Sacred Songs – The Power of Ayahuasca Icaros

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Here is a article called “Magic Melodies” I recently came across about Ayahuasca Icaros.

Magic Melodies

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The basic notion exists that ayahuasca teaches “magic melodies” known as “icaros.” In fact, being a vegetalista is almost synonymous with mastering a vast repertiore of icaros – each of the different psychoactive plant spirits has its own icaro. Different types of icaros serve a variety of purposes ranging from love magic to divination to the cure of snakebite. “Shirohuehua” or fun songs, for example, animate the patient, inducing joy and hope. “Manchari” are sung to lead an abducted soul back to its owner. With the “icaro de aranita,” a little spider spins a web around a man and a woman uniting them for all eternity.

Icaros are taught by the tutleary spirits of plants and animals: the raya-balsa, for example, an aquatic plant, can teach one to travel under the water. There are even icaros of perfumes, stones and resins. The “sirenas” or mermaids are often invoked in ayahuasca sessions. They appear, singing beautiful icaros, accompanied by string instruments. Their icaros can give one power over the underwater world, particularly over the Bufeo or pink river dolphin. These creatures are feared and seen as mighty sorcerers, yet they are also invested with sexual allure. Men are said to feel an intense pleasure during coitus with dolphins, and are sometimes unable to separate themselves.

Icaros are used only during ayahuasca sessions. There is a hierarchy among shamans depending on the number and power of the icaros they know. The icaros sung in Spanish are not as powerful as those in jungle Quechua; mixtures of Queschua with Cocama and Omagua are particularly potent. Yet each shaman has a principal icaro which represents the essence of his power.

In the highly sensitized state of ayahuasca intoxication, the icaros help structure the vision. They can also modify the hallucinations themselves. Luna reports: “There are icaros for increasing or diminishing the intensity and color of the visions, for changing the color percieved, and for directing the emotional contents of the hallucinations.”

Vegetalistas are masters of synaesthesia. Through using the most interesting acoustic effects produced by whistling and singing, the geometric designs can be seen acoustically. The icaros refer to a medicine as “my painted song,” “my words with those designs,” or “my ringing pattern.”

The icaros are the quintessence of shamanic power. A good vegetalista is able to “orchestrate” beautiful or transformative visions through his magic melodies. Competitions sometimes arise between maestros to “monopolize” the visions of those present – a kind of competitive “jam session” where they unleash all their tricks.

Luna has included musical transcriptions of eight icaros culled from the repertoire of his informant, Maestro Don Emilio, in Appendix II of his book. Luna describes some of the icaros as having great unearthly beauty and urges ethnomusicologists to record them soon, as they are an evanescent feature of shamanic culture, that is fast disappearing. True ayahuasqueros, he claims, are dying out and their roles are being assumed by charlatans. The key to recognizing a true maestro is: does he know the magic melodies?

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What happens during an Ayahuasca ceremony?

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If you’re considering drinking Ayahuasca then you’re probably wondering what you might be letting yourself in for, and one of the questions you might have is just what actually happens during an ayahuasca ceremony?

I don’t like to write too much about what people actually experience on Ayahuasca (internally) because everybody experiences Ayahuasca in their own unique way, and when people read too much about other people’s Ayahuasca experiences it can often to lead to them having a lot of expectations and that’s something I want to discourage. Therefore this article will just focus only on what actually takes place during an Ayahuasca ceremony.

I should also add that I’m going to be talking about traditional mestizo ceremonies from the upper Amazon. There are many different indigenous societies that use Ayahuasca and they may have different ways of conducting their ceremonies. In addition to that there are also several religions such as Santo Daime that use Ayahuasca as a sacrament and their ceremonies are also quite different.

Where do Ayahuasca ceremonies take place?

I’ve heard that in the old days ayahuasca ceremonies traditionally took place out doors in the jungle. Participants would sit in a circle, usually around a fire, and nobody would be allowed to break the circle for the duration of the ceremony. Any puking or shitting would need to be done behind (or in front of) your seat. However this is not the way things are usually done these days.

