Art Piece by Richard Serra, Image by Gilbert Kann
By: Melissa Stangl, Founding Partner & COO of Soltara Healing Center
So, you’re feeling the call to work with ayahuasca. Perhaps you’ve felt this way for some time, or perhaps you’ve come across the increasing research and discussions happening in mainstream media. Or, maybe you’ve heard from someone in your community about the potential healing and transformative powers of this medicine.
However you’ve come to the decision, working with psychedelic medicines can be a daunting thing. And the next step – deciding where to have your experience – can feel even more daunting.
Choosing a place to participate in a sacred experience is an extremely important factor in determining what you will get out of the experience. With so many choices out there, how do you decide what’s right for you? What are the right questions to ask, and what do the answers indicate? How do you know what constitutes a safe experience?
Wherever you are considering, the first recommendation is to check in with yourself and see if it feels right for you first, and then make sure you have a clear understanding of the experience of the healers and the strength and safety of the container that will be held for you - before, during, and after the retreat.
As someone who has helped develop and run two top-rated ayahuasca retreat centers, first in Peru and now at Soltara Healing Center in Costa Rica, I’ve spent years entrenched in this work, guided closely by Shipibo Maestros. These indigenous healers, whose people come from the Peruvian Amazon jungle, have a long-standing, lineage-based, and deeply rooted tradition working with ayahuasca plant medicine. Below are some questions we encourage every guest to ask and research when choosing a place to participate in ceremony.
Who are the healers holding the ceremony, and what is their background?
This question has many sub-questions that go along with it, and is one of the most important aspects to consider when working with ayahuasca. This potent medicine has the ability to crack you open, and you want to make sure that the space you are opening yourself up to is well-held – physically, emotionally, and energetically.
In the Shipibo culture, becoming a curandero, or healer, is a years- and decades-long process, and can be partially likened to training to be a surgeon. Their training is lineage-based, which means, they will work with another Maestro as an apprentice, typically for many years, before holding ceremony themselves. During their apprenticeship, they will develop their skills by undergoing master plant dietas. Plant dietas are part of the apprenticeship path, wherein the apprentice “diets” with different master plants, by drinking small amounts of a tea brewed with the master plant, and connecting with it through ayahuasca ceremony, while following a very strict diet, and typically in isolation. Each diet can last anywhere from 10 days to over one year. Over time, as their bodies and spirits are cleaned through this process, they will be able to pick up the subtle energies of the plant they are working with. This is how the Shipibo Maestros obtain their icaros, or healing songs – they are channeling the different master plants they have connected with during their diets, and as a result of this connection, the plant works through them and on their patient in the form of the icaros.
A healer who can hold ceremonies on their own will typically have completed at least 5 years of diets.
When exploring where to participate in ceremony, it’s always a good idea to understand who trained the person who will be running ceremonies; where they have trained; the lineage and tradition(s) of their maestro(s); what the experience of their direct teacher was; how long they were an apprentice; and how long they have been holding ceremony. If they have trained in the Shipibo or mestizo tradition, the number of master plant dietas they have undergone can also be very helpful to know. Understanding the experience of the Maestros or healers will help give a clearer picture about how they are able to hold and safeguard the energetic container of the space.
You can read more about the healers we work with at Soltara here.
What are the ingredients of the ayahuasca brew, where does it come from, and is it sustainably sourced? If there are admixtures, what are they, and why are they added?
The brew itself is another extremely important factor that shapes the experience. Considering that we are working with energetics here, every link in the chain has an effect, and should be transparently shared by the retreat center or practitioner. Where does the medicine come from, and who is making it? Trusted sources and brewers matter especially here, because whoever makes it necessarily means their energetics will be a part of the brew.
Is it sourced from the Amazon, and if so, is there consideration for its sustainability when the plants are harvested? What are the ingredients? Ayahuasca vine (banisteriopsis caapi) and chacruna leaf (psychotria viridis) are typically considered the two main ingredients in ayahuasca across many indigenous traditions in the Amazon. In Colombia, many tribes work with ayahuasca vine combined with a different DMT-containing plant than chacruna, known as chaliponga (diplopterys cabrerana). The more common name for this brew is yagé.
