Ayahuasca: Shamanic Connection to the Spirit World

by Jack Breen

Ayahuasca is an entheogenic brew popular in shaman traditions throughout the Amazon, like the Urarina people in Peru. It features the potent psychedelic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT), found in leaves of trees from the Psychotria genus, and MAO-inhibiting harmola alkaloids, to make the DMT orally active. 

People within the society would drink this brew in the presence of an experienced shaman to connect with spiritual beings or to seek their purpose in the world. Common effects are noted as visual and auditory stimulation, the mixing of sensory modalities, and psychological self-analysis that can cause elation, fear, or illumination

A purging process occurs during the ceremony which is essential to rid the body of tropical parasites but is seen by the shamans as the negative energy and demons exiting the body so that it can pure again. DMT is naturally-occurring in humans in minute amounts in the pineal gland and the hypothesis has been raised that it is responsible for dreams and flashbacks formed during near-death experiences. 

Non-indigenous people have taken this in non-traditional methods as ayahuasca retreats have been opened in various countries globally and a 2018 study found that the brew could significantly reduce treatment-resistant depression. However, ingesting the brew with caffeine, antidepressants or recreational drugs can be fatal.  

As it contains DMT, ayahuasca would be classified as a Class A drug in the UK and so possession could carry a maximum penalty of 7 years imprisonment and an unlimited fine but to use it in a religious manner in Brazil is legal. 

I think that it is important that laws cater for indigenous people in a modernised country to keep the cultures alive. The effects of natural psychoactive substances are also fascinating as people are able to hallucinate and ‘communicate’ with spirits that they believe in.