What is Ayahuasca Shamanism: Is Ayahuasca A Religion Or Not?

Are you wondering what ayahuasca shamanism is? Are you torn whether it’s a religion or not?

Many are wondering about this subject, in particular, what it is all about. I understand that some are confused if it’s all about ayahuasca or shamanism or both. If you are on this page, you are probably wondering the same thing.

We aim to answer your questions about this topic, by giving you concrete details about it, so continue reading to learn more about this matter.

What Is Ayahuasca Shamanism?

Ayahuasca shamanism refers to a specific form of the religious practice performed by indigenous mestizo shamans of the Amazon region where they use the psychoactive mixture ayahuasca also known as plant medicine, hence the name.

Ayahuasca has a significant role for the Amazonian indigenous because they use it in warfare, divination, artistic inspiration and as the main theme of cultural narratives, according to author Luis Eduardo Luna(1)https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/ayahuasca-shamanism-shared-across-cultures.

The Shipibo-Conibo people are very significant when it comes to how the Western people understand this subject, including the use of icaros (magic songs) or medicine chants during the ceremony. The Shipibo culture originates along the Ucayali River in the Peruvian upper Amazon. They are well-known for shamanism and plant medicine, ayahuasca. Shipibo is one of the few cultural groups that manage to maintain their language, art, and mystical plant medicine.

It inspires new alliances among various indigenous groups, urban and White shamans. In fact, there is a “medicine alliance” which is formed by a network of Guarani, an indigenous ethnic group from the south of Brazil (and other South American countries), Santo Daime (ayahuasca religion), and the Sacred Fire of Itzachilatlan, a religious association which is strongly oriented on the native customs of North American natives. They share and exchange rituals, sacred artifacts and substances.

However, one should note that shamanism is not a religion(2)https://acsauhaya.org/shamanic-ayahuasca-ceremony/. Instead, it’s a name for the practice of making a connection with the spirit realms. The shamanic principle involves an ayahuasca shaman who serves as intermediaries between the human world and the world of the spirits.

Shamanism is the oldest spiritual practice known to humankind. There is archeological evidence that it has been practiced all over the world for at least 70,000 years. Its core elements include initiation procedures which include dietary prescriptions, sexual segregation, and repetitive access to altered states of consciousness.

“Shamanism is an ancient universal spiritual practice that dates back over a hundred thousand years…As shamanism has been practiced all over the world, you most likely have personal ancestors who at one time practiced shamanism,” wrote Sandra Ingerman in her book entitled “Walking in Light(3)https://www.amazon.com/Walking-Light-Everyday-Empowerment-Shamanic/dp/1622034287: The Everyday Empowerment of a Shamanic Life.”

According to Ingerman, shamanism remains relevant because it continues to evolve to meet the needs of the times and culture. It is considered a powerful form of spirituality because it features the following:

• Foundational practices – lucid instructions on the shamanic journey, ceremonies and other techniques for accessing the hidden realms of spirit
• Compassionate spirits, allies and ancestors – how to contact and build a relationship with your power animals and spiritual helpers.
• Healing from a shamanic perspective – practices that can integrate with and enhance any healing modality
• Guidance for deepening your connection with the environment and the rhythms of the natural world
• Ways to cultivate a rich inner landscape that empower one’s intentions and actions in every aspect of life and more.

Shamanism has similarities and differences from culture to culture. While there are core principles, there are also unique features from one culture to another.

Again, it is not a religion, but a method of making a transpersonal connection with sacred realms. It’s at the epicenter of a new cycle of spirituality that doesn’t need a priest, prophet, or guru. Instead, each person can become their own priest or guru in its healing techniques.

It doesn’t conflict with any religious traditions and people of all faiths are free to practice shamanism or attend ayahuasca ceremonies. There are no rules or beliefs when it comes to this subject because its practice is based on the principle of direct revelation.

Shamanic healing techniques have been practiced across the planet and there is a renaissance in the “spirit assisted healthcare” in the modern world. For shamans, one gets sick due to disharmony in the energetic and spiritual level of one’s life. The conflict, if left unresolved, could lead to mental, emotional, or physical illness.

Shamans address the energetic and spiritual aspects that they believe cause the illness. They travel to the astral or spiritual world to meet the transpersonal forces, benevolent plant and spirit of the animals and humans. The spirits work together to bring healing with the shaman only acting as a mediator.

