Just before dusk, eighteen strangers entered a yurt on a Midwestern homestead. Peruvian tapestries decorated the walls of the large round structure, and rattles stood poised for ceremony.
The participants — professional men and women ages 35 to 65 — put on comfortable clothing and set up sleeping bags, pillows and blankets. Everyone got a plastic bucket, cheerfully colored in green, red or blue.
“It looks like a big pajama party,” joked the host, Kim.
The shaman, a North American who had trained in South America for more than a dozen years, took a seat at the front and led the group through a conversation about what to expect.
Stay with your breath, he advised. There’s no talking, no touching. Purging in any direction is a distinct possibility. The bucket is your friend.
He dimmed the lights and, after intoning a prayer, poured a foul-smelling brown liquid into a series of cups. One by one, all eighteen visitors brought it to their lips and drank.
For 40 minutes, the yurt fell silent. Then the shaman began to sing.
Around the same time, the drink took effect. Some who consumed it cried, others belched, several fled for the outhouse. Many reached for their buckets and vomited.
For the next four to five hours, those in the room did what many call “the work.” Some took trips back into their childhood memories. Others had visions: of nature, of healers, of fireworks. Afterward, they would say that the tea offered an opportunity to look at their problems in a new light.
“It was one of the most beautiful experiences of my life,” says Fred, a kind-eyed, gray-bearded man in his 50s.
Kim and her husband, Josh, have organized about 50 of these gatherings since the summer of 2010. In that time, they’ve seen hundreds of people have an experience like Fred’s.
All three asked that their real names not be used out of fear of the law. Though no one in the United States’ underground network has yet been prosecuted, the liquid falls into the category of Schedule I controlled substances.
The risks scare her, but the way Kim sees it, she doesn’t have a choice.
“My life is not my own anymore,” Kim says. “If that were to mean standing up in the face of legal action, I’d do it…. After seeing how much this helps people — truly heals people — I’d do anything.”
The psychoactive brew goes by many names. William Burroughs and Allen Ginsberg called it yage. In Brazil, it’s known as hoasca. Other aliases include the Spirit Vine, the Vine of the Soul and the Vine of the Dead.
Its most common name is ayahuasca (pronounced ah-yuh-wah-ska). The indigenous cultures of the Amazon have brewed the plant concoction, and its naturally occurring dose of the hallucinogen DMT, for centuries.
In recent years, the West has caught on. The tea cropped up in the Jennifer Aniston flick Wanderlust and the Showtime series Weeds; proponents include everyone from Sting to The Howard Stern Show‘s Robin Quivers. One ayahuasca expert estimates that on any given night, between 50 and 100 ayahuasca groups are in session in New York City alone.
Some of the same doctors and researchers who have, in recent years, gotten approval from the Federal Drug Administration for breakthrough studies involving MDMA and psilocybin mushrooms are now turning their attention to ayahuasca. Preliminary work suggests the brew could help treat depression, chronic addiction and fears of mortality.
People with less-defined diagnoses, but a hunger for something missing, say ayahuasca offers something ineffable: compassion, connectedness, spirituality.
“Ayahuasca is penetrating American society, and its highly successful people, way more than any other psychedelic,” says Rick Doblin, the head of MAPS, the Multidisciplinary Association for Psychedelic Studies, a nonprofit research association based in Santa Cruz, California. “The number of people who have had incredible experiences with ayahuasca, if they could all surface in the public sphere at the same time, it would be absolutely astonishing.”
In a greenhouse at the University of Minnesota, Dennis McKenna walks past the cacao (chocolate) and the Punica (pomegranate) and strides straight to the back corner, where the vines of the plant Banisteriopsis have twisted around each other — and nearby electrical cords — to reach the room’s rafters.
McKenna, a white-bearded professor wearing wire glasses and a denim shirt tucked into his jeans, points at one of the younger vines, a supple green stem the width of a pencil.
“This is nothing,” he says, explaining that mature plants can reach 1,500 feet and weigh several tons. “Usually, the part you use is the thickness of a finger.”
McKenna would know: He has drunk ayahuasca several hundred times since 1981. An ethnobotanist and ethnopharmacologist by trade, McKenna first tangled with psychedelics as a teen coming of age in the ’60s. He tried everything from LSD to jimson weed, but never ayahuasca: There was none.
The first record of ayahuasca arrived in the West in 1908, thanks to the British botanist Richard Spruce, who mostly described lots of vomiting. Harvard ethnobotanist Richard Evan Schultes followed up a half-century later with the first academic account. Around the same time, Beat author William Burroughs wrote letters depicting his quest for the tea to Allen Ginsberg, collected in 1963 as The Yage Letters. But in the Western literature, there wasn’t much more than that.
