Modernized vs. Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremonies: Which is Right For You?
Envision yourself in an ayahuasca ceremony. Do you see yourself deep in the Amazon, in a traditional, rustic maloka, surrounded by the sounds of jungle wildlife? Or would you rather it take place in a more familiar environment? With English-speaking facilitators that use alternative healing modalities alongside the medicine experience? In short, is a modernized or traditional ayahuasca ceremony right for you?
The rising popularity of ayahuasca over the years has brought with it an increasing number of ways that ceremonies are run. Once kept within the confines of the indigenous communities that safeguarded the medicine for thousands of years, ayahuasca is now being served all over the world.
If you feel called to sit with this sacred medicine, consider what kind of setting you’d feel safest and most comfortable in. In this article we’ll explore the different types of ceremonies and ways of connecting with ayahuasca. We’ll also discuss how to stay close to the ancestral tradition while finding the best ceremony setting for you.
Taking Ayahuasca in a Traditional Context
Before we explore the benefits and possible challenges of attending a traditional, indigenous-led ayahuasca ceremony, it’s worth clarifying that if you’re looking for a truly traditional ayahuasca ceremony, that’s likely not going to be possible.
The very fact of being a Westerner means that we have limited access to the ayahuasca ceremonies that take place within indigenous communities and for those communities. As stated by journalist Carlos Suarez Álvarez: “Have you ever thought of visiting an ayahuasca lodge in Iquitos [Peru] to experience a “traditional” medical treatment? Well, forget about it, because it wouldn’t be possible for a ‘gringo’ like yourself to be treated in a traditional way, despite what those places announce on their websites.”
Suarez also notes that especially in the Shipibo-Conibo communities of Peru, local patients historically did not consume the medicine with the healer. The curandero or curandera was able to understand the illness of the patient by drinking ayahuasca alone.
As Close to “Traditional” As Possible
However, if you want to find as traditional a ceremony as possible, consider going to the areas of the Amazon where the ayahuasca-holding tribes are located far enough away from the ayahuasca tourism hotspots (namely Iquitos, Peru). There, you can find out through word of mouth who is holding ceremonies and whether or not you can attend.
This can be risky, though. The number of charlatan shamans—people who have not completed the proper training yet are serving medicine in order to gain money or power— is on the rise. It’s unlikely you’ll find English-speaking facilitators in this setting, so make sure you brush up on your Spanish or Portuguese if you want to communicate and understand what’s going on.
Alternatively, you can seek out a reputable center that offers multi-day retreats and includes food, accommodation, and other amenities. Many of these retreats are run by Westerners or non-indigenous people from the country, with ceremonies led by local indigenous healers. These centers are often located in the Amazon jungle, as well as elsewhere in South American countries and Costa Rica (where ayahuasca is not illegal).
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Some examples of reputable Western-led retreat centers whose ceremonies are led by traditional indigenous healers include:
- Soltara (Peru and Costa Rica)
- Ayahuasca Foundation (Peru)
- Native Guides (Colombia)
- Temple of the Way of Light (Peru)
At the Temple of the Way of Light, for example, they have a team of English-speaking facilitators who work alongside indigenous healers leading ceremonies according to their ancestral lineage. These types of retreat centers cater well to foreigners who are new to ayahuasca but want to experience the medicine in a more authentic context.
Modernized Ayahuasca Ceremonies
The popularity of ayahuasca has boomed over the last two to three decades. Since then, more Westerners have flocked to the Amazon to learn from the indigenous traditions and become carriers of the medicine. Many of these facilitators now hold ceremonies rooted in the tradition under which they trained. Yet they also include modern healing modalities that you wouldn’t see in an indigenous context.
Marc-John Brown is a Scottish shamanic coach, mentor, and co-founder of Native Wisdom Hub. He is also a long-term apprentice of the Shipibo-Conibo tribe. Brown explains: “In my case, the core healing part of my ceremony is conducted with icaros (traditional healing songs), with no instruments. And then a part of that also happens with the harmonica and the waira, or chakapa as it’s called in Peru.”
“Once the core healing part of the ceremony is over with, then the musical instruments come out and I’ll sing songs on the guitar that may be Colombian, Brazilian, English, or Sanskrit. I play the didgeridoo, the hand pan, and the mouth harp, which is of the Mongolian tradition.”
The Importance of Connecting with the Plant Spirit
Brown explained that the healing power of the experience is maintained as his ceremonies are rooted in the Shipibo-Conibo tradition and his personal connection with the spirit of the plant. And then by bringing elements of who he is to the table, the ancestral tradition is able to flow through him.
You may also find Western-led retreats that bring in alternative healing practices that do not originate from the Amazon. These practices can complement the ceremony experience and support participants in their preparation and integration process. For example, practices like yoga, breath work, sound healing, and group sharing circles and workshops can be hugely beneficial in helping participants to process insights and gain clarity ahead of an upcoming ceremony.
“Westerners running ceremonies often incorporate modalities like Reiki, bodywork, and other alternative healing techniques. These are rarely combined in a traditional context, but can be wonderfully congruent, depending on the skill set of the facilitator,” says Kat Courtney, a trained ayahuasquera under the Shipibo-Conibo lineage and founder of Plant Medicine People.
There are also facilitators, many of whom run ayahuasca churches in the US and do not follow any single tradition or ancestral lineage. These churches operate under a certain level of legal protection due to the Religious Freedom Restoration Act. Most do not claim to recreate South American ceremonies, and instead use a holistic, modern approach.