What Is Shamanic Ayahuasca Ceremony

The ceremony and complexity of rituals may differ from tribes to tribes. However, there are a lot of things in common in the way the Amazonian shamans handle them. They all view mental and physical illness as disharmony on energetic and spiritual levels. The unresolved disharmony is what the healing rituals attempt to address. The common goal is to restore balance.

Some centers offer the ayahuasca ceremony in their beautiful Yurt (traditional round tent) led by the Peruvian shaman. The ceremony room is a sacred space, so basically one has to take off his shoes and leave them on the door.

Also, before they drink the medicine and start the actual ceremony, the participants and the shaman will have some time to share and discuss their intentions.

It is very important for one to set a clear intention before starting the ceremony to enhance the experience. Moreover, it is best to have time to examine the intention so one could let go of the thing they wanted to change and ask the spirit of ayahuasca for healing and guidance.

The Religion Of Ayahuasca

Ayahuasca is a decoction made from boiling the Banisteriopsis caapi (also called ayahuasca vine) with the leaves of the Psychotria Viridis shrub that contains the natural hallucinogen known as DMT. Caapi contains harmala alkaloids that act as monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAO inhibitors) that allows the primary psychoactive compound, DMT, from Psychotria Viridis, to be orally active.

It is very popular for the extraordinary visions it induces and has been long consumed by the Amazonian Indians. The word means “the vine of the spirits” and “woody vine” in the indigenous Quechua language. Ayahuasca is used as a plant medicine concoction for healing and spiritual purposes for centuries by the remote groups from the Amazon rainforest under the direction of specialists called ayahuasqueros or shamans.

For healing, it helps identify the illness of origin. It also serves as an instrument for one to gain access to information from unseen realms and social and natural environments.

On the other hand, Santo Daime(4)https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santo_Daime is a syncretic religion founded in the 1930s in the Brazilian Amazonian state of Acre. It refers to ayahuasca as daime within its practice. It hosts ayahuasca ceremonies where the members drink the brew to embrace its emetic effect as a way of purging emotionally and physically.

In the traditional use of ayahuasca, the patients simply come to ayahuasca ceremonies to receive the diagnosis and subsequent treatments. Only the ayahuasca shaman takes the ayahuasca tea during the ritual to identify the cause of illness, bad luck and witchcraft, and resolve the energetic damage caused by jealousy and envy.

The indigenous healers can recognize the destructive power of negative human emotions and how they affect not just the individual suffering from it, but the health of the whole community. Healers use ayahuasca for wisdom and clairvoyant because they believe that its spirit helps them come up with the right decision, solve problems, find missing persons or things, and see the future. In general, it provides the answer to almost everything they need.

Is Ayahuasca A Religion?

Ayahuasca is not a religion, but it’s widely used by indigenous communities in the upper Amazon, including Brazil and Peru. It also serves as a fundamental part of the Santo Daime church, which was founded in Brazil in the 1930s. The church is formally recognized by the Brazilian government as a religion in 1986.

Santo Daime is an amalgamation of different faiths. For the church, the use of ayahuasca by drinking it is similar to the Eucharists for Catholics. It became very popular in Brazil in the 1980s with innumerable affiliated churches because it has been protected by the government.

“New groups are quickly becoming part of the scenario,” says Brazilian anthropologist Dr Beatriz Labate. “They’re accepted as a branch of the original religion and religious use of ayahuasca is legal.”

In 1987, Brazil’s federal drug agency concluded that “religious group members” could take ayahuasca. The United States has the same rules where taking ayahuasca is allowed as long as it’s within one’s religious practice.

Santo Daime is not the only ayahuasca church. There are three main ayahuasca churches aside from Santo Daime, and the other two are Barquinha and União do Vegetal (UDV).

They do not track their members, but estimates suggest that hundreds of thousands attend the Santo Daime church each week. For instance, Lua Cheia in São Paulo has a congregation of roughly 7,000. The UDV – is the most recent ayahuasca religion to appear in Brazil with 19,000 members worldwide.

Santo Daime is fundamentally Christian. The ceremonies are held according to the official Santo Daime calendar with “works” or ceremonies that take place roughly three times a month and the ceremony runs from sunset until dawn. The hallucinogenic tea is administered to its members to allow them to revisit their mistakes with fresh understanding.

