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Shipibo Plant Medicine & Ayahuasca

If you've made it to this page, you've probably heard a bit about Ayahuasca. It's all over the news these days, and thousands of people from around the world are participating in Ayahuasca ceremonies, both in the Amazon jungle and at home. Many are finding incredible healing from engaging with Ayahuasca, on all levels: emotional, physical, spiritual, etc. Many are also investigating the important role sacred plants like Ayahuasca may play in the future of medicine and culture.

Some of you may already know quite a bit about Ayahuasca; you may have participated in ceremonies at home or in the jungle. For some of you this may all be very new, and you may be full of questions: What is Ayahuasca? Is it safe? How does it work? What is the role of the shaman? How does Ayahuasca relate to other plants? Does Ayahuasca really have a “spirit”? Etc.

The first thing we like to emphasize is that in the Shipibo tradition (which Maestra Estela is from), Ayahuasca is part of a larger, more complex system of holistic, plant-based healing. This system includes a range of treatments, from ingesting plants to bathing with plants to massages to healing songs (“icaros”) to special diets, and more. Historically, sick patients, or those with deep uncertainties and anxieties needing treatment, would not ingest the Ayahuasca brew. They would sit in ceremony and the shaman would take Ayahuasca, diagnose the patient's sickness, and with the guidance of plant spirits they would sing them healing icaros.

Energies, Spirits, Vibrations, Song

Before launching into more detail about Ayahuasca, we'd like to address the larger question of how Shipibo plant medicine works: it's basic assumptions, philosophy, method, etc. If you aren't yet aware, the Shipibo are a fairly large indigenous ethnicity from the Pucallpa area of Perú (along the Ucayali River). While most Shipibo are quite modernized and integrated into “Mestizo” Peruvian culture, many traditions of Shipibo culture, beliefs and medicine have remained fairly intact (including their language). They have become renowned for their powerful system of medicine, their signature artistic style, and their mastery of Ayahuasca use.

The Shipibo have traditionally believed that the world is made up of song, or icaros. The incredible Shipibo designs that tourists in Peru are very familiar with are based on this principle. The textiles are graphic representations, in effect musical notation, of the songs that make up the natural world: plants, snakes, etc. Working with sacred or hallucinogenic plants such as Ayahuasca, Shamburi, Huachuma (or Toé, Tobacco, etc) allows the healer to see these designs and hear these songs. It opens up the gateway to directly experiencing the energetic patterns and vibrations of the world around us.


For many folks coming from places like the U.S., the U.K., Australia, Europe, etc, this can be a bit obscure. These cultures are based on principles that assume the world around us is generally not alive, but rather a kind of machine with a system of laws and small bits and pieces we can break down and study. The Shipibo believe otherwise. Working with plants allows them to engage with these energies: we can call them spirits, energies, vibrations, or whatever you like. New paradigms emerging from Western science can at times make sense of this: what the shamans and curanderos are experiencing are the basic vibrational patterns that make up the world around us. String theory, complexity theory and quantum mechanics suggest this basic insight: the world is made up of energy -- constantly vibrating energy. That applies to humans, animals, plants, trees, the wind, everything.


So how does this all fit into a system of medicine? Well, if the world is truly made up of song, as both the Shipibo and Western string theorists believe, and plants like Ayahuasca allow shamans to hear these songs, a certain kind of basic communication or engagement becomes possible. When a human body is sick, or experiencing all sorts of psychological discomfort, their song is in a sense out of tune -- out of harmony. The vibrational patterns are chaotic, disordered, etc. This is where the plants come in: by ingesting medicinal plants, their vibrational patterns (their songs, their icaros), can help ours to align. They also help clear out and cleanse blockages and dismantle patterns that may have been picked up from unhealthy energetic bodies (other people, places, etc). This helps us heal our energetic body, which then heals our physical, emotional and mental body. The Shipibo say that these plants, if we know which ones to use and use them correctly, want to heal us. In a certain way, the plants know that we are interconnected and interdependent, and are happy to share their immense healing power.