Today ayahuasca ceremonies in the Amazon usually take place either in a room in the shamans house or in a ceremonial maloka. A maloka is a large jungle hut that’s often octagonal or Decagonal in shape with a high sloping thatched roof that reaches a point in the center.

If the ceremony takes place in a house then participants will normally be given a chair to sit on during the ceremony. If it’s in a maloka then people will be given a small mattress they can sit or lie on during the ceremony. Most Ayahuasca retreat centers have their own ceremonial maloka which can usually comfortably fit between 15 and 30 people in a circle, depending on their size.

Arriving on time

Ayahuasca ceremonies always take place after dark. Here in the upper Amazon it gets dark pretty early because it’s close to the equator. It’s always dark before 7pm and the length of the day is pretty much the same all year round.

Usually ceremonies start between 7 and 8pm, but I’ve attended a few ceremonies that haven’t started until 9 or even 10pm.

People are expected to arrive at least 30 minutes before the ceremony begins. This gives everyone enough time to find a place in the room and relax a little before the ceremony starts.

To put yourself in a relaxed state of mind it’s a good idea to meditate or practice breathing exercises before the ceremony begins.

Drinking the Ayahuasca

Once everybody has found a place in the room and the shaman is ready then it’s time to drink the Ayahuasca. Each person in the room will take it in turns to sit in front of the shaman and drink a cup of Ayahuasca.

When a person goes forward the shaman will pour a dose of ayahuasca from a larger bottle into a small ceremonial cup. The shaman will usually intuit the dose needed for each individual. First-timers will often be given a smaller dose than people with experience. The shaman will then blow mapacho smoke over the cup and he might also put his own intention or prayer into the cup before handing it over.

After receiving the cup most people will spend at least a few seconds, or longer, focusing their intention into the cup, and perhaps saying a prayer, before quickly drinking it down. It’s always a good idea to drink the Ayahuasca as quickly as possible due to the rather foul taste of the liquid. The quicker you can get it down, the easier it is and less likely you will vomit it straight back up again.

Once you have drunk the Ayahuasca you will then return to your place in the room and the next person will go forward until each person in the room has drunk their dose. The shaman will usually drink last.

Protecting the space

One of the main roles of the shaman during a ceremony is to protect the space and everyone in it. This is why it’s very important to drink with an experienced shaman in my opinion. Without the protection of a good shaman you are potentially vulnerable to negative energies and spirits.

Once everyone in the room has drunken Ayahuasca the shaman will usually go round to each person in the room and blow mapacho smoke over each person, primarily over their crown chakra and then over their hands. Mapacho is pure jungle tobacco and is said to be one of the most sacred plants in the jungle. The mapacho smoke acts as protection from negative energies and spirits. Some shaman will also blow mapacho smoke around the room before the ceremony begins.

After blowing mapacho smoke over everybody it’s time to turn the all the lights out and the rest of the ceremony will take place in total darkness, although if the ceremony is taking place in a jungle maloka then moonlight can make the room less than pitch black.

Sacred Songs

Some shamans, including Don Lucho, will start singing their icaros almost immediately after turning off the lights. Other shamans will wait until they start to feel the effects of the Ayahuasca which can be anything from around 15 to 45 minutes after drinking. Some shamans will sing their icaros throughout the entire ceremony without stopping, while others may take breaks from singing and sit in silence for periods.

Icaros are sacred songs or chants that have been given to the shamans, either by their teachers or directly from the plant spirits. Each icaro has a specific purpose. Some icaros are sung to call in different spirits for healing or protection, while others are used to intensify, or even reduce the Ayahuasca visions, and many icaros are used for the purpose healing.

Feeling the effects

Most people will start to feel the effects of Ayahuasca within about 30 minutes after drinking, but for some people it can be much longer or even a lot sooner. Typically, most people will feel the effects of Ayahuasca for about 3 to 4 hours and usually the first 2 hours are the most intense.

