Ten years ago, when I was living in San Francisco, a friend told me about her experience with Ayahuasca. This friend always struck me as ethereal — something in her eyes said: “I’m truly happy to be alive, in this body, and with this mind.” No anxiety, no arrogance, but the calm certainty that things were as they should be.

She explained to me that, once a year, she would spend a few days with a Shaman near the Mexican border, that she would cry and laugh and wonder, and that each ceremony gave her the insights she needed to serenely navigate the beautiful chaos of life. This ritual had become an integral part of her and had shaped who she was.

Ayahuasca is a brew made from the leaves of the psychotria viridis shrub and the stalks of the banisteriopsis caapi vine. DMT, the psychedelic compound that naturally occurs in the brew, is a Schedule I controlled substance in the United States. That’s the same category as heroin. At the time, I was fresh out of university, on an foreign employee visa. As appealing as my friend’s experience sounded to me, I wasn’t ready to take the risk.

Fast forward to this year, when I attended a founders’ retreat in Italy, which had been pushed back several times because of the pandemic. There, I met an amazing woman, who was in the process of applying for the exact same neuroscience Master’s degree I did at King’s College London. We instantly connected, and she mentioned she was soon going to participate in her first ever Ayahuasca ceremony in the Netherlands. That night, I went back to my hotel, and I booked my spot without thinking twice.

Three months ago today, I started the dieta, the ritual regimen to prepare the body and the mind for the Ayahuasca ceremonies. I have been hesitating to publicly write about my experience, but this morning, it finally felt like it was time.

This essay is not a guide nor an encouragement to work with Ayahuasca yourself. It is just a written recollection of my own journey, deeply personal in nature. If it sparks curiosity in even one reader, my hope will be fulfilled.

Aya — as I’ve come to call her — has taught me the power of reaching out and connecting with others, even if it makes you feel vulnerable.

The dieta

Once I registered for a spot for the three-day retreat, I had a phone call with a curandero (“healer”) — a term describing ​​a specialist in traditional medicine. We talked about the process of working with Aya, what I should expect, and he shared a mantra I would come to fully understand only after my ceremonies: “Aya will give you what you need, not necessarily what you want.”

He then explained the importance of the dieta, which technically translates as “diet” in Spanish, but means a lot more. The dieta is a strict regimen one needs to follow before the ceremonies to prepare their body and their mind. Some recommendations, such as not eating pork or fermented food, avoiding certain drugs, and not drinking alcohol, stem from safety concerns: certain compounds, like tyramine and tryptophan, don’t play well with Ayahuasca.

But most of the guidance is about purifying the mind and the body to facilitate the work with Ayahuasca during the ceremonies. The dieta is viewed as “a tool helping to maintain the altered state of consciousness which permits the plant teacher to instruct, provide knowledge, and enable the initiate to acquire power.”

As such, the curandero encouraged me to journal regularly, to think about my intentions, to connect with my inner self, to avoid sexual intercourse, and to spend time in isolation so I could better receive the teachings from the plant medicine.

Two weeks before the ceremonies, I stopped drinking alcohol, and I wrote the first words in the journal that has since become an essential companion. As I don’t eat meat, most of the food restrictions were relatively easy. I thought I would miss my morning coffee, but not drinking also meant that I slept better, and I soon started waking up around sunrise without an alarm.

Already before the ceremonies, my mind felt clearer and sharper. It was not perfect, and I did have a few big meals with foods I knew were not allowed in the dieta, but I tried my best to prepare as earnestly as I could, and I journaled every single day.

The part I was struggling with was my intentions. What exactly did I want out of this experience?

Slowly, some themes started to emerge. As open as I’ve always tried to be when it comes to talking about mental health, those are things I hesitate to publicly write about, but this essay would not be complete if I based it on half truths. So here goes. I have always been depressed, ranging from mild depression to suicidal thoughts. Twice, as a teenager, I was saved by doctors when I acted upon these thoughts. The reason why my right arm is covered in tattoos is to counterbalance the scars on my left arm.

