Iowaska, more commonly spelled ‘ayahuasca’ or ‘aya waska’, is also known by its many indigenous names such as yagé, yajé, caapi, cipó, bejuco de oro, hoasca, natem, shori, or pilde. It’s a psychedelic tea made by indigenous communities of the Amazon rainforest in South America; particularly in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia. As part of their vast medicinal plant culture, the iowaska tea is used ceremonially by shamans (or curanderos) and their patients for purposes of physiological cleansing, spiritual and emotional healing, and divination. Today, iowaska is drunk in ceremonies around the world for healing and psychological growth. And while scientists and lawmakers see it as a drug, people who drink it tend to call it a medicine and teacher.

Iowaska tea became known to the Western world through the work of pioneering ethnobotanists and anthropologists such as Michael Harner, Richard Evans Schultes, Marlene Dobkin de Rios, Gerardo Reichel-Dolmatoff, and Terence McKenna. These extraordinary researchers and their those who followed in their footsteps have been reporting about their experiences with indigenous Amazonian communities since the 1950s. Over the last few decades, with the developments in tourism infrastructure and the commercialization of this sacred medicine, iowaska has attracted massive popularity. Nowadays, joining an iowaska ceremony or retreat held by indigenous shamans has become the main draw of tourism in the Amazon.

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Iowaska Tea Ingredients and Brewing

The iowaska tea is usually made from two different plants:

1. The bark of the vine Banisteriopsis caapi (also known by the names yagé or aya waska – translated to “vine of the soul” from the indigenous Quechuan languages), which contains a monoamine oxidase inhibitor (MAOI), and

2. The leaves of the shrub Psychotria viridis (also known as chacruna – meaning “mix”) or Diplopterys cabrerana (known as chaliponga or chagropanga), which both contain dymethiltryptamine (DMT). Which of these two is used will depend on local availability (the former is used more in Peru, the latter more in Ecuador and Colombia) and tradition.

banisteriopsis caapi ayahuasca
B. caapi – the aya waska (ayahuasca) vine. Photo: Ben De Loenen
psychotria viridis ayahuasca
P. viridis – the DMT leaf – Photo: Ben De Loenen

DMT has become well-known not only in the psychedelic community, but throughout the world as well. This substance, often referred to as ‘the spirit molecule,’ is known to produce otherworldly hyperdimensional visions of extraordinary quality and utterly ineffable sources. It’s also hypothesized to completely switch the brain’s channel of functioning and display a different reality.

DMT is often consumed by inhalation (snuffing, smoking, or vaporizing) because the monoamine oxidase (MAO) enzymes in the stomach break them down and stop them from reaching the brain. Contrary to this natural defense process, the human body has actually been found to contain endogenous DMT in the brain, several organs, and bodily fluids.

A special thing about iowaska is that the MAO inhibitors in the B. caapi vine inhibit these enzymes which break down DMT, allowing the molecules to remain intact and cross the blood-brain barrier, bind to their target receptors and achieve their psychoactive effects.

Consuming DMT orally in an iowaska tea actually makes for a completely different experience than when DMT is consumed independently; anyone who has been through a multi-hour-long iowaska journey and a 15-minute-long smoked DMT trip can confirm that they differ wildly. This is in part due to the psychoactive effects of the B. caapi vine itself.

Iowaska would often traditionally be made only from the B. caapi vine and little, if any, DMT containing admixtures. The indigenous people revere the vine and find it to be the main healing agent of the brew. The DMT is there, as they would say, “to make the visions brighter and stronger”.

The B. caapi visions themselves are visible to experienced shamans. However, most of the visitors could not see them without the DMT admixtures, so eventually P. viridis and D. cabrerana became standardized ingredients that would, more or less, “guarantee” the shamans’ Western guests the experience they came for.

B. caapi and P. viridis or D. cabrerana are now used to create the standard iowaska brew. However, plants from an impressive array of admixtures are also traditionally infused in order to modulate the potency, stability, vision quality, intensity, and other aspects of the tea. Some shamans use various strains of the Banisteriopsis vine, or add Nicotiana rustica (known as mapacho – ancient, sacred tobacco used in indigenous plant healing), petals of the Brugmansia flower (a highly psychoactive plant closely related to Datura – the Devil’s Trumpet), or any of the dozens of different admixtures available.