There’s absolutely nothing you need to do during a ceremony except remain seated (or laid down) and allow the Ayahuasca to work her magic on you. Usually you will be provided with a bucket to puke in should you need to purge during the ceremony, and a toilet will always be close by should you need to go.

If for any reason you’re having a really difficult time then it’s always okay to call out for help, particularly if there are facilitators in the room, which there will be on most retreats; however, please understand there’s not always a great deal people can do to help you other than hold your hand and try to reassure you that everything will be normal again within a few hours!

Also, if the effects of the Ayahuasca seem to be pretty mild after about an hour, or you’re not feeling any effects at all, then it’s always okay to ask the shaman for another cup.

Shamanic Healing

Most shamans will perform individual healings at some point throughout the ceremony. Don Lucho usually does this during the last hour of the ceremony. He will go round to each person in turn and perform a healing using his shacapa while singing an icaro directly into the person. He will spend about 5 to 10 minutes with each person.

Ceremony Etiquette

During an Ayahuasca ceremony it’s important that you don’t speak or interrupt anyone else’s experience unless you are requesting help for yourself. Although that’s not to say you have to be totally silent – although you should be if you can help it; however, during a really strong ayahuasca experience you don’t always have total control or even full awareness of your actions, and Ayahuasca may cause you to laugh, cry, shout out, talk to yourself (or the spirits) or even sing out loud. I was in a ceremony recently where a girl who was drinking Ayahuasca for the first time couldn’t stop herself from singing. Thankfully she had an incredibly beautiful voice and it really made the ceremony quite special and unique. If people are being excessively noisy or disruptive then facilitators or the shaman will always intervene and calm the person down.

If you hear a person requesting help during the ceremony then you should always leave that to the retreat facilitators (if there are any) or the shaman himself.

If you need to use your flashlight to go to the toilet, always point the light downwards and cover it as much as possible. Never shine it in anyone’s eyes.

Closing the ceremony

The shaman will close the ceremony when he feels it’s safe to do so and that his presence in the room is no longer necessary. This is typically 4 or 5 hours after the ceremony begins.

Usually a ceremony is closed with some form of thanks giving prayer, and then the shaman may formally declare that the ceremony is over or he may just get up and leave the maloka.

It’s often important to maintain silence in the room after the ceremony has ended because some people may still be experiencing strong Ayahuasca effects even after the ceremony has ended.

If the ceremony takes place in a maloka then usually you can choose to go to sleep on your mattress in the maloka, or you can go back to your bed in whatever accommodation is provided.

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What kind of people drink Ayahuasca?

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If you’re considering an Ayahuasca retreat then perhaps one of your questions or concerns will be about the type of people you will be sharing your experience with. You will, after all, be putting yourself in a somewhat scary place by entering unfamiliar territory (both inner and outer) with a group of strangers to take part in some very deep and personal psycho/spiritual work. It is certainly a vulnerable position to put yourself in, and so it’s understandably important that you will want to feel comfortable and trusting of the people you will be with.

Now of course nobody can say what your particular group will be like, even we won’t know that until we meet everyone for the first time the same day that you will. However, if all my past experiences are anything to go by, then whoever you’re with, you should be in good company.

I’ve personally been a participant in 4 Ayahuasca retreats over the last 10 years, while also taking part in well over 50 Ayahuasca ceremonies outside of retreats. Three of those retreats had over 20 participants, and most of the ceremonies have had between 5 and 15 people taking part. It’s incredibly rare that I’ve been with people I’ve not liked or not felt comfortable with. Although admittedly, I have a very relaxed and easygoing nature that allows me to get on with most people most of the time.

I’ve loved the fact that on retreats I’ve met people from all walks of life, with all kinds of different career paths. I’ve met doctors, surgeons, holistic healers, chiropractors, artists, writers, engineers, school teachers, journalists, computer programmers, web designers, entrepreneurs and pretty much everything in between.