I have also always struggled with my body image, alternating between phases of obsessive orthorexia, and phases like the other side of a self-loathing coin where I would treat my body like a trashcan. Throughout the years, alcohol had become a crutch to quiet the self-destructive thoughts in my mind. Of course, I knew it was unhealthy, but depression had become a familiar parasite I had learned to live with. Work was going well, I had strong, healthy relationships with the people I loved, and I simply accepted the darkness in the background as a necessary part of my life.

Though I couldn’t clearly articulate my intentions, I knew I wanted Aya to help me face those demons.

The arrival

A few days before leaving for the Netherlands, I had dinner with the friend I had made at the founders’ retreat and who had recommended the Ayahuasca retreat. She had just come back from her own ceremonies, and she told me about her experience, insisting that it had been very different for everyone in her group. She shared her own mantra to keep in mind during the ceremonies: “Let go, or get dragged.”

She also said it would be less stressful if I flew to the Netherlands the night before the beginning of the retreat, and spent the night in a hotel at the airport in Amsterdam. I followed her advice and arrived late on a Thursday evening at the hotel. In a frenzy to try and clarify my intentions, I had been journaling on the train, on the plane, and now at the hotel room’s small desk, to no avail — I had to accept that my intentions would remain at the stage of large themes I wanted to explore, instead of explicit goals.

On Friday morning, I took two trains to arrive at a tiny station in the middle of nowhere. A team member from the retreat center picked me up with two other people who would be taking part in the ceremonies as well. It would all be our first time working with Ayahuasca. As I often do when I travel abroad, I introduced myself as Anna, which is easier to pronounce. While we were waiting for dozens of cows to finish crossing the road, I noticed how the air was filled with excitement and nervousness.

The retreat center was an old converted farm, with a big garden and a swimming pool, which at that moment was covered as the weather was still cold. We were given a tour. Downstairs, the communal area with a kitchen, a bathroom with several showers, a lounge area, a big communal table where we would be taking our meals, and a separate “quiet” room. Upstairs, the bedrooms, with two beds in each of them. Everything looked simple but cozy.

One by one, we were invited by the Shaman to have a private chat in the quiet room. He was dressed in everyday, modern clothing, his legs crossed under him, his hands resting on his knees. His countenance breathed patience and kindness.

When he asked about my intentions, I told him that despite my best efforts, I only had a rough idea of some potential themes, which I shared with him. He assured me that it was alright, and that not everyone arrived at the retreat center with clear intentions.

After the private chats, we all gathered in the lounge, and he told us what we should expect to happen during the ceremonies. He explained that Ayahuasca was associated with five distinct types of effects. The first four were unpredictable — we could experience none of them, some of them, or all of them in succession or in combination. The fifth one, though, everyone would experience during the ceremonies.

  1. Visual. The visual imagery can be internal (eyes closed) or external (eyes open), with geometric patterns, landscapes, people, and more, with various levels of intensity.
  2. Mental. Some people do not see anything, but experience strong cognitive processes that are unlike how they think in their normal state of consciousness.
  3. Emotional. It’s common to feel extremely sad, happy, angry, and to feel many other emotions throughout an Ayahuasca ceremony.
  4. Physical. You may start feeling an old injury flare up again, have some stomach cramps, feel some tension in your limbs, or on the contrary feel your muscles relax.
  5. Purging. This one is universal, but can take different forms. Vomiting, diarrhea, watery eyes, and uncontrollable yawning are typical ways to purge during an Ayahuasca ceremony.

We were all offered the opportunity to ask questions. Then, after a simple but tasty meal and a bit of time to get changed, we all went to the big round tent at the back of the garden, where the first ceremony would take place.

