"I think the Goddess speaks through you," a man from Houston told Maria Johanna in her kitchen in Vinkeveen, The Netherlands this February. Behind us, others were crying and cuddling next to buckets of vomit. Earlier that night, Maria approached me during one of her ayahuasca ceremonies and said, "This song’s for you." Then she sang along to the song emanating from her speakers: "How could anyone ever tell you you were anything less than beautiful?" After we shared a hug, she continued dancing in the white dress she dons every ceremony.
At age 27, Johanna had published a book on how to overcome a quarter-life crisis. But soon after, she ended up going through her own.
“I had a restless feeling like something was missing,” she tells me. “I didn’t know what it could be.”
Then, her (now ex) boyfriend told her about a mind-opening experience he had on ayahuasca—a psychedelic drink made from the Amazonian Banisteriopsis caapi plant as well as DMT-producing plants like Psychotria viridis. She joined him for a ceremony in Amsterdam and was immediately hooked.
“This was a huge confirmation that there was a lot more I could never imagine, way beyond my imagination,” she remembers. “I became the colors. I became the patterns. It was as if I was sent back to source, into the big light, and I experienced being one with everything.”
After that, she couldn’t go back to her old life, but she had no idea what her new life looked like. She rented out her Amsterdam apartment and stayed with a friend where she grew up nearby. Known as Mariette most of her life, she changed her name to her birth name, Maria Johanna (leading to many jokes about her name sounding like “marijuana”). Then she moved to Bali and started making YouTube videos about ayahuasca. When she got back a year later, she decided to organize ayahuasca ceremonies. Just a few days after that, an organization that ran ceremonies reached out and asked if she’d collaborate. After three years, she began leading ceremonies herself.
Johanna’s weekend-long retreats are different from most traditional ones that take place in the jungles of South America. For one thing, they’re inside her home, where participants get to take luxurious showers and sleep on the small white beds used during ceremonies. She also serves the ayahuasca differently, giving people the MAO inhibitor (the substance from the Banisteriopsis caapi vine that releases your body’s natural DMT) before the DMT so they enter their trips more quickly. And to wash down the awful taste of ayahuasca, her assistants pass around grapes, orange slices and mints.
The most unique aspect of her ceremonies, though, may be the music. While traditional shamans fill their ceremonies with monotone chants, she puts on an eclectic playlist that includes Whitney Houston’s “Greatest Love of All” and Michael Jackson’s “Heal the World,” as well as more ayahuasca-themed songs. But like a shaman herself, she wanders the room singing to people, somehow knowing exactly who needs what songs when. It's like the goddess really does speak through her.
“Each time I drink ayahuasca, I have a conversation with the spirit of mother ayahuasca,” she says. “It’s like I have a relationship with a spirit. She’s guiding me. I have an interaction—it’s not me. It’s another voice. I recognize it by the feeling because it’s not words, it’s another way.”
As ayahuasca becomes more well-known in modern societies, Johanna’s style makes it accessible to those who aren’t keen on camping out in Peru. Even over the three years that she’s been running ceremonies, she’s seen a greater openness in the people she talks to about ayahuasca.
“It’s not just hippies,” she says. “What I see in my ceremonies, it’s also successful people or business people from different cultures, different backgrounds. The normal person who doesn’t have to be very spiritual, who’s maybe not meditating—people who are starting to be open for spirituality—I attract those kinds of people.”
Her most memorable experiences included guiding her own father, who “became God” and laughed all the way through, and helping a woman, who couldn’t move her toes or feet, walk for the first time in ages. Often, the people in the group will have shared experiences. Some weekends, for example, are full of people who have recently lost someone close to them. Others bring together people who are suffering from depression or anxiety or physical health issues.
There have also been some obstacles along the way. One time, her landlord knocked on the door demanding rent in the middle of a ceremony. Another time, somebody attended a ceremony undercover for a news show, filmed part of it and then left. Johanna then ended up on an alarmist TV special about ayahuasca. She escaped legal punishment by arguing that, though ayahuasca was forbidden by Netherlands law, European law allows it for spiritual use. She has not let anything hinder her mission of introducing people to the substance that changed her life—and many of her participants’ lives.
“People always say negative things about me, but it will not stop me because I understand they don’t understand what I'm doing,” she says. “It’s still not a common thing, people judge—of course, that’s how we are.”
But once people experience her ceremonies for themselves, they describe overwhelmingly positive experiences. “It’s very common to feel less stress, to have more positive thoughts and less negative thoughts, and to feel more guided in life,” she says. “In ayahuasca, you are guided by Mother Ayahuasca, but life also has a spirit that is guiding you. Life will take care of you—less worry, more inner peace, more trust in life is the most common.”
However, the way your life changes after taking ayahuasca is up to you. “Ayahuasca is showing you your path or can open up a new path, but it is you who has to step on the new path,” she says. “It’s not a quick fix for anything.”
The one thing she wants people to know? “If mother ayahuasca is calling you, you’d better listen,” she says. “Curiosity is enough—it doesn’t have to be a big feeling. Sometimes people hear the word ‘ayahuasca’ and are not interested at all. So if you have curiosity, it’s your calling.”
Photography by Michael Chichi.