When I did my first retreat in 2003 I think I was 27 years old and I was definitely the youngest person on the retreat by a couple of years at least. I think the average age on that retreat was around 40. When I did my last retreat in 2010 I think the average age had dropped to around 30. Most people were in their twenties or thirties. Here in Iquitos I meet people of all ages arriving here to drink Ayahuasca. It’s hard to put an average age, but I think the majority of people are between 30 and 50 with an increasing number of people in their twenties or even younger.

I would say that the one thing that most people have in common is that they are all intelligent, usually pretty well-educated, and more importantly – pleasant to be around. If you’re worried you might be surrounded by a bunch of crazy hippies who already think they’re living in the 4th dimension, then don’t be, because that’s never been my experience at all. In fact I’m always surprised by how ‘normal’ most people seem to be. ‘Normal’, of course, is all a matter of perspective.

It’s fair to say that almost everyone on a retreat will be somewhat spiritually minded and will also live fairly alternative and independent lifestyles to some degree or another. Ayahuasca is certainly not the kind of thing that will attract mainstream people who obsess over American Idol or whatever else the media is trying to distract us with.

And of course it’s not likely that you’re going to absolutely love everybody to bits. Wherever there are people and personalities there will be clashes and differences of opinion, and an Ayahuasca retreat will be no different, but in my experience it’s usually very minor stuff with no hard feelings or major arguments taking place.

If you’re interested in joining an Ayahuasca retreat then you’re probably someone who is intelligent, good-natured, friendly, somewhat spiritual, fairly easy to get along with, and you’re someone who wants to really work on yourself so you can become the best person you can possibly be. And chances are, most other people in the group will be just the same.


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Ayahuasca Integration – Avoiding the Feelings of Alienation After an Ayahuasca Retreat


In my last article “Is drinking Ayahuasca Safe?” I talked about the small number of health and psychological risks associated with drinking Ayahuasca. In this article I want to talk about another ‘risk’, which is probably one of the most common problems that some people encounter after an Ayahuasca retreat. It’s not really a risk, just something you should be aware of.

It’s the problem of integrating back into normal everyday life when you go back home after a retreat; because for some people it’s not easy.

Being on an Ayahuasca retreat is often a profoundly beautiful, consciousness-expanding, heart-opening and life-changing experience that you hope will never end. You can find yourself deeply connecting with a beautiful group of people, mostly all on a similar wavelength, and you may feel like you want these people in your life forever, because you know that very few people back home will be able to understand what you’ve just experienced. How can you possibly explain to your friends back home that you’ve just spent a week communing with a powerful and sacred plant consciousness that has healed you, nurtured you, taught you, and shown you a love that is more powerful than anything you had previously dared to imagine could be real?

After experiencing Ayahuasca you sometimes wake to discover your old paradigms have shattered into a million pieces, and there’s no way of putting them back together and nor do you even want to.  And then suddenly you realise that the world you were part of is even more screwed up than you  thought .  Oh, but wait, now you have to go back and live there again! Ouch!

The bright, natural colours of the jungle and feelings of deep love and serenity give way to a grey and cold jungle of a different kind, and you feel like you haven’t actually gone home, but landed on an entirely different planet. Everything is too fast and out of whack, and people are rude and stressed out and complaining all the time.  Yet they won’t listen to your kind words of advice on how to relax and trust in spirit, and nor do they seem remotely interested in your amazing tales of the jungle and the spiritual realities you experienced with the medicine. In fact, they talk to you like you’re the one who’s gone completely raving mad!

“What’s wrong with these stupid people!? Why don’t they get it!? Help! Get me out of here!” is a common cry from people who have returned home to the madness that is western civilisation.

Some people also have a really hard time adjusting back into their job if it’s not something that brings any joy or meaning to their lives.

Now of course these problems won’t happen to everyone. If you already live close to nature, and/or have a wide circle of friends who are also on a conscious/spiritual path then integrating back into life outside the jungle probably won’t cause you any serious problems. Your friends will probably be keen to hear all about your stories and they will at least somewhat be able to relate to your experiences. And if you loved your job before the retreat then you will most likely keep loving it after the retreat.

