So this is it.
You’ve been hearing about ayahuasca everywhere. You just listened to your brother’s friend’s aunt talk about her life-changing ayahuasca experience. She’s calm, centered, and has this radiant glow. After melting her ego and hurling her through the far-reaching realms of distant galaxies, she had the epiphany that everything is energy vibrating at different frequencies, and she is not fundamentally separate from all living beings on the planet.
Your interest has officially peaked.
You’re now feeling the call to sit in your first ayahuasca ceremony, but you’re not sure where to go.
This scenario is becoming all-too-common, not just for ayahuasca but for people looking to experience the full range of psychedelic ceremonies coming onto the scene. You can now easily find circles for LSD and psilocybin, 5Meo-DMT, MDMA, ketamine, Kombo, peyote, and San Pedro, not to mention more people seeking out iboga.
Whatever psychedelic or sacred plant medicine you’re interested in journeying with, it’s absolutely crucial to know who the shaman, guide, or lead facilitator will be; they will be primarily responsible for your safety, health, and wellbeing.
Why Vet Your Shaman?
The importance of “vetting your shaman” is becoming increasingly pertinent.
There has been an enormous spike of interest in psychedelics growing over the past 10 years. This is partly due to the shift in tone the media has taken in reporting on psychedelics because of the recent wave of psychedelic research showing that these potent substances have a wide range of therapeutic effects, including being an effective treatment for depression, anxiety, PTSD, and addiction. Highlighting this research in his book “How to Change Your Mind,” Michael Pollan played an influential role in shifting the cultural narrative around psychedelics into a more positive light.
This explosion of interest has far-reaching consequences, and although this latest psychedelic renaissance has been incredibly positive, it also comes with a shadow side.
Some of these shadows include far-too-many people claiming to be experienced shamans or facilitators, after having minimal experience themselves.
Whenever there’s a demand for something, there’s always going to be people who exploit the situation to profit from it, regardless of their underlying intentions or experience.
It’s no surprise that ayahuasca ceremonies are turning into big business with the average ceremony costing anywhere from $200 to $800 per night.
This level of unprecedented interest has led to the explosion of “ayahuasca tourism” in several central and south American countries, including Peru, where locals exploit demand and pretend to be shamans. Millions of people go to these countries seeking an “authentic” ayahuasca experience, yet have no idea how to do their proper due diligence. As a result, many people have traumatic, psychologically-damaging experiences.
You probably wouldn’t believe the insane stories I’ve directly heard from the people who went through these horrible experiences.
I know more than a few women who have been sexually abused in an ayahuasca ceremony, and these kinds of stories are becoming all-too-common.
I know someone (who’s smart, grounded, and rational) who got scammed out of almost ten thousand dollars from the shaman they went to work with in Peru. They trusted this shaman, and they were taken advantage of during a time they were energetically open, easily influenced, and vulnerable. This story is also, unfortunately, becoming commonplace.
I also know of a shaman who tested a variety of chemicals on participants in his ayahuasca ceremonies for many years. He would ask them to verbalize their experience so he could better understand what these chemicals did to people’s consciousness. This was all done without their consent. It can honestly be hard to wrap your mind around what some people are capable of.
Do Your Due Diligence for Psychedelic and Plant Medicine Retreats
More and more people are leading retreats that offer psychedelic experiences and ayahuasca ceremonies. It is especially important to do your due diligence and ask how much experience the facilitators who aren’t serving the medicine, but who are leading the retreat have. Even without directly guiding the ceremonies, if you are paying them for the retreat, they are still responsible for your health and safety.
Recently, a company invited me to attend and teach at their “world-class” ayahuasca retreat in Costa Rica. Their team, responsible for over twenty participants – many drinking ayahuasca for their first time – also didn’t do proper due diligence and vet the shaman they invited to hold space. They also neglected to think through many of the necessary safety protocols. None of them had ever directly sat with this shaman, and they blindly trusted him because someone recommended him (and likely also because he was Peruvian and looked the part.) We only found out that he had minimal experience because I pressed the issue.
These safety protocols do matter. I know a friend who will forever have paraplegia because he fell off the edge of a balcony in the middle of an ayahuasca ceremony that had no railing and wasn’t blocked off. This person has a wife and children.
I’m not telling you these stories to scare you. I’m telling you so that you feel motivated to take your due diligence seriously. These unfortunate stories are what give plant medicines and psychedelics a lousy name.
I wholeheartedly believe in the transformational benefits of psychedelics and sacred plant medicines. I have enormous trust in their inherent capacity to heal. Yet, I don’t wholeheartedly trust that every single shaman or guide out there has the purest of intentions or the necessary experience.