The first ceremony

The tent was dark and warm. In the center was placed an altar with a serpentine vine, a bouquet of flowers, and candles which projected dancing shadows on the walls. At the back, musical instruments, many I had never seen before. At the front, two seats for the Shaman and one of the guides that would take care of us during the ceremony. And, around the tent, eight mattresses, each with a box of tissues and a bucket. We all chose a mattress which would become our private raft for the next five hours.

The Shaman said a short prayer to thank the plant medicine, before asking each of us to come in turn to the front of the tent, where he was seated. When my turn came, I kneeled and watched him pour the thick dark liquid into a glass, which he blessed between his hands before giving it to me.

I closed my eyes, and drank it. Immediately, my stomach started rumbling, and I worried I would get sick. But I went back to my mattress, sat down, and the rumbling subsided — though it didn’t completely disappear.

The first thirty minutes of the ceremony would be spent in silence, without any music. The atmosphere was eerie. Not knowing what to do, I peaked at one of the participants, who had worked with Ayahuasca eight times already, and saw him comfortably lay down in the fetal position. I decided to follow his lead, and closed my eyes, waiting.

After a while, someone started softly laughing. I could tell that the others in my group were experiencing the beginning of the effects, but I was still feeling completely normal. It sounds arrogant to me now, but at the time, I asked myself: what if it doesn’t work on me? Maybe I’m not receptive to Ayahuasca?

The Shaman got up and walked around the tent to ask us if we wanted another cup. Exactly as he leaned over me, the first visual patterns appeared over the roof of the tent. I told him I was good, and shifted position to have a better look. The patterns looked similar to the ones I had seen with LSD and psilocybin. I relaxed for a moment, but soon wondered again whether this was all I would experience. So I sat up, waved at the Shaman, and asked in a whisper if I could get a second cup.

As soon as I finished drinking it, I felt a gentle push on my shoulder, like a hand encouraging me to lay down. I resumed the fetal position, closed my eyes, and it hit me: an infinity of code-like lines, similar to the green ones in the movie The Matrix, but in all colors and all directions, moving at the speed of light, so fast that I silently pleaded for it to slow down so I’d have time to decrypt them. “You’re going too fast, I don’t get what you’re trying to say!” I thought, overwhelmed.

In the midst of the panic, I remembered the mantra my friend shared with me. Let go, or get dragged. So I let go. I relaxed my body and my mind, and observed the infinite code rolling in front of my closed eyes without trying to decipher its content. As I calmed down, the code slowly opened like a curtain, revealing a deep dark space that felt like the center of the Universe. Past, present, future, all in one place. Full of nothing and empty of everything. This is the most peaceful place there is, I thought.

That’s when I felt the urgent need to vomit.

I quickly grabbed the bucket and leaned over it, fully prepared to be sick. But, instead, a long silent scream escaped from my mouth. It didn’t have any language. It felt like something that had been stuck inside me for a very, very, very long time.

I rested on the bucket for a while, worried I would still be sick, as a galaxy of stars emerged in the center of the bucket, slowly spinning around. I relaxed again, admiring how the light shone without overpowering the darkness, and making a little fort with the blanket around the bucket so it would be more comfortable.

But that moment of relaxation was also short lived, as a violent pain took over my belly. I curled up, hands clenched on my tummy, tears rolling on my face. I don’t have children, but I imagine this is what giving birth feels like. But, as I began to think I couldn’t tolerate it anymore, the agonizing pain started moving, from my belly to my throat and then escaping through my tears. It still hurt like hell, but it felt like something was passing through me, rather than hanging on inside me.

And I knew what that pain was: it was the pain of my mom, the pain of my grandmother, the pain of her mother, and the pain of all of the women that came before me — all of this pain passing through me, from the depth of my belly to the flow of my tears.

I felt a hand on my back, and opened my eyes. It was the Shaman, who was patting me, gently repeating: “This is good, Anna. This is the work.”

Each wave of pain became smaller, more endurable, and I started to see again through my tears, until all the pain was gone, and all was left was an ocean of calmness. It was the most serene I had ever felt in my whole life.

