Ayahuasca has become very popular worldwide due to the positive stories about spiritual awakening and divine intervention that many experienced after taking it.
Most of those who tried this hallucinogenic medicine attested to its healing power especially in addressing treatment of addiction, trauma, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. Thousands of Western tourists visit the Peruvian Amazon jungle for healing while others travel for curiousity or to experiment with ayahuasca.
However, there is always a dark side in almost everything, including this popular alternative medicine. Netflix’s tried to uncover the lucrative wellness industry that promises health and healing in its docuseries [Un]Well.
Among the most favorite episodes was “Ayahuasca.” The almost one-hour documentary also touched the dark side about this plant medicine especially the double murder of Sebastian Woodroffe and Olivia Arevalo
Who is Sebastian Woodroffe?
Sebastian Woodroffe 41 year old, a Canadian man, was among those who seek to enjoy the benefits of aya but for greater good. He quit his job and left Canada to study the medicinal plant in Peru to help a relative struggling with alcoholism.
Aside from that he recognized that there is too much hurt in the world and he wanted to do his part to soothe that pain, he said in a video he uploaded on YouTube in 2013.
Woodroffe decided to dedicate himself to a 6-year process to become an addiction counsellor. The Canadian even created this fundraising page to ask for financial support for his journey.
In his post, he shared that his long term goal was to create a platform where he can bring his learnings in using medicinal plants for addiction in the form of a healing or detox center. Woodroffe wanted to help by bringing the people to nature.
“Through this gentleness combined with workshops and diets, I hope to help people realize that what they will see and love in nature is in themselves. Not only to heal themselves, but then to also send them back into the world with their love and reverence for the natural world restored and returned to where it should be for all humans, in balance,” Sebastian Woodroffe wrote.
“I am in this for the long haul. This is more than a ‘job’ to me. I want not only for people to recover… I want to turn them on to the wonders of existence, and have them leave as a renewed friend and lover of this thing we call life. I care for people, and I want to help. Never before has a path been so clearly laid out for me.
Woodroffe became one of Olivia’s clients. He had been traveling to Peru for business and to take part in ayahuasca healing.
It’s not entirely clear what happened in the years that followed, but in 2018, Woodroffe made headlines but for a shocking reason, he allegedly killed Peruvian indigenous healer Olivia Arevalo and he was murdered a day after by the villagers who lynched him in broad day light.
Due to his untimely death, Woodroffe didn’t have the chance to become an addiction counsellor.
Who is Olivia Arevalo?
Olivia Arevalo was a leader and practitioner of traditional medicine and defender of the Peruvian Amazon. She was of Shipibo Konibo ethnicity and 81 year old when she was murdered .
Olivia is a popular shaman of Victoria Garcia, an intercultural settlement in the district of Yarinacocha in the Ucayali region in Peru.
She is the spiritual matriarch tot he Shipibo Konibo people – one of the largest tribes in the Peruvian Amazon with 20,000 members concentrated around the Ucayali region. She knew some 500 herbal remedies, and for younger villagers, was the last links to their dying tribal culture.
“She had the power to calm storms and strong winds,” villager Nestor Castro told Matthew Bremner of Men’s Journal.
“Her death is an aggression against the entire Shipibo community. She was the living memory of her people” explained Juan Carlos Ruíz Molleda, coordinator of the department of indigenous communities and constitutional litigation of the NGO Institute of Legal Defence.
“She was a grandmother who worked with medicinal plants”, said Wilder Muñoz Díaz told Cosecha Roja, a traditional Shipibo doctor from a nearby community that shared healing ceremonies with Olivia. “It was very painful for us finding about her death”, he added.
Canadian Man Dies In Lynching, Accused Of Murder
On April 19, 2018, Sebastian Woodroffe reportedly arrived at Olivia’s house in Victoria Gracia by motorbike. Upon arrival, he shouted Julian’s name, because the latter reportedly owed him money. Julian ran inside an adjacent home while Olivia went out her backdoor to investigate the commotion.
Woodroffe tried to run away but Olivia Arévalo was blocking her way. He was reportedly confused and started to panic. So, he fired once and then twice. The following day, Woodroffe was lynched by four men from the indigenous community for killing Olivia.
They lynched him and the whole incident was recorded on camera.
A footage was posted on the Facebook page of Peruvian news outlet on April 21, 2018, showing how the indigenous community of Victoria Gracia murdered the Canadian man.
