For centuries, if not millennia, ayahuasca has been administered to patients by expert healers who dedicated their lives to understanding this powerful medicine. In the jungles, mountains and cities of South America, these healers—called shamans, cuanderos or taitas—have held ceremonies in which they administer this ancient mixture of plants to their patients, curing them of diseases of the mind, body and spirit.
In recent years, an unprecedented amount of attention from western medicine has shifted towards the healing power of psychedelics. MDMA, LSD, psilocybin, ketamine, ayahuasca and other psychedelic compounds are being studied in laboratories around the world to treat notoriously difficult conditions, such as depression, addiction, end-of-life anxiety and PTSD. In many cases, researchers seem to have already proven that these substances yield overwhelmingly positive results, but the question of how to best administer them and why they’re having such a powerful healing effect on patients in the first place has yet to be answered.
What makes ayahuasca so different from these other potentially life-saving compounds is that it already has both a longstanding method for how it’s effectively administered to patients and a community of skilled practitioners who understand how and why it is such an effective medicine—even if their knowledge isn’t exactly replicable in a lab.
In a new documentary called The Medicine, filmmakers follow Taita Jaunito Guillermo Chindoy as he puts that knowledge to use by treating patients with ayahuasca. Born into a family of plant healers, Taita Chindoy is an established shaman and a student of ayahuasca medicine. Since his first experience with ayahuasca—or yagé as the plant mixture is often called in Colombia—at just seven years of age, Chindoy has walked the healer’s path, learning the practices of his indigenous Inga roots from his family members and from the spirit of the plant itself.
Taita Chindoy spoke to PRØHBTD from the farm outside of Bogotá where he holds ceremonies about his path to becoming a healer, the traditional perspective on how and why ayahuasca is such an effective medicine, and the ways in which this sacred planet can heal even the most virulent of ailments.
This interview has been translated from Spanish.
What led you to become a shaman?
It’s something that came to me through my family. My grandparents worked with plants, and they passed that knowledge down to the rest of my family. My aunt, my parents and my cousins all work with healing plants. It’s a culture that is passed down to us through our religion.
Does everyone work with ayahuasca like yourself?
No, they use different plants. I am Inga. I come from a small village close to the capital of the Putumayo department in Colombia, and most Inga work there involves either making crafts or working with plants. In that region the most common plant to work with is yagé, which is also called ayahuasca.
It takes a long time to learn how to work with it and requires a lot of studying and diets with the plant. That’s how we grow to understand the architecture of the jungle and the mountains and how we develop our relationship with these plants.
Did you know that you were going to work with ayahuasca from when you first started to work with plants?
When I was a small child, I had a very interesting vision. At that time I was living with my aunt, and I told her that I had had this vision. At first I didn’t pay attention, but it was something very strong. Then, when I was seven years old, I drank yagé for the first time. My mother took us to a curandero to drink the medicine. I still remember the date—a Sunday in November of 1993—and that was very interesting, but I don’t really remember the details because I was very young. I only remember that I went out to vomit and that I felt like I didn’t have hands or eyes.
Then, when I was 11, I had another experience. This time I was afraid to drink yagé. I went fishing during the day to try and avoid participating in the ceremony. But when I came back in the afternoon, everything was ready for the ceremony to begin, and my sister helped me a lot to prepare myself and make myself ready to follow the path before me.
The strongest experience that I can remember from my youth was when I was around 14 or 15. I drank yagé and I had a revelation. I had a vision of stairways leading to the sky and someone calling me. At first, I didn’t understand, and I was afraid to listen to the call, but for the next three months, I had the same vision every time I went to sleep. Eventually, I told my brother what had happened—that since the last time I drank yagé I was having the same vision: stairs and someone calling me. He told me that I needed to go and drink the medicine again with the person who’d given it to me the last time, which was my cousin. I went to him and told him what had happened, and he explained that it meant I had already begun down the path to studying the medicine.
How is ayahuasca different from other medicinal plants that you and your family work with?
Yagé is a very sacred plant. It has a spirit. All plants have a spirit, but we say this plant has a higher spirit. At the beginning, when the first people were living with all the animals and minerals and spirits, this plant appeared to form a link of knowledge with nature for them. So we believe that ayahuasca was the first important part of our culture because it teaches us to have that connection with the jungle. When one drinks it, they see guides who help them begin to study nature. We noticed that when people drank this plant, they felt relieved, so we knew this plant had a power that others do not.