In addition to the two main ingredients, many traditions and lineages within traditions will also include other plant admixtures into the brew, for various reasons. It is always a good idea to understand what, if any, admixtures have been added, and why they have been added. Admixtures such as strong trees (chiric sanango, ayahuama) or plants (toé) can be dangerous if not properly dieted by the person who is drinking the brew.
At Soltara, our ayahuasca is sustainably sourced from Peru and Costa Rica, and we work with brew made solely from ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaf.
Who are the facilitators/ceremony assistants, and what is their experience?
Often at plant medicine retreat centers, there are people who support the healers and guests, both in and out of ceremony. At Soltara, while the healers are responsible for the energetic work, the facilitators support guests during ceremony and in their emotional processing outside of ceremony. These are typically Westerners who have a deep understanding of the subconscious landscape and psychology that accompanies participants coming from Western cultures, and also have extensive experience working with ayahuasca themselves. Typically, facilitators are the bridge between worlds, and as such, it’s important that they have a strong foot in both of them.
On the psychological side of things, are the facilitators trauma-informed? Do they have training in holding space and supporting people in facing the intense experiences, challenges, and trauma that can surface during ceremony? If they aren’t all therapists, what training or experience has brought them to this work, and how much experience do they have in holding this type of space?
When it comes to their work with plant medicine, it’s important that they are familiar with the types of challenges that can arise, both from a direct experiential perspective, as well as holding that space for others. Therefore, while the number of ceremonies they have participated in (both for themselves and holding space for others) isn’t always a direct correlate to skill, more ceremonies typically mean that they have faced their shadow and done enough of their own healing work to be able to safely hold that space for others. This means they will not get caught up in projections, egoic mindsets (i.e. that they are the gurus or that they will ‘fix’ you), transference, or poor boundaries. Rather than constantly giving direct advice, they will instead offer reflections, empower your own inner healer, and hold sacred space for you to come home to yourself.
Similar to the healers themselves, it is good to have an understanding of how many ceremonies they have done for themselves; how many they have held for others; who they trained under; what tradition(s) and lineage; where they have trained; and how many master plant diets they have completed. To be considered for a facilitator position at Soltara, we require that all facilitators are trauma-informed and have participated in at least 50 ceremonies, the majority of which are within the Shipibo tradition. Typically, by the time they are a full facilitator, that number is well over 100.
What is the ratio between healers, facilitators, and group size?
Another useful metric to consider when choosing a retreat center is the ratio of space holders to participants. This number can vary somewhat, and is particularly dependent on the experience of the healers. A very good healer can hold space for around 10 – 12 people on their own, but beyond that it’s very common to have more than one healer working together to manage the energies.
In line with this, having a balance of feminine and masculine energies in the space can be extremely supportive to the ceremony experience, and we recommend checking in with yourself about what feels right for you.
At Soltara, we work with a team of 2 healers (always female and male, within the same lineage), 3 facilitators, 1 retreat assistant, and 1 retreat director, for a maximum capacity of 22 guests.
What does the intake process and preparation look like?
Ayahuasca is not for everyone. Like all medicines, there are those who may benefit greatly from it, and those for whom it is contraindicated, and could be potentially dangerous and life-threatening. As such, having an appropriate medical and psychological screening process in place is extremely important to ensure a safe experience for all participants.
Retreat centers and practitioners should have an intake process in place which, at minimum, assesses all medical and psychological diagnoses; medications; past experience with psychedelics; an overview of past traumas, relevant life events (i.e. surgeries); intentions the participant is looking to heal or work with; and current lifestyle and support systems in place. Ideally, the intake process is overseen by a medical doctor and psychotherapist, as is the case for Soltara, as indigenous healers or the ceremony facilitators may not have an understanding of all contraindicated conditions or medications.
Once participants are screened, what type of preparation support is offered? Are there dietary guidelines provided, as well as resources to support physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual preparation? Significant preparation work is often an excellent indicator of how much healing you can get out of the experience. Perhaps counterintuitively, part of preparation also involves managing expectations, surrendering to the process, and having patience and trust with your own healing journey.
Are there other psychoactive medicines offered, or other consciousness-altering practices during the retreat?