I had never prayed before that day, but I joined my hands together, I looked up, and whispered: “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” I don’t know who exactly I was thanking, but the litany would not stop. “Thank you, thank you, thank you,” I would keep on murmuring, overflowed with gratitude. I then hugged myself, my arms wrapped around my body, and once more I said: “Thank you.”

That’s when I noticed how beautiful the music was. The musician was a young woman with long red hair. She was singing and playing the harp, and her voice was filling the space with an undescriptible magic. In between big yawns, I rested my elbows on the bucket, which I hadn’t put away during the whole ceremony, now filled with used tissues, and I started crying again — but this time with tears of joy and gratitude.

“I’m alive,” I thought. “How miraculous is that?”

After the ceremony, I tried writing a few words in my journal, alone in my bedroom while the others were eating downstairs. But I could still see the patterns on my pillow dancing in front of my eyes, so I just wrote: “I am very happy. Thank you.”

The second ceremony

After breakfast, we all shared our journey from the first ceremony. As my friend had predicted, everyone’s experience was completely different. One of the participants died and had to make the choice of coming back into his body. Another one realized how badly he was treating himself. One told us that he felt deeply connected to all of us during the ceremony.

We all went to the tent. The nervousness from the previous day was gone. Before drinking the cup of Ayahuasca, I murmured: “Please be gentle.” And I immediately felt like this ceremony would be unlike the first one. My stomach didn’t rumble at all. I layed down, closed my eyes, and soon after my second cup I fell into what I can only describe as a vortex of love.

I felt compelled to stretch my body. My hands were guided by an invisible force that showed me where to apply pressure on certain nerves and muscles in my back. I extended my arms, my legs, my neck, then curled into a ball, and stayed like this for a while, breathing softly. I don’t know anything about Yoga, but the only analogy that comes to mind is that my second ceremony was like a very long Yoga session. Granted, I had no idea what I was doing, but it felt good.

Around me, everything looked colorful, with beautiful patterns vibrating softly as if a soft wind was stroking the fabric of reality. I felt embedded in that fabric, in a safe cocoon, like an infant in their mother’s arms. I was at peace.

At some point, I had a sip of water, and a big wave of gratefulness overpowered all my senses. Without thinking, I sat down, joined my hands, and said: “Thank you.” I’m not sure whether I was thanking the water itself or the fact that I had access to water, but I felt incredibly thankful.

“Thank you, thank you, thank you” — like another mantra, repeated ad infinitum, until I felt like lying down and stretching again, sometimes taking little naps, yawning profusely, crying while listening to the magical music, my whole body limp like a puddle of happiness. I somehow knew I would not get sick. Mother Ayahuasca was taking care of me.

The life after

It’s been three months since I embarked on this journey. As my experience was mostly physical, emotional, and visual, I didn’t force myself to put further words on what happened during my two ceremonies.

The biggest change is that I have stopped drinking alcohol. It’s not something I have consciously decided to do. Alcohol simply doesn’t feel like a substance I want to put in my body anymore. I would be happy if that was the only change I’ve experienced as a result of the work with Ayahuasca, but that’s not all. I left something in that tent in the Netherlands — a burden that I had been carrying for a long time. For the first time in my life, I can confidently say that I’m happy. Of course, in the past few months, I have faced challenges, and not everything has been rosy, but not once I’ve had a suicidal thought.

I haven’t found a deeper meaning to life. I don’t believe in a higher power. But I realize what an incredible chance it is that I’m here, now, that I’m alive, that I get to share this brief moment with the people around me, and how precious this gift is.

After the second ceremony, they gave us a beaded bracelet to wear as a reminder of our journey, as a sort of talisman. This morning, on the plane, I wrote in my journal that I was finally ready to share my experience. As I got home and took off my jacket, that bracelet they gave us broke, the beads rolling everywhere in my living room. It’s okay, because I don’t need a talisman to remember that I’m truly happy to be alive, in this body, and with this mind.