The Tradition of Vegetalismo & Dieta by Lunaya Shekinah
by Lunaya Shekinah
After 8 years of integrated research and experiential learning on this topic, I wanted to write this article about the ancient South American shamanic tradition of Ayahuasca dieta. May this article demystify this beautiful practice, clearing up misconceptions and empowering informed relationships with the tradition.
Please do to add questions, differences of opinion, or additional information as you see fit, and it will most likely get integrated into this body of information as it gets passed along.
What is Vegetalismo and Dieta?
Dieta is an ancient traditional practice usually done by curanderos, or Ayahuasca healers (commonly referred to as ayahuasqeros or shamans), from the beginners in training to the experienced masters. It is a way that Ayahuasca has taught humans to develop relationships with certain other, non-psychedelic master healing plants of the Amazonian pharmacopia. Curanderos specializing in dieta are often called vegetalistas.
In a dieta, which may last between a week and 4 months, or in some cases longer, the dieter creates a clear, sacred space inside their body and immediate surroundings by eating only a few basic foods, having extremely limited social contact, and abstaining from all kinds of sex. This creates a private setting in which one can have an intimate and focused encounter with the plants.
The diet usually begins with an Ayahuasca ceremony at night, followed by the consumption of a special tea made from whichever master plant has been chosen for this dieta. This tea is usually drunk every morning for the first 1- 7 days. More Ayahuasca ceremonies are then commonly dispersed through the rest of the diet, a common one being on the last night.
This strict regimens of abstinence, combined with the injestion of the master plant and the insight and guidance of the ceremonies, has a wonderful effect of helping to create a deep and loving relationship with the spirits of these master plants, which can be beneficial in many profound ways.
Why Practice Dieta?
Of course, abstaining from most foods and having only the 4 main dieta foods can be incredibly purifying for a body which has been assaulted by food toxins, chemicals, allergens and the like for most of its life, although this should not be the only reason to do it, as there are other Ayahuasca compatible diets which are much healthier as a cleanse.
Traditionally, dieta has been practiced by those aspiring to become facilitators of Ayahuasca ceremonies, or “curanderos” – Ayahuasca healers. The spiritual alliance with the various master plants, created through many long dietas, is widely considered absolutely essential to developing the important qualities necessary to hold space for others in these ceremonies.
Still, many facilitators run these ceremonies without having practiced dieta at all. I am not necessarily saying that all of these people shouldn’t be doing so, as many years of experience with Ayahuasca alone counts for a lot too. Yet, it’s clear to me that those facilitators are really missing out on some important aspects of the work, and this can be quite problematic sometimes.
With that said, those not intending to run ceremonies still sometimes do dieta for its healing benefits alone! Despite its fallbacks as a health cleanse, the master plants are such powerful healers and teachers, that the experience can be very transformative and beneficial in the individual’s life, and in a lasting way at that!
Many people tend to do dieta just as a way of having a more extended Ayahuasca experience, packing their time with many ceremonies and deepening the effects of the Ayahuasca with the cleansing aspect of the diet.
However, to those people I would recommend another similar practice which does not involve the master plants, and allows a wider variety of vegetables and fruits. This “Ayahuasca diet” is commonly confused with dieta. It is simply, no salt, no refined sugar, no oil or hot spicy foods, no sex, and not too much stimulus or excitement. The foods can be fine tuned with great intention to maintain balance and optimum health.
Can dieta work without Ayahuasca?
Yes. Many people who, for whatever reason, have found that Ayahuasca is not for them, continue to practice dieta for the healing relationship with the master plants.
While Ayahuasca has the ability to hugely bless, assist, and illuminate the process on many levels, it is not necessary for a succesful diet. The insight and mental awareness that the ceremonies may bring to the relationship is helpful, but the interaction is still taking place on a subtle spirit level, wheather you are mentally seeing and understanding it or not.
Do I need a skilled shaman to facilitate my dieta?
For your first dieta, and especially if you don’t have a lot of experience with Ayahuasca, I would strongly recommend working with a skilled and trusted ayahuascero, and allowing them to facilitate the whole process for you.
Once you have some experience with Ayahuasca and are familliar with the best practices of how to make a ceremony and take good care of yourself while doing so, it is better to do the ceremonies alone. This emphasizes the solitude of dieta and gives you the space to learn through personal experience, how to hold the space yourself.
As a sidenote, I do not really recommend doing ceremonies alone outside of dieta until you are at the point of hosting them for others as well. There is really no reason to deprive yourself of a shaman’s important role. In my opinion, money issues are usually not a good reason.