“There was nothing,” says McKenna.
Seeking to change that, McKenna embarked on his first trip to South America at age twenty. A decade later he returned, this time to research his dissertation. After months in the jungle he brought plant samples back to his lab, where he showed for the first time how ayahuasca works.
To make the brew, shamans boil together two Amazonian plants for many hours, sometimes days. As they simmer, the DMT contained in one of the plants mixes with the other one, the Banisteriopsis vine, and its key ingredient: monoamine oxidase inhibitors, or MAOIs. Normally when people ingest DMT — a not-uncommon compound in nature — the monoamine oxidase in our gut knocks it out. But the Banisteriopsis allows the hallucinogen to reach the brain.
By the middle of the 20th century, several Brazilian churches splintered off from the shamans and took ayahuasca into a formal setting. In 1991 one of these — a group called the Uniao do Vegetal, or UDV — invited McKenna to one of its twice-monthly ceremonies, during which the tea is administered as a sacrament. (A New Mexico-based branch of the church won a 2006 Supreme Court case allowing them to use ayahuasca in their ceremonies.)
In a room with 500 other people, McKenna first drank one cup, then a second and was plunged into one of the most vivid ayahuasca visions of his life: a molecule’s-eye view of photosynthesis, or, as he explains it, “the force on which life depends.”
When McKenna returned to his body, he writes in his new book, The Brotherhood of the Screaming Abyss, “I knew that I had been given an inestimable gift.”
McKenna began devising a study to look at the biomedical effects of ayahuasca, and within two years, he was back in Brazil. On this trip, he brought along a team that included Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist who heads the Division of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at UCLA’s medical school.
“Nowadays, the word is out,” Grob says. “But when we did this, I’d say, ‘We’re doing an ayahuasca study,’ and people would say, ‘aya-what-sca?'”
For about a month in the summer of 1993, the team of the Hoasca Project ran tests on fifteen randomly selected members of the UDV church, all of them men who had been using ayahuasca regularly for at least ten years. The scientists ran the same tests on similarly aged men who had never been exposed to ayahuasca.
The researchers measured every biological metric they could think of — blood pressure, heart rate, pupil dilation, body temperature — and used structured psychiatric interviews to get where their instruments couldn’t: inside the participants’ minds.
Many of the men had struggled with alcoholism and depression prior to joining the church, Grob learned. They credited ayahuasca with transforming their outlook. “In some cases,” Grob says, “they felt like it had saved their lives.”
When the researchers left Brazil and started processing their data, the blood work came back with one of the project’s most startling discoveries: The long-term ayahuasca users showed higher levels of the transporters of serotonin, the brain chemical that regulates mood.
“That’s the target that antidepressants work on, and here it was significantly elevated in the drinkers,” McKenna says.
Deficits in serotonin transporters are also connected with problems like alcoholism and depression — the same issues the fifteen subjects said the ayahuasca had helped cure.
“Here we have a medicine that apparently reverses these deficits, something no other medicine is known to do,” explains McKenna. “And there’s also a correlation to behavioral change. You can’t say it caused it, but there’s definitely a correlation.”
Today, twenty years after the study, McKenna is preparing to revisit the findings. Within a year, he aims to raise enough money to fund a new study, this time in Peru, to look at the effects of ayahuasca on people with PTSD.
He hopes that additional research will help him establish his ultimate goal: a destination medical clinic in Peru.
“If we can bring together the best of shamanism and the best of psychotherapy, I think we can offer a new paradigm for healing,” says McKenna. “What we’re really trying to do here is revolutionize psychiatry.”
Lisa Yeo doesn’t look like a junkie. The 47-year-old has shimmering blonde hair and clear skin, and wears a stylish tangerine shirt. It’s Halloween, and her two dogs — a Shih Tzu and a dachshund — yap incessantly as kids come to the door.
Just eight years ago she weighed 80 pounds and was missing her two front teeth.
Yeo’s father gave her her first alcoholic drink at age six, and she was drinking alone by age eleven. As a teen, she developed a cocaine addiction, and in her early twenties, she set out on a path that would take her to heroin, crack and prostitution.
On August 11, 2005, as cops walked her out of a hotel where they had found her shooting up, Yeo realized she was finally ready to change.
She went to rehab for a year, then a recovery house for another two years. But she still wasn’t totally sober: For eighteen years, she’d been receiving a court-ordered dose of the opiate substitute methadone. Now, she wanted off all drugs, once and for all.
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