The Traditional Use of Iowaska
What is Iowaska?
Iowaska (also spelled “ayahuasca”) is a plant, native to the Amazon, that has been used for centuries, possibly thousands of years, as medicine by indigenous iowaska shamans across the upper Amazon throughout the regions of Peru, Colombia, Ecuador, and Brazil. Various other names are known for this sacred plant, including caapi, natema, mihi, yage, and many others.
We have lost the origins of iowaska in the mists of history but there are many different stories among the indigenous people of the Amazon about the how they initially came to work with iowaska. In an indigenous context, iowaska was primarily used by the shamans of the Amazon region for healing and divinatory purposes. Complex rituals surround the preparation and use of iowaska that have been passed down through many generations of iowaska shamans. By holding iowaska ceremonies, they use the iowaska tea as a diagnostic tool to discover the roots of illnesses in their patients.
Until the Spanish conquistadors invaded in the 16th Century there has been no written recording of history in the Amazon, and hence the origin of ayahuasca is relatively unknown. However, a ceremonial cup believed to be over 2,500 years old was found in Ecuador containing traces of iowaska. The known use of iowaska is widespread and represents the basis of traditional medicine practice for at least 75 different indigenous tribes across the lower and upper Amazon.
Shipibo Plant Medicine Healing Traditions
The Shipibo culture, originating along the Ucayali River in the upper Peruvian Amazon, is well known for shamanism and iowaska. The Shipibo are one of the few cultural groups that have managed to maintain their language, art, and mystical plant medicine in this region of the Peruvian Amazon. They have a particularly strong relationship with iowaska, and many consider the Shipibo to be the most highly skilled iowaska shamans in the Peruvian Amazon.
The use of Shipibo imagery related to iowaska is widespread to this day, and the Shipibo ikaro patterns are synonymous with iowaska and it’s practice throughout Peru. Indeed, many mestizo curanderos (healers of both Spanish and Peruvian ancestry who have moved away from indigenous traditions and identity) still wear Shipibo cushmas (robes) in an iowaska ceremony.
Iowaska – A Tea Made of Two Plants
Iowaska is made from two plants – the iowaska vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and the leaf of the chacruna plant (Psychotria viridis). Both plants are combined to create a potent mixture that offers access to the realm of spirits and an energetic world that that we are unable to perceive in our ordinary state of consciousness.
It is a unknown how shamans came to combine these two plants. Individually, both plants are more or less inert. In the Amazon there are approximately 80,000 catalogued leafy plant species, of which as many as 10,000 are vines. Neither the iowaska vine nor the chacruna leaf is especially distinguished in appearance. Yet the shamans of the Amazon, acting as archaic psycho-pharmacologists, knew how to use one particular species of vine and one particular species of leaf to make a psychoactive brew.
In chemical terms, the powerful psychoactive dimethyletryptamine (DMT) is found in the chacruna plant which, by itself, is not orally active because it is metabolized by the enzyme monoamine oxidase (MAO) in the stomach. Within the iowaska vine are MAO inhibitors, in the form of harmine compounds, that result in a psychoactive compound chemically identical to the organic tryptamines in our brains. Once the combination of these two plants reaches the brain through the bloodstream, powerful visionary experiences are triggered that enable us to access our hidden, inner subconscious landscapes.
The statistical probability of iowaska tea being discovered “by accident” is millions to one, and very unlikely. Indigenous healers of the Amazon maintain that it was the plants themselves who originally told the shamans how to create the iowaska brew.
Traditional Use of Iowaska
Initially, the use of iowaska in healing practices was limited to the shamen, who used it as diagnostic method that reflect very different psychological and cultural values than what westerners are familiar with.
In the past iowaska was not taken by patients, who would only come to ceremony to receive a diagnosis to inform subsequent treatments. By identifying the cause of illness, indigenous shamans recognize the destructive power of negative human emotions and their impact not just on the individual, but the health of the whole community. Iowaska is used by the shamans for other purposes, too; to help inform important decisions, ask the spirits for advice, solve personal conflicts (between families and communities), exercise one’s divine capacities, elucidate mysteries, thefts, and disappearances, discover enemies, and to see if a spouse is being disloyal.
Iowaska is also used to prescribe treatments to patients, directing the shaman to administer ikaros and plant remedies. And, it is not the only plant spirit involved. Iowaska works with the shaman in combination with a plethora of other plant-spirits to provide diagnosis and treatment. Iowaska is a nexus within a much larger system of “plant-spirit assisted” healthcare in the jungle. Traditional Amazonian healing offers solutions to illnesses and disorders that typically cannot be treated by conventional medicine.
There is a global epidemic of suffering from psycho-emotional illnesses that modern healthcare systems are unable to address. Iowaska is reaching out across the globe to offer its significant benefits.
Iowaska is now being used as a medicine in itself, not just as a diagnostic tool for shamans. This represents a positive evolution of tradition. Many foreigners and Amazonian people have worked with the medicine in ceremonies since the end of the 20th century, led by trained shamans, in order to face the causes of their conditions, illnesses, and imbalances personally and to take an active part in the healing process. Effectively, this means moving healing into a co-creative relationship between the shaman, the plant spirits, iowaska, the patient, and their own inner physician. The drinker is able to uncover and take personal responsibility for issues that had been hidden in their unconscious, which is often the cause of the disease or emotional/psycho-spiritual imbalance.
That being said, drinking iowaska on your own without the presence, protection, and skilled work of an experienced shaman is not advised. There is a very important level of safety, depth of healing, and overall efficacy that is present when iowaska healing is practiced by skilled shamans working with a multitude of plant-spirit doctors in ceremony. There are times when iowaska on its own will effect healing, although serious caution is required in terms of the setting, intentions, and precautionary measures taken around an ayahuasca ceremony.
One of the major challenges of the movement of iowaska to the West is how to transfer a tradition rooted in shamanic communities to a culture by and large alienated from nature with integrity, respect and safety. We at the Temple of the Way of Light feel that it is critically important to understand and honor traditional practices that indigenous shamans have developed over thousands of years of working with iowaska.