These ingredients belong to various local indigenous traditions. Their infusion needs to be exact, and if the dose is miscalculated, the brew can turn out to be a dangerous, or even deadly potion.

traditional ayahuasca iowaska ceremony
Whatever Iowaska shows you in your visions has a deeper meaning that sometimes needs to be decoded.

Is Iowaska Legal?

The legal status of iowaska is not a simple matter. Due to containing DMT, which is a regulated substance in most of the world, the brew is also often considered illegal. However, as a sacred medicine deeply rooted in the tradition of many Amazonian indigenous cultures, its use is legal in some countries, and permitted in some others as a religious exception. Finally, in many countries the brew itself is not regulated, as it’s never appeared in their respective judicial systems. This doesn’t mean that it’s legal, but that it’s not yet illegal. An organization called the Ayahuasca Defense Fund has been operating since 2015 in providing free legal support for people around the world facing persecution for drinking ayahuasca.

Read Tal Arnon’s firsthand account of her arrest for serving ayahuasca in Israel.

In South America, iowaska use is legal in Peru, Ecuador, Colombia, Brazil, and Bolivia. The neighboring Chile and Argentina, however, have the brew classified as illegal, but enforcement is rare and inconsistent.

In North America and most of Europe, excluding Italy, Spain, and Portugal, which have unclear or no regulations, iowaska is explicitly illegal. In South Africa its status is grey. In Australia, although DMT is a Schedule 9 substance, possession of ayahuasca has not yet been subjected to criminal persecution.

Iowaska Preparation – “La Dieta”

The iowaska experience is among the most challenging and surprising psychedelic journeys available. Although it’s impossible to truly prepare for, there are some common practices that can help the mind and body handle the effects better.

If you would like to learn in detail about everything you can do to get ready for the iowaska ceremony, head to our full article on preparing for ayahuasca. Here we will briefly outline the most important aspects of the preparation process.

Most iowaska ceremony facilitators advise their guests to honor what is called “la dieta”. This is a comprehensive purification regimen that includes nutrition, but also thoughts and actions. It comes from shamanic training traditions, and it should be implemented at least a few days, and ideally a few weeks before, as well as after the ceremony.

In regards to nutrition, honoring la dieta means abstaining from all fatty, fried, overly salty, sweet, spicy, aged, pickled, fermented, canned, and otherwise processed foods and drinks, as well as from red meat, pork, coffee, dairy products, and anything high in tyramine. Basically, boiled and fresh fruits and vegetables, rice, cereals, beans, peas, and other legumes are good dietary choices that will flush some toxins out and prepare the body for the workings of iowaska.

Thoughts and behavior are regarded as equally important aspects to manage in the dieting process. Maintaining positivity and a stable energetic state is important because it allows the medicine to do its work more effectively. This includes avoiding stress and exhaustion, staying away from negative people and unsettling events, releasing anxiety and troubling thoughts in general, and avoiding large energetic shifts that follow arousing events such as sex.

Prior to an iowaska ceremony, it’s beneficial to set some intentions, too. These should come from the question “Why am I drinking iowaska?” and the answers should bring more clarity as to what we are hoping to gain from participating in the ceremony. The power of intentions should not be underestimated; focusing on them in the days leading up to iowaska and taking them with you into the journey can help make it much more meaningful and spiritually transformative.

Man preparing for ayahuasca iowaska
You are advised to spend some time in self-reflection and abstinence from toxic influences prior to drinking iowaska.

Iowaska Risks and Side Effects

There are some things to be aware of before considering joining an iowaska ceremony. Aside from the chances of nausea, purging, and experiencing a dark journey, this natural medicine has a few more potential pitfalls.

The most notable way iowaska affects the body is by raising blood pressure. It is therefore not suitable for anyone with cardiac problems—especially with hypertension, as the added boost can lead to a hypertensive crisis, which may have a fatal outcome. Any medication regimen that regulates the cardiovascular system needs to be suspended several weeks prior to consuming iowaska.

The same goes for depression medication—SSRIs, which are most commonly used for treating this mental condition, can have a fatal interaction with the MAOIs in iowaska. Those suffering from psychosis are also not allowed to consume the brew, because iowaska may exacerbate it.