So why wouldn’t you want to vet your shaman? Wouldn’t you want to know the qualifications of a doctor who’s about to operate on you? That may seem like an extreme comparison, but it’s a lot more accurate than you might think. It’s your right to ask whatever questions you deem appropriate to feel safe.
If you are feeling the call to embark on this journey, I genuinely want you to have the safest, most transformational experience with professional, responsible shamans, guides or facilitators, who hold your safety as their highest priority.
There is an incredibly wide range of experiences being served up out there. Do your homework. This guide will help steer you in the right direction so you can sit with authentic and qualified people and help minimize your risk.
Keep in mind this content is for educational purposes only. Please read my disclaimer and official stance on psychedelics here.
When it comes to vetting your shaman, here’s a list of questions you may want to consider exploring with them, so you can get a better read on their character and qualifications.
Knowing how much experience your facilitator has is a great place to start.
One of the most common scenarios is that people start facilitating after they’ve had very few psychedelic experiences themselves.
With people now able to take “certified” shamanic training over a weekend, the situation is much scarier than you might think. Thousands of highly unqualified, inexperienced people are holding space for other people. This is so not ok, and you would be amazed at how often this happens.
Choosing to facilitate is a massive responsibility and should not be taken lightly. You want to work with someone who has a deep well of experience to draw upon through the full spectrum of challenging situations that might arise in a supportive and effective manner.
Nothing beats experience (and integrity) when facing the full spectrum of challenging situations (like someone who won’t stop screaming at the top of their lungs and risks waking up the neighbors) to medical emergencies (someone falling off a balcony or having a full-on psychotic break.)
These first five questions are the best place to start and are absolutely essential to vetting your shaman or facilitator. These questions will give you some pretty big indications and insight about the person who will be guiding your psychedelic experience.
Questions to ask of your guide/shaman/facilitator about their personal experience:
- How long have you been drinking ayahuasca? (Or working with iboga, 5Meo, San Pedro, psilocybin, LSD, etc.) The length of time someone has worked with these substances can certainly feel arbitrary, and of course, many other factors should be considered, but if they say under 3-5 years, that could potentially be a red flag.
- How many ceremonies have you sat in? This helps hone in on deciphering between the length of time and the actual amount of ceremonies or circles they’ve directly participated in.
- How long have you been facilitating and leading other people in circles or ceremonies where you were the primary person responsible?
- Over this period, how many circles or ceremonies have you facilitated?
- How long were you assisting before you started holding space? There’s a big difference between someone sitting in other people’s ceremonies and then choosing to start leading their own, versus someone else who decides to initiate their path of facilitation by working as an assistant for another lead facilitator. Some people assist in ceremonies for many years before they step out on their own, and when they do step out, they start by leading very small or private groups.
- What was your training like?
- Where did you train?
- Who were your teachers?
- Do you work with a particular lineage or tradition?
- Do you specialize in leading ceremonies for one particular medicine or many? I personally consider it a red flag when someone says they lead ayahuasca ceremonies in one breath, and then 5Meo or psilocybin the next. It takes a lifetime of dedication and commitment to fully master one single lineage, let alone multiple.
- Why do you feel qualified to lead other people through psychedelic experiences?
- What types of difficult issues have you dealt with, and how did you handle them?
You can get a pretty good sense of someone after talking to them for just 30 minutes. Get to know them and their story. Additional questions you may want to ask about their experience:
- When did you know you were ready to start facilitating?
- What did you learn while assisting in other ceremonies?
- How many different teachers have you sat or assisted with?
- What was it like to hold your first circle? What was the most important thing you learned?
- Have they ever experienced a medical emergency in a ceremony, and what did you do? How did you handle it?
- What’s your educational background? This may not be necessary, but for some people in certain situations, it would be safer to work with someone who has studied either psychotherapy or somatic therapy.
What you’re looking for here is authenticity, humility, and awareness that facilitating is a huge responsibility. Any responses that don’t give that impression could be considered a red flag. Trust your intuition.
SOURCE OF SUBSTANCE / MEDICINE
It’s always good to know what you will be consuming, especially for ayahuasca ceremonies, but also for other psychedelic circles as well.
One of the lead facilitators of the ayahuasca retreat I mentioned earlier reprimanded me for asking the shaman what he put in his ayahuasca brew because he thought it was disrespectful to him.
No one should be operating on this kind of blind faith and trust.
The main reason people die in ceremonies is because of unknown plant add-mixtures, like Tohé or tobacco added to the brew. These add-mixtures also have medical contraindications, and everyone should be informed about what they are consuming before they consume it.