How Far From the Tradition is Too Far?
While many have found ceremonies that do not follow a particular tradition to be healing, it’s important to be discerning about the facilitators’ training and their connection with the medicine. Brown argues that much of the healing power is lost when the person leading the ceremony has not spent considerable time building a relationship with the consciousness of the plant spirit, which is best done while studying under an ancestral lineage.
Unfortunately, there are people serving the medicine who have not completed the necessary process of deep study and apprenticeship to be able to lead ceremonies. As a result, “the cultural traditions that have been conserved for so many years are being lost,” says indigenous healer Taita Henrri Muchavisoy, who comes from the Inga community of the Colombian Amazon.
“Now, people don’t follow the rules that our ancestors discovered. The rules that nature herself asks us to comply with. The Western world and new generations want to implement human-driven rules and their own perspective, which is very personal to them,” he said. “Their rules don’t come from hundreds of years of discovery from nature herself.”
Ayahuasca Culture Evolution
Perhaps you’ve heard of ayahuasca ceremonies taking place in someone’s living room in the middle of a city, with music played through a speaker. Or in combination with multiple other psychoactive substances which are not traditionally used with ayahuasca, such as Bufo Alvarius or psilocybin mushrooms.
There is also the recent announcement of a new ayahuasca “pill,” which Courtney says “doesn’t actually have anything to do with Ayahuasca herself. “They [Western medicine] are capitalizing off of her name recognition, as they are just synthesized MAOIs and DMT.”
The reality is that while cultures are eternally adapting and evolving, it is possible to stray too far from the ancestral tradition when it comes to ayahuasca.
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“The evolution of culture is inevitable,” says Brown. “We’re not made to be stagnant. That’s why we call them culturas vivas – living cultures.”
“As long as we [as facilitators] are allowing whatever modern practices we have to be rooted in the ancestral ways—and as long as we do it respectfully and reciprocally—then I think that’s a good thing.”
Brown continues: “…when we start bringing in recorded music… when the server of the medicine is not directly connecting with the medicine to bring sounds and vocal and sonic leadership, directorship and guidance into the ceremony space, then the power is significantly diluted.”
Choosing the Right Ayahuasca Experience for You
Ultimately, both Brown and Courtney argued that the most important thing for anyone attending an ayahuasca retreat is to feel safe. They believe many people from the Western world are dealing with deep levels of trauma, and require a level of trauma-informed care that may only be possible to receive from Western facilitators who have experience with these societal issues.
“Deeply traumatized people are going to benefit from a more modernized or Westernized environment,” said Brown. “For deeper levels of healing to take place, there is a level of surrender to the process and to the medicine that’s needed. In order for that to happen, we must feel safe enough to do so.”
Courtney echoed this sentiment and said, “It’s all a matter of what a participant defines as feeling ‘safe’ to them. If we feel safe, we are able to surrender into the experience of the medicine, and that is significant.”
Navigating the Challenges of Western Society
For this reason, those with deep-rooted trauma may want to opt for a container that incorporates Western, trauma-informed healing modalities. Indigenous healers can be extremely skillful in working with energies and spirits to help ceremony participants heal. But they often don’t have the same awareness of the psychological ailments of the Western world. Nor do they necessarily know how to work with them.
HealingMaps Glossary: A container—in the context of psychedelic medicine—refers to everything surrounding a psychedelic experience. This includes your emotional well-being, environment, as well as physical space. Read more about the meaning behind the psychedelic therapy container here.
However, if you feel comfortable with— and are excited by—the idea of experiencing a culture wholly different from your own, staying in a rustic, no-frills environment, sleeping in a hammock, and eating typical jungle cuisine—you may gain more from a more traditional ayahuasca experience. After all, drinking ayahuasca in the Amazon is a unique experience. Surrounding yourself with the spirits and guardians of the jungle, and learning directly from the indigenous tribes who have a profound connection with the medicine and the rainforest can be deeply enriching for those who feel ready for it. There is a certain magic and mysticism to communing with the plant in its birthplace.
Be Aware of the Investment
In addition to considering your feelings of safety in each environment, there are a few other things that play into the decision of whether you want to experience ayahuasca in a traditional (ish) context or in a modernized setting. Traveling to South America—if you’re based in North America, Europe, or elsewhere— is expensive. A lot of work, skill, and dedication goes into running a reputable retreat center. As a result, the prices are usually fairly high. Some centers, such as Soltara for example, offer different price points to expand access to as many people as possible.
Another consideration is whether or not you speak Spanish or Portuguese (if in Brazil). If you require English-speaking facilitation, then opt for a retreat where there are at least one or two people on site who can translate for you if the team is not English-speaking.
Modernized vs Traditional Ayahuasca Ceremonies: Which One Should You Choose?
Whichever setting you choose, make sure you find facilitators that are well-trained and skilled in leading ayahuasca ceremonies. They should be open to any questions you have about their background and experience. And if not – that’s a red flag. A properly trained facilitator should have spent years building a connection with the medicine and studying the tradition. This is not something that you can do after 10 or even 50 ayahuasca ceremonies.
Need more tips on choosing the right ayahuasca retreat for you? Check out our video with Ivaylo Govedarov, sacred medicine facilitator and founder of Colibri Garden, where he discusses just that.