A Couple Finds Clarity Through Ayahuasca

It is shortly after eight o’clock in the evening, and as the setting sun sinks behind the horizon at Posada Natura, a healing retreat centre on the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, Rita and Brett Solo prepare for the adventure of a lifetime. The newlywed couple are on a week-long honeymoon vacation, and have travelled nearly 4,000 kilometres from their cozy home in Toronto’s west end to the small rainforest town of Londres where they plan to partake in their first ayahuasca tea ceremony.

Ayahuasca is a potent, hallucinogenic drink made from the liquefied vine of the ayahuasca plant and a shrub from the Amazon jungle called “chacruna.” The elixir’s hallucinogenic component, dimethylryptamine (DMT), is considered a Schedule III drug in many countries including Canada, making it illegal just about everywhere outside of Peru where its botanic ingredients grow naturally. Here, ayahuasca is revered for its healing properties, and has been used as a medicinal remedy for thousands of years. With the guidance of a healer or shaman, the substance is said to bring about an introspective inner-journey with enlightening and transformative results. Those who have experienced it report emerging with a newfound understanding of themselves and others. For a couple, taking part in the experience together can foster a stronger understanding of each partner’s feelings, wants and needs, and presents an opportunity for mutual expression, helping to remove the toxic communication patterns that tend to negatively impact relationships.

Rita, a yoga instructor, and Brett, who works in business development at a shipping and logistics company, met during a yoga class that Rita was teaching back in 2012. The couple, who describe their relationship as strong and passionate—that newlywed sparkle still palpable in their eyes—wanted the ayahuasca experience to strengthen their existing bond and facilitate a connection that would resonate long after the honeymoon had ended.

On the evening of the ayahuasca tea ceremony, Rita and Brett dress in loose, white linen tops and comfortable sweatpants. They follow a candlelit path from their room to the outdoor, bamboo-covered ceremony space. Inside, mattresses line the floor around the edges of the temple and buckets are placed sporadically around the room—while the gains of ayahuasca are essentially psychological, it’s common for participants to experience some unpleasant physical symptoms including nausea and vomiting during the ceremony itself.

The Solos’ shaman (whose responsibility it is to guide guests throughout their psychedelic awakening) is an American woman in her mid-thirties with a calm, serene presence. She had spent ten years studying under a shaman in Columbia. As she sat on the ground in the middle of the room, her assistant prepared the space. For the first hour, the eight people, including Rita and Brett, get comfortable with their the surroundings by stretching and meditating.

To commence the ceremony, the shaman pours everyone a cup of the ayahuasca brew—a dark liquid with small pieces of mysterious-looking plant material floating inside. Methodically, she gestures for each person to come towards her, and one by one, each participant approached, sipped from a cup, and handed it back. The smell and taste of the drink is earthy and foul, “almost like black licorice,” says Rita.

Forty-five minutes after ingesting the brew, both Rita and Brett begin to notice the effects taking place throughout their bodies; neither was exempt the physical effects they had been warned to expect. Feelings of nausea and digestive discomfort were met with intermittent bouts of shaking, trembling, crying and yawning, but alongside these bodily symptoms, the psychological ones began to arise. Thoughts raced along a rollercoaster-like course, and both Brett and Rita felt a series of emotional ups and downs. During a particularly rough part, Brett experienced vivid, dark thought patterns, extreme nausea, and he rolled uncontrollably around on the ground. Waves of regret ran through his mind: “I can’t do this,” he thought. “I’m never going to go back to normal again. Why did I do this to myself?” He purged several times.

In spite of the discomfort, and the disorienting side effects, they both felt a lucid awareness of what was happening around them, and a connection with their body throughout the ceremony. Typically, ayahuasca can bring about visions, and Rita and Brett describe visualizations that looked like peering into a cellular or DNA-type structure. Senses were heightened, feelings of empathy were intensified and a connection with each other and the jungle around them felt strong. As the effects of the ayahuasca cycled through periods of intensity and gentleness, the shaman and her assistant sang “medicine songs” or “icaros,” which are said to help bring participants deeper into the experience, working through the energy that needed to be released.

Roughly seven hours later, the ceremony was complete and so were the side effects. The next day, the couple says they awoke feeling centred, open-hearted and sensitive. While they were tired, they felt deeply refreshed and Brett describes feeling a strong sense of lightness and clarity. “The more you go through during the ceremony, the more healing [the after-effects] seem to be,” he says. Despite the dark, anxious thoughts, Brett was incredibly pleased with the outcome. “When you emerge from the ceremony, there’s a heightened bond with everyone that you went through it with,” says Rita. “It’s very overwhelming; it’s like meeting yourself for the first time.”

Dangers come along with ingesting ayahuasca. The Solos experienced a positive outcome from their experience, but there are some dangers associated with ayahuasca, and though rare, a few deaths have been reported over the years. For those on anti-depressants, for example, the active components of ayahuasca can cause a heart attack when ingested due to an influx of serotonin in their system.

Despite risks, it’s every human’s right to evolve and grow. Your consciousness is your own, and the decision to explore a higher sense of self, purging feelings of darkness or inner demons that the ceremonial experience is said to bring on, is a choice of your own. “It’s a huge, life-changing experience that has the ability to alter your entire path in life,” says Rita. Ayahuasca has the power to be undeniably transformative.

For couples that are looking to strengthen their relationship, ayahuasca is an extreme experience, but it’s one with benefits that Rita and Brett can attest to. “When you emerge from the ceremony you feel a heightened bond,” says Rita. This uncontrollable state forces both people to come face to face with inner turmoil, while also experiencing the ultimate sense enlightenment.

After the process, the Solos are still radiating from the benefits of their ayahuasca retreat. “It has brought us closer,” says Rita. “Going through such a profound life changing experience together—albeit a deeply personal and introspective one—is very bonding,” says Rita. “This awakening has been very beneficial to our daily life together—our dedication to integrating the lessons learned through ayahuasca has even heightened our non-verbal communication,” she says. The experience must have been impactful; their next ayahuasca ceremony is already booked.

Feature image by Floris Leeuwenberg