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February 18, 2014

The New Power Trip: Inside the World of Ayahuasca

In our culture of downward-facing dog, juice fasts, and silent meditation retreats, a hard-core hallucinogen from the Amazon is fast becoming the next therapeutic fad. Abby Aguirre looks into the world of ayahuasca, and the women who swear it's enlightenment in a cup.


Photo Credit: ElIzabeth Renstrom

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On a chilly Friday night in December, in a valley an hour and a half north of Los Angeles, I turn off a highway and onto a narrow lane, following directions sent to me in a welcoming but cryptic e-mail. In front of my Mustang rental is an SUV, and behind it a Mini Cooper, and after some confusion and a few U-turns, the other drivers and I end up at the same ranch-style house. Inside, in a cleared-out living room with hardwood floors, people are unrolling mats and arranging blankets as though setting up for a yoga class. But Ashtanga this is not. The 16 participants—mostly women—have come to drink ayahuasca (ai-ya-WA-ska), a centuries-old psychedelic brew from the Amazon.

Over the past decade, an ayahuasca tourism industry has exploded in Peru, drawing pilgrims from around the world. The drug has turned up in the Jennifer Aniston film Wanderlust and the television series Weeds, and it's made vocal fans of Paul Simon, Sting, Tori Amos, and indie musician Ben Lee. More quietly, in the last few years, an underground ayahuasca scene has been growing steadily in the States, where it is illegal. Hush-hush ceremonies led by traveling shamans have cropped up in trendy neighborhoods like Brooklyn's Williamsburg, Los Angeles' Topanga Canyon, and Montauk on Long Island. But its appeal is not limited to New Age earth mothers or the Burning Man crowd: The drug has made its way into the mainstream, from high-fashion executives in London to corporate lawyers in D.C. and Ivy League academics. I met a female attorney who has represented a tech giant and has taken the plant mixture "60 to 70 times." A photographer I spoke to organized a seminar on ayahuasca one night at a loft in Soho, New York City. At the loft, an Iranian actress told me with a straight face, "It's the It girl of drugs." Ask around at a cocktail party in NYC's Nolita or a barbecue in L.A.'s Silver Lake, and chances are you'll stumble across a woman who has tried it. Talk to enough of these women and you'll get the impression that "Who's your shaman?" is the new "Who's your yoga instructor?"

At the ceremony in California, all but a handful of the people have drunk the mixture before, and the ones who haven't—myself included—know more or less what to expect: a shaman-guided ritual in which we will take a psychoactive trip that might include nightmarish detours but could yield life-changing insight. There is a nervous energy in the room. A young woman in a poncho distributes plastic buckets—the concoction will cause some to vomit—while first-timers solicit advice from veterans. Positioned against a far wall, her long dark hair pulled back into a ponytail, is Annie Oster, a 37-year-old researcher for a large pharmaceutical company. Ayahuasca proponents are calling for more studies of its possible medical benefits, but Oster is here for personal reasons. Having first sought out the hallucinogen after a divorce left her feeling unanchored, she is now looking to incorporate its effects into her day-to-day life.

"I went through all the feelings of what had played out, not just in my marriage but over my entire life," Oster says of her first few ayahuasca experiences, which took place last spring at a mountain retreat in Peru and were also overseen by a shaman. "I saw how powerful we make the ego but how small it really is. Afterward, I felt this overwhelming sense of peace and contentment." Once home in San Diego, maintaining that serenity has proved difficult. "You've got all this insight, but you're still living in the same world," she says. So last fall, Oster attended her first Stateside ceremony at a private home in Topanga Canyon. That ceremony, her fifth, so helped Oster quiet her mind that she has driven some 200 miles tonight to do another with the same shaman, whose "subtle" style suits her.

Around 10 p.m., after we've waited about two hours, the shaman appears. He is a tall, clean-cut man with short brown hair, dressed not in flowing garb, as I'd imagined, but in a button-down shirt and sweatpants. The Peru native sits down on a stool in front of the group and explains in accented English that he has spent eight years in the Amazon studying ayahuasca and other plantas maestras, or "teacher plants." He cautions that the brew may make some throw up—in Peru, it's known as la purga, or "the purge"—and may give others diarrhea. On the upside, he says, it will almost certainly disrupt emotional blockages, break down psychological barriers, and dissolve fears. "This is not a party drug," he says. "Ayahuasca is no joke."

It's not a formal scientific classification, but "no joke" may be the most concise way to describe ayahuasca. Aficionados report that it can introduce you to your "spirit animal" (black jaguars are common), force you to relive childhood memories, or treat you to a cinematic appraisal of your unsavory qualities. Whatever the trip—and each time is different—the objective is the same: to spend four or five hours seeing yourself, and others, with unflinching clarity. While it shares traits with LSD and mushrooms (hallucinations, altered perception of time), an ayahuasca trip is far more self-examining—which may be why women are drawn to it—and not exactly fun. (Regular users call the activity of taking ayahuasca "the work.") The drug is almost always taken under the supervision of a seasoned shaman—in part because its effects are so challenging, in part because it is difficult to procure and brew, and in part simply because that's how it's been done for centuries.

After his opening words, the shaman disappears into the back of the house, returning with two plastic bottles filled with an opaque dark-brown liquid. He calls on a young man to kneel down on the floor in front of him. The shaman takes a drag from a cigar and blows one puff of smoke into a bottle and another into an empty shot glass, then pours the liquid into the glass and blows a third puff of smoke on top of that. "Salud," he says, handing the glass to the man, who empties it into his mouth. Moving clockwise around the room, the shaman repeats the ritual, meting out a portion of ayahuasca to each person, all of whom drink the whole shot, some recoiling as it goes down. When it's my turn, I kneel and shoot the mixture, too. A thick sludge, it tastes like someone has put steak, Worcestershire sauce, and wheatgrass in a blender. I return to my mat, washing the concoction down with water as the shaman finishes serving. Then he turns off the lights.

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