Working with psychedelic medicines can be a disorienting and dysregulating process – mentally, emotionally, and physiologically. While in many cases, cathartic releases and ‘resets’ can be incredibly healing and beneficial, the opposite can also be true. If the system is too overloaded for too long, without the appropriate space, rest, support, and anticipation, altered states have the potential to be re-traumatizing: too much, too fast, too soon.
There are many retreats that combine ayahuasca with other medicines and traditions within a short period of time. Additionally, programs may offer other consciousness-altering practices, such as holotropic breathwork. This is to be approached with caution, if done at all. We at Soltara feel that it is important to make the space to work with different consciousness-altering practices and medicines on their own. This approach is taken from the perspective of your own body’s system and its ability to work with the energy of that medicine, out of respect to the medicine itself as its own master plant teacher, and respect for the tradition and lineage of the healer(s). It is one of the reasons that we recommend refraining from any other psychoactive substances, or working with other healers, for at least 30 days before and after your retreat.
What medical resources, emergency protocol, and onsite safety practices/trainings are in place?
Challenging experiences during ceremony can take many different forms, and even if a participant passes the screening process and makes it to the retreat center or ceremony space, safety protocols are necessary in the event of a medical or psychological emergency.
Prior to, or at the beginning of the retreat, are there waivers provided which clearly outline the risks? Is there a doctor onsite or on-call? What about a psychotherapist? Are there health clinics nearby, and an easy route to get there? Is there an emergency medical kit onsite? Are any team members trained in first-aid? Are there security guards? Is there emergency protocol in place? Many retreats and ceremonies take place immersed in nature, often in rural or remote areas - are safety rules clearly spelled out during an orientation meeting? Finally, are there clear boundaries when it comes to ethics – for example, it is never ok for a healer or facilitator to become romantically involved with a participant while they are holding the healing container.
Soltara’s safety protocols have been developed based on years of doing this work in remote jungle settings, and we are licensed by the Costa Rican Ministerio de Salud (Ministry of Health) as an Alternative Health Clinic, with an onsite clinic, and a medical doctor and therapist on-call, in addition to our safety protocol outlined via the link above. You can also view our waiver which clearly outlines risk, safety, and personal boundaries here, and is reviewed in more detail during orientation.
What support is offered after the retreat? Is there an aftercare or integration program to assist participants in reorienting to life back home?
Integration is a term used to describe the process of incorporating the healing, lessons, insights, and experiences from ceremony into your life. It helps us to ask the questions: how does this work fit into the context of your life? How do you make sense of the experience? How do you continue on the healing trajectory that began when you made the decision to do this work? This could mean changing lifestyle habits, relationships or relationship dynamics, continuing to heal past trauma, or having a better understanding of your values and applying them to your life.
Integration of plant medicine work is as unique as each person, and even if the experience itself didn’t feel so transformative, often that is an indicator that the work will continue long after you leave the ceremony. As a Maestro once shared, this work is truly on the energetic level, and therefore, for those who need the deepest healing, often the initial work will involve cleaning and clearing heavy energies first, which may not seem so overtly transformative to the participant. But, to build a strong house, you first need a strong foundation, and from there, integration is where you can continue to build.
Therefore, it is important to get an idea of what type of follow-up or integration support a retreat center or practitioner offers, both during the retreat (in between/after ceremonies) and after you go home.
Are there any experienced integration therapists or coaches on call? Do they offer any resources or ways to stay connected to the group, community, and experience? Do they prepare you for your integration with workshops, sharing circles, or information about what can come up and the different tools available to you should you need them? For some context, you can read more about Soltara’s integration program here.
We hope this helps offer some guidelines for you to make the decision that feels right for you. If you have further questions about the way we work with medicine at Soltara, we would be happy to chat and discuss if a retreat with us is a good fit for you. Please reach out to us through our Contact page.
Wishing all who enter into this work a well-held, healing, and sacred experience with this beautiful medicine!
*DISCLAIMER: The materials presented by this web site, www.yawntogether.com, are for informational and harm reduction purposes only and are not offered as medical or legal advice as to any particular matter in any particular jurisdiction. No reader should act on the basis of these materials without seeking appropriate professional advice as to the particular facts and applicable law involved.