The attitude towards women and gay rights across the different branches of religion is conservative just like the Seventh-day Adventist Church and the Southern Baptist Convention. In fact, UDV does not permit gays to assume positions of leadership.

LGBT people admitted to having experienced prejudice in different ways among church communities. In 2008, the former leader of UDV issued a controversial statement leaked online about homosexuality.

“As we have faith in the incontestable existence of God, we can never agree with the practice of homosexuality as it goes against the natural origin of human existence; this is, the relationship between man and woman which gives origin to generation. We disagree with the marriage of persons of the same sex because we do not want and do not have the right to bring about the extinction of the human species which belongs only to God,” the message read per New Humanist(5)https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/5509/the-rise-of-brazils-santo-daime-religion

Clancy Cavnar, a longtime member of the Santo Daime church and a clinical psychologist who studies the use of ayahuasca among gay people and attributed some of its homophobic attitude to the culture in Brazil.

Meanwhile, the women who take part in the ceremonies have to be 100% feminine in their appearance. Women have to maintain long hair and dress appropriately. The indigenous communities view ayahuasca as a sacred feminine plant medicine.

According to a former congregant member, men can only become “counselor” or “master” when they are married to a woman.

In the United States, the first ayahuasca religion was UDV, which began in the early 1960s after José Gabriel da Costa, known as Mestre Gabriel, drank ayahuasca tea while working in Brazil. He tried the tea in 1959 and started distributing it shortly and within a couple of years, he was able to start a new religion rooted in Christianity and in awe of the spiritual awareness that the ayahuasca tea enables.

Trinity de Guzman and Marc Shackman met through ayahuasca. They both spent a lot of time in Peru, in the Urumbra Valley, which has become a center of drug tourism. In 2015, de Guzman was taking ayahuasca two times a week and was leading a small private ceremony for himself and a friend when a thought crossed his mind — to start an ayahuasca church in the U.S. and that’s how Ayahuasca Healings began.

At Ayahuasca Healings, anyone seeking an ayahuasca experience could apply to join the church. It targets people who wish to encounter Mother Aya, so they do not have to travel to Peru where ayahuasca is booming or worry about prosecution for possessing or consuming aya’s active ingredient, DMT, a Schedule 1 controlled substance.

As a religious organization, Ayahuasca Healing is protected by the Religious Freedom Restoration Act (RFRA) which allows one to practice his religion and its rites without discrimination as long as it doesn’t infringe others’ rights or safety.

Ayahuasca Shamanism Vs Ayahuasca Tourism

Ayahuasca tourism refers to the growing number of foreign tourists that have traveled to the western Amazon in search of healing for a specific ailment, spiritual experience, or an adventure associated with sampling a psychoactive substance in an exotic setting.

According to William S. Burrows who traveled to the Amazon region in the 1950s in search of the mind-altering powers of ayahuasca, there is already a certain amount of ayahuasca tourism as early as the “psychedelic era” of the 1970s.

And it has grown rapidly over the past two decades partly due to the result of a number of widely read books and articles focusing on its use and effects.

Iquitos, Peru has been marketing itself as the ayahuasca capital of the world, and many travel to the country to experience what they believed is the genuine ayahuasca shamanism.

If someone is from the Amazon, the participants are convinced that they can “bring some legitimacy” to the ayahuasca ritual, that’s why many travel to the Amazon to experience the ceremony there.

But, then again, the use of ayahuasca has changed over time, so you can’t really find the authentic practice today especially that in the original setting, only the shaman drinks the ayahuasca brew. Also, ayahuasca ceremonies have changed over time because the local healers adopt their own practices, so the process may depend on the settings and tribes carrying the ritual.

“The world of ayahuasca is a fusion of many needs, expectations, relations, ecologies and economies,” says Riccardo Vitale, an advisor for Unión de Médicos Indígenas Yageceros de la Amazonia (UMIYAC), as quoted by Verge Magazine(6)https://www.vergemagazine.com/travel-intelligence/beyond-the-guidebook/2495-is-ayahuasca-tourism-safe-and-ethical.html

This has raised some concerns though. For instance, the boom in ayahuasca tourism in Peru got indigenous healer Leopardo Yawa Bane worried about their people and culture being forgotten because the white people get carried away with being an “authority” on ayahuasca.

“What we see in Peru is not ideal for indigenous autonomy and self-determination. Becoming an employee in a Euro-American venture is hardly about strengthening [indigenous] organizations, communities or collectives,” Vitale said.

