Even though the drug is banned in Argentina, many people pay up to $2500 a day (140 US dollars) to “detox” with the substance

Ayahuasca is a controversial substance known all around the world in different ways: some consider it a magical beverage, others (medical science) a very dangerous drug and, in a more recent social interpretation, as a natural hallucinogenic component, effective in alleviating psychological illnesses and neuroses. What is certain is that in recent times “spiritual retreats” where this drug (banned in Argentina) is combined with alternative therapies are in vogue among middle-class circles.

The history of this ancestral concoction that has been used as medicine by the native people of the Amazons and other regions of South America goes back about 4000 years. Also known as “yagé”, Ayahuasca is a compound that combines two plants: “Banisteriopsis caapi” and “Psychotria viridis.” With a bitter taste and a consistency similar to  syrup, its ingestion produces an altered state of consciousness. In the fifties, U.S. author William S. Burroughs wrote a great deal on this hallucinogenic and its extrasensory power.

But the modern history of Ayahuasca (or at least the one fans from Buenos Aires are familiar with) started in 2001. That year, Alberto José Varela, an Argentinian businessman living in Spain, founded Ayahuasca International: “The largest virtual environment of information, communication and connection between people around the world interested in Ayahuasca and who have already had the experience,” as stated in its web page. Ayahuasca International’s management and logistics depends on a company based in Madrid, Spain, called Inner Mastery International which was legally constituted in 2013 and organises retreats in various countries of Latin America and Europe. Nowadays, more than 30,000 people have accessed their services.

Varela discovered Ayahuasca in Colombia. His 16 years-old son was involved in drugs and had a “really disorderly life,” he states. “A concerned father of a teenager, I took him to Colombia where he took Ayahuasca with a shaman and me. Ever since then, his life changed incredibly”, he told LA NACION. When Varela saw the results Ayahuasca had on his own son, he decided to investigate. “I never thought I was going to work with Ayahuasca, I was simply curious about alternative therapies. I had a therapy centre in Madrid and was interested in seeing how one could help people recover more quickly and effectively. I realised that it was the best technique to aid them in overcoming their problems”, he added. “We do not conduct rituals or ceremonies. We have decontextualised the use of Ayahuasca from the jungle and brought it to the West, to offer it in a different environment.”

Varela claims that two well-defined types of people participate in the retreats: “Cases of depression, anguish and anxiety. We receive people that are too immersed in reality, in their professions or jobs, in their emotions, in their families. They are overwhelmed by their daily life and do not know what to do about it. Ayahuasca works wonders for these neurotic cases.”

The second audience that usually engages in his services suffers from emotional obsessions. “It really helps the person to take a step back from the problem they are in and to become an observer of their own life.” explains Varela. “It is similar to meditation, but much more potent and extremely intense. You can see your own life, your past, where you come from, what has happened to you. A few days ago I received the testimonial of a woman that participated in a retreat and she said that «it felt like doing 300 therapy sessions in one night.»”

However, not everything is as perfect as Varela tells it. There are only two countries in the world where Ayahuasca is prohibited by law: France and Argentina. Because of this, retreats are held in different cities of Spain, Switzerland, Mexico, Chile, Colombia, and in Colonia, Uruguay.

For Pedro Horvat, psychiatrist and psychologist specialised in family, social and couple’s therapy “when someone uses a drug, be it alcohol, Ayahuasca or any other type of psycho stimulant, to trigger a catharsis, many intermediate steps are skipped meaning that what one says is a result does not constitute a real change.” In some cases, specialists even claim that it may cause a psychotic breakdown.

Horvat explains that “there are a lot of inhibitions, prejudices, fears and anxieties that the drug pushes aside.” He adds: “All personal «discoveries» that one might make won’t produce any changes if they are not obtained through pure introspection or without any kind of stimulant”.