However, even if you do your ceremonies in solitude and are able to make or obtain the Ayahuasca, you might want to make sure your master plant medicine comes from a curandero, as each plant has a very specific way of being prepared, and it also requires knowledge to be able to choose an appropriate plant.
In many cases, any shaman who is making your medicine will also want to host your diet, in order to chaperone your process and help make sure you don’t do anything stupid. At first, that might be greatly helpful as well, and it’s always interesting to watch how these curanderos work dieta.
Once you have done some considerable research about master plants for dieta, and learned the way to prepare the one that you choose for yourself, from a very informed place, I would say that, using this guide, you should be good to go doing dieta without another facilitator.
What are the dieta rules?
From shamanic lineage to lineage, and region to region, the rules of dieta tend to vary a little bit. Some take an extremely strict approach, and others bend some rules and are more laid back about certain things. There is so much conflicting information out there, and many strong opinions.
I have studied primarily along a stricter tradition, but have been informed by my discussions with a variety of other curanderos on the topic, and my continuous Internet research. The rules I present here are foundational to the tradition and are widely accepted.
There are three main foods that are allowed : fresh water fish with scales and teeth, green unripe plantain, and plain white rice. Absolutely no oils, seasonings, salt… etc. may be added. This is a no salt, no sugar of any kind, and very little flavour kind of diet.
There are some who believe you can have just a little bit of sugarless boiled root vegetables near the end of the dieta, but I do not support this and strongly advise against it. Still others support eating fruit during dieta – I believe that this is a dangerous misconception, based on confusion between Ayahuasca diet and dieta.
There are 5 teas that are allowed as well : lemon grass, lemon leaf, chujuhuasca, basil and cat’s claw. Chujuhuasca and cat’s claw also happen to be cancer treating plants.
No sex of any kind, including masturbation, is allowed, and so in that light it is discouraged to spend much time thinking sexy thoughts. Additionally, some stricter traditions do not permit any touching of other people for any reason.
Soap, shampoo and toothpaste are strictly prohibited. Also, better not to use any moisturizers, creams, cleansers, sunscreen, insect repellant, lip gloss, mouth wash, inhalers, body spray… etc. When absolutely necessary, a small amount of all natural disinfectant or itch treatment for bites can be allowed, in moderation.
Any vitamins or prescription drugs of any kind are definitely not allowed. If you have a condition which does not allow you to go without them for the period of a dieta, then you are not a candidate for dieta.
Very important during dieta is solitude and the time and space for rest and reflection. This is the rule that is most commonly bent or broken, as some people fully engage the world in many ways, working, teaching and socializing. Speaking from experience, I strongly advise against such activities while in this very special state.
The strictest form of dieta insists on absolutely no talking to anyone for any reason. This could be an expensive ideal, however, depending on the practicalities at hand. I have adapted this to no talking, except at meal times, when I will have practical interactions with others. A little talking can be fine, but out of respect to the plants, do not talk about the details of your ceremonies or insights with the master plants until the diet is over.
While it’s good to stay relaxed and centered, activities like walking, exercise, dance and yoga are encouraged. You have to do things that keep you from going insane with boredom. Reading, burning insense, practicing an instrument and all that sort of thing are great.
I once asked a curandero if it’s OK to listen to music. He replied that it’s fine, as long as you’re not doing it as a form of escapism. It’s important to stay present and remain focused on your personal journey with the plants, rather than mentally running away from stuff that might be coming up for you. With that being said, TV and movies are highly stimulating, and are therefore discouraged.
What are the consequences of breaking the rules?
Knowingly or ignorantly breaking the rules of dieta without properly ending your diet first (using a ritual which I will describe later) is a serious act of disrespect to Ayahuasca, and the master plant you are working with.
In the case of Ayahuasca, she may respond to this in a variety of ways, inside and out of the ceremonies, and this will depend on your existing relationship with the plants, and the nature and intent of how you broke the rule.
One thing that has been known to happen is a string of intense difficulties coming up in forthcoming ceremonies. Energy blockages and related issues could gather in your system. The medicine could withhold some of her healing benefits or powers. The possibilities are vast.
It would be logical to assume that this would be like a kind of punishment, but I think that is too simplistic of an explanation. Imagine cheating on your spouse during your honeymoon, in their plain view. The problems that could create between you in your ongoing relationship are complex and deeply regretful.
When it comes to the master plants, the consequences may vary from plant to plant. Each one is so unique in its own way and may respond differently. One thing that could happen is that the plant spirit may leave your presence and never return. Additionally, they could withhold their healing assistance, their teachings or their protection.