However, the ceremony itself was not necessarily authentic. When Carlos Suárez Álvarez studied how the indigenous use ayahuasca and noticed that only the healer takes the brew to enter the spirit world and discover the patient’s illness and treatment.

Over time, what was once used exclusively by traditional Amazonian healers became at the center of a tourism boom with foreigners flocking to the Amazon jungle to experience plant medicines after hearing ayahuasca vine can bring self-awareness and healing from various types of afflictions and emotional issues.

However, the double murder of Olivia Arevalo and Sebastian Woodroff in 2018 in Peru prompted the Peruvian politicians to propose regulating ayahuasca. But the move also raised some questions about the consequences of the boom in shamanic tourism and commercialization of ayahuasca sessions.

Some people felt that regulations are needed due to claims that some participants were sexually assaulted by the shamans. Rebekah and Anna both told BBC(7)https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-51053580 that they were sexually assaulted during a ceremony and they spoke up in hope that it will prevent other women from being abused.

According to World Politics Review, tourism officials and promoters of shamanic tourism downplay the injuries and deaths by saying that the victims had underlying medical conditions or had combined ayahuasca with drugs like cocaine or marijuana.

Meanwhile, others do not agree with the proposed regulation. Instead, to address the sexual abuse issues, some lodges require Shipibo women rather than men to conduct ayahuasca ceremonies for their female clients.

Globalization Of Ayahuasca Shamanism

Ayahuasca has expanded globally among westerners who travel to the Peruvian Amazon in increasing numbers to experience the healing and transformative effects the ayahuasca vine offers.

At first, ayahuasca wasn’t viewed as a medicine, but a way to treat internal wounds and reconnect with nature. But in the past 25 years, the rituals around tea drinking have changed and gone mainstream. It becomes psychedelic enlightenment to thousands of people worldwide. Groups of tourists book trips to the upper Amazon to encounter the medicinal plants.

The widespread belief in the power of authentic, traditional rituals and shamans led to its global recognition. Since different tribes worldwide have started to adopt ayahuasca, some questioned the authenticity of the practice of one tribe. However, there is no true or authentic ayahuasca ritual.

According to Ruben Orellana, a Peruvian archaeologist and curandero of ayahuasca traditions were developed from specific cultural backgrounds. He added that even the brew, itself, and the rituals involved in the ceremony will generate different experiences, different risks, and benefits for outsiders compared to insiders.

In fact, Westerners pay for the experience that they might not be well situated for or they couldn’t fully understand or benefit from use. They contributed to the commodification and fetishization of the cultures.

Ayahuasca shamanism has become very popular and it became a global phenomenon. The Western people study how to become a shaman and established their own ayahuasca centers in their location to bring the power of the medicine plant to those who can’t travel to the Amazon.

“The internationalization of ayahuasca can be seen as a multidirectional process, ‘from the forest to the city,’ and likewise in reverse, ‘from the city to the forest.’ International networks have emerged in which subjects, substances, capital, images, and ‘sacred techniques’ circulate,” Beatriz Caiuby Labate and Clancy Cavnar wrote.

The globalization of ayahuasca shamanism also sparked some issues including “appropriation” by indigenous groups. The contemporary practice has become a response to the external forces and its exploitative history.

Moreover, it somehow disenfranchises Peruvians, indigenous or mestizos who use shamanic tourism as their source of income. With more ayahuasca retreat centers opening in different countries, hundreds of thousands of participants no longer need to travel to Amazon to experience it.

But the globalization also offers some advantages because it makes ayahuasca shamanism more accessible and cheaper.

What Is Ayahuasquero Or Ayahuasca Shaman

There is much content about ayahuasca online. But, many are confused when they come across, ayahuasquero, curandero and shaman. Are the three the same or different? In this section, we will define these terminologies that you will often hear in healing ceremonies.

Ayahuasquero refers to someone who has the ability to prepare the ayahuasca brew and set up space for an ayahuasca ceremony, hence, the name. They also administer or use ayahuasca(8)https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ayahuasquero and are referred to as shamans, too.

A true ayahuasquero is not a trip sitter or a musician even if they know how to sing icaros. Even if some of them are well-trained musicians if they lack the rigorous ayahuasca training their music will be directionless. It might be directed by a composer or artist but not by the spirit of the plants.