Basically, people suffering from any illness that requires chronic medication should steer clear from iowaska. The interactions of this Amazonian medicine and Western chemicals have not yet been explored fully, and there may more undiscovered dangerous combinations.

This, of course, also applies to individuals with substance abuse disorders. Psychotropic substances influence the metabolism, and this can, in turn, influence how the body reacts to iowaska. There are optimistic indications that the brew may one day be of help with treating substance abuse, but this kind of therapy is pending scientific verification and institutional regulation. Until then, it’s safest not to attempt using iowaska in this context.

Finally, although for healthy individuals iowaska in its standard form is harmless, it should be noted that the popularization of the brew has caused the emergence of many inexperienced would-be shamans to the scene. Looking to make a quick buck, and without the willingness to go through the intensive shaman training, they often use iowaska that they buy from the market, and/or put various ingredients in it so their guests would get the ‘high’ they are looking for. The few death reports that can be found online are commonly attributed to unqualified shamans serving dangerous brews.

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Iowaska Effects

Iowaska is an extremely powerful brew that can cause intense, wondrous effects in its drinker. However, it should be stated in the beginning that these effects are very subjective and dependent on many factors. Sometimes they can be mild and pleasant, other times dark and harrowing, sometimes completely otherworldly, and at times they can be almost imperceptible. The spirit of the vine tends to produce experiences that reflect the life situation, emotional habits, and mind states that the drinker embodies at that moment.

However, very generally speaking, a typical iowaska experience goes like this:

At the start of the journey, perceptual changes start arising. At first, it’s a sense of alertness, as if something were not the same anymore; soon, all senses start perceiving the environment differently. The awareness of the body greatly increases, especially as the thick, bitter-tasting brew makes its way to the stomach.

Soon, the feeling of nausea starts, and it doesn’t resemble any nausea experienced before. The feeling in the stomach during an iowaska trip is intense and strange, like some alien process is taking place in the body. A consequence of this nausea, and one of the most common iowaska side effects, is vomiting or defecating. As per indigenous belief, however, this purging is actually not a side effect, but an important aspect of the healing power of iowaska. It is believed to help rid the body of toxins and parasites, and the soul to release negative energy.

Often times, visions will be shown to the drinker. These can be mild and gentle, such as transforming shapes, symbols, colors, and shadows, to incredibly elaborate and seemingly infinite displays of otherworldly landscapes and scenes. This includes various plant and animal spirits, deities, images of family members, and other kinds of entities. They can also come in the form of revisiting past experiences, especially if there is some lingering psychological baggage that can be resolved that way.

Psychologically, iowaska can facilitate remarkable transformations, even take the drinker through a process known as ego death or ego dissolution. It is not a gentle drug or substance; rather, it’s one that makes us confront our issues and suppressed emotions head on. It doesn’t leave us other choices—it makes us vulnerable, and then exposes us to ourselves, no matter whether we like it or not. Seeing our deep-rooted fears and destructive patterns of thought and action for what they are then makes it possible to acknowledge and release them.

All of this can be quite emotional and perplexing, often even overwhelming. The array of feelings experienced during an iowaska trip can be extremely diverse, ranging from fear and intense sadness to true joy, awe, and immense pleasure. Coupled with the ineffable visions and profound insight, iowaska can cause quite the spiritual, physical, and psychological turmoil.

A typical iowaska trip takes about six to eight hours, with the onset taking some thirty minutes and gradually intensifying until the peak at around two hours in. The comedown is usually quick and gentle, leaving the drinker in a tranquil afterglow which can last for a day or longer. Iowaska ceremonies normally take place at night, and by the time they are over, the body can feel quite exhausted and ready for sleep.

After Iowaska – Integration

The spiritual work doesn’t stop when the ceremony or retreat is over. Some experts say the real journey begins after the ceremony itself.  Iowaska effects and insights need to be processed in order to be integrated into daily life. This can take anywhere from several weeks to several years and it involves active acknowledgement of difficulties unearthed during the experience.

After the iowaska ceremony, it’s best to continue with the dieta for a few more days or, ideally, weeks. Spending time on activities that promote mindfulness helps create the space for the realizations to settle in. Most importantly, actually putting in the effort to implement the insights instead of allowing them to stay in the past with the iowaska experience is vital to seeing real change unfold in daily reality.

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Xavier Francuski
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