In the clip, Woodroffe is struggling to stand and lying in a puddle. He is visibly in pain, moaning and gurgling in his blood and dirt. One can be heard asking in the local dialect, “Why did you kill her, you son of a bitch” referencing to Olivia’s death. Several locals stand and watch while the men lynch Woodroffe.
A man in a baseball hat tries to loop a seat belt around the 41 year old dad’s neck while another shouts “Pull, pull!”
Two men drag Woodroffe who is lying face down, arms at his side and no longer struggling. The man holding the end of the noose drops it. Woodroffe lifts his head and the man pulls the belt to tighten it again. The video cuts off from there.
With an indigenous plant healer dead and a Canadian man possibly killed due to revenge, the story immediately became a public interest especially to the local media. The local authorities went to Victoria Gracia after watching the video and immediately identified the man who strangled on the clip because they had been searching for Woodroffe for 48 hours after Olivia’s shooting.
The police found her lifeless body beneath a coconut tree with two bullet holes in her chest. The villagers said that the Candian man killed her.
Meanwhile, they discovered Woodroffe’s body about 700 years from the Victoria Gracia village. His body was wrapped in blue and buried hastily in a two-foot grave. Woodroffe’s body was purple in bruises and his face was swollen.
That’s not all, the senseless murder of Olivia Arévalo and Woodroffe did not just caught the attention of the local media, it became a global news. It reached Canada with his family and friends in shock and disbelief.
“It is absolutely not something he is capable of in any way,” a friend of Woodroffe named Alison Jones told Global News.
Arevalo’s murder also resulted in an outrage because the indigenous people in Victoria Gracia felt that the police were there to capture those who strangled and murdered the British Columbia man and wasn’t really there for the plant healer.
In fact, even if Olivia Arévalo was an important figure in the community, no governor showed up in her burial, according to journalist Hugo Alejos.
Following the deaths of Sebastian Woodroffe and Olivia Arévalo, the Peruvian authorities said they won’t rest until both crimes are solved.
Possible Causes Of The Murders
Some reports from the local media claimed that Woodroffe and Olivia’s murders had something to do with anti-psychotic pills which were found in the Canadian man’s room.
According to Charles Grob, a professor of psychiatry at Harbor-U.C.L.A Medical Center, on the Netflix’s [Un]Well documentary, if the police found antipsychotic medication among his belongings, then Woodroffe should have not been allowed to take iowaska because it would result into a terrible outcome.
“There may have been vulnerability for psychopathology. The ayahuasca use, in all likelihood, intensified his paranoid delusional system which could have provoked an intense psychotic episode and violent acting out,” Grob said.
Dennis McKenna, an ethnopharmacologist and research pharmacognosist, added that the stress of traveling could also contribute to negative experience and violent reactions, which applies in the case of Woodroffe. He left Canada and traveled to Peru to experience spiritual enlightenment.
“I think that’s probably what happened to [Woodroffe], and it’s tragic. He did not receive the right support, preparation, or integration, which could have mitigated this,” McKenna said.
Other Deaths Reported
Aside from Olivia Arevalo and Sebastian Woodroffe, several death stories related to hallucinogenic medicine were reported.
In 2017, a 24-year-old Kiwi tourist named Matthew Dawson-Clarke also traveled to Peru to try Ayahuasca in the Amazon, but he never returned home. Matthew reportedly died after drinking a powerful brew of tobacco tea in preparation for an ayahuasca ceremony, ABC. EROWID has also accounted for several deaths about Ayahuasca.
According to its report, in 2014, Henry Miller reportedly took yage in Mocoa, Colombia with a group but his body was later found abandoned by the side of the road. Reports suggest that the group drank the brew together but were ushered back to their lodgings.
But Mill got sick and his body was later found dumped by a road near the southern city of Mocoa close to the border line with Ecuador.
There is also another 25-year old man who reportedly died after taking homemade aya. However, most of the deaths were not directly related to the medicinal drink.
Meanwhile, Ayahuasca Easy, also searched for deaths related to this promising medicinal plant in Peru and from October 2002 to December 2018, there were 93 American deaths and most were from transport accidents.
Also, drowning and suicide are common, but only two mentioned drug-related which also didn’t name what drug exactly. The report concluded that the risk of death is higher from traffic accidents than ayahuasca, itself.
The reports of deaths caused fears among Western tourists and other aya enthusiasts. Is there a reason to panic?
Can People Die From Drinking Ayahuasca?
There are risks but several sources claim that most deaths are not directly related to the medicinal herb, itself. But one should be mindful of the possible drug interactions.
