It is becoming common on holidays of many kinds for tourists to be invited to take part in ‘spiritual experiences’. These may range from visiting sacred sites to being invited into a ‘sweat lodge’ or an ayahuasca ceremony.
One quick answer to this question is that if you are invited to take part, then you can assume you are welcome. Yet, as with all invitations, the hosts need to be treated with respect and care. It is not expected that you will be a believer, but it might be reasonably expected that you would observe local customs and traditions and act as you see others doing. A very common example of this in the western world relates to the custom of women entering a church or mosque dressed appropriately.
In cases where the culture and traditions are more strikingly different, it is vital to observe closely how locals behave and to ask permission, for advice, on matters like footwear, clothing and how to act, where to stand or sit, etc. Hence with a sweat lodge you might be asked to enter through a certain door or in a certain fashion. Prayers may be said at intervals and it is important to react to these with due reverence.
One point to remember before taking part is to check that your hosts are legitimate, experienced in taking guests, and have informed you of any risks in taking part, the nature of what you are about to encounter and roughly how long the experience will last. This latter practical point is particularly important for elderly or infirm tourists. Sweat lodges, for example, as the name suggests get very hot and stuffy.
The health benefits of ‘sweat lodges’, whether simply the experience of a Scandinavian sauna or a Turkish bath, are well known. Yet they always carry risks for the unwary. They are by their nature, extreme experiences in which you are effectively over-heating your body. Anyone with health issues such as high blood pressure or any sort of respiratory system should consult a doctor before taking part. Even without any explicit health problems, there are risks of suffering from dehydration or heat exhaustion.
It important to trust your own body in these situations and you are fully in your right to ask to leave or have a break if you feel that it is necessary and the leaders of the ceremonies should be trained to help in these situations.
Every ceremony is different, depending on the traditions of the place and people you might be visiting. ‘Sweat lodges’ are quite common to a number of cultures, yet can vary in what happens within. Some ceremonies might be held in silence, where the aim is to cleanse the mind and body, others might be accompanied by music in the form of drums or chants, as a way to enter the spirit world.
If you do decide to take part in a ceremony, especially one involving extreme conditions like a sweat lodge, or take an hallucinogenic drug like ayahuasca, it is vital that you do so confident in the authority and experience of your hosts. There are sadly all too many stories of tourists encountering mishaps or worse when taking part in poorly organised events. Fortunately, in response to growing demand, regulatory bodies are springing up around the world, often at the behest of governments, but these do not necessarily extend to more distant parts.
As with any holiday, it is important to travel well briefed, to read reviews that are becoming more and more common and popular, and to travel in company, even if small groups. It may be an obvious point, but the more you learn about a ceremony beforehand, the more you might get out of the actual experience, and indeed, your guides, who will appreciate the care and respect you have taken by including such a visit in your itinerary.
One practical point: should one pay for taking part in a spiritual ceremony? This is very tricky. Many hosts might feel insulted if offered payment, others might appreciate something towards costs, time and trouble in mounting ceremonies and making them open to you. All one can say here is play this by ear: be very careful, avoid giving offence, but seek to offer some ‘payment’. One tactic might be to explore with the guides beforehand how some payment might be made. And do not be put off if charges are quickly negotiated, for despite the misgivings of some, this does not necessarily render a ceremony ‘inauthentic’.
One final point concerns the practice of taking ayahuasca, commonly found in parts of Latin America, either to expand their spiritual horizons or to be healed. Ayahuasca is a blend of two plants the ayahuasca vine (Banisteriopsis caapi) and a shrub called chacruna (Psychotria viridis), which contains the hallucinogenic drug dimethyltryptamine (DMT). DMT is illegal in the UK and many other countries. This ‘medicinal’ plant has been an essential part of many South American indigenous cultures.
Shamans and healers have now become part of the tourist trail, along with the medicines that they commonly use. It should be obvious that indulging in this kind of experience carries great risks. It is imperative to be in the hands of a genuine, trustworthy shaman and healer. Ayahuasca is no party drug, and its effects can include extreme vomiting; it is a physical and emotional challenge for your body and one that should not be entered into lightly. The drug or ‘medicine’ also leaves you very disorientated, even immobilised for a long time, and there have been cases of people being assaulted, robbed or raped. You should check very carefully that the taking of ayahuasca will not have contra-indications for any prescription drug you might be taking; it has been known, for example to react with antidepressants and drugs used in treating HIV.
The watchwords on this matter should surely be: take care, act with respect, and do your research – and enjoy the experience!