Shipibo curanderas like Maestra Estela have spent many, many years in intense discipline and training, learning how to understand and use these energies for healing. They do intensive dietas with master plants, a spiritual practice of reduced eating and ingesting of sacred leaves, flowers, bark, etc, in order to learn the icaros of the plants. In a sense, this fully incorporates the energetic power of the plant into their body. As Maestra Estela often says, this is NO easy process, and long term guests, also referred to as dieteros, may find it to be one of the most challenging yet rewarding initiations of their life. Then, in the Ayahuasca ceremony, the shaman--and/or dietero-- call upon these master plant allies they have worked with to help understand and see the energetic body, which then provides insight into which icaro to sing in order to transmit the necessary healing vibrational patterns.


All of this can and has worked historically without the patient taking Ayahuasca. Traditionally, the Shipibo believe the healing comes from the icaros, and from the information the shamans receive in the ceremony. This information allows them to know which plants, remedies, and treatments to prescribe the patient. The patient then undergoes the treatment, and through other healing plants and a healing regiment forges their own connection with the energetic, vibrational patterns of the plants. The shaman in this way is like a bridge between the human and the plant/spirit world.


Connecting with Nature, Working with Plants


For those raised in the modern, Western world, life can often feel disconnect and alienating. Many of us struggle with connecting to nature, to each other, and with ourselves. This can often lead to anxiety, depression and a host of physical ailments. Much of the healing power of Ayahuasca and other healing plants seems to come from this basic function: they allow us to directly connect to nature and to the larger living world around us. This helps us understand our role in the world, and feel at home in the universe. This can be incredibly healing, and so many testimonies of people working with Ayahuasca and other plants repeat this story.


Ingesting Ayahuasca opens us up to these living energies around us, directly showing us this basic truth of interconnection, inter-species communication, etc. For some people, Ayahuasca does this in an incredibly fast, powerful manner; like a bullet train. These insights can come from visions, feelings, even conversations with plants and trees and spirits. But it's important to emphasize that all master plants, whether psychoactive or not, have this same power. In this way, we say the plants are always working, regardless if we have direct confirmation through visions or insights. Dieting a plant, which can include taking large amounts, restricting your food intake or fasting, and having periods of isolation (among other techniques), often opens us up to receive these healing energies in a more profound way.


Working with healing plants, whether Ayahuasca or otherwise, can have a range of effects: they can bring up repressed memories or emotions, give us incredible strength or bring about periods of weakness and fragility, bring us insights, bring about shifts in mood and perspective, etc. You can expect all of this, and for some people, none of this! Each individual has an entirely unique experience when working with this tradition. This is the plant working on your energetic body.


Working with Ayahuasca

Arriving much later than the Shipibo tradition, modern shamans and the modern world are now rediscovering how healing Ayahuasca can be when taken by patients in a ceremony. This is especially true for those raised in modern, Western society. New traditions are being formed in centers like Aya Madre: an ancient system of healing adapting itself for new illnesses and new challenges of the modern world.

Ayahuasca is both the name of a vine that grows in the Amazon jungle and also a brew. The brew is a mix of the vine and another plant, usually Chakruna or Huambisa. As many people writing about Ayahuasca emphasize, the brew is a feat of chemical genius. Plants like Chakruna and Huambisa contain the powerful alkaloid DMT (Dimethyltryptamine), but when ingested orally the DMT is broken down by an enzyme (monoamineoxidase) in the stomach and does not reach the brain. So taking Chakruna or Huambisa as a brew has little to no psychoactive effect on humans. However, the Ayahuasca vine happens to inhibit the production of MAO through the introduction of a monoamineoxidase inhibitor, MAOI, which inhibits the production of the enzyme which breaks down the DMT, thereby allowing the DMT direct access to our nervous system.

How did early shamans and cultures like the Shipibo know to combine these two plants, of all the many thousands in the jungle? The answer given across Amazonian cultures is astoundingly coherent: the plants told them.