Ayahuasqueros are ambassadors between the world of plants and the world of humans. They follow a strict diet and long periods of voluntary isolation and restrictions from food, and behavior while slowly building a relationship with the medicine plant. They do such practices because they believe that the restrictive process allows one to become more sensitive to the plant.

Meanwhile, curandero is someone that cures people. Curanderos are the people one encounters in the healing ceremonies where ayahuasca is used for treatment. Shamans are also referred to as curanderos. They are just humans and not magical beings. However, they are in tune with the natural rhythms and imperceptible vibrations of life.

They do a lot of plant and tree bark diets. Plants become their allies and they teach curanderos how to work with them for healing. They can also call the plants to protect their guests from outside spirits.

Curanderos have the ability to make remedies for various illnesses, including candida, arthritis, herpes, and even cancer. They administer plans for treatment often in conjunction with ayahuasca.

According to Ayahuasca Life, working with curanderos is safer and a better option because good curanderos are better trained. Apparently, there is a significant difference between a curandero or ayahuasquero, but one person can also be a curandero, ayahuasquero, and shaman at the same time. Yes, you read that right! A curandero can also be an ayahuasquero. So, you might find these three words — shaman, ayahuasquero, and curandero being used interchangeably.

In general, a shaman, curandero, and ayahuasquero could refer to those who work with the invisible realms to bring healing, peace, and wholeness to the living world. However, most of them do not seek to be one, but they are called to it in most cases after a near-death or life-changing experience.


Conclusion

Ayahuasca shamanism refers to the form of shamanism performed by the indigenous shamans from the Amazons. Ayahuasca, shamanism and ayahuasca shamanism (when the two are taken together) are not religion. Anyone no matter what his or her faith is can practice shamanism

However, there are religions like Santo Daime which incorporate ayahuasca in their rituals and ceremony because the brew made from Banisteriopsis caapi (ayahuasca vine) helps intensify their spiritual experience. The churches that use ayahuasca have thousands of members already.

Due to the popularity of ayahuasca, it has spread internationally with several ayahuasca centers now in different countries, including the U.S.A. Its globalization has made it more accessible and practical for those who want to try it because they do not have to travel to Peru to encounter Mother Aya. There are also online training that allows one to live a shamanic life.

Overall, ayahuasca and shamanism are both a broad topic to discuss, but one thing is certain, don’t mistake them for religion because they are not.

Sources

  • en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santo_Daime
  • acsauhaya.org/shamanic-ayahuasca-ceremony/
  • reddit.com/r/Ayahuasca/comments/fdwllo/what_a_trained_ayahuasqueroa_brings_to_the_table/?utm_source=share&utm_medium=web2x&context=3
  • culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/ayahuasca-shamanism-shared-across-cultures
  • ayahuascalife.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/ayahuascero-vs-currandero-a-western-misunderstanding-of-shamanism/#:~:text=An%20ayahuasquero%20is%20simply%20someone,ceremony%2C%20and%20conduct%20the%20ceremony
  • ayahuascalife.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/ayahuascero-vs-currandero-a-western-misunderstanding-of-shamanism/
  • amuse.vice.com/en_us/article/wxqnjy/is-there-a-racist-monument-in-your-town-check-this-map-to-find-out
  • tripadvisor.com/FAQ_Answers-g294314-d11914588-t5070112-Hi_I_would_really_like_to_know_how_to_find_a.html
  • ayahuascalife.wordpress.com/2011/04/12/ayahuascero-vs-currandero-a-western-misunderstanding-of-shamanism/#:~:text=An%20ayahuasquero%20is%20simply%20someone,ceremony%2C%20and%20conduct%20the%20cer

References

References
1 https://www.culturalsurvival.org/publications/cultural-survival-quarterly/ayahuasca-shamanism-shared-across-cultures
2 https://acsauhaya.org/shamanic-ayahuasca-ceremony/
3 https://www.amazon.com/Walking-Light-Everyday-Empowerment-Shamanic/dp/1622034287
4 https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Santo_Daime
5 https://newhumanist.org.uk/articles/5509/the-rise-of-brazils-santo-daime-religion
6 https://www.vergemagazine.com/travel-intelligence/beyond-the-guidebook/2495-is-ayahuasca-tourism-safe-and-ethical.html
7 https://www.bbc.com/news/stories-51053580
8 https://en.wiktionary.org/wiki/ayahuasquero

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