However, if you’re someone who already feels a little alienated in western society, have a job you hate, and you lack a support group of friends who share your spiritual interests, then your feelings of alienation and/or loneliness could become more intense upon your return home.

So how do you avoid that?

The only way to deal with the friends issue is to start making new friends who share your interests. And unless you live in small town out in the middle of nowhere then this shouldn’t be as difficult as you think. You might just have to step outside your comfort zone a little and start meeting new people.

Look for interesting events in your local area that will attract like-minded people. This could include lectures, workshops, conferences, meditation/yoga groups, or even local retreats. If you have a local new-age bookstore or conscious café (ie organic/veggie/vegan/juice bar etc) there’s often notice boards advertising events. Also make a point just to hang out at those places because you will find that you will often meet interesting like-minded people just by being there.

Also check out websites such as Eventful, and to find events or groups of like-minded people. There’s nearly always a lot more going on than you think, and there are always good connections to be made, but sometimes you just have to put in a little effort to go looking for them.

If you hate your job before the retreat, then chances are that you will hate it even more when you return home. There’s not much you can do about that except start looking for a job doing something that really interests you, or perhaps even start your own business. I know it’s easy to say that, and harder to actually do, but you can achieve it, and people are doing it for themselves all the time. Again, it comes down to using your initiative and making things happen.

At some point you have to decide what’s truly important to you, and what it is that you love doing. If your old friends are important, and if a job you hate feels important for some reason then by all means stick with them. Otherwise change! change! change!

Ayahuasca will change your consciousness (temporarily, at least) and show you new ways of being, new ways of perceiving, and will probably show you new ways that you can improve your life. But then when you get back home it’s all up to you. This is where integration begins and the real work starts, and in many ways you’re on your own. Only you can do it. You will quickly realise you have a choice. You can easily slip back into comfortable old patterns and bad habits – and most likely remain unhappy. Or you can take control of your own destiny and realise that your life can become whatever you want it to be – but only if you make the effort and truly integrate the lessons you’ve learnt.

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Is Drinking Ayahuasca Safe?

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With the knowledge that drinking Ayahuasca can be a very powerful and mind-altering experience, the number one question most people will have is:

“Is it safe?”

Obviously, nobody with a reasonable amount of sanity wants to risk losing it!

So it’s a perfectly rational concern to have, indeed it was a huge concern of my own before I started drinking it. The following is my perspective on the safety of Ayahuasca.

In my opinion, drinking Ayahuasca with a good and experienced shaman is entirely safe for the majority of people. I could not, in good conscience, invite people to an Ayahuasca retreat if I felt I was putting them at risk. I know from over 9 years of experience that Ayahuasca is truly a medicine that heals on all levels, and the risk of any harm is almost nil.

However, like with most powerful medicines, there are a few issues you should be aware of, and there are certainly a few circumstances when you should not consider drinking Ayahuasca. First of all there are some contraindications you need to be aware of.

Firstly, You should not drink Ayahuasca if you are currently taking antidepressants/SSRIs drugs like Prozac, Seroxat, Zoloft, Effexor, Paxil, Welbutrin (bupropion), or other similar drugs that are MAOIs (Monoamine Oxidase Inhibitors). This is because Ayahuasca also contains MAOIs and it could be harmful for you to have too many in your system. If you want to drink Ayahuasca and you’re currently taking these drugs then you should stop taking them at least 5-7 weeks before drinking Ayahuasca. You should also not drink Ayahuasca if you are currently on, or have recently finished an antibiotic treatment. In my opinion it’s better to not take any kind of pharmacuetical medicines or pills when you take Ayahausca, but if you are, you should at least consult with your doctor first.

It’s also recommended to avoid certain foods for at least 24 hours before and after you take part in an Ayahuasca ceremony. These are foods that are high in a substance known as tyramine which is a monoamine, derived from the amino acid tyrosine. Foods high in tyramine have been known to cause a hypertensive reaction in patients receiving MAOI therapy. To my knowledge, nobody has ever died from eating the wrong foods and taking Ayahuasca, and it’s extremely unlikely that eating foods high in tyramine will do any serious damage, but they could cause you to feel unwell so are best avoided.