This isn’t just for ayahuasca. Different psilocybin strains have different effects, and some LSD is cleaner than others. Synthetic 5Meo from China is different from the 5Meo you can smoke that comes from frogs in the Sonoran desert known as Bufo. Be informed about what you are consuming.
Just having a conversation about what medicine this facilitator works with will allow you to get to know them better and how knowledgeable they are. You’re not explicitly asking who they buy it from, since it doesn’t matter, and they are unlikely to tell you, but you can ask:
- For ayahuasca: are there any other plants mixed into the batch besides ayahuasca vine and chacruna leaf?
- How much experience do you have with this particular batch?
- Have you personally journeyed with it before serving it?
- Where does your medicine come from? (Generally speaking: Hawaiian medicine is very different than Peruvian for example)
- Is your psychedelic medicine from a source you know and trust?
Questions 24 through 27 are questions related to the ceremony itself. These questions can give you a good idea of what to expect, and how loose or strict their ceremonial “container” is.
- Do you start your ceremony with some kind of orientation for new people? What are some of the guidelines you offer before the ceremony? (For example, do you allow people to talk or interact with other people? Is it ok to freely go outside, or are we generally requested to stay seated?
- What’s the general flow and structure of your ceremonies? Some facilitators sit in silence for the first hour of the ceremony, while others start singing or playing music much sooner. Just having a sense of what to expect is helpful for reasons you might not understand. I didn’t realize this was important to ask until I went to Peru to do a month-long dieta with a Shipibo grandmother. I never participated in a circle where we sat in silence for the first full hour of a ceremony. The medicine was really strong, I was very elevated, and time was dilated. I thought the shaman was totally checked out of holding space because I couldn’t hear any singing in the pitch darkness of the room, and I heard her snoring at the alter. (Which I later found out is actually quite common, and sleeping in a ceremony is apart of their culture.) Instead of feeling safe enough to relax and go deep, I was confused and annoyed, and couldn’t surrender into the process. One simple question would have changed that entire experience for me.
- Some shamans will also only stay for 3 hours and then leave right at midnight, regardless if people are still journeying. That seems crazy to me relative to the other ceremonies I like to sit in, but for some traditions, this is just normal. Knowing things like this could minimize confusion and also help you make an informed choice as to if this is the right ceremonial container for you.
- More specifically, you can ask: What time do we start and end? Will you be present the entire time? This is also important to know, when considering your safety.
The questions surrounding safety protocols are especially important. Since psychedelics and sacred plant medicines like ayahuasca are still illegal in many parts of the world, lead facilitators might be afraid to call for the necessary help because of the legal ramifications.
Even where ayahuasca is legal, you want to make sure that the center you are drinking medicine at also has safety and medical protocols in place.
There was a shaman in Peru who buried a man who died in his ceremony without telling anyone because he didn’t want to be held accountable. And although this is an extreme example, you do want to make sure whoever is guiding you through your journey will absolutely prioritize your safety above all else.
I once sat with shamans who discouraged drinking any water until they did a water blessing at the end of the ceremony. I was experiencing severe dehydration from overdoing it in the sun earlier that day, and their assistant refused to help me get water. I was on the verge of passing out, and the assistant stood her ground, risking my personal safety and wellbeing. This is not ok.
Whether you are thinking about attending an ayahuasca or psilocybin retreat in another country, or a weekend ceremony in California, you might want to ask:
- How near is the closest hospital?
- Do you have any doctors or nurses present on-site?
- Do you have any trained therapists present to offer support?
- What kind of protocols do you follow in the case of medical emergencies? You could ask them how they would handle it if someone injured themselves during the ceremony or what they would do if someone experienced a psychotic break.
- How many people sit in your ceremonies? This is also useful information to know. Ceremonies over 40 people are a lot to manage, even with assistants. I’ve heard of some shamans holding space for more than 80 people in one circle. I don’t recommend sitting in circles that large because the chances of slipping through the cracks of support increase the more participants there are. Make sure you know how many bathrooms are available for a group that big and locate them before the ceremony.
- How many trained assistants do you have helping you during the ceremony? Not receiving the help you need during a ceremony can be traumatic in and of itself. The “industry” standard is generally being set at one helper for each 6 to 8 people participating in the circle. If, for example, the shaman is holding space for over 40 people with no assistance, this could be a cause for concern. It’s also worth asking how much and in what capacity the assistants will offer help. It’s quite common to feel weak or disoriented when working with ayahuasca and other psychedelics. Will someone help you get to a bathroom if you need it? Some shamans require absolutely no touching in ceremonies, knowing this will give you a heads up on what to expect if and when you need help.
