Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Preparing for an Ayahuasca Retreat, Part 3: Dosages, and the Physical Effects of Ayahuasca

I spent twelve days in the Amazon rainforest attending an Ayahuasca retreat where we drank the brew on seven nights. It was both the most difficult and the most therapeutic experience of my life. In part 1 of this blog series I discussed some preliminary considerations regarding Ayahuasca, and in part 2 I discussed the preparatory diet. Here in part 3 I'll be discussing dosages, and the physical effects of Ayahuasca intoxication. (The video version of this post can be found here.)

At the retreat that I attended, the staff recommended that in order to gauge our tolerance, first-time participants should start with a small cup of approximately 50 milliliters (roughly the size of a standard shot glass). They advised that on subsequent nights we could freely choose our dosages. I started with the recommended small cup, and even that produced vivid and intense visions, but the experience felt well within the boundaries of what I could handle. The next night I opted for a medium cup, which contained roughly 100 milliliters. Though double my dose from the previous night, the experience only felt forty to fifty percent more intense, and still well within my limits. The following night I tried a large cup of approximately 150 milliliters — roughly triple the size of my dose from the first night — and it was with this large dose that I felt like I'd crossed the point of diminishing return. The intoxication lasted an additional hour or so, but otherwise I felt no significant increase in the desirable effects. Rather, I felt a significant increase in undesirable effects such as fatigue, mental confusion, intestinal cramping, etc. The following night I scaled back to the medium dose, which proved to be my personal sweet spot, and that's what I stuck with for the remainder of the ceremonies.

However, that doesn't mean everyone should default to a similar medium-sized dose of 100 milliliters. The strength of the brew will vary from place to place, and even from night to night at the same retreat. Individual tolerance also plays a major role. Many participants shared my opinion that the medium cup suited them best, but some participants choked down two large cups per night — a mind boggling feat, from my perspective — while other participants found that they only needed one small cup. It just depends on your individual tolerance, and how deep you want to plunge.

The physical effects
One of Ayahuasca's potential side-effects is physical disorientation or incapacitation. For me, this manifested as a mix of insurmountable fatigue combined with gross loss of coordination. Though mentally I remained intact, physically Ayahuasca knocked me out of commission — unable to sit up, and even the mere thought of sitting up exhausted me. At the conclusion of each ceremony — a full four hours after I had drank — sitting up still proved to be a challenge. After finally rising to my feet, I then struggled to wobble back to my hut without toppling over.

Some participants likewise struggled with mobility and dexterity, but others seemed totally unfazed, simply hopping to their feet and strolling out the door after each ceremony. Again, individual tolerance plays a major role.

During the intoxication, my body temperature fluctuated unpredictably. Sometimes within the short span of thirty minutes, I went from feeling comfortable to suddenly feeling chilly, then suddenly breaking into a hot sweat, then back to shivering again. As such, I recommend dressing lightly but also bringing a hoodie or blanket — something that you can easily put on and take off as needed, keeping in mind that your mobility and dexterity might be limited.

The ceremonial hut (or maloca) where we drank Ayahuasca.
Each mat came complete with pillow, blanket, and vomit pail.
Ayahuasca can cause intense vomiting. From what I had read before heading down to the Amazon, I assumed this was an unavoidable side-effect that everyone must suffer through, but that turned out not to be true at all. The ceremonies took place in the pitch black of night, so I couldn't see anyone, but I could clearly hear my fellow participants vomiting, each with his or her own unique cacophony of gurgling and heaving and moaning, by which I could somewhat distinguish how many different people were vomiting. I estimated that out of the twenty-or-so participants in my group, only four or five people vomited on any given night. Outside of the ceremonies, I talked with a staff member who had drank Ayahuasca dozens of times, and she said that she had only thrown up once. I made it through all seven of the retreat's ceremonies without throwing up. In the first hour after drinking I occasionally felt sick to my stomach, but that was all. So despite what it might seem from the many firsthand accounts of intense Ayahuasca purging, simply drinking Ayahuasca doesn't mean that you will throw up, but be aware that the possibility exists, and that those who throw up usually do so violently.