Other problems are also possible, but it’s very hard to predict ahead of time. The bottom line is, if you’re going to do dieta, do it right. And if you really can’t control yourself, it’s better to end the dieta early than to break the rules, especially those regarding sex and food.
How do I choose which plant to diet with?
There are so many wonderful healing plants in the Amazon and throughout the world, that it would seem easy to choose a powerful master plant for a dieta, and yet, the process is not as simple and obvious as it may look.
Dieta is an ancient tradition that originates not from shamans, but from Ayahuasca. She is the master of dieta, and it’s important to acknowledge that by only dieting with plants which she has specifically instructed you to work with, or which have become traditional dieta plants through her instructions to generations of ayahuasqueros.
For hundreds of years, Ayahuasca has been giving curanderos specific instructions on which plants to use under what circumstances and how to prepare them for dieta. Any good vegitalista should be always in the process of gathering this ancestral knowledge and learning from new experiences, so that they can properly help new dieters to choose their plants.
For this reason, it is best to ask the medicine which plants to work with, and failing any specific answers in your ceremonies, or if you are unsure if the authenticity of what you are getting in your journey (perhaps it’s fuzzy, unclear, or feels you may be imagining it), seek facilitation or advice from a skilled curandero.
The plants have asked me not to mention their names publically on the Internet, even for educational purposes but especially for buying or selling online, as this is a dangerous time for Amazonian plant medicine. Therefore, I cannot give you any more information here.
For how long, and when should I diet?
As mentioned earlier, dietas usually range between one week and 4 months. I know of some who do extremely long ones of a year in length, but that to me seems very extreme and unnecessary, and must require some major rule bending. I will need to research it more.
It’s best to do dietas of one week, two weeks, but not three weeks, a month, two months, three months, or four months. So for example, you would not do 2 and a half months – it would be either 2 or 3. A dieta is like a cycle, so as they get longer, the cycle that you’re following gets bigger.
If at all possible, it’s better to follow the moon cycles to represent your cycle for 2 week diets or longer. Try to start either on a new moon or a full moon, and then of course finish on the same moon.
For some reason, Bolivian shamans tend to follow calendar months, while Peruvians follow the moon, in perfect weeks of 7 days. I encourage moon awareness, but depending on your flow you may find that the calendar month works better. Many people use the calendar so it tunes you in with a collective consciousness. Sometimes you can use both!
If at some point during your dieta you have an accident or become quite sick, or if there is some emergency or you are for some reason required to go to the doctor, break your diet immediately! Do not go to the doctor while dieting, and don’t try to fight off a sickness either – your body will not do well. In that case, timing goes out the window.
For your first dieta, I do recommend a week. It can be harder than you expect, and it’s good to ease gently into the process. Then, slowly graduate to longer and longer ones from there. Another option is to start with a week, and when it’s done you may continue on to a second week if you still feel you can.
A week long diet is a beneficial encounter with the master plant, but if you do two weeks with your Ayahuasca ceremonies only at the beginning and ending (not during the two weeks) the spirit of that plant will be with you for the rest of your life, helping you along the way. This is an enormous gift of healing, protection and assistance.
In a dieta of 1-3 months, I recommend leaving those first two weeks without ceremonies, and beginning your them after that special period of total intimacy with the master plant, as often as you wish.
Once three months has passed, it is said that you will need to begin with a new master plant, as the cycle has completely worked itself out by that point. A four month diet really is very unhealthy, so it’s recommended that you only do this perhaps once, or maybe twice in a lifetime.
Ayahuasca really appreciates slow but steady, consistent and dilligent effort. So if you are on a path with dieta and Ayahuasca, it is recommended that you always do one diet per year. You do not need to do more than that – in fact, it’s possible that it could have a harmful effect on your psyche, as one is a lot to integrate in a year, especially a longer one.
How about dieting with others?
It is fine to do dieta with other dieters, and in some ways, this can strengthen the process for all involved. It’s a little less important to avoid talking with other dieters too. However, it’s advisable to make sure you have a lot of privacy and time alone, as intense emotions can erupt and you do not want to pass these energies between you.
Can I diet outside of South America?
Of course, the tradition of Ayahuasca dieta did originate in South America, making it a very integrated and practically effortless place to arrange a dieta. The foods, conditions and lifestyle are native to this place, so dieta feels very natural here. The heat and the jungle are relaxing and purifying, you can easily access all the plants, and you can recieve quite an intuitive download from the land.