You can find a full list of foods and drugs that you should avoid taking before and after an Ayahuasca ceremony at

You should also not drink Ayahuasca if you have a chronic heart condition. severe blood pressure, or diabetes. This is because the effects of Ayahuasca can sometimes increase your blood pressure and heart rate, so if they’re already at a really high level then it could prove dangerous to your health.

So long as none of the above applies to you then there should certainly be no physical health risks in drinking Ayahuasca. Well known medical doctor and natural health expert Andrew Weil MD wrote a brief article about the safety of Ayahuasca and concluded:

“I think ayahuasca is quite safe medically, but because it’s a powerful psychoactive drug, it should be used only under the supervision of someone familiar with its effects. I do not advise using it casually or recreationally, nor should it be used in jurisdictions where it is illegal or its legality is in question. It can be psychologically risky if taken under wrong circumstances.” Read the full page here

That takes care of the physical, but what about the mental? I know from talking to many people that it’s usually the mental effects that most people are more concerned about, and as Andrew Weil wrote “It can be psychologically risky if taken under wrong circumstances.”

So what are the wrong circumstances?

First of all, you should be very careful about drinking Ayahuasca  if you suffer from schizophrenia, bipolar disorder or other psychiatric/dissociative conditions. That’s not to say you shouldn’t consider drinking Ayahuasca at all, because I’m aware that some severe psychological conditions have been effectively treated with Ayahuasca. However, if you suffer from a serious mental condition then it’s essential you drink Ayahuasca with someone who understands your illness and already has experience in treating it. Most people don’t, and most people working at retreat centres will not have the necessary skills to take care of you should any problems arise.

Secondly, if you don’t already have a lot of experience with Ayahuasca then drinking without an Ayahuasca shaman present, whether on your own, or with a few friends is also putting yourself at risk.  I’ve heard a few bad stories about people who have bought the ingredients through the internet, cooked their own Ayahuasca brew, and then drunk it alone. A friend of a person I know did this and had a really terrifying experience that left him a bit traumatised for a while afterwards (although no serious harm was done).

A good shaman can often influence your experience, so if things get a little too intense he will be able to support you and lessen the effects somewhat. Also, if you’re on a retreat and have people to support you who  have a great deal of understanding about how the medicine works, then it’s always very helpful to be able to talk things through after, or even during a ceremony, if things are particularly challenging. Often just having someone to hold your hand or reassure you that everything will be back to normal in a couple of hours is enough to help you through a difficult experience.

I always use the words ‘difficult’ or ‘challenging’ because I don’t believe that Ayahuasca experiences are ever bad, negative or harmful. But sometimes, for the purposes of healing and conscious growth, Ayahuasca can force you to face your darkest demons, your deepest fears and/or your shadow-self. These kinds of experiences are certainly never fun and they can be extremely hard for many people; however, the healing and realisations that take place during these kinds of experiences often border on the miraculous! I’ve heard a few people say that a couple of Ayahuasca ceremonies were more helpful to them than a decade of psychotherapy! I’ve seen people who have suffered from years of depression have it finally lift after just one ceremony.

So don’t be scared of ever having a difficult experience because it’s the difficult experiences that usually do you the most good. They are challenging to be sure, but the rewards are immense.

To summarise, if you’re in fairly reasonable health (mentally, emotionally and physically), and you’re not taking any drugs, then Ayahuasca is definitely safe. It isn’t going to make you go crazy or give you any unpleasant physical effects (apart from making you puke of course).

However, that doesn’t mean to say there are absolutely no risks whatsoever. They’re probably just ‘risks’ you might not have considered. I’m going to write about the most common problem I’ve seen in my next article “Ayahuasca Integration – Avoiding the Feelings of Alienation After an Ayahuasca Experience”.


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