According to Grob, mixing the brew with alcohol, recreational drugs or other certain medicines could invite problems.
Combining SSRI such as Prozac and ayahuasca might potentially leady to a condition called serotonin syndrome. SSRI antidepressants increase the serotonin level in the central nervous system. Whereas ayahuasca impairs serotonin from being metabolized.
Together they can flood the system with serotonin provoking symptoms like severe confusional states, high levels of distress, elevated temperature. The whole ordeal can be pretty miserable, according to him.
Also, taking stimulant drugs like Adderall, Ritalin and Vyvanse increases the risk of serious elevation of blood pressure.
However, the most serious risk is when an individual comes into the experience with a serious history of psychiatric illness such as bipolar disorder or schizoprenia because that could potentially be disastrous in a number of different respects, Grob said.
How To Keep Yourself Ready And Safe For Ayahuasca Retreat
If you are planning to fly to Peru or somewhere to experience spiritual awakening and life transformation, you should take the time to research first before booking that ticket.
There are many positive stories about this medicinal herb, but there are also dark tales with experts issuing warnings about traveling to Peru, Brazil or Ecuador for ayahuasca retreats.
According to Men’s Journal, a 2015 study involving advanced MRI scans of 10 experienced users showed that ayahuasca can decrease brain’s activity and alleviate apprehension and anxiety.
Another study published in 2017 in The Journal of Psychoactive Drugs indicated that DMT can exacerbate pre-existing mental illness like bipolar disorder.
So, you should prepare yourself emotionally and mentally before joining retreats because it isn’t as easy what most expect.
Also, there are already many retreat centers but not all of them have the knowledge and experience to carry out a ceremony.
Here are some tips to keep yourself safe if you really want to book a retreat in Peru. Most of these tips aim to help your research, so you can find the best and safest center possible.
1. Familiarize the plant and the location
You need to familiarize yourself about the plants used and the location. Don’t rely your experience to the locals you will meet on your trip. Be ahead of the game by keeping yourself knowledgeable about the things that you should know ahead before you book that trip.
For instance, you might hear about the retreats in Sacred Valley in Cusco. Actually, the place has become a popular destination for tourists but Cusco is in the Andes mountains but their master plant is different from what’s used in the indigenous groups in the Amazon.
You need to learn these stuff, to get the best ayahuasca experience. Because you can’t just experience it anywhere using different plants. It has to be a mixture of the two plants – the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis).
It’s very important that you are aware of these things. It’s significant that you know what to look for, so you won’t be served with fake brew and end up in the wrong places.
A number of locals have made ayahuasca a business. So, you should be very careful and you can start that by getting yourself familiar with all these crucial details before you even land in Amazon.
2. Join groups
By joining online forums or support groups on Facebook, you can reach out to those who are also planning to take the same trip to Peru or to those who already did before you.
You can talk to the previous participants to know what to expect from retreat centers. Ask them your questions, your concerns, your doubts and whatever you have in mind that disturbs your peace.
Ask if the plant medicine works well and what brew they use. It’s also important to consider role reversal. Tell them, “if you were me , is there any question you would ask knowing what you know that I ought to be asking?”
This will help you consider those areas you might have missed to consider. In short, it will reveal any blind spots in your research.
From the forum, you can make personal connections with them and communicate via Zoom, Skype or Messenger. It’s also the best outlet to ask for suggestions on what’s the best ayahuasca retreat centers or who are the best shamans to work with.
3. Research about the shaman
You should learn to spot the real shaman from the fake one. Not every elderly local in the Amazon is equipped to play the role of shaman. In fact, one has to dedicate years to be a shaman.
“It takes years to become a shaman,” Pedro Tangoa, a renowned Shipibo shaman told Men’s Journal.
“It requires patience and deep knowledge of plants and herbal remedies. These fake shamans have no idea what they are doing.”
The bogus shamans see the bloom of ayahuasca in their community as a business opportunity, according to Tangoa.
The best retreats focus on healing and the ceremony is led by trusted shamans in comfortable rooms with assistants on hand to help the guests should they need assistance. But false shamans don’t know what to do when patients need help.
“A good shaman is capable of snapping a patient out of a dangerous trance in an instant,” Tangoa said.
According to Tangoa, ayahuasca alone can do no harm. He likened it to a scanner that allows shamans to find out what exactly is wrong with the patient.