- Do they have a “safe room” set up for the ceremony? Don’t underestimate the importance of the actual set up of the space you will be journeying in. It’s usually good to know the facilitator has a backup area or room separate from where the circle is being held, often called a “safe room”. This is to bring someone if they become overly disruptive to the rest of the group during a ceremony. Some shamans insist on bringing people out of the room, other shamans insist on keeping them in the ceremony, and feel like everyone should have their own process, regardless of how loud or disruptive. It’s also good to know if there will be enough assistants present to help support in the safe room if you need it, rather than being left alone through a challenging experience.
- Prevent language barriers: If you are choosing to go to a retreat in another country where all the shamans and facilitators only speak Spanish, ask if there will be someone who speaks your primary language. At this last ayahuasca retreat I attended, the company brought in a Spanish speaking shaman who didn’t speak a word of English. Not one person on their team spoke Spanish, and they didn’t plan for anyone to assist him — let alone propose to have a bilingual assistant — to help translate in the case of an emergency. These are simple yet massive blind spots that could lead to unnecessary risks that could be easily avoided.
- Another question you can ask is: Who do you recommend should not sit in your ayahuasca or psilocybin ceremony? Or who shouldn’t consume iboga, for example? How they respond will also be a good indication of how well versed they are in medical contraindications and how aware they are that people with extreme mental health conditions and certain heart conditions should not be participating.
- Do they do their due diligence before accepting you into their ceremony? Do they have a medical intake form? And do they consult with a medical practitioner before allowing higher-risk people to participate?
Not having adequate support to prepare for your journey, or the support to help integrate your psychedelic experience can undoubtedly qualify as red flags. Again, these questions will give you a good sense of how qualified this facilitator is to support you through this potentially life-changing process.
- Do you offer people preparation instructions before leading up to the ceremony? How do they share this information with you?
- Do you have specific dietary or other recommendations you need to know about?
- How long do you recommend you take (days, weeks, months?) to prepare before a ceremony?
- How do you support people in the integration of their experiences? Is there an integration circle after the ceremony or the following morning? You can also ask what they recommend in case you need additional one-on-one support for integrating your experience?
What’s Your Gut Feeling?
When you ask all of these questions to vet your shaman, use your intuition and gut feelings around the integrity and professionalism of this person’s character.
Do you feel like you can trust this shaman or facilitator, and would you feel safe with them?
Ease Into Your First Experience
Also, keep in mind that you don’t have to go all-in for your first ceremony or psychedelic journey. You can ask to start with a smaller dose and just get your feet wet to ease into the experience. This can allow you to become familiar with their facilitation style and help you establish a relationship of trust before going back for a deeper dive.
You Don’t Have to Go Through With It.
If you commit to a ceremony or any psychedelic journey for that matter but don’t feel safe or feel like something is off when you show up, it’s your right to choose not to participate. Listen to your internal guidance system.
What If They Don’t Want to Talk?
If someone is not willing to take 15 minutes of their time to answer your questions before you commit to sitting with them in a ceremony, this is a significant reason to be concerned. Shamans are people too. They should be down to earth and personable enough to have a heartfelt conversation with you and answer any of the questions that you have.
Going On A Recommendation
I would typically say that you should first and foremost sit with someone who comes highly recommended by someone you know and trust. And although that might be better than going off of a review you read online, considering how many people are new to this work now, the person who made the recommendation might not have enough experience to know that the shaman they sat with is unqualified. They also might not have anything else to compare their experience with.
Just because you receive a recommendation from someone you know, doesn’t mean you should cast your intuition aside and skip your own due diligence.
What Other Questions Do You Have?
The questions I’ve offered in this comprehensive guide to vetting your shaman (guide or facilitator) are simply suggestions and a solid starting point. Some of them may not be applicable, and I’ve likely missed others that are more pertinent to your unique and individual situation. While speaking with the facilitator, other questions are likely to arise naturally through your conversation. Use your intuitive discretion and best judgment.
Please read my disclaimer here for my official stance on psychedelics and sacred plant medicines.
Do your research and know the risks.
Please consult with a medical doctor before embarking on your first psychedelic trip, especially if you are taking antidepressants or have a known heart condition. It is especially unsafe to mix ayahuasca with SSRI medications.
May all your psychedelic journeys and sacred plant medicine ceremonies be safely held and open up doorways of healing and transformation for you in your life. May each journey be held by people who genuinely care about this work, who hold you in loving grace.
Live Free, Laura D