Likewise, psychologist Any Kieger, specialist in patients with addictions, believes that “offering an event that in three days and three nights that unshackles a person from their suffering is beyond any logic because the lack of well-being that inhabits us is chronic.” “This discourse serves as suggestion. Given that there is more than one person, a group, it produces among other things suggestion, identification and imitation.” explains Krieger. “What occurs is a process of catharsis triggered by suggestion and the substance itself. This substance is administered with a magical thought in mind that it is so powerful that it can neutralize a life of connections with, for example, chronic addictions. Logically, this is impossible. If this were true, it would be very easy to recover from an addiction.”

Varela’s company, Inner Mastery, created a methodology that combines the use of ayahuasca with different psychotherapeutic techniques such as family constellations or yoga, amongst others. They assure their team is trained by doctors who evaluate participants and psychologist that accompany and guide them during the three stages of process, which they repeat over the course of three days.

The first stage, says Inner Mastery, is getting to know each and every one of the participants in the retreat. Finding out why they are there and explaining what ayahuasca is and what its effects are. The second stage is the ayahuasca session which lasts between 4 and 6 hours. “We determine how much ayahuasca  to give to each person according to their problems, if they are male or female, how much they weight, etc… This is one of the secrets for the professional administration of a session,” claims Varela. “Half-an-hour later, the person experiences a process of physical cleansing: vomiting, diarrhoea, sweating, trembling; all physical phenomena. It is as if the body was shaking, fighting to release the toxins it holds inside. After that, the person enters what is called an expanded state of consciousness. Their consciousness becomes larger, and a sort of regression begins, taking them through their lives. They go into themselves, as if they were their own therapist”.

The next day participants get up and have breakfast and gather to go through to the third stage. What they call “psychotherapeutic integration”. It consists of four hours of discussion with psychologists and psychotherapists where each participant explains what they saw and felt during the ayahuasca session. Generally, the process is repeated.

Paulo Lira, from Cordoba, became the face of Inner Mastery in Argentina this year. But, long before meeting Varela and venturing into the world of ayahuasca, Lira had an advertising agency in Barcelona and a routine life. “I was a workaholic, nothing satisfied me,” he said. “Life was the same for me for 20 years.” A series of personal situations drove him to severe depression and to the brink of suicide. “The last thing I wanted was to get involved with a psychologist or a psychiatrist, and then this ayahuasca thing appeared. I started investigating it and spent almost a month watching videos before attending a conference of Ayahuasca International in Barcelona. Then, I decided to go to a retreat,” Paulo told LA NACION.

The majority of participants of Inner Mastery’s courses hear and read the same words. The famous “before and after” that tends to come up after these experiences. Lorena Difilippo is one of them, and she assures that it “changed her life forever.” Her first time was through an exchange program. She could not afford the $2500 a day fee for accommodation, food and psychotherapeutic support, so she accepted  working during the retreat as a cook. Consequently, she only took ayahuasca on the last night. “For me, the session with ayahuasca was a turning point. I used to be a completely self-destructive person, in and out of my addictions,” she remembers. “Here, I could see my addictions clearly, my emotional dependency. I had trapped myself in the system and I had turned myself off. It felt like an injection of life, I felt like living and feeling again. I started feeling a lot of respect for nature,” she stated.

One of the main criticisms against Inner Mastery in general, and against its founder in particular, has to do with his origin. Varela does not come from the jungle, he is not a teacher or a shaman, and he also took ayahuasca away from its natural environment and into the middle of western culture.

There are tribes and communities in Latin America dedicated to the traditional medicinal use of ayahuasca and other plants. One of them is the Shipibo community in Perú, a country where ayahuasca is a cultural heritage and one of the places where Argentinian pilgrims go to experiment with this… therapy?

Daniel, from Córdoba, discovered ayahuasca six years ago through a teacher of that community. Once a year, he journeys to the jungle with groups to find the medicine and take part in the ceremonies. “This is not tourism,” assures Daniel. “The stay in the jungle can last a minimum of one week and up to even two months.” They consume ayahuasca no more than three times a week, and other plants in between sessions. “It is an ancient ceremony. If someone takes it lightly, just to try it, it can lead to psychotic ruptures,” warned Daniel.



Martín Sanzano


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