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  • Writer's pictureSusie Bower

My first experience with Ayahuasca

The day of my first ayahuasca experience...

Earlier this day, I hopped in the car and drove myself to the airport. I had a bit of anxiety just because I was doing something out of my comfort zone, but I knew I was ready for it. I was listening to Tina Malia's version of Hare Krishna (beautiful and soothing to my soul) and as I sang along, tears poured from my eyes. I was sobbing and had no idea why, but I wasn't scared. The plane ride was short and when I got to the villa, I was in awe. It was in the mountains and quiet. I was hoping lunch would help with my headache, but it didn't. I was well hydrated, so this was probably a tension headache from my nerves. Many times I noticed my shoulders were creeping up to my ears like they do when I'm cold, but I wasn't cold. Since the ceremony was supposed to be from 9 pm to 5 am and I didn't know how it would go down, I took a nap before the ceremony - also hoping my headache would go away. Unfortunately, I only got about 30 minutes of a nap and my headache was still there. I started to change clothes for the ceremony. We were told to wear light-colored clothing for the ceremony if possible (but not required), this is for several reasons. The ceremony setting is dark and the shaman and facilitators can see you better in light clothing. It is also said that light colors give protection from evil spirits. I brought a sweater, socks, and beanie with me to keep on my mattress in case the blanket wasn't enough.

I had asked before coming on the trip if they would be ok with me participating, as I read and talked to a few friends who had worked with ayahuasca and said some shaman don't allow menstruating women to participate. I spoke with the shaman's wife earlier in the day and she told me about the tobacco belt and also instructed me to wear my menstrual cup for the ceremony even if I hadn't started yet. All women who were expecting their period (within the few days) or already menstruating were called to get a special tobacco belt before the ceremony began. The shaman's wife and I blessed my tobacco, before she wrapped it up into three separate pouches, tied each pouch to the red belt, and then tied the belt onto me. Women who are menstruating have powerful energy, the red tobacco belt gives not only the woman protection but also protects the energy of everyone present at the ceremony. I was to wear this belt from now until the final day of the retreat, only removing it to shower.

Now for the ceremony....

It took me a few days to understand what they meant when they say "ayahuasca gives you the experience you NEED, not what you WANT". As I look back at my journal from my first experience, it was EXACTLY what I needed.

The men were called up to take hopa hoska (I might have spelled it wrong - it's like rapé - pronounced ra-pay, but this is green tobacco leaves in powdered form, very finely ground). It's a type of plant medicine that has been used for thousands of years by indigenous tribes, also referred to as shamanic snuff. It's different than the tobacco in cigarettes and it isn't snorted or inhaled. The shaman puts a small amount of powder in a long pipe. When you take it, you are instructed to take a deep breath in, close off the back of your throat and then the shaman blows through the pipe and the powder enters one side of your nostril and if your sinus cavity is clear and open, it can exit from the other nostril, then you exhale. The entire process is then repeated on the other nostril. These sacred plant medicine ceremonies are often started with this is for cleansing and purifying the mind, and can almost immediately bring a wave of calm and serenity over you. It is a psychotropic substance, just like alcohol, caffeine, from and nicotine.

My headache was even more intense now, I noticed I had been clenching my jaws, so I tried to massage them for a few hours before the ceremony. I also worked into the base of my skull into the occipital ridge hoping to clear the tension. My heart was pounding as I waited for my turn to get hopa hoska. I looked down at my sweater and the button was dancing from my heart beating. Even though I was standing, I place my hands in the dharmadhatu mudra. This familiar mudra is what I do during my meditations and it calmed my body. As the hopa hoska entered my nose, it was a very weird sensation as I felt the warm air entering in one side and out the other - which is why you are instructed to close off the back of your throat. It had a very distinct aroma, it wasn't bad, but it was unlike anything I had ever smelled. I remember going back to my mattress thinking about how intense this experience was already for me. I had never felt more grounded and calm. My headache was fading away, all the tension was releasing from my neck, shoulders, and jaw. I sat in my comfortable and familiar zazen posture and closed my eyes, feeling into my body and listening deeply to it as I waited for the women to be called up to drink the ayahuasca. In this series, you might notice I refer to ayahuasca as yagé, which is what our shaman calls it, as he was trained in Columbia with the Muhisuke traditions.

I watched as everyone before me received their cup, they all had different-sized doses. Cecile, the shaman's wife, showed him my red tobacco belt as I approached. He filled my cup about halfway. It was now my turn. I approached the altar, knelt down, listened to the shaman's blessing and took my cup into both hands. As I placed it at my heart, looking down into the cup, my heart stopped frantically pounding. The list of my intentions disappeared. Looking at the plant medicine, I told her "I come to you with an open heart and open mind", closed my eyes and then I drank. I had read about how gross people thought it tasted - wet dirt, mud, mold, etc. I started to wonder about their reactions and if they were used to eating processed foods, fast food, and foods full of artificial flavors and sugar - because to me, it didn't taste gross. It was actually pleasant. Maybe that's because I am used to drinking chlorophyll, mushroom blends, and aloe, I also don't eat my food drenched in dressings, sauces, or spices.

I returned to my mattress thinking, well, here we go. There's no turning back. I sat in zazen posture and dharmadhatu mudra for a while, just waiting for it to kick in. I tuned into my breath, focusing on deepening and lengthening my inhalation and exhalations. We were outside under a covered patio, I was listening to the fire crackling, watching the flames dance around. We were in the mountains in Northern Italy and even though it was technically summer, it was chilly at night. My hands were cold, but soon I could feel the warmth radiating from my stomach to my limbs. I felt such comfort - not hot, not cold - very comfortable. Tuning into my body, I was starting to feel heavy, so I decided to lie down. Normally when I sleep, I lay on my back. Knowing that it's better for digestion, I rolled over to lay on my left side. It wasn't long before I felt like I was drifting off to sleep. I kept trying to keep my eyes open, but I couldn't. My eyelids were so heavy. The candlelight was starting to feel bright too, so I pulled my beanie over my eyes and cuddled up - as you can see in the picture at the top.

