a long night of frustration with a slight headache and lots of questions. It was as if I had drank water despite taking four shots, or tomas, of Ayahuasca.
The following day, after a long walk through the surrounding woods and a long conversation with myself and any other creature listening, I humbly recognized that my own expectations had gotten in the way of what the plant wished to teach me. I went into the fourth session with a much more open mind and relaxed body. The Shamana also separated my friend as she thought my concern for his experience was clouding my own.
This time as I relaxed into my fourth experience of Ayahuasca, I was pulled into hypnotic trance as my eyes followed each movement of the flames flickering back and forth in the fireplace before me. Finally, these flaming tongues of orange, red, yellow and blue, seemed to transform into a vine that moved in and through me as I sat cross legged, eyes closed, trembling lightly, my breath moving in rhythm with the flickering of the flames, creating within me an orgasmic experience of light and electricity.
The following day I was in a state of childlike bliss and wandered around the grounds with a goofy smile plastered to my face. This experience had a profound impact on personal issues I had been dealing with concerning my own sensuality and sexuality. It enabled me to move forward in this area of my life with less shame and greater honesty with both myself and others. The change did not happen overnight, but I do believe this Ayahuasca ceremony acted as the key that opened the door to this transformation.
Finally, before leaving Spain, I attended one more ceremony in the mountains of Barcelona with the same Brazilian Shamana and therapist. The objective difference between this ceremony and others was that it was outside and during the day. All the others had taken place inside and started at night, continuing well into the early morning.
At this period in my life I was struggling with the reality that due to the Covid 19 restrictions I would have to close down my center and leave the world I had created for myself for almost a decade. I was not sure how I was supposed to move forward and even worse, I was not sure how to let go of the rage I felt towards the great injustice I perceived happening to me and to so many others. All that I held dear, freedom being the dearest and most precious value of all, was being forcibly stripped away from me. I was facing a great turning point. I had to decide which was more important, the safety and security of known realities, or the maintenance of my freedom which would require going into completely unknown territory.With this great uncertainty plaguing me, under the Spanish sun, I experienced my first purge.
Before this happened I remember clearly a demon like form manifesting forth from the forrest leaves and branches. I seemed to expect this apparition and looked at it defiantly. I remember, smirking and whispering out loud, ´Bring it, I am ready´. Almost instantly a shockingly deep primal scream came out of me. I vomited and felt the contraction of my efforts in what must have been the deepest part of me– behind and just below my belly button. The area that Yoga anatomy would call the second chakra and what other Asian spiritual traditions might call the Hara or Tanden. I am not sure how long I purged and screamed out there under that Spanish sun, but eventually the the screams ceased and I felt I had overcome some great battle that had been raging within me for years. A deep sense of acceptance and connection with absolutely everything swept over me.
After winning this battle with the demon in the trees – or rather within me – I spent the rest of the afternoon singing childhood lullabies, yoga mantras, walking barefoot and talking with the trees – in particular to a large Fig tree. I kept imploring this beautiful Fig tree, with its huge leaves and welcome shade, to ´help me to remember´. I asked the same of the Shamana. She smiled at me and without a word, she offered me a necklace made by her tribe in the Amazon. I wear it often, wrapped around my wrist, so I can easily see it and remember this experience of release and deep connection.
Post – Ceremony Observations and Experiences
About three months after this experience, with Covid restrictions getting ever stricter and a landlady who refused any kind of rent forgiveness, I was forced to close down my center and leave Seville. This did result in an experience of trauma, in particular a trauma of loss , and I am not going to lie and say that I was blissfully happy through this transition. Nonetheless, as hard as it was to sell off everything and close that chapter of my life, I went forward with an attitude of open curiosity. I made sure to make time for my daily Yoga practice and recalled often the sense of connection I had felt during the last Ayahuasca ceremony and refused to fall into despair.
Without a center to run, I decided to use my new freedom and mobility to deepen my Yogic education in Lisbon, Portugal with Billy Konrad, an inspirational and fearless teacher who offered the advice and insight that I needed then, more than ever. His constant and insistent repetitions that we are free and sovereign beings helped me to remember that I was not a victim of circumstance. His guidance helped me to keep reviewing again and again that I had a choice. I always had a choice in how I chose to respond. This truth was made all the more concrete as I got on the mat and figured out how to get deeper inside of myself to better figure out what to do outside of myself.
Closing the center also gave me the chance to start to delve into the world of online teaching, which I am now very grateful to have discovered. This new format enabled me to not only stay connected with my students in Seville but also reconnect with other students spread throughout the world.
The after effects of each of these experiences with Ayahuasca (except the third one) left me with a deep sense of calm and clarity, and appeared to have staved off the darkness that I feared might once again consume me. It also seemed to increase my ability to creatively respond to unexpected events with greater ease. My somatic perception of emotional responses also became easier to observe and release. This increase in perception became more and more obvious in my own Yoga practice – especially once I had the chance to head to Mexico and delve into the Shamanic ceremonies of other traditions without the daily distractions of running a business, completing a Yoga Therapy course and attending to other personal relations.a