At the time, the shaman did not allow Matthew to take the hallucinogenic medicine because he hadn’t done the proper dieting in preparation. Legit shamans recommend that before consuming miracle herb, patients or participants should avoid some food and activities.
Usually, those who are planning to take ayahuasca are recommended to avoid caffeine, carbonated drinks, red meat, salt, sex, sugar for a week beforehand. When the process is tampered with or rushed, that’s when patients experience adverse reactions, Tangoa said.
4. Find a safe, credible and reputable ayahuasca center
One of the best things to do early on is to choose the retreat center.
Unfortunately, searching for a reputable center could be challenging, so, in this section, I am sharing some tips from Entheonation to find a safe and trust-worthy retreat center.
There are already several ayahuasca centers in the world, but it is indigenous to the Amazon Jungle in South America. That’s why many travel to Peru and Brazil to experience it. There are also retreats centers in Colombia, Ecuador and across Central America.
Do you want a local or someone trained who can speak your language? Is the shaman certified, professional and attentive to the participants? Is the shaman compassionate and with integrity? Make sure that the shaman has no controversies or scandalous reviews.
There are women who said they were sexually abused at an ayahuasca retreat, BBC reported. So, take as much time as you need with your research and reach out to as many people as possible.
Ask what’s in the brew that they serve to the participants. You already know the plants that should be used, so make sure that they are using those. You can also inquire if there are additional herbs in the mixture.
Aside from learning about the location, the integrity and experience of the shaman and the brew service, you have to go to the nitty-gritty part of the ritual. Ask about what happens in the ceremony. How do they do the ceremony?
For instance, who is present in the ceremony? How many participants are accommodated during the ceremony? How much does it cost?
You also need to ask about the preparation before the ceremony and what they do during and after the ritual. How they handle the participants during their transition and more.
Reliable centers usually have staff who are dedicated to looking after the participants. It’s best if you ask about the staff in the center you are considering the retreat. Reputable and trustworthy retreat centers have warm, attentive and hospitable staff. They will help you make the whole process more comfortable, convenient, and safe.
Expertise and Experience
Unexpected things may happen during the retreat, it’s important to know ahead how the center handles these unexpected incidents. For instance, the way Soul Quest Ayahuasca Church in Orlando Florida handled a participant who had seizures during the trans was documented and they did well.
The center also discouraged people with bipolar, schizophrenia, epilepsy and multiple disorder from joining them. They also examine their participant’s health ahead of the ceremony.
5. Follow the recommended diet
Many shamans would agree to preparing your body before the actual ceremony. The bodies are cluttered with all kinds of stimulating, sensational foods from our modern diets especially with foods filled with salt, sugar, and caffeine. One has to avoid some foods to clear the body from the toxins.
“The plant diets are designed to help a person connect with the spirits of the plants, and to develop new healing capabilities, vision, and sight; they require much time in solitude and a strict dietary regimen….[W]hen you follow the required diet, the spirit world is more accessible,” Ayahuasca shaman Alan Shoemaker wrote in his book “Ayahuasca Medicine: The Shamanic World of Amazonian Sacred Plant Healing.”
Clearing oneself from toxins is a good start for the aya experience. According to Vincent Ravalee in his book “The Psychotropic Mind,” ayahuasca will first attack the toxins we collect everyday in our life.
If your body is toxic free, it will have less static to cut through. Simply, put it this way, by following the diet, you are giving the plant healer the ability to work its wonder in you with the deepest levels of psycho spiritual understanding.
Here are some of the foods that you should avoid.
• Red meat
• Aged cheese
• Nutritional supplements (protein powders)
• Fermented foods (soy sauce, fermented tofu and sauerkraut)
6. Bring the necessities
There are things that you need to bring in the retreat center no matter where it is located, be it in Peru, Brazil or Ecuador. Check out the items below
• Warm and comfortable clothes
• Spare clothes
• Comfortable shoes
• Personal toiletries
• Swimsuit and beach towel
• Journal or notepad
It’s true that ayahuasca offers spiritual awakening and life-changing transformation but you also have to do your part to ensure your safety. For those who are interested to experiment with ayahuasca, it’s safe to say that most of the deaths are not directly related to the brew offered in the Amazon jungle.
But, you should be honest with yourself too. If you have mental illness or you are taking drugs that may react to the brew, better give this a pass. Finally, if you are fit and healthy to take it, make sure to only do retreats in reputable, credible and safe centers.
The real shamans and legit centers know how to handle the patients when something wrong comes up. It is very important that you work with someone you trust.