Working with Ayahuasca (ingesting the brew) is relatively safe, but that means doing your research and making sure to understand the preparation that is needed, and who should not be ingesting the brew. We have listed some basic guidelines in our Preparation and Medical Precautions sections, and Aya Madre does some basic screening to prevent any potential harm. When the guidelines and preparation are respected, and the plant brew is taken in a safe, reliable environment, with properly made medicine, it is not only relatively safe but incredibly healing.


With all of this in mind, we invite you to explore this profoundly powerful system of healing here at Aya Madre. Maestra Estela loves her work, and is always happy to explain the nuances of these plants and this system of medicine. In that way coming to Aya Madre is like being in both a healing clinic and a school for understanding the natural world (and thus ourselves as part of that world!).


At Aya Madre, Maestra Estela continues the Shipibo practice of curanderismo by actively looking for new medicines to heal her patients. One of the medicines which has called to her is known as Shamburi.


Shamburi is the name of the medicinal tree, the Master Ceremonial plant, as well as the name of the recipe which often includes Chric Sanango, Rosa Sisa and Toé. Maestra Estela views Shamburi as the sister of Ayahuasca. She is an expert healer, mother, nurse, protector and teacher. She is open for dialogue with her patients and often works in very subtle ways. 

Upon ingesting Shamburi, she may initially put us into a semi-dream state while she works on cleaning and organizing our energies. She may stay with us throughout the day, into our dreams, and even into the following day. Unlike Ayahuasca, Shamburi does not show us our traumas and life events in a dramatic way. Her healing experience is more gentle. Some dieteros report cartoon visuals when a life review is needed. Maestra Estela teaches that each ceremony with Shamburi provides 7 months of energetic protection.


Huachuma (“San Pedro”)

Huachuma, or San Pedro, is the name given to a species of cactus that grows in South America. Some refer to it as “the Grandfather Medicine” and feel the divine masculine radiating in its energy. Huachuma is a medicine of light and is a powerful and kind teacher. One of the active ingredients in the San Pedro cactus that gives it its psychoactive properties is mescaline -- a substance found in most cacti of the Peyote family. 


Upon drinking the brew, one may not feel any effects for about an hour. After 1-2 hours, the healing experience begins. One may feel very energized and wish to walk or exercise. The body may feel hot, and a shower or a swim can be very pleasant. One may also feel an increased appetite and the desire to eat after ceremony. Huachuma is often a very happy and social medicine.

Depending on our emotional, psychological and spiritual state, the experience is often very empowering and enlivening. We may receive powerful insights and life lessons, resolution of past events and an invigorating sense of purpose and heightened sense of self and connection.


Hongos (Psilocybe Cubensis, “Magic Mushrooms”)


Hongos refers to all the mushrooms which have psychoactive ingredients and induce entheogenic experiences. There are over 200 species of psychoactive mushrooms in the world. The mushrooms locally available in our area are of the psilocybin variety.

As with every Plant Medicine, every person’s healing experience is unique to that individual, due to the plethora of internal factors that affect one’s experience and interpretation of reality. However, in general, one can expect to experience the following phenomenon when working with Hongos:

  • Some individuals may experience more external visions, while others might perceive more internal visions. Visions may be lucid, or the journey may be filled with cosmic insights. The senses are normally heightened and a larger awareness of self is commonly perceived.

  • Sounds may appear enhanced and somewhat distorted. Many people experience time slowing down or standing still. This may be because mushrooms have a way of making us very present and aware of the present moment. Distances may also appear warped, objects looking closer or further away than normal.

  • Psilocybin mushrooms have the ability to heal trauma by allowing the user to revisit a traumatic experience from a different perspective. What comes with this experience is often a cathartic emotional release – sometimes through hysterical laughing, crying, and so on – giving way to the lightness of being and a new sense of self.


If you'd like to learn more about working with plants, Ayahuasca and plant spirits, please feel free to reach out to us with any questions you might have.

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