LIFESTYLE

Despite risks, Americans flock to Amazon for Ayahuasca ritual and spiritual awakening

  • Healer starting an Ayahuasca ceremony in Tarapoto, northeastern jungle of Peru.

    Healer starting an Ayahuasca ceremony in Tarapoto, northeastern jungle of Peru.  (2007 AFP)

A centuries-old ritual from the Amazon region is finding its way to a growing number of Americans, who are giving Ayahuasca, a powerful psychotropic plant, a try in their quest for spiritual enlightenment, usually in the form of faraway retreats.

A select group doesn't need to travel far, since a few years ago the Supreme Court authorized Ayahuasca’s use in six U.S. states — though the court limited its use for religious purposes only.

The shaman is a necessary component. You could fall into a spiritual trap. You’re pretty incapacitated during the ceremony – people need to be around to take care of you physically.

- Christine Breese, Gaia Sagrada

While shamans, indigenous priests who perform the ritual, have been around forever in the Amazonian rainforest, where the days-long “trip” is meant to do its magic in conjunction with nature, in recent years the practice has become increasingly popular among Americans — to the point that many are venturing to remote jungles of Latin America for the experience.

But those who do so could be putting their lives at risk.

Even some celebrities have been known to have traveled south for an Ayahuasca experience, including Sting, Chelsea Handler, Michelle Rodriguez and Jim Carrey. The cost for an average six to 12 day retreat in Peru is between $1,000 and $3,500, which typically includes housing and moderate meals but not airfare.

The ritual has been around for centuries. Shamans were already cooking up the brew, also known as “La Medicina,” when Spanish conquistadors landed on South American land in the 16th century.

“Ayahuasca opens you up to possibilities,” Christine Breese, founder of the Gaia Sagrada Shamanic Retreat Center in Ecuador, told Fox News Latino.

“People think it’s about tripping and seeing colors or just a psychedelic journey, but the real message is beyond that. It’s about getting the ‘a-ha’ moment or realization about life and others and why you do what you do. It opens your mind to seeing things in a different way.”

Ayahuasca typically is a beverage produced from two plants: and Chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains Dimethyltryptamine or DMT, and the Ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) which acts as a neurotransmitter. Together they create a powerful – and potentially deadly – psychedelic compound.

“Studies have shown that it literally interrupts brain pathways. Neural pathways are like grooves – [it’s] difficult to move or switch them,” Breese said. “Ayahuasca interrupts those into a healthier pathway."

But there are plenty of skeptics, and DMT is a Schedule I drug, so Ayahuasca is illegal in most parts of the U.S.  And, many experts say, it could be fatal.

In 2014, 19-year-old Henry Miller, a college student from Bristol, died in Colombia after taking part in a shamanic ceremony. 

Two years earlier, Kyle Nolan, 18, dropped out of junior college and headed deep into the Amazon jungle to the Shimbre Shamanic Center in the remote Peruvian Amazon region. According to CNN, the student paid more than $2,000 in cash to take part in an Ayahuasca ritual. On the third night of Nolan's retreat, he didn't return to his hut. When he didn't arrive home, his parents called the Center and spoke to a translator who told them their son had left. 

Nolan's mother, Ingeborg Oswald, and sister flew down to the Center and began looking for Kyle. Days later, the family was told the shaman had lied to authorities: Nolan was found dead under a bush and buried with the help of two men.

An autopsy was performed in both Peru and California and both were inconclusive. 

The shaman was arrested and charged with homicide. He told police Nolan had taken "too much Ayahuasca."

Despite the dangers, Ayahuasca retreats can be found in a number of cities across the U.S. Centro Espirita Beneficente Uniao Do Vegetal (UDV), for example, has sites in Colorado, New Mexico, California, Texas, Florida and Washington.

Dr. Charles Grob, a psychiatrist from Harbor-UCLA who has been studying Ayahuasca since 1993, said that in his experience UDV and other organizations he has studied are qualified to provide the treatment. He said the average person is not welcome to take the sacrament without screening and an invitation from the church. 

In 2006, Dr. Grob was an expert witness in UDV case before the Supreme Court, which ruled unanimously the center’s religious status granted them the right to offer Ayahuasca in their ceremonies.

In the Amazon region, however, the issue of safety can be of concern, Dr. Grob said.

"The current numbers of retreat centers in the Amazon is problematic. Some are run by true shamans, but others are simply attracted by the opportunity to make money from U.S. and Europeans," Dr. Grob told FNL.

"I get calls from individuals who went down to Peru and came back not well, even somewhat psychotic. People with histories of mental health issues, who are on medication for depression for example, can go unchecked in some of the retreats, and there can be drug interactions," he said. 

None of which has stopped people from traveling to Latin America to find a shaman and take the journey within.

Even so, Ayahuasca isn’t for everyone. The drink is notorious for having a bitter taste, and frequently results in vomiting or purging, as followers call it.

“The purge is all about letting go of emotional and psychological wounds. It’s a very powerful experience, leaving you feeling lighter,” Trinity Guzman, co-founder of Ayahuasca Healing Retreats, told Fox News Latino.  

“The experience is not very pleasant,” he added. “Every time I go into ceremony I think I can’t believe I do this to myself. It’s not for pleasure or fun.”

Guzman went on to describe the experience in somewhat cautionary tones. Ayahusaca, he said, “is meant to be used with a guide or leader. The ceremonies take place in the dark in a temple. Everyone takes the medicine one by one. In 30 minutes to an hour, it kicks in. It starts initially with visions, [but] they’re not the focus of the experience.”

He added, “Every journey is different. It’s common to go to the past and see parts of ourselves where we need healing. Most issues are derived from our childhood. It’s like there’s an observer watching from above. The point of Ayahuasca is removing layers and beliefs that keep us unhappy.”

Practitioners are universal in warning that the ceremony should be performed under strict supervision.

“I started working with the medicine in my 20s, and now I’m 50,” Breese, from the Ecuadoran shamanic center, told FNL. “It was profound in helping me to heal myself while on my spiritual path. I wanted to give people a safe place to do this.”

She went on to say that, “The shaman is a necessary component. You could fall into a spiritual trap. You’re pretty incapacitated during the ceremony – people need to be around to take care of you physically.”

Breese goes on to say that she doesn’t recommend people taking the medicine unless they’re “called to it.” She says if you’re on the fence, then it’s not a good idea to partake.

Robert Tindall, a student of traditional medicine, said the new trend of Ayahuasca makes him very uneasy.

"It's rife for potential abuse. Westerners are profoundly naive about these traditions," Tindall told Fox News Latino.

"We're talking about native people who're profoundly marginalized experiencing an influx of power, recognition and money. It's destabilizing for traditional culture, and some centers in the Amazon rainforest, run by Westerners and mestizos, are exploiting the situation,” he said.

“Westerners don't have any criteria to evaluate a real shaman and are therefore wide open to con-artistry,” he said. “They're like children entering Disneyland for the first time."

Rebekah Sager is a writer and editor for FoxNews.com. She can be reached at rebekah.sager@foxnews.com. Follow her on Twitter @rebekah_sager.