Through our traditions we learned that this plant works to cure people’s hearts and their memories. It brings all of our memories into the light. So when we find a sickness, for example, a cancer where someone is suffering a lot, we say that they are closed or they need a sort of spiritual oxygen. When they drink yagé, they are able to begin to unblock themselves and clear out all of their fears and whatever isn’t helping them. When someone is able to remove those blockages, their damaged cells start to function properly again. Yagé is like a spirit. It is able to enter into your consciousness.
Have you seen specific health problems that are particularly receptive to treatment with ayahuasca?
This medicine cures all types of diseases, but how effective it is depends on how willing the patient is to open their heart. If someone isn’t willing to open their heart to the medicine, then treatment can be very difficult. They will need either very strong yagé or a combination of other healing plants for success. It is possible that nothing will be able to help them if they aren’t open to this type of treatment, but I have worked with many people, and I have noticed that around 98 percent of them get better when they work with the medicine.
The few who didn’t improve didn’t want to give in to the process. They were hanging on to things like anger or fear or complexes. Still, even in very hard cases—problems with cancer or spiritual problems or depression or alcoholism—I have seen that people get better. It is very good, this medicine.
What advice would you give to someone who is interested in working with yagé for the first time?
The first thing that’s very important to understand clearly for the ceremonies is what yagé does. It enters the cells, it enters the spirit and it enters the memory. So it is important for a person to follow the proper diet before working with the medicine so that they enter the ceremony clean and are able to go very deep in their treatment because once they start to work with the plant, it is a change, a transformation. I think that to sit and meditate and make a good, clear decision about their intention beforehand is very important. What is about to happen can be something very beautiful, and the most important thing is to not get confused within that beauty, and instead to continue evolving through all that the plant is showing you.
What’s the most important thing for you as the shaman during the ceremony?
The ceremony is a party, a date and something very sacred. In that moment, what is most important for us as shamans is to enter into the central memory of all healing. I think that the type of ceremony we hold is something very beautiful. We sing about nature, we do healing work asking nature for everything, and it’s something very, very beautiful because we’re making a connection with the Great Spirit. There is a connection with nature, so all of us there are very united in that vibration to find all the healing that we are searching for.
What do you think about people drinking yagé in cities instead of in nature? Is it harder to find that connection with nature and the Great Spirit when you’re in a city, or does the medicine work the same no matter where you are?
It is better in the jungle. In the city there is a lot of noise. When we are in the jungle and we take the medicine, we say, “Oh my God! There is all this energy coursing through everything! Through nature, through everything.” But when we take it in the city, even though the energy still reaches us, there’s always some sort of noise or interference, which lessens the force and the purity of that energy.
What are some of the important things that people need to do after they’ve worked with ayahuasca?
Because it is such a sacred plant, I think that it’s very important for those of us who drink yagé to diet. Dieting means that we need to make a change using meditations, fasts, things that are going to reinforce the path that the medicine has opened. In the end, everything that we are gaining from the plant is essence. It’s something that we have within ourselves that we are trying to access through our own evolution.
The first thing that we advise people to do when they are going to be taking the medicine is to practice a diet. It’s very important to do that first. They need to eliminate salt and to make themselves more natural, to drink a lot of liquids and also have a clear and strong intention for when they drink the medicine.
After they have taken the medicine is when the real work begins. They need to think about what the medicine has taught them and how to incorporate those lessons in their daily lives.
I’ll give you an example. If yagé is telling me that I drink too much liquor and that I should stop drinking, if I continue to drink anyway, then why did I take the medicine in the first place? It’s a change, a transformation.
Why do you think that yagé has become so popular in the last several years? Do you think that it’s just a matter of more access to information about it, or that there are more people who are getting sick now than before?
The medicine is becoming more popular because we are all opening our consciousness. We are waking up and becoming more unified against the negative ideas that culture has taught us⎯namely that work and a nice house and power and money are all so important. When someone takes this medicine for the first time, the first thing they might think is, “What has happened here? How did we get to this point?”
For me, all the study and research I have done with this plant has helped me become more humble. It has helped me to feel smaller and has cured me and made me see life differently. Now I take care of my body and realize the importance of my family.
I think humanity is at a very important step that must be taken consciously. I am always saying that yagé is just a door to achieving the sort of evolution that we need. There are many different doors to that evolution in the world, but here we say that this medicine is a door that takes us directly into the depths of our hearts. From there, we can start to walk on our own.
It is very important to make sure that we approach all of those doors with real authenticity, with sweetness, with love, and always protect them so that they can remain authentic.
What do you hope The Medicine documentary will achieve?
I think it’s something very good. It’s something that is going to reach people and educate them. It will help people take the medicine consciously, to follow the diet, to investigate themselves and the medicine more. It’s about sharing the medicine respectfully and lovingly within the human family.