However, if you are not native to South America, it would be wise to consider the ecological footprint of your plane ride and the immense amount of unsustainable fossil fuels this requires. I have heard that one plane trip across the states makes the same amount of emissions as a lifetime of a family car in regular use.
The plantain would have to be imported by plane to arrive in your country, but I would consider this footprint to be less harmful than a two-way trip for yourself.
If you are not from South America but would like to diet once a year, I would say work in your native country until you’re ready for a really long, super special dieta in South America that will foster memories and learning to fuel you for many more years without returning.
Make contacts, have things mailed to you, and set yourself up from where you are as best as you can. If you’re lucky, the medicine may even direct you to work with a master plant native to your region – an innovation that is starting to crop up as Ayahuasca now travels the world.
If Ayahuasca is illegal in your country, you may choose to work without it while there.
Are there any special rituals involved?
There are many special rituals associated with dieta, although most of them are unique to the various shamanic groups and lineages. There are special songs and blessings for the beginning and end of the diet and these vary from group to group. There is only one ritual that I have encountered which seems to be universal.
This one is very important, as it’s the way to properly break your diet. The morning after your last night of dieta, wake up bright and early and fix yourself a plate with a nickel’s sized bit of salt and of sugar, as well as a lime cut in half and a red hot pepper. Eat them all up and then have a little bath in a natural body of water.
This ritual is the perfect way to tell the plants that you are finished, and it also ritually reintroduces you to the four corners of taste. This natural bath could be thought of as a baptism in the waters of the Earth, celebrating this succesful work, as a kind of rebirth.
It’s also common to have a special feast following the breaking of the diet, although speaking from experience, it is very wise to exercise moderation and slowly reintroduce yourself to your normal lifestyle.
What if I want to improve on aspects of the tradition which seem locational or outdated?
Of course, the purpose of tradition is not to become stale or stagnated throughout time, due to the problem of following the letter of the law, rather than the spirit of it. Keep in mind, however, that the plant traditions of south america do have a special ability to stay fresh and alive, as the plants themselves are always still living and actively engaged with the work.
A tradition based on words spoken by a master, and written down, thousands of years ago, has more potential to be misunderstood today than one based on an active and current relationship with plants who have essentially not changed in all this time and are still thriving in their work with humans.
Still, most curanderos have a knowledge base which is a combination and synergy between fresh new understandings based on plant interactions, and information which has been passed down by generations upon generations of humans, based on human-plant relationships of the past. So while the traditions stays fresh, one must always maintain awareness of possible human error.
I do however issue a very strong warning to anyone considering changing or altering the tradition of dieta in some way. I have been blown away by the arrogance of some of the most well meaning and conscious individuals whom I have spoken to on this subject. People somehow seem to believe themselves to know far better than some master shamans, how dieta should be conducted, without much experience, knowledge, or lets face it, wisdom on the matter.
Anyone I have spoken to who has, to me, seemed obviously misguided in their assertions that dieta should be altered in one way or another, have been very well intentioned, good people, who in many ways I have great respect for. So, please, take the time to deeply humble yourself before acting on your careful considerations about some possible slight modifications to the dieta.
Even if it is a very small modification that you would propose, I would say wait until you have completed at least 4 successful diets in the traditional way, of at least 4 weeks in length before putting this into practice. The most common mistake is believing yourself to have reverse engineered the tradition without having the experience practicing it to back that up.
If you are in a place where there are lots of mosquitoes, I highly recommend using medicinal alcohol as a way of disinfecting and numbing the itch from their horrible bites. This is allowable during dieta and is highly recommended, as the alcohol evaporates quickly right off the skin.
I find that plantain tastes really good when cut up into chips and fried (without oil of course) on the frying pan. With some lemon grass tea, this is something I would enjoy outside of dieta as a really nice light snack.
If you can get a whole, or partial plant with the leaves, of your master plant that you are dieting with, it is wonderful to have it there with you during your time in solitude, to connect with how the plant looks, feels and smells, and use it to help you enhance the relationship with its more subtle spirit form.
If you are in the native land where your master plant ally is from, you could also purchase one at the market to plant yourself in a special ritual, as a demonstration of your love.
If you have lemon grass, chujuhuasca, or other of the allowable teas, it can be very nice to boil your rice in them for some additional flavour. Sometimes, anything to make the rice taste a little more interesting can make a world of difference.
This article is a work in progress, and I hope to improve on it greatly in the coming years. I welcome constructive contributions of all kinds and give thanks that there is still such an untapped resource of information out there for me to keep exploring, even just within my closest medicine allies.