When I closed my eyes, there was so much chatter and noise in my head, that I couldn't make out anything it was saying. It was so overwhelming and loud. Then, I reminded myself that I was here as an observer and not here to judge, and then - SILENCE! Like dead quiet silence. I have been meditating for years, but this was unlike any silence I have ever had in my head.

Everything went blank, as a fog rolled in. Then as the fog cleared, it became teal. A mandala appeared in shades of blue, teal, and white. It began dancing and swirling with the beat of the music. When the music stopped - every single time the music stopped - black snake-like lines would start to weave through the teal and blue colors and mandala. A black, dark fog rolled in again and the profile of a face appeared. It was too far away to make out who it could be. It was definitely a person though, just couldn't distinguish if it was male or female. It was all white, a huge contrast to the very dark background.

There was a church in the nearby town and its bells would ring every hour. When I heard the bells ringing, I also saw images of two white outlined bells that when they rang, white, flashing glitter would fall down from them. This happened several times, I guess every hour.

I saw light blue ripples of water - was this about to answer my question about why I was so fearful of the water?? Patterns began to swirl around in shades of blue and white. Then it faded to darkness again. Guess I'll have to wait to get that answer.

The next thing I know, it's 3:30 am. I went to the restroom and then realized I didn't even throw up. I was amazed! This was my biggest fear and what I was most worried about working with plant medicine. My body felt so heavy, that I didn't even get up to have a second serving. In fact, I didn't even move the entire ceremony once I laid down - more about this later. I returned back to my mattress and laid back down.

As the ceremony was coming to a close, the music quieted down and the shaman asked for anyone who wanted to be a part of a blessing ceremony to come up to the chairs at the center of the room. No question, I wanted this. I was here expecting to have my period soon and didn't know how my next few days would go, so I felt called to step forward and be blessed. This was something I can barely describe. We sat straddled in the chair, facing the back of it. Our backs (skin) were fully exposed to receive the blessings of some liquid and also smoke. There was a lot of chanting and smoke. Towards the end, I noticed the Gayatri mantra was playing and I began to sing along with it, this is a mantra I love so much and it is very dear to my heart. It felt so right and special for this mantra to play in the background. If you are interested, you can listen to Tina Malia's beautiful rendition of this mantra.

After the ceremony ended, I went upstairs to bed to go to sleep. I had zero problems getting and staying asleep after the ceremony. I had a dream, the white-faced profile appeared again out of the darkness. That was all I remember from my dreams when I woke up. It wasn't until later in the morning that I realized from looking at my Whoop data and Supersapiens Biosensor data, that my body thought it was asleep! I have never in the six months of wearing the CGM seen such a flat line of my glucose (the top line in the photo). The only rise in glucose was when I woke up to go to the toilet and upstairs to bed. I got green recovery and my HRV returned to my normal range, something I had been struggling to do lately - but that's another blog post. Right when I woke up, I felt a little tired and slightly sore, but as I walked to the restroom and got ready for the day, I felt incredible. No headache and no neck or shoulder pain - I haven't woken up pain-free in almost three years.

During the day I spoke with the shaman, his wife Cecile, the facilitators, organizers, and owners of the company hosting the retreat. All I could think about was how peaceful, beautiful and serene my experience was. And how happy I was that I didn't throw up. When I asked if it was possible that I was actually asleep during the ceremony, they told me that Colombian shamans have said that when/if you sleep, then you are being deeply healed at the DNA and cellular level. The way my body felt, I could absolutely believe that.

As I continued to process my experience, I realized a great deal of stress (mental and emotional mostly) my body had been under. My nervous system felt like it was under constant attack. It was living (and coping) with being in flight/fight/freeze mode without me even realizing it other than what I could see in my HRV data. I had been going back to my old ways of putting others' needs before my own. I was sacrificing my health to make others feel comfortable. I lost my voice. It reminded me of the time two years ago (to the exact date actually) that I was on a solo trip to a retreat in Nice, France. It was the first morning there and I didn't set an alarm the night before because I thought there was no way I would sleep more than 10 hours - but I did. When I came into the room for our morning workout, I was asked by Shaun T. what I wanted from this workout and retreat. My eyes filled with tears. The tears kept pouring down my face and before I could even realize it, I was writing LIFE. I want life back in me. I was so drained - mentally, emotionally, and physically. And not just tired, I was exhausted - living in survival mode. After that retreat, I went back home a new woman - FULL of life and energy. I told myself I would never let myself get that bad again, my self-awareness game stepped up. The funny part was, I thought I was coming to this ayahuasca retreat being fully self-aware because I could see that I was getting increasingly irritable and angry, my depression hit an all-time low and I had waves of intense emotions - but I hadn't fully realized the huge amount of stress my body was under. Again.

My first ayahuasca experience was exactly what I needed. Peace. Serenity. Silence. A deep, meditative sleep and rest period. Surrounded by my favorite colors, soothing me, calming me - right down to my core. Something to restore the health of my body and nervous system. Just for this first day and experience, I wrote 15 pages in my journal.

This was only night our first night. We have two more nights and I also tried another plant medicine. Stay tuned for the next post for the rest of my experiences during this retreat.

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