Though I didn't vomit, I did experience intense cramping throughout the ceremonies. Each night a sharp bloating pain snaked all the way through my intestines, and when it finally arrived at my rectum, I had to momentarily clench with all my strength to prevent soiling myself. Many times I felt compelled to scurry to the nearby toilet, but I also felt that leaving the ceremony would have pulled me out of the Ayahuasca experience and wasted time that I could've spent immersed in the visions. Moreover, as previously mentioned, I was physically out of commission — I couldn't have walked even if it became necessary — so I simply clenched up and weathered the storm. When I finally did stumble to the toilet after the ceremonies, for the first few nights I surprised myself by laying mostly solid bowel movements, but from there things rapidly devolved into a horrific mess, and I spent a substantial amount of time on the toilet weeping a symphony of sorrow out of my rear end.

In general, Ayahuasca intoxication not only heightened my senses, but also somewhat threw them out of whack. For example, during the intoxication everything sounded unusually loud and close, but I couldn't pinpoint where the sounds were coming from — they seemed to be swirling around the room like ghosts. Pleasant sounds such as the songs of jungle creatures and the soft crashing of raindrops overwhelmed me with their beauty. On the other hand, unpleasant sounds — and there were several — overwhelmed me with their foulness.

Ayahuasca heightened my sense of vision in terms of sensitivity to light. If someone got up to use the bathroom during the ceremonies and failed to properly shield their flashlight, even just that brief flash of light in my peripheral vision sometimes felt like staring directly at the sun. Ayahuasca can also induce open-eye visual distortions, but personally I didn't experience that effect to any notable degree. There wasn't much to see because darkness engulfed the room, and I kept my eyes closed most of the time anyway because for me that produced the most powerful, introspective visions.

Ayahuasca heightened my sense of touch such that simply grazing my fingertips across my arm or giving myself a hug felt incredible. I also felt detailed sensations internally, such as the air absorbing into my lungs, and the Ayahuasca absorbing into my digestive system. Likewise, I felt my intestinal cramping in extreme detail — not necessarily that Ayahuasca amplified the pain, but rather I could feel the exact shape of the bloating and the exact location of the discomfort as it crept around the corners of my intestines and traveled southward.

I assume that Ayahuasca heightened my sense of taste, but I never consumed anything other than water while intoxicated, so I can't say for sure. I can say that the dreadful aftertaste of Ayahuasca lingered throughout most of the intoxication and served as a constant reminder of how foul the brew can be.

For better and for worse, Ayahuasca heightened my sense of smell. I thoroughly enjoyed the intense aromas of the jungle and the rain, but I did not enjoy the equally intense odors of what spewed from my rear after each ceremony.

Lastly, during Ayahuasca intoxication I sometimes felt a strong sense of dissociation. Strictly speaking, dissociation falls into the category of psychological effects, not physical effects, but I mention it here because it involves the mind's relationship to the physical body. Specifically, during the occasional waves of dissociation, I felt disconnected and separate from my physical body. As an analogy, think about a time when part of your body went completely numb, either from local anesthetic at the dentist, or simply because you sat on your foot for too long. Recall the experience of touching your gums or your foot yet not being able to feel any sensation there, as if that part of your body were disconnected, as if you were touching someone else. Ayahuasca-induced dissociation felt similar, but on a grand scale where my entire body felt disconnected, like it didn't belong to me. Even though Ayahuasca heightened my sense of touch, during waves of dissociation those heightened sensations felt as if someone else were experiencing them, and I was merely an observer. Initially this frightened me, but as with every other effect — physical or psychological — I found it best not to panic or over-analyze it, but simply to accept it and ride it out.

That's the gist of it, though this is not meant to be a comprehensive list. You might experience other physical effects — jittery vision, tingling in the fingers or hands, etc. — but the ones listed above were the main physical effects that I experienced. Of course typically people drink Ayahuasca not for the physical effects but for the psychological effects, which I discuss here in part 4.

If you're interested in reading an in-depth description of my entire Ayahuasca experience, check out my full-length book Seven Nights with Ayahuasca: A graphic account of heaven and hell, and the bizarre infinity in between, available from Amazon, iTunes, Barnes & Noble, Kobo, and other retailers.

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